Passionate crew: Western Sydney Wanderers fans have plenty of reasons to cheer. Photo: Brendan Esposito
THE AFL might be scrambling to cope with the fallout of the Essendon drugs scandal, but it will still have battles to fight elsewhere in its empire - and its prized territory of western Sydney is set to become ever more difficult terrain.
In six months the Western Sydney Wanderers, the A-League's expansion club, have made a massive impact in the area that the AFL targeted for growth with Greater Western Sydney. The Wanderers have built average crowds to more than 11,000, some way ahead of gates achieved at Skoda Stadium by the Giants for their home matches.
Tony Popovic's side could also hardly present a greater contrast to the Giants on the field. While the AFL new boys have struggled to be competitive, the Wanderers are riding high in third spot on the A-League ladder and being talked of as genuine title contenders.
Now the Wanderers are set to try to cement their position not just in western Sydney, but in the surrounding hinterland and regional areas as far afield as Canberra - territories the Giants hoped to conquer for themselves.
A-League boss Damien de Bohun said the Football Federation Australia-controlled club would look to build quickly on the gains it has already made.
''It's become clear to us that fans are coming from as far south as Canberra to watch Wanderers games and the team certainly seems to have an affinity with people from that region. We are happy for them to step up efforts to try and appeal to any supporters they can attract from that area,'' de Bohun said.
''It's a tough and competitive market place with not just the Wanderers but also the Giants and the NRL, who are well established in western Sydney. But we are pleased with the progress the Wanderers have made so far and keen to see them build on it.''
AFL spokesman Patrick Keane was sanguine about the Giants' progress, explaining that the governing body was committed to putting footy into the key areas of the country - south-east Queensland and western Sydney - where it was under-represented.
''We have always known that putting the Giants into western Sydney was a long-term challenge. The success is something that will be judged in 20 to 30 years.''
West Sydney on Wednesday moved to shore up its player stocks for next season by announcing a new deal with Ethiopian-born Dutch national winger Youssouf Hersi. The 30-year-old, who has scored four goals and been credited with seven assists so far this season, said it was an easy decision to stay.
''The crowd and the supporters at Parramatta Stadium are fantastic. They enjoy watching us play so much, it just makes me so happy.
''The coaches have helped me a lot after my injury [knee reconstruction]. They had faith in me,'' he said.
Popovic said: ''We knew it would take him time to adjust but with his tremendous work-rate he has progressed very well into an integral part of our squad.''
The Wanderers humbled Adelaide at Hindmarsh Stadium last weekend and will be optimistic that they can keep their hot streak going when they take on Newcastle at Parramatta Stadium on Sunday evening.