My Second Team: Sydney FC
Unless you have a lot of time on your hands or a lot of money, itâ€™s almost inevitable that youâ€™ll pick up a second team if you move away from your hometown. But despite moving to London, with a vibrant non-league scene, I somehow ended up falling in love with a side hundreds of thousands of miles from the UK that is almost the complete antithesis of my club, Exeter City. Cue the old adages that you canâ€™t choose who you fall in love with and love is blind.
During Exeterâ€™s non-league days, Iâ€™d got increasingly enamoured with the world outside of the 92 and when we finally won promotion back to the Football League, part of me remained with the non-league scene. Cheap entry, a friendly atmosphere, and a beer while you watch the game combined with Exeter having a season in a very northern centric division set my course. A second team was inevitable.
But it wasnâ€™t that simple. I loved hopping around Londonâ€™s non-league scene but I increasingly grew soft spots for a number of teams and couldnâ€™t pick one. Hampton & Richmond would, if pushed, be classified as my third team. A leafy ground by the Thames with a great clubhouse and a quirky charm, theyâ€™ve become a firm favourite. Yet if they were my second team, Iâ€™d make much more of an effort and wouldnâ€™t hop around so much. Trouble is Iâ€™ve also got soft spots for Whyteleafe (good friends live near the ground), Tooting & Mitcham (nearest ground to where I live), Kingstonian, Wealdstone, and Carshalton, the latter more due to a fantastic craft ale pub called The Hope about five minutes from the ground. So technically Iâ€™m more a fan of The Hope than the Robins, but hopefully they wonâ€™t begrudge my gate receipts.
With plenty of cosy, homely, non-league teams on my doorstep, obviously Iâ€™ve plumped for Sydney FC, the self-styled glamour club of Australian football and one of the biggest clubs in the A League, albeit one with a habit of spectacularly underperforming every season.
But there is a much deeper love here than quick Saturday infatuations. I have my wife to blame for this. She has absolutely zero interest in football but hails from Sydney and once we were engaged it occurred to me that a move to Australia would be highly likely during my lifetime, so I should probably start watching ESPNâ€™s early morning live games. If you have happy memories of early starts for the 2002 World Cup, then thereâ€™s something very enjoyable about an early morning cornflakes and live football.
And this is where a longstanding love kicks in. Like many fans my era, I have fond memories of both Italia 90 and Gazzetta Football Italia on Channel 4 and a longstanding love of Italian football. Ask me for a team of my favourite players and it would likely be a mix of Exeter City and Italian legends. Maldini, Baresi, Schilacci, Del Piero. Yes, Alessandro del Piero, who happened to sign for Sydney the season my interest started up. Add to the fact that my soon to be father-in-law was a Juventus fan (despite being from Sicily. Donâ€™t ask) and football was a mutual interest, it all pointed one way, especially given that my wife has an unexplained dislike of Parramatta, where Western Sydney was based. This wasnâ€™t just about a club. This was family.
So it began. While there have been far too many very early weekend mornings, the time difference actually makes it easier to watch. Sydney could be finished by 11am and Iâ€™d still have the whole day ahead of me. I knew the Sydney squad off the top of my head and won a reasonable amount of money betting on the A League – UK bookiesâ€™ odds tend to be a little on the generous side.
Australian football has also undergone a significant surge in popularity in the past five years and itâ€™s been fascinating to watch the sport grow. There have been several aborted attempts to establish soccer in the land of Aussie rules, two rugby codes and cricket but stars such as Del Piero combined with an increasingly successful Socceroos side means the sport has started to move beyond the ethnic immigrant lines, which still play a hugely important part in state competitions and the backbone of the A League, into a sport that is eating into the market share of more established competitions such as the AFL.
It helps that the match day experience has mastered something the Premier League, for all its millions, has yet to crack. There is an Ultra element – The Cove – who add a European flavour to the stands. While they occupy a spot behind the goal, the rest of the stadium is a mixture of locals and families, with a significant proportion of reasonably priced tickets available. My ticket for the Sydney v Adelaide post-season semi-final was only marginally more expensive than watching Exeter on the road.
Moore Park itself occupies a strange location. Close to the trendy and affluent Surry Hills area, it sits next to the 20th Century Fox studio lot and the nearby bars are the same as any nondescript shopping centre. But as kick-off approaches, the area becomes a sea of sky blue. It doesnâ€™t matter how bland the area is – this is Sydneyâ€™s area and they stamp their mark on it. As the Cove march towards the stadium, the atmosphere becomes electric and carries you through to the final whistle.
My wife may have not been seduced by Sydneyâ€™s charms (although she was delighted to find you could drink while watching the game and a combination of wine and jet lag meant she slept for a good hour of the semi-final) and even I know theyâ€™re hardly Australiaâ€™s most loved A League club. But Australia knows how to do sport and Iâ€™m itching for my next return Moore Park. Until then, itâ€™ll be more early mornings with cornflakes and tea from the comfort of my sofa. Del Piero may have departed, but Iâ€™m still there. Sydney is Sky Blue, and so am I.