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Wanderers connect with fans in home debut

Halifax Wanderers FC striker Akeem Garcia celebrates the first goal in franchise history during Saturday’s Canadian Premier League game at the Wanderers Grounds. (Ryan Taplin/The Chronicle Herald)
Halifax Wanderers FC striker Akeem Garcia celebrates the first goal in franchise history during Saturday’s Canadian Premier League game at the Wanderers Grounds. (Ryan Taplin/The Chronicle Herald)

Even a steady drizzle couldn’t dampen the mood at HFX Wanderers FC’s first-ever home game.

The new Canadian Premier League team hosted Forge FC of Hamilton at the Wanderers Grounds on Saturday in what turned out to be a wildly successful debut. A sellout crowd of 6,113 fans chanted and cheered throughout, especially after a second-half goal from Luis Alberto Perea Perez broke a 1-1 tie and gave the Wanderers a 2-1 win in the second game of their inaugural season.

“That was fantastic,” said Wanderers goalie Jan-Michael Williams. “We have been waiting on this moment since the time the pre-season started in March so it was a good one for us. We would have preferred the weather we had (on Friday) but it was good. I think we did enough to at least warm the hearts of our supporters today.”

The game capped an undertaking that started over a beer between CPL President Paul Beirne and local sports promoter Derek Martin three years ago in Toronto. The two exchanged ideas about the possibility of Halifax fitting into a new coast-to-coast pro soccer league and both left the meeting convinced it could work.

Martin and the members of his company Sports Entertainment Atlantic went to work on launching the new franchise, focusing mainly on a grassroots marketing strategy based around the city’s event culture as much as the sport itself. Ticket sales went well from the start and it was hard to miss the instantaneous fan enthusiasm for the team and stadium experience on Saturday, despite the newness of the relationship and venture.

“Our experience over the past few years of doing the Final Eight for basketball and the University Cup (for hockey), or international volleyball and rugby, is you can see there’s an appetite for more than just Mooseheads hockey here,” Martin said. “I think if you give people the right environment and you prepare it in a way that they know they’re going to be able to enjoy themselves, it should work. Probably half the fans here are hardcore soccer fans and the other half are just Haligonians looking for something fun to do on a Saturday. I think that’s important. We try to appeal to both groups.

“It’s really special now to see it come to life and to see the fans and how much fun people are having. We always saw this as a community, gathering place kind of initiative and soccer’s a great community sport. The fans are at the pubs two hours before the game and I’m sure they’ll be back at the pubs for two hours after the game. That’s really what it’s about - bringing the city alive and enjoying a great experience together, regardless of the sport.”

It also helps when you win. The Wanderers opened the season in Victoria, B.C., last Sunday but lost 1-0 to Pacific FC.

So as much as the first-ever home appearance created a built-in high for both the team and crowd, the victory added an extra element of delight. The players gathered in front of a group of their loudest supporters at the end of the game to share a moment of mutual appreciation.

“Playing in front of home (fans) and the first time on the pitch, because we don’t (practise) on it ... was fantastic,” said Wanderers coach Stephen Hart. “It was nice to see all the blue in the crowd. They were loud. My throat is sore because of it. I couldn’t get my message across. I’m happy for them and I’m happy for my players.”

Akeem Garcia had the privilege of scoring the team’s first-ever goal. The striker from Trinidad and Tobago pounced on a loose ball inside the box after a deflected free kick and buried it in the 30th minute. It made the game 1-0 but was much more meaningful because of its historic significance.

“It was a great feeling,” he said. “It’s something that I wanted but it didn’t really matter, we just wanted the result. I’m happy that I’m the first one but we won the game and that’s most important. It was a game we needed to win.”

Forge striker Kadell Thomas nearly spoiled the party when he tied the game in the 57th minute but Perez ensured the milestone game had the appropriate ending when he scored the winner in the 82nd minute.

“Our goal is to win the league and come out on top so we knew we needed to win and to play hard,” Garcia said. “It was an important game and we had to fight for it. The Forge is a really, really good team and it was a good game. I’m just grateful that we won.

“The fans are great here. They supported us and they cheered us on. They are always sending us messages and they are always there to let us know they are supporting us. Halifax is a great city and football will become big here, for sure.”

The Wanderers’ next game is in Winnipeg next Saturday against Valour FC.

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