MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Western United's fledgling fan-base remains locked down in Melbourne during an outbreak of COVID-19, but the A-League newcomers are on the march after booking their spot in the playoffs of the Australian top flight.
Mark Rudan's team are the wildcards in a wild season featuring a three-month shutdown and a frantic evacuation from Victoria as a second wave of COVID-19 hit the southern state in June.
Having started their campaign with low expectations, Western have won four of their five games since the league's July resumption, while forced to play them all away from home.
Victory over Melbourne City in Sydney on Wednesday could see Western finish as high as third in the table before the playoffs kick off at the weekend.
The team's late rally has been a comfort for fans in Melbourne's hard-scrabble western suburbs, where the lockdown has halted manufacturing and put thousands out of work.
Western's home state of Victoria has recorded about 17,000 infections and more than 300 deaths, even as much of the country has all but eradicated the virus.
"What’s happening there is real. People are dying," Western United Chief Executive Chris Pehlivanis told Reuters in an interview from the team's Sydney hotel.
"Yes, we’re also under a lot of restrictions and we’ve left all our families at home but we still consider ourselves privileged that we can work and bring entertainment to Melbourne households.
"That’s driving all the boys .... We’re doing our job but ultimately we’re not the heroes. There are bigger heroes than us out there."
Since the restart, the A-League has been confined to biosecure hubs in New South Wales and Queensland.
It has been a tough slog for the six teams usually based outside the two eastern states but among them Western United have been more accustomed to life on the road.
Western's plans for a purpose-built stadium in western Melbourne are still two years from fruition, so they played most home games at Australian Rules football grounds in regional Victoria prior to lockdown.
Western are the third expansion side to reach the A-League's playoffs in their maiden season, following the now-defunct Gold Coast United in 2009/10 and Western Sydney Wanderers in 2012/13.
Under Tony Popovic, now the coach of Perth Glory, the Wanderers reached the title-deciding Grand Final in 2012/13 and quickly built an impressive following.
Pehlivanis saw "definite" parallels between the Wanderers and Western, with both drawing support from working class neighbourhoods and culturally diverse communities.
"There’s a rich history of football in both areas," he said.
"We all saw the success that Western Sydney had early on and I think we can aspire to that in a couple of years."
Despite the club's youth and blue collar leanings, Western's playing roster boasts class and experience in 37-year-old midfielder Alessandro Diamanti and 35-year-old striker Besart Berisha, the league's all-time top goalscorer.
Former Italy international Diamanti has been the creative force behind many of Berisha's 19 goals this season.
Pehlivanis credited coach Rudan for maintaining the side's cohesion after midfielders Panagiotis Kone and Dario Jertec opted to return to Europe during the league's shutdown.
"When we started this journey we didn’t really have a goal," said Pehlivanis.
"We expected it be a bit of wild journey but we didn’t expect it to be this wild.
"That said, we’re quite confident. We're not going to stop here."
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Ed Osmond)
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