Football 2 years ago

Switched-on Popa never stands still

  • Switched-on Popa never stands still

    Wherever coach Tony Popovic goes, the incessant whir of tactical analysis follows inside his head.

Tony Popovic has to change timezones to get some inkling of what mentally switching off might feel like.

After each A-League season, the Popovic family escapes on holiday, and the Western Sydney coach - even if only partially - escapes his own head.

"I feel that if I stay in Sydney, I'll probably keep working," Popovic tells AAP.

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"But if I'm out of the country, with the time difference, I can have a big chunk of every day where it's just about relaxing and hanging out with the kids, doing the normal things you're supposed to do."

Wherever Popovic goes, the incessant whirr of tactical analysis follows.

A perfectionist to the core, the 42-year-old former Socceroos' defender is the personification of hard work, an ethos espoused by both the Wanderers and Sydney's west where he was brought up.

In his eyes, the potential for improvement is infinite, despite the young club's overachievements to date - a debut-season Premiers Plate and grand final.

Another grand final followed by a historic Asian Champions League title, which Popovic hails as a monumental feat, and one not yet properly understood within the Australian sporting landscape.

Then there were the trials of the last domestic campaign - a near-wooden spoon - before the sensational shift in modus operandi from counter-attacking to possession-based football.

The accompanying off-season cleanout gave Popovic even more to think about.

New personalities, styles and bodies needed to gel and be converted to the Wanderers' philosophy.

Much of that has occurred in his fastidiously planned training sessions.

During matches, he stalks the dugout with his signature black notebook, scribbling down an entry for every observation requiring further attention.

There are copious notes; they extend back to Popovic's playing days when he was an aspiring coach.

Can he ever make himself stop?

"I don't know," he admits.

"You try and get distracted for an hour or so.

"I enjoy reading. My downtime is watching my kids play football or sport at school.

"That's a bit of a release, and it's good because it gives you the balance.

"You can get a sense that it's all about you - you're training, you're preparing, you're going home and doing some more work.

"And then the kids are like, 'Dad, you've got to come and watch me. You've got to drive me', and that's actually a really good thing."

Popovic doesn't feel the same release when he sits down as a Liverpool fan to watch the English Premier League.

He tries to avoid analysing.

"But I'll be looking at Jurgen Klopp and thinking, 'What's he doing different than what they were doing before?' and 'I like the way they do that', or 'Can we incorporate that?'.

"You're always looking for new ways, innovation.

"I don't know if that's just me, or maybe that's just part of the job.

"It really is a 24/7 job, and that's not to say I don't enjoy it - I enjoy every aspect.

"It's a tough job, but it's one I love.

"And I also know you can't take anything for granted.

"That's probably what drives me more than anything, that a win today can change everything but, a week later, it can be different."

It's an attitude explained by Popovic's formative years in Fairfield, where his parents Bratislav and Rada settled after migrating in the 1970s from Croatia.

Bratislav was in construction and worked tireless hours to support a football-loving son and his sister.

"It was a kind of 'How do you get ahead?' mentality," Popovic explains.

"Maybe that's something that's been instilled from my father and mother, and something I don't want to ever lose.

"Hopefully, my children will be the same."

Drive and ambition are words bandied about a lot by those close to Popovic - a calm, at times slightly forbidding figure who's famous for keeping his cards ridiculously close to his chest.

He describes himself as hard-working, honest and someone who'd do anything for his players.

And there's a distinct fondness when speaking of the club that lured him home from England, where he'd relocated with his wife and sons to be assistant coach to the side he used to captain, Crystal Palace.

To beat Adelaide United and lift the A-League trophy on Sunday would, in a way, complete the Wanderers' remarkable journey - even if there are only three players left who remember the pain of two near-misses.

The newest crop all initially suffered through the rigorous training regime, but now value its outcome.

Already, lightly built goalkeeper Andrew Redmayne has lost 5kg this season. Full-back Scott Jamieson has shed at least two.

Both say they've finally found their ideal playing weight and the result is the kind of performance shown in last weekend's semi-final, when the Wanderers ran hard at Brisbane for 120 minutes and showed no signs of slowing, even once they'd sealed their grand final path.

"Tony espouses perfection," Wanderers chief executive John Tsatsimas says.

"He commands respect in the dressing room, and that goes a long way.

"He's very meticulous. He's very, very demanding and expects excellence.

"But he makes sure he delivers the best he can as well."

Popovic agrees with the assessment.

"Yes, we demand and expect a lot," he says.

"But I don't think any player ever gets sick of winning and being pushed to be his best.

"I won't apologise for striving to be the best every day, and I expect that from the players.

"That's something that won't change."

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