Right ambition but wrong club ends Popovic's dream

And so Australian football’s Everest – the local coach who goes to a major overseas league and becomes truly successful – remains unconquered.

Tony Popovic

Tony Popovic Source: Getty Images

Many have tried but all have failed, for one reason or another. The latest, unsurprisingly, is Tony Popovic.

Doomed to fail once the board that appointed him fled the scene, he was left with an ordinary squad and an impatient fan base.

Australian coaches have never had it easy abroad, but on the difficulty scale of 0-10, this ranked about 12. To steal a famous coaching phrase: an impossible job.

Sadly, he becomes another statistic. When our coaches go in, they tend to quickly get spat out, often in under a year, with little time to adjust and no chance to stamp their authority.

It is enormously disappointing because it undermines our coaching fraternity, especially outside the football community. That’s what so many of us loved about Ange Postecoglou – he’d proven himself to the wider country and they listened to him, football fans or not.

One day it will change but it’s a slow burn. Popovic is an outstanding coach with a bright future and this doesn’t change that. Even St Mirren sacked Sir Alex Ferguson.

Unfortunately, managing perhaps the most unstable club in one of the world’s unstable – if lucrative – leagues and hoping to turn things around was akin to seeing a nugget of gold on the tongue of a crocodile. The risk-reward ratio was never good.

Was Popovic foolish to leave Western Sydney? Maybe, but the itch of coaching in Europe had grown into a scratch. The flaw of truly ambitious men is that they are rarely content, always wanting to test themselves against the best.

There will be a couple of A-League managers nervously shifting in their seats right now. The situation closely resembles that suffered by Graham Arnold after he parted company with Vegalta Sendai.

That unfortunate experiment lasted just as long. But Arnie’s stock was still incredibly high in Australia. In the end, he landed the plum job in his home city and the results have been remarkable – capped by a championship and a near-certain title again this year. That will give Popa plenty of hope.

Ironically, there has been talk this week about the position of Popovic’s replacement at Western Sydney, Josep Gombau. But Popovic’s decision to leave on the brink of the season makes it impossible to trade him back in so quickly.

Besides, it’s important that the Wanderers and Popovic spend some time apart in any case – their identities had become too interwoven. The 44-year old should continue chasing his true dream, which is to work in Europe.

Despite never playing in Croatia, he is deeply connected to the land of his heritage, visits annually and is only a phone call away from the biggest football names in the country. Job security may be no better than
Turkey but if he wants to stay in a top European league, why not?

Ironically, the club for which Popovic has always been linked, Hajduk Split, just hired ex-Sydney United midfielder Željko Kopić last month, ruling them out in the short-term.

Naturally, there is one job Popovic would love to do. He’s got too much pride to bang down the FFA’s door but he did admit in a fascinating interview with TRT World this week that becoming Socceroos’ boss is an offer he couldn’t turn down.

With the grand theatre of the FFA and Sydney FC devolving into a tiresome carousel of leaks, denials and counter-denials concerning Graham Arnold, Popovic is the only other realistic local option.

Whether or not the FFA current board would appreciate Popovic's my-way-or-the-highway style is a different point, but there is no doubt Popovic will one day coach Australia.

One thing he needn’t do is panic. Managers of his calibre are always in demand. And he shouldn’t be deterred from his mission to one day make it in Europe, even if this attempt on the mountain didn’t quite work out as planned.

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4 min read
Published 15 December 2017 at 6:11pm
By Sebastian Hassett