Western United Head Coach Mark Rudan has hailed young guns Dylan Pierias and Luke Đuzel as the future of the club.
Despite being tempered by a 3-1 defeat to Melbourne City in their final regular-season contest, Western's debut A-League campaign has largely been a success, shrugging off the challenges of being an expansion side, mid-season player departures and a nomadic home-life to become one of its form sides.
Set to take on Brisbane Roar in the club’s first-ever finals game at Bankwest Stadium on Sunday evening, Rudan’s side are now set to begin a quest to become the first-ever expansion side to nail an A-League Championship in their first season.
"We are a team in form, and you can disregard tonight," said Rudan following the City contest. "Players are intelligent, they understand what this game was about and that the full focus is on Sunday."
Nonetheless, though finals-bound Western has clearly set itself a goal of becoming ‘the team of Victoria’s west’, turning that slogan into a reality has proven a more difficult achievement than attaining on-field success in 2019/20 – especially compared to the immediate success that was the last A-League expansion into a city’s west.
The Wanderers were able to capitalise on the groundswell of support desperately wanting an A-League team in the region by signing a number of players with local roots for their first season – instantly creating an emotional bond between squad and nascent fanbase.
Though not helped by staging home games at several different locations, Western United haven't forged the same level of emotional linkage between their squad and fans, nor nailed down a consistent message that speaks to a uniquely ‘westie’ audience they are seeking to integrate themselves with not only geographically, but also culturally.
Recent performances by former Brimbank Stallions youth Pierias and Đuzel, though, have presented an opportunity for identity building that the club, should the pair prove capable of consistently performing at an A-League level, can capitalise on.
An U17 World Cup representative, Đuzel played a full 90 minutes against a relatively strong City side on Wednesday night and, though he still clearly has a lot of developing to do, didn’t look out of place for his side.
Born and bred in Melbourne’s west and with significant familial ties to the footballing culture of the region, Đuzel played his junior football with Melbourne Knights, moved into Melbourne City’s academy before eventually making the move to Tarneit.
Exactly the type of ‘local boy made good’ story that a club needs to begin attempts at generating genuine local cut-through.
“It’s exactly what we want to try and build at this club,” Rudan remarked.” I think we can sell our message a little bit better and promote these guys. First of all, they’ve got to work hard to get those minutes in through the season but, certainly, they’re a great story.
“There’s history there with [Đuzel's] father [former Melbourne Croatia star Ivan], he comes from good stock, so it’s no surprise. He’s got two other brothers [Anthony and Daniel] who are quite talented footballers as well.
“But certainly, for our club, the future looks bright, he’s another player that we can certainly focus our image on and make sure that we look in our area and our catchment.
"We want to do that; we’ve got people out there looking for players in our catchment and he’s one that you could very well work around going forwards.”