Fans stay away as Western Sydney Wanderers beat Brisbane Roar to go top of A-League

A lone spectator watches on. Photo: James Alcock A meagre 9860 fans turned up to the home game on Saturday night. Photo: James Alcock

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When Mitch Nichols curled in a stunning, 25-yard winner to send the Western Sydney Wanderers to the top of the A-League, it should have been a moment to savour.

Ordinarily, that would have been the talking point, and with Nichols’ now back in the frame for the Socceroos, scoring such a spectacular goal 11 minutes from time against his old club could have filled any number of headlines.

However, where once Nichols would have jumped the advertising hoardings to celebrate with the Red and Black Bloc behind the goal, he had to go to the sidelines instead.

There will be few more eerie sights in the A-League this season than seeing the active bays at Pirtek Stadium lay completely dormant for 90 minutes.

Normally so full of colour and life, the message of their absence was impossible to miss. As wondrous as Nichols’ goal was, it must never happen – ever – that the A-League is without its active fans.

This night, following on from Allianz Stadium 24 hours before, will linger long in the memory and deservedly so, but for all the wrong reasons, capping off a dark few weeks for the sport.

It was so quiet that, at times, the encouraging applause emanating from the hands of Wanderers coach Tony Popovic was only audible across the entire stadium.

Sporadic attempts at chanting from the 9860 on hand were, if we’re honest, rather awkward. It just didn’t feel like a Wanderers game.

“We’ve come away with a win in a tough match against a very tough side but was it [the fan absence] noticeable to me? Yes, of course it’s noticeable they’re not here,” Popovic said. “But we also said we can play our part by performing and winning the game and we did that tonight.”

For Roar coach John Aloisi, it wasn’t so much about missed fans as it was about missed opportunities – specifically some overlooked penalties.

“I’m a bit disappointed in two decisions we didn’t get. What do you have to do to get a penalty?” he said.

“Right at the end, a shot comes in from a fair distance and hits the defender’s hand. I think it was pretty clear to see. And Brandon Borrello’s one in the corner. I don’t know if you’re allowed to pull jerseys – or swap jerseys – in the box.”

On the field, first place was indeed up for grabs, with Melbourne Victory’s colour-blind 2-0 defeat to Wellington Phoenix opening up a shot at the top.

The Wanderers had to be favourites, in spite of the home ground advantage being limited to the familiarity with surroundings.

They got away to a strong start and just before the half-hour mark, Andreu’s presence of mind instigated a move that allowed Romeo Castelen into space and the Dutchman raced forward into the box.

However, just as it looked as though the chance had been squandered under pressure, a deflection from Matt McKay saw the ball ricochet into Mark Bridge’s path for an easy tap-in.

But Brisbane wouldn’t have to wait long for an equaliser and Jamie Maclaren looked ominous as soon as he burst into space. Nikolai Topor-Stanley blocked his path but the strike made space to shoot and Andrew Redmayne couldn’t keep it out.

Bridge could have restored the advantage on the brink of half-time after he broke away to chase an opportunistic lob but a creative intervention from Daniel Bowles prevented a goal.

While the first half was reasonably entertaining, the second half was stymied early by skill errors before Brisbane managed to work their way on top.

Pinned in their own half for most of the opening 45 minutes, Aloisi’s side began to move further up the park in the second stanza and managed to keep the ball more effectively.

The Roar looked to keep the ball wide and to work their way behind the Wanderers and while they often came close, attempts were usually cleared away by the hosts’ last line.

Still, their failure to score opened the game up for the hosts to strike back. And how they did.

Collecting the ball wide on the left, Nichols played the ball centrally before retrieving a return ball, taking a touch inside and then executing spectacularly.

“He wasn’t great tonight – he had a poor game,” Popovic said. “But he has that magical moment in him and that was the difference.”

Brilliant though it was, that goal won’t be what this game is remembered for.

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