The Sydney Derby of March 2015 contested between the Western Sydney Wanderers and Sydney FC was memorable on a few counts. Firstly, the game was a blinder, with Western Sydney reeling in a three goal deficit before eventually going down 4-3 courtesy of a late winner from Sydney FC substitute Terry Antonis. But it was the action around the match that drew the more lasting attention.
It is alleged up to 30 Western Sydney fans set upon three Sydney FC fans outside nearby Parramatta train station leaving two of them hospitalised with broken limbs and another with a broken nose. Sydney FC reserve player, Aaron Calver, was slapped in the face by a West Sydney fan in the tunnel beneath the stadium following the full time whistle. And several flares were let off during the match with at least one thrown toward the field. It prompted an open letter from Western Sydney Wanderers CEO John Tsatsimas to Wanderers fans condemning the violence.
The scenes revived memories of the bad old days of the National Soccer League (NSL) in the late 90s and early 2000s, before the A-League was founded. The NSL was often criticised for serving as a battleground for ethnic score settling.
A 2013-2014 season brawl between Wanderers and Victory fans in Melbourne
Ten days after the drama of the Sydney Derby, I turn out to watch the Western Sydney Wanderers take on another old foe, Melbourne Victory. Both teams lay claim to what are among the largest and most loyal supporter groups in the league. At their clash last season, the two groups played out a vicious running brawl in Melbourne's CBD. In footage that shocked sports fans, supporters can be seen hurling chairs, sticks, and various other debris throughout the roaming melee. Understandably, police aren't taking any chances this year.
The red and blue lights of a police helicopter flash in the dusk as it scans surrounding parkland for disturbances prior to kick off. The police presence is immense. Half a dozen are stationed outside the Collector Hotel, home of the Red and Black Bloc (RBB). The RBB are West Sydney's hardcore supporter group and have been blamed for much of the trouble by authorities and certain sections of the media. Police horses, dogs and riot vehicles are massed around the stadium and police carry out aggressive body searches as the crowd enters gate 56, the RBB's favoured end. At the opposite end of the stadium, a small but boisterous squad of Melbourne Victory fans are threatened to be outnumbered by the police and security guarding them.
All of this follows an Australian police task force mission to the UK to find out how their British counterparts deal with hooliganism. Some claim Australian hooliganism is just a watered down imitation of what goes down in Europe; that it's devoid of any real political, social, or ethnic tension. They are wrong.
Western Sydney has long been home to the city's underprivileged and migrant classes. Two and a half million migrants were resettled in Australia following WWII under the populate or perish policy trend. Most came from the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Malta, Italy, Greece, and the former Yugoslavia. After settling first in the inner-rings of Sydney they were moved on by gentrification, for the most part driven by their wealthier, more skilled Australian-born counterparts.
"New migrants coming in couldn't afford to stay in the inner-city so they moved to the cheaper housing, which was the fibro housing built in the 50s and 60s in the southwest and western Sydney," explains University of Western Sydney sociologist and casual Western Sydney Wanderers observer, Gabrielle Gwyther.
While the eastern and inner-city suburbs that make up the Sydney FC supporter base are some of the most affluent in the world, Sydney's west remains dominated by ethnic minorities and contains a large percentage of the city's public housing estates.
"There is so much complexity attached to that part of Sydney. It is so different to the inner-city and east," Gabrielle says. "Soccer has been in Western Sydney for a very long time, because of the Scots, the English, and all the other groups, Greeks and Italians etcetera. It's almost been an underground thing." Gabrielle believes that what the Wanderers have done is allow people who love their football to have something to barrack for. "It's part Western Sydney, part the fact that football is becoming a dominant mainstream sport, and they are passionate about it."
Several men in Nautica and Tommy Hilfiger apparel stare me down at the entrance to the Collector. I quickly realise I've made two mistakes. I've arrived alone at a pub where everybody knows everybody, and I've dressed in my best impersonation of a hooligan — Adidas track pants, bomber jacket and running shoes — not realising that my outfit puts me in a very specific category of football fan: the kind that wants a fight.
"It's so much better with them here," chirps Thomas, a 12 year old Croatian-Australian Wanderers fan.
Hooligans are renowned for their uniforms. They identify each other through dress. For decades that uniform has been upmarket European designer labels, the likes of Lacoste, Fred Perry, Adidas, and Ralph Lauren. It tells you who's down to fight and who's backing you up in the event of one. Some also suggest the expensive brands are intended to fool police, a trend you can trace back to the late 70s when hardcore Liverpool fans travelled Europe supporting their team in the European Cup, and looted expensive French and Italian designer stores on their days off.
Whether this last part is true of the RBB is unclear. They don't talk to media. My one contact within the group speaks only on a condition of anonymity and says he'd rather if he wasn't quoted at all, "cos it'll be my head on the chopping block if it gets out," he says.
After a few beers, the RBB usually heads out on its traditional match day march, heading past the bustling eateries that line Church St—where the infamous showdown between a mob of angry West Sydney fans and a couple of FC fans dining in a restaurant played out in 2013—and on to the stadium. The march didn't happen the day I went for reasons unknown.
Inside the ground the RBB are in full voice. Led by two plain-clothed members with a loud speaker, they will sing from kickoff to the game's conclusion. "They play for 90 minutes, we sing for 90 minutes. That's the attitude," explains my RBB insider.
The sights and sounds of the RBB are unlike anything in Australian sport. Here, Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi, or the name of your team repeated over and over again, are replaced by ceaseless drumming and exotic, melodic songs. There are no flares today, just a few plastic bottles launched at the Melbourne Victory striker after he puts away his team's third. But it's all part of it, says the RBB insider.
"I don't know if you've watched football around the world but that's what it's like," he explains. "The FFA, police, and the media want it to be like Rugby League or the AFL, but it's not like that," he says.
"It's so much better with them here," chirps Thomas, a 12 year old Croatian-Australian Wanderers fan. He's part of a large contingent of Croatians represented in the RBB and the West Sydney team. In total seven members of the team are of Croatian or Croatian-Australian heritage, including coach Tony Popovic. Australia's Croatian community is responsible for producing a number of our all-time greats, including Mark Viduka, Mark Bosnich, and current Socceroos captain, Mile Jedinak. They also founded the former NSL team, Sydney United (formerly Sydney Croatia) whose clash with the Serbian-backed Bonnyrigg White Eagles in 2005 is considered a low-point in Australian football.
Sydney FC midfielder, Rhyan Grant knows what it's like to be in the RBB's sights. When I ask him how they compare in hostility to what he's heard about the more famous European clubs, he says "Without having a go at them, they've come pretty close, especially when they have a game at home versus FC".
Following attacks on Sydney FC fans Grant no longer lets his family or girlfriend walk around the stadium unescorted. Though he says on balance he'd rather have the RBB there than not. "Every crowd is pretty abusive and obviously they are very passionate and they do get stuck into us, but I think it's been good for the league with the passion they've brought in," he says.
The match passes without incident despite West Sydney finding themselves on the wrong end of another drubbing. The 0-3 loss sees the reigning Asian Champions settling in at dead last on the ladder. As the goals pepper the back of the net the RBB continues to sing. The most tense moment comes when my photographer attempts to shoot the crowd from the field, only to be heatedly told to move on by the group's leaders followed by a few toilet rolls in his direction. The RBB doesn't want press.
It's what happens after a loss like this that authorities fear. With the game finished, police form a guard around the exit of the stadium and escort Victory supporters directly into waiting coaches. There's another half-dozen police keeping a close eye on the train station. There will be no trouble tonight, but not without serious precaution.
Follow Jed on Twitter: @jed_j_smith