It's not unfair to say that no A-League side has flattered to deceive more than Western Sydney Wanderers over the past decade.
Entering their 10th year, the Wanderers carry all the hallmarks of a 'big A-League club'. They retain one of the most rabid fan bases in the league, an elite training complex, the best home stadium in the competition, reside atop arguably the richest reservoir of footballing talent in the country, and count on an ownership group that wields significant institutional and financial power.
Yet the club has failed to play finals football under four different coaches since Tony Popovic exited abruptly for Turkey on the eve of the 2017-18 season; the scenario is exacerbated by rivals Sydney FC's simultaneous establishment of an A-League dynasty. Conversely, interest in the Wanderers through this period, perhaps to their detriment, has been dominated by more mundane matters such as ex-coach Markus Babbel's wardrobe.
While continued decline under multiple coaching staffs would nominally suggest deeper, underlying matters of concern, the dugout is where a turnaround is inevitably sought, and the club's brass, aghast at deteriorating on-field results, swung for the fences in the 2020 offseason: The dismissed Jean-Paul de Marigny less than three months after upgrading him from caretaker to full-time coach, and recruited Carl Robinson from Newcastle Jets. The 52-time Wales international appeared to be an astute, if somewhat ruthless, capture by the club, given that Robinson had the Jets playing arguably the best football in the A-League during the hub-based run home to the 2019-20 season.
Initially, the signs were positive.
After a 3-0 win over Perth Glory on Mar. 19, the club found itself in sole possession of second place on the A-League table, just three points back of fairytale league leaders Central Coast Mariners. Mitch Duke -- both a literal and figurative talisman for the club -- had fired home a brace in his sixth game since returning to Wanderland on loan from Saudi side Al Taawoun.
But then the wheels fell off.
The Wanderers wouldn't win another game until May -- a 3-2 win over Sydney FC -- and they added just two more victories through the remainder of the campaign. Once burning so bright, the club's final's hopes were delivered a coup de grâce in the form of a three-game losing streak with just five matches of the season remaining. The final loss of this run, against Wellington Phoenix, was emblematic of the foibles that had set in: Defensive lapses, disorganisation, senior players not standing up to be counted, cost the side when it mattered most.
"You know, let's be fair, the six teams that missed the playoffs didn't meet expectations," Robinson, three months on, reflected to ESPN.
"I was in Major League Soccer for nearly 10 years. If you reach the playoffs there's that narrative of you having a successful year -- even though there's one team that wins it. And if you miss the playoffs, you've had a disappointing year.
"So yes, it was disappointing. I'm not papering over that. I believe we could have got there. I think we should have got there. On reflection, we dropped too many points and we were a little bit too inconsistent and that's what I had to find the answers to."
As he considers the changes and additions he feels will deliver the answers, Robinson knows he does so with a spectre looming over him. Wanderers' ownership has never been shy in its belief that the club should be challenging for trophies year in and year out, and there will likely be little patience should results not come having splashed the cash to sign both the coach and a host of changes to the playing roster across the past 12 months.
"Listen, if there wasn't any pressure on a coach going into a job, going into a season, there'd be something wrong," Robinson told ESPN. "If you're worried about the pressure, trust me, don't be in sport. Is there pressure? Yes. Will I embrace it? Yes. Will I enjoy it? Yes."
Preparations for the 2021-22 season are, in a limited capacity, now underway at Wanderland. Western Sydney has been hit hard by the city's outbreak of the COVID delta variant, and the club has been forced to stage sessions under exemptions from the NSW authorities while a number of players who reside in the most affected local government areas have been locked out.
Nonetheless, the Wanderers are far from alone in battling the challenges of COVID in preparing for the coming season -- a campaign that's start date is largely at the mercy of the nation's vaccination rate and state government border restrictions. And Robinson acknowledges the expectation for his side, well-resourced and well-supported as it is, has to be finals football. At a minimum.
"That [goal] now increases a little bit this year, because not only is it finals football but it's also trying to win it," Robinson said. "A club this size, we can't say, 'Well, you know, we're OK trying to get into the playoffs, even though we haven't done it for the last four years.'
"You have to put targets in people's minds, in supporter's minds. From the top down, the ownership has said that we've got a plan, we've got a goal. Sometimes supporters don't see the plan; coaches and ownership do, but you've got a lot of targets. And that target has to be, 'Yes, we're going for finals football, but we want to try and win it.'"
One certainty heading into year two of the Robinson project in Blacktown is that, for better or worse, the squad assembled is now undeniably his team.
After his arrival from Newcastle, James Troisi, Ziggy Gordon, Graham Dorrans, Daniel Margush and Bernie Ibini, among others, were all added to his side's ranks, and Duke, Jordon Mutch, Scott McDonald and Steven Ugarkovic all arrived as the season wore on. Youth prospects Daniel Wilmering, Mark Natta and Tate Russell were all among academy prospects who were further incorporated into the senior setup -- a stated clear goal of Robinson. This combined with a flurry of activity in the departures lounge that saw Daniel Lopar, Daniel Georgievski, Jordan O'Doherty and Simon Cox all exit at various points.
Further change followed last season's end: Duke, McDonald, Dorrans, Mutch, Bruce Kamau, Nicolai Müller, Patrick Ziegler and Mutch departed, while Adama Traoré, Ramy Najjarine, Tomer Hemed, Terry Antonis, Dimi Peteratos and Rhys Williams all joined.
"A number of players have been there a number of years, and not reached the targets, so I decided at the end of the year this can't keep going on, we need to try and reflect we need to be honest with it," Robinson said. "You have to accept responsibility. Managers do, coaches do, and players do as well.
"I want it to change. If you see that, the squad that I tried to build, partly last year, was going to go in a different direction to what it had been the previous three years. I wanted to focus on youth, I wanted to focus on players within the academy, but I also wanted to try and reach our main target, which was the finals.
"How am I going to change the narrative? By doing our work on the field, and then when the season starts showing what we're about on the field." Carl Robinson
"What I wanted to try was to get back to what Western Sydney Wanderers are all about.
"When I spoke to people, understanding what it meant to play for Western Sydney, the common theme that I kept getting is that when you are from Western Sydney, you understand what it means to roll your sleeves up and fight, you know that spirit, that never-say-die attitude.
"So I looked at all the players possible on the market that had a Western Sydney connection -- and there were a number of them. Antonis was playing abroad, he played for us before as well as one or two other elite teams. Petratos, who I know from Newcastle who went to Saudi Arabia, he's from Western Sydney. Ramy Najjarine was at Melbourne City, he was previously in the [academy] program.
"And I wanted to get as many Australian players as I could, because in the current pandemic, you know, as an example, we lost Graham Dorrans. Graham came in last year with his family, a fantastic signing, a fantastic player and person for the football club. But he was unable to settle because of the COVID situation, the quarantine families and getting into the country.
"We've [still] got some flexibility, we will bring in ideally one or two attacking players. We've got to see how something else plays out, we're dealing with one scenario at the moment in the team -- which is a positive one -- but we'll see how that one plays out."
Robinson undeniably has big plans and, an impressive communicator, he has a knack for getting people to buy into his vision. If things play out the way he plans, the club looms as a serious title contender.
But Wanderers fans have a right to engage in a little cynicism at this point. After such a promising start to life under Popovic, they've heard multiple times how this is the coach, the signing or the year that delivers success, only to see it come crashing down once again.
"The proof is in the pudding," Robinson told ESPN.
"All I can do is assemble my squad to the best of my ability, with the parameters that I work with, and breed this spirit, this focus, this mentality, that these supporters are unhappy because we missed finals for the last four years, and change the narrative.
"How am I going to change the narrative? By doing our work on the field, and then when the season starts showing what we're about on the field. I'm not a big talker, I don't want to be, 'We're going to do X, Y, and Z, and we're going to do this and that.' That's not me.
"But let's make no bones about it. Results on the field need to be right. If they're not, there's accountability with that, and I'm OK with that. But also, the players need to understand we need to perform because we can't miss [finals] another season."