Wanderers going places with Popovic

Western Sydney Wanderers soccer team coach Tony Popovic.

Tony Popovic's managerial feats with Asian champions Western Sydney Wanderers make him a worthy favourite to be named coach of the year at Sunday's AFC Annual Awards in Manila.

The former Crystal Palace and Australia defender masterminded Western Sydney's unlikely road to regional success earlier this month. Founded fewer than three years ago, the Wanderers overcame seasoned Asian sides to become the first Australian outfit to win the AFC Champions League.

The A-League's strict salary cap - around US$2.2 million (S$2.85 million) per club - meant that Popovic had to work with a fraction of the budget of almost all of the sides that he defeated, including Marcello Lippi's Guangzhou Evergrande, the Chinese side whom Western Sydney overcame in the quarter-finals.

It has made the 41-year-old Popovic one of the hottest coaching properties in football, with offers flooding in from all over the world. Sources tell ESPN FC that English championship side Norwich City and Korean giants Ulsan Hyundai are among the clubs that he has already turned down.

Popovic is an intensely private man who is known to shun the limelight. After Western Sydney's 1-0 victory on aggregate in the final over Saudi giants Al Hilal on Nov 1, he praised his players rather than taking the credit himself.

The Wanderers took a largely defensive approach and rode their luck. In many of the games, they were starved of possession and were largely outplayed. Yet, they found a way to win, often nicking an early goal and hanging on, with veteran goalkeeper Ante Covic making a series of excellent saves.

But the foundations for their Asian glory were laid more than 12 months earlier when Popovic took them on a pre-season tour of Japan and China ahead of their maiden AFC Champions League campaign.

Replicating the travel and tight turnarounds for clubs in the regional competition, he shuttled his squad between Tokyo, Shizuoka and Guangzhou to give them a taste of things to come.

Insiders say that Popovic is a tough disciplinarian who pushes his players hard in terms of physical conditioning. He doesn't mingle closely with his players - more a teacher than a friend - but has their full respect.

As a player, Popovic was a no-nonsense defender who earned 58 caps for the Socceroos over 11 years and had many of the same gritty qualities that have become trademarks of his team.

Popovic grew up in Fairfield, a half-hour drive from the Wanderers' base at Parramatta. But his connection to Crystal Palace remains strong. He was Palace assistant manager before he joined Western Sydney in 2012 and has been touted by the British media as a possible successor to current manager Neil Warnock.

The lifelong Liverpool fan must have had mixed emotions as he watched Palace's 3-1 victory over Brendan Rodgers' side last Sunday. The third goal came from a dazzling free kick by fellow Australian and Eagles' captain Mile Jedinak, a player whom he alerted the club to.

In the third year of a four-year contract, Western Sydney could have a battle on their hands to hold on to Popovic if he is named Asian Coach of the Year.

The other nominees are Japanese women's team boss Norio Sasaki and Jamal Mahmoud, who led Palestine's unlikely qualification for January's AFC Asian Cup.

The irony is that Western Sydney haven't won a game since being crowned kings of Asia almost a month ago, and sit bottom of the A-League table ahead of tomorrow's derby game against Sydney FC.

Success or setbacks, the man they call Popa doesn't give much away. So, we probably won't see any outpouring of emotion or colourful victory speech should he be honoured in Manila on Sunday.


This article was first published on Nov 28, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.