A-League grand final preview: a celebration of Perth's rebirth or Sydney's continuity?

Jonathan Howcroft on 16 May 2019

Grand finals are torturous affairs. They funnel the blood sweat and tears of a 140 match season into a single 90 minute duel. When the final whistle blows the victors can peacock into the off-season with their project validated.

The vanquished will collapse to the turf knowing that despite the nearest of misses the narrative of their campaign will be retrofitted to one of failure. The stakes could not be higher for Perth Glory and Sydney FC.

With over 50,000 tickets pre-sold, Sunday afternoon’s A-League grand final at Optus Stadium is already something to cheer, regardless of who walks away with the championship trophy. For so long patronised as a sleeping giant of Australian football, Perth’s reawakening has been spectacular.

The first grand final in WA in 16 years is testimony to Glory’s revitalised chain of command. After missing the finals last year Tony Sage put his money where his mouth was, financing an ambitious off-season recruitment program.

That spree included the hiring of Tony Pignata, a CEO with the Midas touch. They then set to work with Football Director Jacob Burns and new coach Tony Popovic crafting a title-winning playing list, polishing existing rough diamonds and welcoming proven winners into the fold.

One defeat in the opening 22 rounds tells its own story, one culminating in the right to host the biggest game in Australian football in front of the largest competitive crowd in the club’s history.

One way or the other, Popovic will dominate how the match is remembered. Should he lose it will be the fourth grand final defeat of his career, a sizeable albatross even for an Asian Champions League winner. Should he win it will complete an astonishing single season turnaround, one with Popovic DNA all over the Glory’s renaissance.

Never short of talent in recent seasons Glory have been transformed by Popovic into a ruthless winning machine. “The biggest challenge was a mental one, the psychological aspect,” Popovic explained pre-season.

“When I think back to where we started, where the group was psychologically to where they are now, they’ve all really grown along that path”.

As Neil Kilkenny explained to Guardian Australia there’s nothing revolutionary in the methods, just diligence on the training pitch. Repetition and consistency are not sexy transformational buzzwords but they work.

“Popa has an aura about him,” goalkeeper Liam Reddy wrote on season’s eve. “He’s a winner”.

Popovic will have to put an adulthood of friendship to one side on Sunday night because his opposite number in the Sydney dugout is Steve Corica and the pair’s long shared history has offered a charming subplot to this year’s grand final.

Stories spanning awaydays with the Joeys to terrifying Sydney’s veterans leagues have lent a more convivial air to proceedings; much more than Merrick vs Muscat or Arnie vs the world, anyway.

But Corica will journey to Perth as more than simply Popa’s pal. He has quietly overseen a seamless transitional season at the Sky Blues, picking up where serial winner Graham Arnold left off.

With Sydney already finishing second on the ladder, runners up in the FFA Cup, and performing well without results in the Asian Champions League, Corica’s debut season as head coach deserves plaudits irrespective of Sunday’s result.

Corica is courteous and well-liked but don’t let that mislead you into believing he’s not a self-assured competitor.

Asked by Simon Hill back in October how he felt filling Arnold’s shoes, Corica replied: “They are big boots to fill. He has done a wonderful job - he has brought us to this point, but it’s now my job to take us forward and to win more trophies.”

“But remember I was a part of that under Arnie too - it wasn’t just one person who won all the trophies.” There is a steely determination behind that boyish grin.

Where Popovic has remodeled Glory - introducing a back three and establishing an always-on defence - Corica’s touch has been much lighter. He inherited a squad that wasn’t broken and he hasn’t tried to fix it.

That’s not to say he hasn’t experimented, most obviously in the final third where Trent Buhagiar offered a speedy Plan A until his devastating injury, opening the door for other recruits like Daniel De Silva, Reza Ghoochannejhad and Anthony Caceres to audition for starting berths, or allowing existing talent like Paulo Retre and Luke Ivanovic moments in the spotlight.

Corica has allowed a variety of players to rise to the occasion at different times during a far from straightforward campaign.

And Corica knows how to beat Glory, he’s done so twice already this season when the rest of the league combined only managed the feat once.

The suspicion Sydney could have the wood over Perth, added to the contrasting semi-final scorelines, means home favouritism is far less guaranteed than might be assumed for a side that ended eight points clear on top of the ladder and coasted along in first place from round four onwards.

On Sunday afternoon as the autumn sun sets over Optus Stadium will we be lauding Perth’s radical rebirth or Sydney’s subtle succession planning? It’s been seven months in the making and we’re now only 90 minutes away from finding out.

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