As head coach of AFC Champions League winners Western Sydney Wanderers, Tony Popovic knows what it’s like to taste success. By Richard Cooke.


From the sidelines: Tony Popovic, 42, soccer coach

The FFA Cup competition is unique. Any cup competition is special, and the excitement is that the lower league teams have an opportunity to maybe knock out an A-league side. We learnt that last year when we lost to Adelaide City in the first round. 

The biggest change between player and manager? The magnitude of the job. From the outside, you train and you prepare your team. That’s it. But there is so much more that goes on in the background, and that’s just a small part. An element. That hour or two hours on the pitch doesn’t capture what happens behind the scenes. There are a million things that go on each day. I’m also enjoying that, too. 

The reasons why we found the second half of last year hard are well documented. But they’re not excuses either. You’ve got to remember that it’s a unique situation: we don’t own our own stadium, so scheduling is always difficult.

We were victims of our own success. Especially with the squad numbers. When you win the championship in November, and you have to go to Morocco to play the World Cup championship in December, then you have to play another Champions League in February, that’s due to your success. That’s not something to be disappointed about. That’s something to be proud of. 

Playing teams we’d never heard of in Asia? It was exciting. The unknown is exciting. Going to a game not knowing what to expect, watching some videos or sending a coach or a scout over to have a look. We are fortunate that we’ve been in two campaigns and we’ve won a Champions League, so we’ve got pretty accustomed to how the Asian teams are – their playing styles.

The ultimate goal as a coach is to coach your country. If you had the opportunity one day, if it was right. If that ever happens – I don’t know if or when, or even if it’s possible or not – there’s no greater honour, I’m sure.

Coaching is very unpredictable. It’s more unpredictable than playing. I went to England and had an opportunity to be an assistant coach over there and had a fantastic 18 months at Crystal Palace. I learnt a lot in that short period on what it really takes at that level. My plan was never to come back to the A-League for a long period. I don’t think we envisaged at such short notice that a new club would be brought into the A-League as well. 

When I got offered that opportunity I just felt it was right to take it on. It was a project that was starting from scratch, and that was the thing that excited me about it. Being able to really play a big role in building a club.

The job’s nowhere near done yet. You appreciate all the good moments and the great people that we have at the club. The great fans that we have. You try to get better and give them a few more memorable nights. 

I haven’t been sacked as yet. I don’t actually know what that feels like. As I’m told by many people, it’s inevitable. That’s part of the job, and all I can do is come to work every day and give it my best. Have a vision and plan in place. Whatever happens out of my control happens. 

You have to understand that certain individuals deal with situations differently. It’s up to a manager like myself to understand that, and get the best out of every individual.

I can’t watch football for fun anymore. It’s quite difficult, you are always analysing ... I did try to [at a game] in Melbourne in July with a couple of friends. We watched Man City and Roma, and I tried to just sit there and watch it. It was a nice change.

1 .  

2 . This week’s highlights…

• Horseracing: Caulfield Cup Day

Saturday, 12.50pm (AEDT), Caulfield Racecourse, Melbourne

• Soccer: W-League – Melbourne Victory v Perth Glory 

Saturday, 3pm (AEDT); Broadmeadows Valley, Melbourne

A-League – Brisbane Roar v Central Coast Mariners

Sunday, 5pm (AEDT), Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane 

• MotoGP: Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix 

Sunday, 4pm (AEDT), Phillip Island grand prix circuit, Victoria

• Rugby: World Cup quarter-finals – New Zealand v France

Sunday, 6am (AEDT), Millennium Stadium, Cardiff

Australia v Scotland

Monday, 2am, (AEDT), Twickenham Stadium, London

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 17, 2015 as "From the sidelines".

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Richard Cooke is a contributing editor to The Monthly, and the 2018 Mumbrella Publish Award Columnist of the Year.

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