If there’s one person who knows how Tony Popovic gets into the minds of his players is Wanderers’ great and ACL-winning hero Ante Covic.
Covic, a foundation Wanderers, played three seasons in Parramatta, parting ways with the club at the expiration of his contract a year ago.
The amazingly fit-looking 40-year-old keeper has barely missed a beat since swapping Parra and Popa for Cottesloe and Kenny.
The former Jets, Victory and Hammarby shot-stopper – one of the few who’s played NSL and A-League – has been one of the standout performers at Perth Glory in Season 2015-16, helping the WA outfit to a finals finish.
However, he’s still hugely passionate about the red and black and he’ll be supporting his former teammates in their pursuit of an elusive Championship on Sunday.
After Wanderers’ crushing losses to the Mariners (2013) and Roar a year later at Suncorp, the club must rewrite their own short but storied history. And league history.
Only one interstate team has ever won a grand final – so Wanderers will need to emulate what Sydney FC did at Etihad six years ago when they edged Victory on penalties (ironically it was current Wanderer Mark Bridge who scored in regulation time for the Sky Blues that day).
And if they pull it off, the master motivator, a man known as “Popa” – whose reputation and powers to motivate and organise his troops have become legendary in just four years as a senior coach – will be pivotal.
Covic offered his insights into how Popovic will have his players mentally ready to overcome the Reds in Sunday’s Hyundai A-League Grand Final at Adelaide Oval.
“I know from day one in pre-season he had ‘champions’ written on the board,” recalled Covic of his first season at Wanderland.
“And we ended up as champions [of the league]. He’s a great motivator, he’ll make the players believe.
“He’s very blunt and very honest. He’s a great motivator, knows how to bring out your best. He builds you up, he doesn’t put the team down – he believes in the team.
“When Popa speaks you have that genuine belief that he speaks to you in an honest way. And he actually has belief in a team.
“And that’s been his strength in the years I was there.”
That belief was on show last Sunday at Wanderland. Three goals down inside 25 minutes and many coaches would have panicked. Understandably so.
Not Popovic, who remained calm and composed on the sidelines as his men worked their way back into a contest that looked gone for all money – they eventually won 5-4.
Belief. It can do some wonderful things.
“When he spoke to you it wasn’t just in one ear, out the other, that it was just some mumbo-jumbo,” added Covic.
“When he spoke to you it was because he believed in you.
“Popa doesn’t play mind games with other coaches. His main focus is instilling confidence in the team.
“And if they play their game at the best of their ability they are such a compact unit, and aggressive that they can suffocate teams. And they’ll need to do that in Adelaide.
“Lke Popa says, ‘the games are won in both boxes’.
“And right now he has the calibre of players that can change games.”
What may also help is a little trip Wanderers took to Saudi Arabia in 2014.
The experience of Riyadh will help Popovic in particular, but also his trusty lieutentan Nikolai Topor-Stanley, striker Brendon Santalab and utility Shannon Cole.
It was a scorching atmosphere in Saudi Arabia during that momentous second-leg ACL final win over Al Hilal. At the King Fahd, they held on to a 0-0 after edging it 1-0 in Parramatta.
With one of the most hostile crowds one can imagine, Wanderers believed in Popa’s continental dream and somehow held on (in large part due to Covic and in particular one world-class save to deny the marauding blue shirts).
The belief never wavered though they did ride their luck that day.
“I think that Riyadh experience – especially for the boys that were there – everything was against us,” recalls Covic.
“You know that regardless if things aren’t going your way away from home you stick together and with that, anything’s possible.
“Popa will really instil that to them that they’ve proven themselves before. And look, three grand finals in four seasons.
“In such a short amount of time, they’re a team that’s learnt a lot. And they’ll but up for it against a very good side on Sunday.”
So, who’ll win on Sunday in the City of Churches? Covic, like most, finds it hard to pick.
“It’s so hard to say. Obviously being with the Wanderers for so long, failing twice at the last hurdle but having so much success, I’d love the boys to do it
“It’d be horrible to go three without winning. But you have to give Adelaide credit. They are phenomenal and look hard to beat.
“The teams match up well, they are similar and yet they are different. Wanderers may be more of a pressing team whereas Adelaide may be build a little more. Slightly different styles but similar philosophy.
“If the grand final was in Sydney I’d say the Wanderers.
“Being in Adelaide it throws a spanner in the works but I’ll still go with Wanderers.”