I’m old enough to remember the dying embers of the National Soccer League (NSL), making the laborious trek from my home on the western edge of the Blue Mountains to the epicentre of my football world, Parramatta, with friends, family or neighbours, practically anyone I could cajole into taking me down to watch Parramatta Power.
I was an intrigued observer as the once great league was slowly deconstructed, ethnic allegiances and traditional powerhouses disrupted in a bid to create a fresh start on the back of eight new franchises carved into the biggest cities in the country and even a far-flung invader from New Zealand.
Naturally, as a proud New South Welshman who lived within driving distance of Moore Park, I opted to park my loyalty behind the Sky Blues of Sydney FC from the first day. It didn’t hurt that an idol of my childhood, the unmatchable Dwight Yorke was whisked away from Birmingham City in a bid to add some gravitas and flash to what had quickly become ‘Bling FC.’
I was hooked. I had my team, I had my jersey and I made as many trips as I could to watch my new heroes carve out their own passages in a history book only a few pages old.
From Grand Final glory at the first attempt, there was little doubt in my mind that Sydney FC were destined to be the biggest football club in the country. I was, for quite some time, beginning to think that proclamation may never hold true.
Through the darkest of days, the Frank Farina years which got so dark that even the most hardcore fans felt the only option was a public display of dissatisfaction, Sydney FC looked like they could simply exist as the greatest of underachieving behemoths.
Yes, there had been titles, there had been memories, there had even been the arrival of Alessandro Del Piero, the biggest name to have taken to a pitch in the A-League but it never felt sustained and it never felt like the dominance of a Melbourne Victory or the flashy exuberance of a Brisbane Roar was under genuine threat.
Enter Graham Arnold
That is, until Graham Arnold came to town.
Brought to Moore Park after a short stint in Japan with Vegalta Sendai, Arnold represented a distinct change in approach. No longer would mediocrity and the occasional flash of success cut it, no longer would anything but the very best be accepted on the pitch, in the stands or amongst the management of the club.
Sydney FC would be the biggest and best, the Sky Blues would once again be the standard bearer for the A-League and the benchmark to which not only the other nine clubs in the league but each successful side in the history of the league would be held against and compared to.
Immediately things began to improve. 2014/15 didn’t come with the silverware so desired but it came as the sort of season where the gap was closed between those at the top and those who wished to be there. Sydney FC had begun an unprecedented rise.
At the conclusion of 27 games, Sydney finished second behind champions Melbourne Victory by just three points. They would go on to lose the Grand Final to the same opponent.
Having been so close, 2015/16 came as the sort of shock that consolidates drive and motivation. A seventh-placed finish, no finals football, the Sky Blues failed to adequately manage league and mid-week Asian Champions League fixtures and they suffered inextricably.
The dramatic response will forever act as the perfect illustration of Arnold’s time at the club. However long the great man stays in charge of the Sky Blues, his approach to the off-season and his preparation for the 2016/17 campaign will always hold a special place.
13 players were cut and a raft of better talent was secured. Brazilian goal-machine Bobo headlined the moves, coming in as a marquee star alongside a former teammate in Filip Holosko but the addition of the very best Australian players on the market solidified what would be a magical season. Alex Wilkinson, Danny Vukovic and Bernie Ibini were the sort of players that enhanced an entire squad.
Hitting the heights
The 2016/17 season will live long in the memories of Sydney FC fans. For sheer domination, few seasons rank at anywhere near the level or match the way Sydney FC deconstructed opponents and battered them into submission. Played 27 games, won 20, drew six, lost just one.
In managing to rack up 66 points, Sydney FC not only set a new record for total points in an A-League season, they finished a clear 17 ahead of second-placed Melbourne Victory.
In Bobo, FC had found a genuine goal-threat capable of finding the back of the net week in, week out and in Milos Ninkovic, the man who would go on to win the Johnny Warren medal, Graham Arnold had unearthed the single most talented player in the league.
Beyond that, the gaffer had surrounded precocious talents like Ninkovic and Holosko with a star-studded cast of great names, including captain Alex Brosque who was, in addition to being a stellar performer each week on the field, the sort of inspirational leader that links the fans and the playing group.
A win on penalties in the Grand Final secured more silverware for the club and Arnold, but beyond that, it represented a stake in the ground. As those clad in Sky Blue lifted the golden toilet seat, a new A-League world order was cemented.
Sydney FC were the biggest, now, they were the best.
The grand architect
When it comes to the grand architect who made it all possible, the same man who has his side on track to outdo the achievements of one year ago, Graham Arnold now sits as the Australian answer to Sir Alex Ferguson.
Realistically, in a world were slapdash sackings and shock resignations are the norm for managers around the world, Arnold has the chance to tie down his roots to the club that represents his hometown and be the man to delivers years and years of tangible success.
As a Sydney FC fan, the sort who sat through the infamous ‘doughnut formation’ under Frank Farina in sheer disbelief, the Graham Arnold reign represents not just a period of sustained success and dominance, it represents the very essence of what this club was meant to be from the very beginning.
Forget Bling FC and the Hollywood backing of Anthony Lapaglia and others, forget the years of neglect and poor football that culminated in marching to the football feeling like a chore.
Forget all that because Graham Arnold has now, finally, at last delivered to us the Sydney FC of our wildest dreams and for that he’s owed the biggest debt of gratitude of all.
What are your memories of Graham Arnold? Let us know by commenting below.