On the eve of Saturday afternoon's Sydney derby in the National Youth League, Western Sydney Wanderers coach Arthur Diles received the news any coach would dread; his six best players have been ruled out. Two midfielders, two strikers, a goalkeeper and a defender will be missing from a game with more than pride and bragging rights on the line. Against their fiercest rivals, the Wanderers require just one point to finish top of their NYL conference, seal a grand final spot and claim their first trophy in the youth ranks. They'll have to do that without the spine of their team, but Diles couldn't be happier.
"It's a great moment for the club," Diles said. "Disappointment is when we lose players to injury. When you lose players to the first team, there's no better reward for the club."
That reward is Nick Suman, Tass Mourdoutoukas, Abraham Majok, Lachlan Scott, Kosta Grozos and John Roberts elevated to the A-League squad for Saturday's game against Wellington Phoenix. For the club, they're the returns on investing in youth with riches measured in progression, not silverware with a youth set-up increasingly comprised of players from Western Sydney.
"We fail in our duty as a part of the club if we're not producing players that can play first team. That's what it's about," Wanderers academy director, Ian Crook, said.
During a season of soul searching for their A-League team, the club has been forced to look inwards for its identity. It's not just the change from inaugural coach Tony Popovic, to his stylistically polar opposite, Josep Gombau, but the make-up of a club that was announced as representative of the city's west.
At their unveiling in 2012, the Wanderers' image was carefully stage managed. It began with the colours; red and black was the most popular voiced by supporters at fan forums in core regions. The logo coiled marketing with history. Most important were the three men they chose as the first faces of the club; Tarek Elrich, a Lebanese-Australian from Merrylands. Aaron Mooy, an Anglo-Australian from Blacktown and Kwabena Appiah-Kubi, a Ghanain-Australian from Parramatta. No marquees, no outsiders.
"Even more important is that this club will be different - it will be powered by the proud people of the west," former executive chairman Lyall Gorman said at their unveiling.
Soon after, one of the region's most successful sons, Popovic, returned from England to steer the team. Initially, the swelling fan base didn't flock to Parramatta Stadium for the aesthetics of the game, but because the Wanderers embodied the region like no other sporting club in the past. While Sydney FC began with the 'Bling', the Wanderers rolled their sleeves up. Fans instantly adored Popovic's style of football as it personified local perceptions of character - hard working, disciplined and successful. Even the foreigners matched this ethos. It's why the most ardent fans in the first season embraced industrious but goal-shy Croatian striker, Dino Kresinger before they did Japanese star, Shinji Ono.
A hastily put together squad still included five players from the city's west in the starting team for the 2012-13 grand final, with two more coming off the bench. Five seasons later and just three players from the region were included in their most recent starting line-up. Of their full-time contracted squad this season, less than half hail from Western Sydney. For the only professional club sitting atop of the largest oil-well of Australian footballers, that lack of representation reflects a periodic drift away from its inaugural identity. Salary cap constraints, squad regulations and Popovic's regular squad turn-over meant that shift wasn't necessarily by design.
But, as Spaniard Gombau took over a squad slim on local first-team players and overhauled Popovic's disciplined structure in a process towards a more attractive style of play, almost all remnants of the founding image of their A-League squad had washed away. From a team of workers, they became followers of the famed product of FC Barcelona's football school, La Masia. To do this, the club looked towards Catalonia for influence, hiring three coaches, three players from greater Barcelona in as many seasons.
Beneath the surface, however, is a stronger push echoing the ethos of another separatist state in Spain. The Wanderers youth academy is beginning to mimic the iconic philosophy of Athletic Bilbao, who have never registered a player from outside of the Basque country and, alongside Real Madrid and Barcelona, are the only La Liga club to have never suffered relegation. If the Wanderers academy continues to flourish at this rate, they'll soon be able to establish a policy of every non-visa player either coming from west Sydney, or progressing through their youth teams.
"That would be the icing on the cake. I don't see any reason why you can't look at that as something you're striving for," Crook said.
The wheels for this are already in motion. Wanderers chairman Paul Lederer and the Blacktown City Council are investing heavily into a training facility at Blacktown primarily tailored for youth development that will set the standard in Australia. Earthmovers are currently on site and it's hoped the facility will be in operation by the end of this year. Of the 10 football pitches that will be built, as many as six will be set aside for their youngest teams.
"I can't say enough how huge that is," Crook said. "It means each coach will have their own top quality fields. They can then start working on improving all players in all areas."
Then there's video analysis theatres, classrooms for youth team players to do school work, details that will set the club aside from its competitions. Alongside those facilities is a mantra to increase the percentage of players from their catchment area year-on-year.
"I probably spend more time watching the likes of Blacktown Spartans, Mount Druitt, Blacktown City, Sydney United and Marconi who are in our catchment area. Each year we've gone up in our numbers from the Western Sydney area," Crook said.
The club now has a mantra to only select a youth player from outside of their region if they are better than a local option.
"If two kids are equal, we're encouraged to take the kid from western Sydney. If the outsider is better, then that's a different story and we won't knock a kid back," Diles said.
That hard-line approach hasn't detracted from their results. In the most recent Australian under-20s team, nine players were from the Wanderers academy, six of which were locals. Their NYL squad is six points clear at the top of their conference, winning five from six games. Of the six players Diles will be without on Saturday, five can be claimed from within their territory and they'll be replaced on Saturday afternoon with the next generation from the local conveyer belt..
"That's the ultimate goal. A, from the area or B, from the academy. If that's not happening then our work at the academy is pointless," Diles said.
In a matter of years, the Wanderers will have a new stadium, a new home base and an identity that could never be questioned again.