Just two weeks ago, A-League club Perth Glory were firmly back in the corridor of uncertainty with the departure of the head coach, the resignation of the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), and the possibility of entering preseason training with only half a squad on board.
Glory were coming off the back of a less than satisfactory season having finished eighth in the ten-team competition, a drop of three positions from the previous campaign.
They conceded more than 50 goals for the second year in a row, lost 15 games from 27 (the second worst record in the competition), and kept just 4 clean sheets.
After four-and-a-half years at the helm, Kenny Lowe was removed from the head coaching role, though the Englishman will remain at the club and oversee youth development.
CEO Peter Filopoulos, a well-respected football man, opted to return to his home in Melbourne after three years in Western Australian which saw him help the club rebound following 2015’s salary cap breach which saw team booted out of the A-League Finals series.
Glory owner Tony Sage has always been a divisive figure, outspoken in the media and difficult to work with.
The mining magnate has ploughed millions of his own cash into the club over the past decade with very little in return, and there have been calls for him to either bring in financial investors or sell up altogether for Glory to progress.
Sage remains defiant though, and on Friday signaled arguably the biggest statement of intent we have seen during his tenure with the appointment of new head coach Tony Popovic and former Sydney FC and Wellington Phoenix CEO Tony Pignata as the replacement for Filopoulos.
Following plenty of media speculation, Popovic was officially confirmed as the new head coach on a three-year deal which is reported to be worth $700,000 per campaign.
Popovic, the former Crystal Palace and Portsmouth defender, has 58 Socceroos caps to his name and was the inaugural Western Sydney Wanderers coach.
He led the Red and Black to Asian Champions League success in 2014 and performed well on the domestic front by reaching three A-League Grand Finals and claiming the regular season title in 2013.
Popovic departed the Wanderers on the eve of the 2017/18 season to take up a role as the head coach of Turkish side Karabükspor.
However, amid ownership issues, Popovic was sacked after just nine games in charge on December 15.
Karabükspor lost eight games in a row, were rooted to the bottom of the Turkish Super Liga and were dumped out of the cup by the time the trigger was pulled.
Despite this, the 44-year-old’s stock remained high in Australia, and he was touted for the national team gig in some quarters before that job was taken by Bert van Marwick for the 2018 World Cup and by Graham Arnold following that tournament’s conclusion.
Now he will relocate to Perth and has spoken enthusiastically about the project ahead.
“I think the club has the greatest potential for [Western Australian] football and the passion of the fans,” said Popovic.
“The people love football. With that potential, I’m very pleased to have the opportunity to untap that together with the club, the owner and the players who are certainly going to put everything in so we can create some new memories.”
Before the A-League era kicked off in 2005, Perth Glory were the top club in Australian football, winning the final National Soccer League (NSL) title the year before which was their third in total.
Since then, they have made one Grand Final appearance, a 2-1 defeat to Brisbane Roar in 2012, and have hosted no Finals games since Wellington Phoenix that same year.
Owner Sage has been outspoken about the challenges facing his club in terms of the amount travel they do each year and the associated costs, but he now has two strong figureheads who will go a long way to tipping the balance back in Glory’s favour.
Arguably an even more important appointment than Popovic, Tony Pignata’s acquisition as the new CEO has been lauded across the country.
The former chief of Football Federation Victoria is excited about the prospect of bringing success back to Perth, having opted to move west despite interest from another A-League club.
“I’m very proud and privileged to take up this role,” said Pignata, who was instrumental in bringing Alessandro Del Piero to the A-League in 2012.
“WA has a rich football history, the club has great heritage and I’m really looking forward to working with Tony Sage and Tony Popovic to help Perth Glory fulfil its potential and to deliver success on and off the field.”
Thankfully, Pignata will be well aware of the challenges that come with working under an owner like Sage who is believed to have favoured the inexperienced, in coaching terms, Robbie Fowler over Popovic for the top job before being talked around by the football department.
In terms of player personnel, there is a lot to work with; Player of the Season Shane Lowry and his central defensive partner Alex Grant have signed new deals, as has ex-Socceroo Neil Kilkenny who was a revelation following his acquisition from Melbourne City in January.
Irishman Andy Keogh will be eager to make up for a very average season by his standards, while hot prospect Jacob Italiano will play one more season at the club before moving to Borussia Moenchengladbach in the German Bundesliga.
Spanish star Diego Castro and his compatriot Xavi Torres have not had their futures clarified to date but even if they depart, there will be plenty of others who will see the appeal of working under Popovic.
One major complaint Glory supporters have had in recent seasons is how sluggish the team has looked in the opening rounds, with questions raised about their preseason programme.
That will all change under notorious disciplinarian Popovic and he arrives in Perth next week to get the ball rolling before the hard work begins in June.
It’s a long time since there was silverware in the west where football remains the largest participation team sport at grassroots level
Back-to-back FFA Cup Final defeats the closest Glory have come since that 2012 Grand Final, and years of underachieving has alienated plenty of the round ball community in Western Australia.
However, the appointments of Popovic and Pignata signal a new dawn for the A-League’s oldest club and has already created a level of intrigue and optimism that has been missing for far too long.