Leader: Western Sydney Wanderers coach Tony Popovic (centre). Photo: Anthony Johnson
It has been almost six years since Western Sydney Wanderers coach Tony Popovic enjoyed watching a game of football. Ever since he hung up his boots in 2008, each time he has watched a game, it has turned into 90 minutes of in-depth analysis.
His transition from player to coach left him unable to switch off his constant fixation on understanding the game. No longer is he able to appreciate passages of play without asking "why" and "how", and it's this obsession that explains why he left now English Premier League side Crystal Palace two years ago to join a club that didn't even have a name.
In May 2012, Popovic left his assistant coach role in London to join the fledging club, also knocking back an offer to return to Sydney FC as head coach. It's hard to understand why he would give up his role in London and turn down another to coach his former club in favour of another that barely existed. But in the inquisitive and ambitious mind of Popovic, joining the yet-to-be-named Wanderers was a no-brainer.
"Starting this club from scratch was a huge challenge, but one that I wanted to take on," Popovic said.
"I had a vision of what this club could do out in the west. I grew up in the west and there were a lot of things together that made me want to do it. But, if there was one thing that stood out, for me to leave Crystal Palace, it had to be something exciting and something I could build and not just come back to coach."
Popovic knew building a club and making them competitive in such a short time was not going to be easy but now admits that the task was far greater than he anticipated.
Renowned for being resolute, Popovic says the first few months almost wore him down. He was averaging between three and four hours' sleep a night for the first few months as there was only himself, executive chairman Lyall Gorman and football director John Tsatsimas responsible for finding players, staff and a training base.
But he never lost sight of the prize of building a club based on applying all that he had learnt watching so intensely for six years.
An avid follower of Spanish, Italian and English football, he says the incessant pressure of the Wanderers and their speed in transition is a merging of those styles.
"We always wanted to play a high-tempo game and I think our fans and the people of the west like that," he said.
"It's something that you put bits and pieces together and, of course, you have your own vision, you can't discard that. The vision you have, you have to have a strong belief and if that wavers, then you can get in trouble, but I always had a clear vision of what I wanted to do here."
Those were the seeds that developed into the determined, defiant attitude that's become synonymous with the club.
Even before their A-League debut, Popovic said "we will be competitive". What he didn't know was to what extent.
On the eve of a second grand final two years after entering the unknown, he allows himself to sit back and appreciate what they've achieved.
When asked if the Wanderers have exceeded his expectations, he pauses – just for a moment – and says: "You'd have to say so, yeah. If you looked at results alone, yes."
But almost as quickly as he drifts away in reflection, he snaps back into the reality of what more he wants to achieve: an A-League title, more inroads in Asia and evolving their style of play.
"But if I look at everything as a collective, I think we've still got a lot of room for this to grow and get better," he said.
He accepts the joke that he may not be the most popular person to watch games with socially. Though, he understands the constant obsession to improve is part of who he is and, as of today, who he is, is who the Wanderers are.
"When you watch a game with friends they watch it in terms of entertainment and I watch it to see something tactically in the match ... and that's part of being a coach for Tony Popovic, really."