Popovic brings results and hope to Perth Glory but is it enough?

On Saturday night, Perth Glory recorded their fifth win in seven games to remain unbeaten and top of the table after Round 7 of the A-League season.

Yet just 8549 spectators made the trip to nib Stadium to witness a solid if unspectacular victory over Melbourne City, a lower number than the club’s average attendances of 9186 and 10,533 from the past two seasons when results weren’t as good.

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It’s a busy time of year in Perth with Christmas parties, other sporting codes (namely cricket and basketball), and countless pop up bars and events to choose from on a Saturday night.

Budgets are stretched for most households as Santa Claus puts on his boardies and singlet ahead of his trip Down Under in two weeks’ time.

The walk-up price of $39 for a general admission ticket has been cited as off-putting for the casual spectator, and that’s before you get to the cost of a mid-strength beer and food.

While the club points to the value on offer with a season or flexi membership that will cover all or some games at a reduced cost, that does nothing for somebody who just wants to go as a once off or dip their toe back into the water.

Club owner Tony Sage took to Facebook to defend the amount being charged, saying that the club is hamstrung by costs incurred through Ticketmaster levies, the provision of free transport, and staff wages.

Glory have also cited the cost of playing at nib Stadium as prohibitive, and the VenuesWest deal is up there with the worst in the competition with no other viable alternative in the state of Western Australia.

Just last year, Sage threatened to up sticks and take his team to the new 60,000 seater Optus Stadium if VenuesWest didn’t reduce their season charge of $1.5 million.

However, that move never materialised, in part due to the fact that Glory don’t draw big enough crowds to cover the hire of a venue three times the size of their current home.

Sage, who made his fortune through the mining industry, has poured millions into Glory and estimates that he loses $2 million every season he is at the helm.

Despite calls for him to sell up, reports of offers from overseas and at times strained relations with supporters, he remains committed to the club he bought in 2008.

The reality is that Perth football fans, who became accustomed to success during the early part of their existence in the old National Soccer League (NSL), have been burnt by false dawns and mismanagement over the course of the A-League era.

A Grand Final loss to Brisbane Roar in 2012, as well as two FFA Cup Final defeats in a row, have seen the club’s fans starved of success, while they also had to contend with the embarrassment of being kicked out of the finals series in 2015 for breaching the competition’s salary cap.

Last season Glory finished eighth in the ten team league, missing out on a finals spot as crowds dwindled and supporters called for the head of coach Kenny Lowe after more than four years in charge.

Tony Sage listened and went big, appointing a new Chief Executive Officer in Tony Pignata who had success at Sydney FC, and luring former Crystal Palace, Portsmouth and Socceroos defender Tony Popovic as the new Head Coach.

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Popovic was the inaugural coach of the Western Sydney Wanderers and guided them to Asian Champions League success in 2014, as well as a regular season title in the A-League and three Grand Final appearances.

An ill-fated switch to Turkey lasted just nine games but that did little to taint his reputation back in Australia and Glory pounced earlier this year.

Popovic is a strong disciplinarian who worked the players hard during preseason, and the results are showing in their uncharacteristically strong start to the year.

The coach has been backed by club owner Sage, with Australian internationals Chris Ikonomidis, Jason Davidson, Matthew Spiranovic and Ivan Franjic among those to join the playing group.

Ikonomidis, who cut his teeth as a youngster with Lazio in Serie A, has formed a good partnership up front with Irishman Andy Keogh and has five goals to his name already.

Marquee man Diego Castro signed on for a fourth season in purple and remains one of the best players in the competition, though he missed the first four rounds with a hamstring injury.

All of the ingredients are in place for Glory to finish in the top four at the very least and host a final in Perth for the first time since 2012 when they beat the Wellington Phoenix en route to the Grand Final.

In a city that is spoiled for choice when it comes to professional sports teams relative to its place in the national landscape, success is paramount.

The Perth Wildcats in the National Basketball League (NBL) are Australia’s top club side and have eight championships to their name, while the West Coast Eagles are the reigning Australian Football League (AFL) Premiers following their epic Grand Final win over Collingwood in September.

Throw in the gimmick that is the Big Bash Twenty 20 cricket competition which has seen the Perth Scorchers beat all before them, as well as the Perth Lynx in women’s basketball, the West Coast Fever in netball and another AFL side in the Fremantle Dockers, and you begin to realise what Glory are up against to attract supporters.

Kids are key to sustainability of any sporting organisation and football’s participation numbers are on the increase but Glory have yet to find a way to turn the grassroots figures into bums on seats.

“Football has never been bigger or busier,” said Football Federation Australia CEO David Gallop in November 2017.

“It is the people’s game. Wherever you are around this country, whatever your age, background or ability, there is a place for you in football.”

The most recent figures released AusPlay cover the period from July 2017 to June 2018 and show that the round ball game has a 17% of the nation’s club sport population (1,094,137 participants), well ahead of AFL (711,108), golf (671,696), and netball (632,472).

Enticing younger spectators is a league-wide issue at the moment and crowd numbers are down across the board, while getting a bigger share of the column inches of local newspapers remains difficult.

In that regard, the clubs don’t help themselves by restricting opportunities for recorded footage to just 15 minutes at the beginning of a training session, while some of the biggest names are rarely put forward for media duties.

Perth is also hamstrung by the A-League’s summer calendar which means temperatures regularly hit the mid 30s from December to March.

Consequently, scheduling games for family friendly afternoon time slots doesn’t work and the evening kick offs are often too tricky to navigate with little ones in tow.

All five games are shown on live Fox Sports each week, with one per round on free-to-air television, meaning there is less incentive for people to leave the comfort of their own home and dip into their pockets for what they deem to be overpriced tickets.

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Perth’s distance from the rest of Australia’s major cities results in very few away fans making the trip west, which in turn makes it impossible to generate genuine rivalries that aren’t confined to social media slanging matches.

There is clearly an appetite for football in WA though and 55,000 were in attendance at Optus Stadium in July to watch a Chelsea side made up of mostly fringe players beat Glory 1-0.

Next winter will see Manchester United and Leeds United in Perth to play in front of fans from the whole of Australia and beyond, and it is hoped that these one-off novelty events can get football on the back pages for a change.

Marketing will be important around that time, particularly for Glory’s clash with Manchester United, and maybe those who are lured to Optus Stadium by the chance to watch Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku and friends in the flesh will see enough in their local side to give the domestic competition a go.

Ahead of last weekend’s game against Melbourne City, Tony Popovic spoke in glowing terms about the backing his side has received at their home ground this season.

“During my short time here, the noise and atmosphere that the crowd has created has been fantastic,” he said.

“Those [crowd] numbers will rise, I’m sure. The club is heading in the right direction. We need the people to feel a connection with the club and I feel that is starting to happen.

“We need to keep playing the football we’re playing in order to entice new fans to want to come and watch.

“The fans that are coming are enjoying watching their team play and I envisage more to come.

However, he also made the point that getting more people through the turnstiles would give his side an even bigger cauldron to draw on.

“With 10,000 at nib Stadium, it feels like a real atmosphere and with 15 or 20,000, I’m sure the noise would be even more fantastic,” he said.

The club’s hierarchy went big with their recruitment for the 2018/19 campaign as they look to turn the ship around and the squad is impressive by A-League standards, but a mindset shift among the public won’t happen overnight.

The next home game is on Friday, December 21 against reigning regular season champions Sydney FC and all involved at Glory will be hoping that a sizeable crowd is in attendance for the last hit out in Perth of 2018.

Realistically though, it’s likely to take a few seasons of stability and some silverware to turn skepticism into support.

The Author

Neil Sherwin

Co-editor of BackPageFootball.com. Writes mostly on Premier League and A-League with contributions to other sites including TheFootballSack, InBedWithMaradona and Bloomberg's BSports. Has featured on The Guardian's Football Weekly.

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