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Apr 17, 2013

Popovic's football life turns full circle

Football globetrotter Tony Popovic never could have guessed he might make his biggest headlines back where it all began, in western Sydney.

Having achieved the improbable, the Premiers Plate in his team's debut A-League season, the Western Sydney Wanderers coach is now 90 minutes away from the unthinkable, winning the grand final to boot.

It's a feat without parallel for a start-up team in any football code in Australia and, as far as anyone can tell, the world.

But you wouldn't know it to hear Popovic talk, or watch him at work.

He is calm, measured, determined but well balanced, the last person in the world to get carried away or suffer a rush of blood to the head.

He is the consummate professional. He is keeping himself busy as a coach, just like he did as a player in Sydney, Japan, England, Qatar and for the Socceroos.

There will be plenty of time to reflect after Sunday's grand final against Central Coast Mariners.

Until then there is too much to think of, too much work to be done.

Popovic could be forgiven for pinching himself but says: "I have no time to do that."

He shows the same work ethic in a managerial role as he did as a no-nonsense centre back who won 58 caps for his country.

He is a stickler for ticking all the boxes in his preparation.

His mantra is simple: "Big games are usually won by small details."

Few knew it at the time, but Popovic was the only man who was ever really going to be appointed as the first coach of the Western Sydney Wanderers, the "team of rejects", as some call them, who have swept all before them.

"From day one, I knew who had to be coach of this team," said chief executive Lyall Gorman, who previously ran the Mariners as well as the A-League itself.

"I had a lot of names come across my desk but I only ever interviewed one person for the job.

"Tony is a local boy, he was born in Fairfield, he played all his junior football in this area, and he epitomises the values of this club. He is raw and real.

"He has tremendous self belief. He is a class act."

Popovic is young for a coach at 39, having served his apprenticeship in an assistant role at Sydney FC and his old London club Crystal Palace.

But he enjoys the unflinching support of his squad, not least for his plain speaking and honesty.

His Japanese marquee star, Shinji Ono, calls him the best coach he has ever had, and his mentor at Urawa Red Diamonds was current Socceroos boss Holger Osieck.

"If I play good, he says so. If I am disappointing, he says so. He talks to my front," said Ono in his improving English, making clear that Popovic is not the sort to go behind anyone's back.

"He is the one driving the ship," said Wanderers captain Michael Beauchamp.

"We work tirelessly on our formation and our defence, and that all comes out of his mind.

"You have respect for him because he has been a player himself, but as a coach it's ten-fold.

"He has the respect of all the players. He only wants players who have the hunger, who want to win and want to work hard for each other."

Asked how Popovic had managed to create such a positive culture within the team, and its fans, Beauchamp said: "He gets everyone on board with him. And winning doesn't hurt either."

Defender Nikolai Topor-Stanley said: "He has changed my game by leaps and bounds."

Midfielder Mateo Poljak said: "He is the best of the best. He is still so young and he's going to improve. He has no limits as a coach. He will keep going forward. He just knows and feels football."

Goalkeeper Ante Covic said: "He set the tone from day one. He is very thorough. He reads the game and reads the opposition. There's a huge amount of respect both ways between the players and him. He's got an aura about him and a drive that not too many people have. The guy that he is, he is going to keep on going higher and higher. But to where eventually? I don't know, but the sky is the limit for him."

Defender Tarek Elrich said he had never before in his career been advised what his ideal playing weight was.

"But under Tony I do. He has told us to look after our bodies, and we know how to eat and drink properly. I haven't even seen a player standing with a beer in his hand."

Popovic might have thought his biggest achievements in football were playing for Crystal Palace in England's Premier League, or qualifying for the World Cup in 2005 against Uruguay, or playing for Australia against Brazil at the finals in Germany a year later.

But they might well come in the fields where he grew up.

Popovic has neglected his homework in at least one area - the Wanderers don't yet have a trophy cabinet.

"We'll have to get one now that we are getting some trophies," said the newly crowned coach of the year.

"And we hope to have one more on Sunday."

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