The right call but Gombau’s tenure will need time

The giant mural of a steely-eyed Tony Popovic which overlooked Parramatta Stadium offered a perfect metaphor for what the man meant to the Western Sydney Wanderers.

Josep Gombau

Newly appointed Western Sydney Wanderers coach Josep Gombau Source: Getty Images

You won’t see that mural again, but just as Popovic’s gaze cast an intimidating stare across the venue, so too will his shadow linger large over the club he helped build from scratch into the monolith it is today.

And so from the determined, calculating Popovic, we now head into the era of the passionate, knee-sliding Josep Gombau. To many it will represent a massive shift and in many ways – simply by virtue of the fact that Popovic is no longer calling the shots – it is.

But while few close to Popovic will admit it, it was Gombau who made the original Wanderers’ boss re-evaluate his own approach to the game.


While Ange Postecoglou’s Brisbane Roar had brought possession football to Australia for the first time, Gombau’s Adelaide began to tiki-taka teams off the park to a whole other level.

His two years at the Reds laid the foundation for what was to come in 2016, when Guillermo Amor was at the helm for Adelaide’s maiden breakthrough triumph.

That whole period seemed to leave an indelible impression on Popovic – he completely renovated his coaching style in the lead-up to the 2015-16 season, promising to ditch counter-attacking in favour of ball retention. They never perfected it but were at least on the path. He even hired a Spanish assistant, Andrés Carrasco, who has joined him in Turkey.

That experience will have smoothed the path for Gombau to take over. He wasn’t the club’s first choice; understandably Ante Milicic couldn’t be prised from Croatia, where he is paid to live whilst flying around for Socceroos duties. A German coach was said to be the next choice, only to pull out at the final moment.

All that left Gombau as the alternative and at least explains why the delay was so long in announcing the new boss. However, Gombau was always a strong candidate at a time when Australian football isn’t flush with them.

His first move shouldn’t be to stamp his authority all over the club. No, western Sydney requires a different touch. It requires somebody who ‘gets’ the club and the region. Investing time in listening and learning will have long-term payoffs.

To be an outsider in that region doesn’t fly; be it in football or on the streets. You must embrace everything: the fans, the lifestyle, the attitude. It’s an ambitious, hard-working place mixed with great aspirations. So it is for the football team.

Gombau wanted to be part of the change in South Australia, even running free coaching seminars for local coaches. It created a sense of purpose about what he was doing; the mission was much larger than turning up, getting paid and hoping for three points on the weekend. He’s shown a willingness to engage before.

With one win from their first four games, Gombau gets the reins from caretaker Hayden Foxe with the club in a state of uncertainty. Foxe wanted the job but couldn’t quite create the compelling narrative required that an untried caretaker needs.

Still, thanks to a string of draws, they remain unbeaten going into his last game in charge, against Melbourne Victory on Cup Eve, which means Foxe may have some coaching talent worth cultivating down the line.

For now though, it’s the man from Catalonia who has been given the keys. He won’t get the carte blanche that Popovic demanded, but the Wanderers’ management structure gives the boss plenty of room to flex his muscles without too much interference.

Gombau will be itching to get going on his mission to transform the Wanderers but without a full pre-season, that could be tricky. He’ll also be coming into an environment where things were done a ‘certain way’ under Popovic, which – naturally – may need adjusting. 

But while the shadow of the ex-manager will loom large, Gombau is a good fit for this job. Provided he takes time to understand his new surroundings, and the fans take the time to understand their new boss, the changeover may well be a whole lot easier than many of us dared to imagine.

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4 min read
Published 5 November 2017 at 9:15pm
By Sebastian Hassett