Fear, loathing and waiting for Western United's stadium

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Last week, A-League club Western United made two announcements that were simultaneously unrelated and intrinsically tied. The latter of the two represented a club attempting to find a "least bad" option available that, nonetheless, kicked off a firestorm. The former, in hindsight, served as a reminder that the coming controversy was entirely of United's creation.

The first announcement came on Wednesday, when it was revealed that activity finally was set to occur at the location of the club's proposed Wyndham City Stadium: Early works on a haul road to enable heavy vehicle access to the site, and upgrades to surrounding roads commencing late October.

It wasn't an announcement to quicken the pulse; effectively it was a declaration that the club was going to be building and upgrading a few minor roads. Also contained within the statement was the nugget that planning permission for the stadium and its surrounding precinct was still pending -- the application submitted in July -- and that in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, "refreshed timeframes have been established for the project". It didn't specify if that meant the 2023-target for the stadium's completion, itself a modified aim from an initial goal to move in the club's third season, had also been pushed back.

Given the role that the stadium played in securing an A-League licence, as well as the potential benefits it can bring to football in Victoria, United's raison d'etre became fundamentally tied to the venue the moment it was announced as one of two successful expansion bidders back in 2018. Every day that passes without the stadium is another wherein the club can only be considered a faint facsimile of what it is supposed to be.

Thus, regardless of the actual scope, the announcement that something was happening at the Tarneit paddock that represents the site of United's proposed home was news. Coming months after the club silently blew past a self-imposed target of commencing construction by mid-2021, activity in one form or another indicated the project hadn't died a quiet death and efforts to deliver it were continuing. Scepticism of the process involved in getting to this point and frustration with the pace of its delivery was still merited, but the club was progressing.

The importance of progress was hammered home by an announcement the following day that United would be taking seven home games in the 2021-22 season to Lakeside Stadium in Albert Park -- alongside games in Ballarat, Geelong, and Launceston.

The thinking behind the move was sound. After being blocked from AAMI Park by Melbourne Victory and City and, once broadcasting and infrastructure requirements -- which have risen in the wake of 10 ViacomCBS coming aboard as a broadcast partner -- were accounted for, Lakeside was determined by the club to be the only viable option. If anything, it's a scenario that illustrates why United's stadium and government investment in other new and existing football grounds in Victoria is so critically important: There simply aren't enough elite rectangular venues in a city that parochially likes to proclaim itself as the "sporting capital of the world".

"Unfortunately, what we want and what our members tell us they want -- a rectangular pitch to A-League standard located in the west of Melbourne -- doesn't exist," Western United CEO Chris Pehlivanis said. "That's why we are building Wyndham City Stadium."

But therein lies one of the major problems.

As Pehlivanis acknowledged, Lakeside is not in United's proclaimed catchment area. And though not tied to an existing A-League franchise, it is the home and centrepiece of former National Soccer League powerhouse South Melbourne's bid for a place in the A-League -- a bid that was discarded in favour of United and their promised stadium. Even before South launched an effort to block the staging of games at the ground, the unflattering narrative surrounding United landing there in the club's third year of existence -- still without planning permission for their own stadium -- wrote itself.

That Hellas were apoplectic didn't surprise anyone, either. Long locked out of Australia's top tier, part of the reason for the rejection during the 2018 expansion process was that they wouldn't bring enough new fans or new markets to the league. Now, the bid that supposedly brought both those aspects was trying to use South's stadium just a year after setting what was reported as the lowest ever non-behind-closed-doors attendance in league history.

In hindsight, the entire affair -- the resolution of which will likely rest on the exact particulars of Lakeside's lease with South -- speaks to a theme of United's fledgling years: Opportunities to add substance to a nascent identity, and moments of tangible progress, overshadowed by circumstances that, individually, are perfectly reasonable but which taken as a collective serve as an anchor around the club's neck. It's a series of 'what ifs?', 'if that's' and 'forced to's' that have driven the club to largely couch its short-term strategy towards mitigating the impact of not having a definitive place to call home. As a flow-on effect, it has met increasing apathy and hostility from a pessimistic footballing public.

To put it another way, every move from those at the club not involved in building the stadium resembles Sideshow Bob in a field of rakes: No matter which way they step they're getting blowback.

The club trains to the west of Melbourne's CBD -- negotiating with AFL club Essendon over the use of its facilities for the coming season -- has offices in Truganina, and is set to play at MARS Stadium and Kardinia Park, in Ballarat and Geelong respectively, this campaign, but the 2021-22 season will be the second in which the majorty of United's homes games are played east of the Westgate bridge: Split across AAMI Park and Tasmania last season, and, for now, Lakeside and Tasmania this coming campaign.

Initially, the club declared it would take games across western Victoria until the stadium was built, but it was determined that upgrading and bringing games to smaller venues in that region was financially unviable, unsafe, or some combination of both, given the effects of coronavirus pandemic -- limiting crowds, demanding increased safety requirements at venues, shrinking budgets, and creating ground availability headaches. This decision was sensible, but the lack of continuity and games played outside the catchment area has nonetheless hamstrung efforts to solidify an identity.

United have improved their community outreach and communications strategy after a slow start, but the continued lockdowns and a shrinking football media have limited the mitigation this can provide. The club has been robbed of its ability to endear itself to the West with football on its doorstep.

This crystallizes why signs of movement on the stadium are so welcome but, simultaneously, how the club can't continue touting planning zoning and planning amendments, submissions for approval, or preliminary works. Though it must be acknowledged that the past few years can hardly have been any less suited for an expansion club, that increasingly matters little to fans from western Victoria who had their interest piqued by a club on their doorstep, or to a broader public that saw WMG's bid preferred over more sentimental favourites in Canberra, Team 11, Wollongong, or Tasmania. COVID can only serve as a shield for so long.

On a conceptual level, United's purpose is to unite the people of Melbourne and Victoria's rapidly growing and highly multicultural west under a single banner. The club insists it is taking a long view, and that it is building a foundation that will stand the test of time. And taking into account that the A-League exists largely in its own separate reality to the rest of Australian football, the club has been a positive addition.

Semifinalists in United's first year of existence, the club was among those that delivered funds to ensure Newcastle Jets didn't collapse, and secured funding for an elite, and much-needed, elite training facility for itself and the broader community in Wyndham. It was vehement in its desire for representation in the W-League, and will enter that competition in 2022-23 with a comprehensive developmental pathway thanks to its partnership with local NPLW Victoria side Calder United. The club moved quickly to establish a youth team, and several youngsters of high potential are on the books under new coach John Aloisi. Rene Krhin and Leo Lacroix look like great recruits. The club is also embracing powerchair football and other community initiatives. These are all good things.

Yet, with Melbourne City appearing capable of launching a dynasty, and resident heavyweights Melbourne Victory threatening a renaissance as the A-League pushes to re-emerge into the broader consciousness, time appears increasingly to be of the essence for United to turn the small markers of progress on the Wyndham City Stadium into tangible progress lest the day arrives when it is finally built but nobody is around to fill it.

It's a race that also hangs over the heads of Football Australia and the Australian Professional Leagues (APL).

Should the next round of A-League expansion arrive and the stadium is not well on the way, what trust will fans hold in the motives of APL and Football Australia in selecting the next two additions to the league? Even if the players change, the move to award United a licence based on the stadium represents the final major decision Football Australia made before independence -- with all the implications for reputation that carries.

There's a lot more riding on that field in Tarneit than just a new stadium.