Western’s commitment to construct their own, boutique stadium and develop a surrounding precinct in Melbourne’s growing Western corridor played a key role in the group being awarded one of two A-League licences on offer during the last round of expansion - a decision that surprised many that had been tipping South East Melbourne-based bid Team 11 to get the nod.
Intense scrutiny has followed the move ever since, with each day that passed without tangible news on the construction of the stadium adding to scepticism around if it would be delivered any time soon in the coming years - if at all.
Despite the club tasting on-field success in their first season by reaching the A-League’s semi-finals, this latent discomfort was only exasperated by their nomadic existence; playing games in Geelong’s Kardinia Park, Ballarat’s Mars Stadium and Footscray’s Whitten Oval that, though part of the club’s catchment areas, provided sub-standard atmospheres for football.
But with the announcement on January 22 that Victorian State Planning Minister Richard Wynne had approved a key planning amendment that would allow “detailed design of the stadium and development to be finalised and construction timelines to be determined”, it means that the stadium and the associated development surrounding it has never been closer to its commencement according to Western Melbourne Group Project Director Chris Frangos.
The club are now forging ahead with a mid-2021 target date for breaking ground on the stadium project, with the end goal of having the venue complete ahead of the Women’s World Cup in 2023.
An adjacent training facility announced last September should proceed on a similar timeframe, with its delivery potentially arriving slightly faster than the stadium.
Work on the surrounding precinct of residential and commercial projects would also begin in the months following, with the pace of its delivery driven by demand.
“What was announced last Friday was the approval of that [planning] amendment,” Frangos told SBS The World Game.
“Pretty much the whole development has now been approved by State Government - that’s what the announcement was.
“We still need to work with the Government, we’re working with different government departments to work out the details. But they’ve given the high-level approval.
“That it’s a planning amendment has made it a project of state significance, because they don’t do this often. They’ll only do it if it’s something significant.
“Having an international football standard stadium in the Western suburbs is significant on its own, but when you add to that the elite training facilities, the ability to have a sports science printing like Olympic Park, the commercial areas, indoor arena, the hotel and all the houses around it, it makes it into quite a unique and large development.
“Obviously, that’s not the only approval that we will need, there’s a bunch of approvals downstream.
"So the next one for us is to get the development approval from the council [Wyndham City Council is a partner of Western in the stadium and developmental project] to build the stadium.”
Upon its completion, Western and their partners at Wyndham envision the seventy hectares of land reserved for stadium and development projects in Tarneit as being transformed into an area that will host Western’s base of operations as well as entertainment, commercial, residential and community features.
Though local NPL Victoria side Melbourne Knights also own and operate their Sunshine home, the Wyndham stadium would become the first major sports venue owned by a professional football club in Australia.
Western’s training facility is planned to hold three pitches - one of which will feature 5000 seats - to house its A-League, academy and proposed W-League side, and be capable of hosting smaller games for broadcast.
The group has also submitted the location for consideration as a training venue for nations competing at the 2023 Women’s footballing showcase.
“The timing of 2023 is to have it ready in time for the World Cup,” said Frangos.
With that completion date in mind, plans are currently in place for three parking structures to be built around the stadium, as well as for there to be shuttle services direct to the stadium from public transport hubs throughout the region immediately upon opening.
The stadium’s proposed site is in close proximity to the existing V-Line railway line between Melbourne and Geelong, talks with the Victorian Government also remain ongoing over a train station.
The Victorian government, in partnership with their Federal counterparts, announced $4 billion towards the first stage of upgrades to the rail corridor between Geelong and Melbourne in November.
“There are a few little things we’ve got to do like landscape plans and a few other bits and pieces but the stadium design is pretty much done, we’re pretty much just finalising that,” Frangos told The World Game.
“Given that it takes a long time to design a stadium, you’ve got to make sure that before you start building it that it’s actually going to be future proof.
“We’re going through that review process at the moment.
“The renders externally are looking similar [to what has already been shown], we’re working with the architects at the moment to try and review the aesthetics, the wrapping around the outside.
“We’ve focused most of our attention on the fan experience. We want to make going to this stadium better than any other stadium. Ultimately it’s the experience that the fans have while they’re there that will have them coming back week after week.”
Though action must now follow words, the news on the planning approvals provides a significant boost to Western, who have struggled to create the groundswell of support and passion that marked the last entrant of an A-League expansion side into a city’s west.
Exacerbating the groundhopping problem the club have had, Western this season, citing the economic and health realities of staging games in the shadow of COVID-19 restrictions on major events, are playing a number of home games at AAMI Park this year - the home of Melbourne Victory and Melbourne City.
For coach Mark Rudan, however, the progress on the stadium represents an important step forward in building his fledgling side’s culture.
“There’s still a way to go but we got some fantastic news as a football club,” Rudan said. “It’s the go-ahead.
“I know people perhaps doubted that [the stadium] was going to happen but there was never any doubt [for me] from the information I received from the board.
"That’s a huge bonus for our football club. I don’t think people understand just how big an announcement that was and what that means for our club.
“The players want to be part of it now, and there’s a lot of players coming out of contract so they want to stick around and be part of this because we’re building something pretty great, I feel.
“I’ve said last year, we were not a club, we were only a team.
“Now, we’ve got two NPL teams participating in the youth league, we want to have a W-League side, we want an academy - that’s a club. And we want to build this club.
“The women’s game is getting stronger, the World Cup coming in 2023 - the girls are extremely important and we want to make sure we play our part.
"We want to be the only A-League club with a proper, full academy devoted to the girls. And I think that’s going to separate us from everybody else as well.”