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Feb 27, 2013

New boys in A-League Wander-land

When Lyall Gorman was appointed executive chairman of the still-to-be named Western Sydney Wanderers last May, the A-League's new boys had no logo, no colours and no stadium.

He took the bold strategy of holding seven forums across western Sydney for fans to contribute to shaping the club's future and culture.

Only one thing was off the table.

Tony Popovic would be the coach - for four years.

Nine months later and Popovic already has the second-placed Wanderers booked in for the A-League finals as they prepare to battle long-time ladder-leaders Central Coast for top spot on Saturday.

"He's the only man I spoke to for the head coach role," Gorman says with pride.

"I knew from day one that if I was going to take this role on, he was perfect for this club."

The proof is in the pudding, with Popovic hurriedly stitching together an eclectic squad from scratch that has claimed the scalp of every team - bar the Mariners - this season.

There are teenagers and journeymen; more grit than flair; an Italian, a German, two Croatians, an Ethiopian-born Dutchman and Japanese marquee man Shinji Ono.

Of course, Popovic was prudent enough to recruit players who, like him, were born and raised in western Sydney to give his new team a sincere sense of identity.

Skipper Michael Beauchamp, Aaron Mooy, Ante Covic and Tarek Elrich are a few of the locals who reflect the region's strong mix of ethnicities, as is Kwabena Appiah-Kubi, a New Zealand-born winger with Ghanaian parents who moved to the area when he was nine.

"Before I arrived, I heard about all the nations here in the west side of Sydney and for (a lot of the foreigners) it feels like home here," said 23-year-old Croatian midfielder Mateo Poljak.

The Wanderers certainly didn't start with a flourish.

While hanging tough in defence - a trait of Popovic, an uncompromising centre-back who played 58 times for the Socceroos - the Wanderers scored a dismal five goals in their first nine matches.

They weren't getting beaten up, but some pundits speculated they might be headed for the same fate as cross-code rivals Greater Western Sydney, wooden spooners in their inaugural AFL season in 2012 after scrambling just two wins.

But since putting six past Adelaide United in December, the goals have continued to flow and the Wanderers are basking in the success of the past 13 games in which they've banked the full three points in all but two matches.

While April had the potential to be a time for the Wanderers to be licking their wounds, they will instead be playing finals football with a legitimate chance to write the last few chapters of a feel-good Australian sports story.

Does the story already deserve to be on the best sellers' list?

No need to convince the 11,771 passionate Wanderers fans who sat through driving rain at Parramatta Stadium last Saturday night in a hard-fought 1-0 win over Perth.

Nor the 4000 Wanderers fans expected to journey to Gosford on Saturday night for the big clash with the Mariners which will go a long way to deciding the Premier's Plate.

The derby match at home against Sydney FC in the middle of next month has been sold out for weeks.

And while wins naturally get the turnstiles rolling, Gorman deserves praise for helping to engage the region's football heartland.

For on-field competitiveness can only sustain a team for so long, with fans and the associated commercial benefits the cornerstone of any financially viable professional club.

"It's certainly been exceptional - a fascinating and remarkable journey," said Gorman.

"I don't think our fan base needed us to win every game or be in the position we're in on the ladder now to be able to embrace us.

"Connectivity with our community ... will be the true fabric of our future so we're just not reliant on (on-field) success.

"There's a five-year plan to make this what I believe can be one of the biggest sporting franchises in any code in Australia."

And in an area where the football codes are furiously battling to sell their brands, Gorman and the club's owners - Football Federation Australia - had done their homework.

"We have 100,000 registered football players in our catchment to really harness and engage the western Sydney region," he said.

"It's funny. People talk to us often about (NRL teams) the Eels or the (Wests) Tigers or Panthers or (AFL's) Giants.

"But we don't see them as competitors, challengers or threats. (Our fans) are rusted on, believe me."

Gorman got his man, Popovic, and the red and black beast they played a big part in giving life to is charging towards the A-League grand final within a year of its birth.

Despite the high ambitions of the stern 39-year-old coach and regardless of the result against Central Coast this weekend, perhaps Popovic can take time out to soak it all up at some stage.

"I've got to crack him for a smile now and again and allow him a little moment of success," Gorman says of Popovic.

"He never stops planning."

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