“I do not know what would, or could, have happened if I was anywhere or with anyone else.”
When you look at Western Sydney’s Red and Black Bloc, what do you see? Your eyes are taken by an incredible sea of red and black, they widen as you take in the sight: thousands of men and women, across all ages and spanning many ethnicities jumping up and down, waving flags, whirling their scarves in the air and singing. A few people stand cross-armed, not making noise before the occasional beer-shower wakes them up and gets them back in motion. In the middle, a large percussion section – drums, cymbals and trumpets – relentlessly keeping the Bloc’s beat and dictating tempo. For ninety minutes they sing, jump and cheer; for ninety minutes dedicated “capos” towards the front orchestrate proceedings and make sure everyone’s giving their all. They’re driving the team, pushing their heroes on and giving them the extra push needed to execute Popovic’s meticulous game plan. They are lifting the stadium with their atmosphere, and the crowd buzzes with the energy they radiate.
A goal is scored. One second changes everything in football, one millisecond transforms the bouncing Red and Black Bloc into an ecstatic frenzy.
It’s hard to describe what the men, women, adults and kids do next – but it involves a lot of jumping, a lot of joyous screaming and a lot of shirtless men hugging each other. Beers fly everywhere, flags wave fervently, fans across the Bloc jump up and down on their seats punching the helpless air in joy. The moment of euphoria wares down, but the RBB only pick up – they reorganise and start chanting in unison louder than ever, ignited by the spark provided by the team they love so much. Fans across the stadium find themselves inexplicably on their feet and cheering just the same, lifted physically off their seats by the loud roar from the northern terrace. They settle down, a smile on their face and appreciate just what an amazing atmosphere the RBB brings to Parramatta Stadium, and the cities they invade.
To some it might look a little crazy, a little too passionate, a wee bit fanatical. Who are these insane people, shirts off, flags waving, drums beating? What wild calibre of person devotes themselves to a sporting team like that? While this is what you might see, casting an eye over Western Sydney’s Red and Black Bloc – it certainly doesn’t go halfway towards encapsulating the nature of these fans.
This is a story about standing shoulder to shoulder, joining together to support the team we all love. This is a story about the team’s colours uniting us all, from all the places we’re from. Before you non-Wanderer fans start cringing, I’ll push on.
Last Saturday the Wanderers were facing the Central Coast Mariners in a top of the table clash. Gosford, being just over an hour away from most Western Sydney supporters, was targeted as an ideal locale for us to make a home away from home. We planned to come in big numbers, and we did.
Before games, the Red and Black Bloc marches. In Parramatta, from the Woolpack Hotel to Parramatta Stadium – in Gosford we marched from the Settler’s Tavern to Bluetongue. Thousands were there, and we flooded the streets – stretching long into the horizon. Locals came out of their houses and took pictures, the braver of them dressed in Central Coast colours – their meek attempts at intimidation drowned out by the RBB’s chanting. The rain was pouring down, as if trying to drown out our opposition to the local side – but it didn’t stop us physically or in spirit. Despite being soaked, everyone was smiling, cheering and looking forward to the game. I saw men as old as my grandparents trying to navigate the steep mountain leading towards the stadium, my fourteen year old cousin beside me turned to take a picture of the crowd behind us and a couple of kids even younger ran past me dressed head-to-toe in red shouting, “Come on you Wanderers!”. We turned a corner and reached a small bridge which we quickly enveloped.
Here the march paused and an excited buzz crept into the air. This is where we would usually stop at Prince Alfred Park in Parramatta, split through the centre and do the “Who do we sing for chant?” before moshing as if at a metal concert (or Wanderers pre-game march). As we waited, and were instructed by the capos to split through the middle, people started to jump and cheer in anticipation. We were told firmly to move to the sides of the bridge and stop our rowdiness. It seemed like they were taking a long time to set up the chant, and people were becoming restless. Capos continually patrolled the split through the middle and ensured there was plenty of space, before escorting Mariners fans safely through who were trying to get across the bridge. Some people booed… they were told to keep their mouths quiet. No-one was sure what was happening, but for the most part we listened to our leaders who seemed concerned about something.
“Keep to the sides! Let these people through!” they continually announced through their megaphones. An air of confusion, even frustration, spread throughout our crowd; when were we going to continue with the chanting and march? Why were we brought to such a long and unexpected halt? Eventually the capos instructed us to move off the bridge, and I assumed (unaware of actual events) that they deemed a “Who do we sing for?” chant unmanageable in the conditions.
The section of the march I was in slowly made its way along the bridge, and as we reached the far end all became clear: a group of men were making a human guard around what appeared to be an unconscious lady. They were holding hands, forming a literal circle around the lady and a bunch of paramedics who were working to treat her. This human guard was blocking the large march from literally running over the poor lady. It was an incredibly uplifting sight, and if my respect for the members of what truly feels like a footballing family could rise any further, it certainly would have.
My mind started to put the pieces together. In the middle of the march, just before the most anticipated part of the whole ceremony, the RBB capo’s had managed to both identify that there was a serious problem in the first place and then successfully handle a group of thousands of excited people so that she could receive proper treatment. They didn’t rush; they didn’t try to carry her out of the march so we could continue our party; we were a “man down”, and they stopped all proceedings so the lady could be properly tended to.
Earlier this week, I was in contact with both twenty two year old Jessica Stricek, the lady in question, and her boyfriend, Corey Knight.
The last thing Jessica remembers before her seizure was sitting in the pub with other RBB members, cheering and singing “Who do we sing for?” and “These Colours Unite us All” chants across the room. Apart from her immediate friends, she didn’t know anyone personally – nor did this matter.
“It didn’t matter that we had no idea who these guys were, just that we were all having a good time with a few drinks and gearing up to the big game.”
One of her few memories after this was reaching the top of the hill, halfway through the RBB’s march and looking back on the sea of Wanderers fans, “It was a memorable moment; I even took a few videos and photos of it, and remember being delighted at the sight of how far we’ve come, hearing it all and seeing the passion on everyone’s faces.”
She doesn’t remember anything after that. Her friend, who was with her, has since told Jessica that they were walking and singing as the march started to cross the bridge when Jessica complained of feeling dizzy, before eventually collapsing to the ground.
Corey, her boyfriend had been separated from Jessica during the march – and had no qualms about it as this was not unusual in previous marches, where they usually meet up again near their respective gates. However he, like others, were surprised by the marches halt at the bridge and the unexpected commotion where we would normally do the “Who do we sing for?”. Corey was with a group of friends and word spread around that perhaps a young girl had collapsed. He followed instructions and split with the crowd as the capo’s instructed.
“It was not until my close friend grabbed me and pulled me to his phone saying ‘It’s Jess!! The girl is Jess!!’”
“Instantly I grabbed the phone and tried to talk to our friend on the phone. Not being able to hear too much at all, I ran out of the crowd to hear what she was saying and where they were.”
Following guidance that they were still on the bridge and noticing that the march had been given instructions to move on, he quickly made his way to Jessica’s location. Much to his surprise, he was met by a ring of young men who had formed a human chain around his girlfriend.
“I was, to my surprise and gratitude, met with hostility from one of the young men – asking who I was, not ready to break the link until they established I was her partner. This attitude of protecting a complete stranger, but a Wanderers supporter, was a complete surprise and, upon reflection, amazingly admirable. Their actions not only aided in her recovery but also the information they provided (what happened to her, treatment they had given her) when I had arrived was organised and well done.”
The manner in which things were managed was outstanding; their control of the crowd, their ability and astuteness to provide a detailed account of what had happened to her; this information was relayed to paramedics, aiding them in their handling of the situation; in fact, the paramedics themselves were hugely complimentary of the way the RBB leaders acted.
If the capos had failed to notice her, or failed to properly act, there is every chance she might’ve been accidentally trampled. If they hadn’t been smart enough to determine clear pathways through the crowd towards Jessica, treatment might’ve been crucially delayed. If the amazing members of the Wanderer’s family hadn’t stood up and made a guard around her, the twenty two year old and her paramedics might have been unknowingly compacted on by the marching fans.They put family before planned proceedings, and everyone who saw what was happening as they marched past sympathised entirely. There was no resent, only understanding – we chanted even more loudly as we made our way towards the stadium entrance in their honour.
Jessica details that she continued to seizure on the ground for five minutes before paramedics reached her. She says that someone around her in the march must have had first-aid training as they immediately put her into a “recovery position”, on her side, before staying with her until help arrived.
“This is something that has never happened to me before and I am very glad that the people in the supporters group around me were kind enough to help and protect me. I can imagine that it was a scary moment for my friend who was with me at the time, and I am so glad that there were other people there who were willing to help out a fellow Wanderers member in need.”
She adds, “The feeling I have for the people who helped me that day is of the utmost gratitude, and I wish I could thank each and every one of them in person; I do not know what would, or could, have happened if I was anywhere or with anyone else.”
While on the surface, our Red and Black Bloc is the driving force behind the incredible atmosphere that follows the Wanderers around the country – an amazing group of passionate, loud and persistent fans; while at a glance we seem almost violently affectionate for our team, inexplicably crazy fans of a newly established football club; while some label us “hooligans”, a blight on Australian fan culture and they question why we stand on chairs, assuming that we are inherently unruly; the truth is, we love our football, our city, our team – and the fact that we’re all so crazy about the Western Sydney Wanderers has brought us together. The Red and Black Bloc is a community, a family that stands shoulder to shoulder and looks out for one another as much as we look out for our heroes on the football field. If you stand, sing and have a good time for the full ninety minutes – you’re welcome. Whether you’re seventeen like myself, or in your sixties. No matter your race or gender.
Jessica and Corey are deeply thankful to all involved in Gosford, and heard the RBB’s cheering all the way from in the hospital. This experience has strengthened the passion they both have for the club and WSW family.
As Jessica puts, “The most disappointing thing about this whole experience was when I was coming around in emergency, and realising that I was going to miss the game!”
Follow me on Twitter: @userlastnameGoogle+