Mariners treble chance threatens Popovic grand final redemption

Tony Popovic pauses, figuring out the way to adequately convey himself. Clad in a Melbourne Victory tracksuit and wearing his favoured navy blue cap, the coach is sitting in the on-site cafe at AAMI Park, about an hour before he’ll jump on a bus with his squad and head to the airport ahead of Saturday’s A-League Men Grand Final against the Central Coast Mariners.

“I pray and wish that I could be in a Grand Final every single year,” he settles on. “Because that’s the pinnacle. When I start preseason every year, the dream is to be in that Grand Final and hold that trophy up. I believe in that. If that ever changed for me then I would stop doing what I’m doing.”

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If there’s anyone qualified to talk about being in Grand Finals, it’s Popovic. The 50-year-old will make a record fifth appearance as a coach in an A-League Men’s decider on Saturday, breaking a tie with Graham Arnold and Ernie Merrick. Yet unlike those two, he’s still looking for a first title. Indeed, it’s trivia somewhat infamous in Australian domestic football – especially if one is a devotee of Western Sydney – that Popovic is yet to win on this stage, falling thrice with the Wanderers in 2013, 2014, and 2016 and once with Perth Glory in 2019. So much else has been achieved – an ACL with Wanderers arguably the best-ever feat of an Australian side – but not yet this.

“No, it doesn’t eat at me,” he reflects. “Am I determined? Yes. I wouldn’t say more or less. I’ve been fortunate enough to win trophies as a coach, some major trophies. I feel privileged to be in this position and to be able to win another trophy. I just want to play my part with a wonderful group of players, a fantastic football club.”

It’s been a wild ride for Victory to get here. Less than 18 months ago, the club was on its knees following the Christmas Derby pitch invasion of 2022 – an event that cost the club millions and sullied its reputation – and it ended the season in the bottom two for the third time in four years. Yet Popovic points to the tail end of that very season as planting the seeds of this year’s success, recalling how the side never collapsed in this period – never losing by more than two goals post-riot – and how they possessed the league’s best expected goals against (xGA) rank despite their ladder positioning.

Off the park, 777 Partners, who own a 19.9% stake in the club, with provisos that can be increased, has been the subject of protests by the club’s fans in recent weeks. The embattled Miami-based private equity firm has been confronting a host of challenges across its operations in recent months, including the collapse of budget airline Bonza, which had been a major sponsor of Victory, and legal setbacks regarding two clubs it possessed majority stakes in, Vasco de Gama and Standard Liège. The club has confirmed that it is “not financially (or otherwise) reliant on 777 Partners” and, in current circumstances, it appears unlikely that 777 Partners would move to increase its stake in the club. However, Don Dransfield, the CEO of 777 Football Group, remains a member of the Victory board.

Popovic is also out of contract at the end of the season and all he has been willing to divulge to now is that talks have been ‘parked’ until after the season. A family-driven person, it’s been a difficult three years for him, with his family split across Croatia and Australia thanks to both the COVID-19 pandemic and the realities of a life in football.

“That will all take care of itself,” he said on Thursday. “Would I like to be here? For me, I love being the coach of Melbourne Victory. There are all different reasons for why it’s been delayed. But we’re both comfortable with the situation and it was always going to be that way, going back to January and February. And it wasn’t about ‘do we want the coach to stay’ or ‘do I want to stay,’ [it was] ‘let’s talk about that at the end’ with different situations going on and personal situations etc from both sides. And we’re happy with the way it will progress and I’m sure that’ll happen over the next couple of weeks.”

On the park, it’s been a funny old season for Victory. They began the campaign with a 15-game unbeaten run but, with a predilection for drawing games, only spent two weeks atop the table. They would go on to finish the season in third with just five losses but also drew more games than they won – twelve ties against ten triumphs – and with just four victories from their 17 regular season games in 2024. Wellington’s 99th-minute equaliser in the second leg of their semifinal last Saturday was the seventh time this season that Victory has shipped a goal after the 85th minute of games to slip out of a winning position. But they have also scored in the final five minutes of games to move out of losing positions or into winning ones five times, including in their dramatic elimination final against City.

As has been the theme for much of Popovic’s three-season tenure, Victory fans have not been shy in voicing their concerns about the team’s style, which carries all the defensive resoluteness you’d expect but which has also shown an alarming habit of bogging down, particularly against low blocks. Indeed, when Victory is good, they’re very good, with Bruno Fornaroli, Daniel Arzani, and Zinédine Machach able to tear sides open. But when they’re not good watching them in attack can almost feel like the Ludovico Technique.

“If there’s a home draw people are unhappy,” Popovice reflected. “That’s Melbourne Victory and I acknowledge, I accept people will voice their opinions.

“But what we’ve shown this year is that we’ve been consistently a very good football team that hasn’t consistently got enough wins. That’s true, but we’ve been consistently good all year. And that is why we’ve been calm in the process and confident, we feel we’ve shown that throughout the season.

“I love the fact that people expect. I’d hate to be in a position where you get a pat on the back for trying hard. That’s not in my nature. It’s not how I was brought up by my parents. You’re always looking to do better and with that, you put yourself out there that there’s a high expectation of yourself and what you’re doing.”

Nonetheless, Victory has now earned its way into a Grand Final. An odd game wherein they are both the underdog and the villain to the neutral’s favourite. Much of this dichotomy revolves around how the Central Coast has done what they did, as well as what they had to overcome. The team with one of if not the lowest budgets in the league, they capped off a remarkable rise from the poor house to the last season, only to be effectively stripped for parts. Apprehension followed the arrival of former Leeds United assistant coach Mark Jackson as the team’s new mentor after Nick Montgomery left for Hibernian on the eve of the season, which only grew after the season began with a four-game losing run.

But the Mariners started winning. And they just kind of never stopped.

They’ve lost just twice since that losing run to start the campaign, ending 2023-24 with more wins and a better goal difference than any other side in the competition. They ended the the season two points clear of Wellington to win the premiership and in Asia, they staged a remarkable run to win the AFC Cup, beating Lebanese side Al Ahed in the final in Oman earlier this month. Stories like the Mariners don’t happen often these days, mostly because the modern football ecosystem tries not to let them. They develop their own, they develop those others have given up on, and they find players in places nobody else has cared to look. They beat you with ideas – and those are free.

“The squad are a part of it, the players are of course – they’re out on the pitch, but it’s about the club,” said Jackson. “It’s a special place to be, everybody working together and singing from the same hymn sheet in regards to what we want to do and achieve. It’s a special place to be.”

Popovic describes what the Mariners have done this year as “phenomenal,” but remains confident that his side will have what it takes to upset the applecart. Indeed, speak to anyone at Victory this week and you’ll find that it’s an assuredness that’s widespread, too, one that has been present throughout the season and that now, after wins over Melbourne City and Wellington Phoenix to reach the final, is not wavering.

“I’m very confident,” defender Damien Da Silva told ESPN. “This year we have played well. We’ve played a lot of difficult games. But mentally, we are still strong. You can see that in the games against Wellington and City. They were hard games with a lot of difficulties but we did not give up. And we found the solution to win in the end.”

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