May 19th 2012 04:58
Western Sydney’s new football club is an experiment the FFA may live to regret.
The new season is due to start in October and yet the club has no players, no colours, no name and no ground.
There are only two things it does have – an experienced executive chairman in former Central Coast Mariners boss Lyall Gorman and a rookie coach in Tony Popovic.
It would be impossible to find someone with better credentials than Gorman. He helped found the Mariners and then led the club in its formative years, before moving on to a two-year stint as head of the A-League. If he can’t run western Sydney properly, nobody can.
But everything that Gorman is, Popovic isn’t. He’s never been a head coach and never worked with a start-up club. And despite his inexperience, he’s been handed a four-year contract.
Admittedly, Popovic has served a good apprenticeship, spending three years as an assistant at Sydney FC and another year as an assistant at Crystal Palace. He’s given himself every chance of succeeding in his new job.
Yet one can’t help but feel the Popovic appointment was more about PR than vision. He said all the right things at his first press conference, highlighting his western Sydney background and promising to play attractive football. The punters have already lapped it up.
However, the problem with PR stunts is that although they look like master-strokes in the short term, they can turn out to be regressive steps in the long term.
Take the appointment of Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool. After the unpopular Roy Hodgson was shown the door, the new American owners, Fenway Sports Group, realised it would be a brilliant piece of PR to replace him with the legendary “King” Kenny. It allowed Fenway’s bigwigs, John W. Henry and Tom Werner, to simultaneously prove their commitment to Liverpool’s heritage and distance themselves from the hated Yanks who had previously owned the club, George Gillett and Tom Hicks.
Dalglish has just been sacked after 16 months in the job, having performed even more dismally than Hodgson. For all his experience he had been out of the game for too long. Liverpool are now in a worse position than before Dalglish’s appointment. Not only did they let him spend more than £100 million on poorly performing players, they are faced with paying out the final two years of his contract. The sacking was a belated admission by Henry and Werner that all the good vibes in the world don’t outweigh dropped points and red ink.
That is something for western Sydney to think about as Popovic begins his four-year contract. The local hero will inspire more early excitement among prospective fans than did dour Scotsman Ian Ferguson when he became the first manager of the now defunct North Queensland Fury.
But consider Popovic’s dilemma. He has to quickly recruit about 20 good local players, even though almost all the best ones are already contracted to rival clubs. He must also quickly find a handful of exceptional foreigners. How much scouting experience does Popovic have? How well does he know Australia’s state leagues? How well does he know the vast world of international football that contains as many Ubay Luzardos and Steve McMahon Jrs as it does Thomas Broiches and Carlos Hernandezes?
Popovic must then take this hastily assembled bunch and teach them to play intelligent, attractive and successful football in a very short time. Even a master coach like Guus Hiddink would struggle under those conditions. So what chance does Popovic have?
Consider then the plausible scenario of western Sydney at or near the bottom of the table. Pressure would be heaped on the rookie coach. Fans would complain, crowds would fall, players would get restless. Would Popovic fall into the same trap as thousands of better men by playing ‘result football’? Would the board get an itchy trigger finger and decide to pay out his contract as Melbourne Victory did 14 games into Mehmet Durakovic’s coaching career?
The Popovic appointment is not so much the cause of western Sydney’s problem as its symptom. This was a club that was suddenly dreamed up as a replacement for Gold Coast United so the FFA could shop around a 10-team competition as it negotiates a new television deal.
The Gold Coast debacle proved that clubs can’t succeed unless they’re embedded in their communities. That takes time. Melbourne Heart had over a year to prepare and are still fighting to build a base. Popovic is the coach you appoint when you’re doing everything on the run and are looking for a short-term fix to your long-term problem.
Success for western Sydney is still possible, but it would be more likely if the club had another year to prepare and was led by an experienced coach. The New Zealand Knights, North Queensland Fury and Gold Coast United are painful reminders of what happens when the wrong decisions are made.
Western Sydney is not the shrewd piece of planning the FFA would have punters believe but a last-minute leap of faith. It is one the governing body and fans may live to regret.