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

It’s cruel that one football match can determine an entire season, but therein lies the drama of finals

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.

Contributor

Jonathan Howcroft

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Case for defence presents penalties to settle A-League grand final | Jonathan Howcroft
It’s common to bemoan the ending of a football match in such fashion, but not in Perth on Sunday night

Jonathan Howcroft

19, May, 2019 @6:00 PM

Article image
A-League grand final: Sydney FC beat Perth Glory in penalty shootout – as it happened
Minute-by-minute report: Sydney won a fourth A-League championship after the grand final was decided by penalties following a goalless draw

Mike Hytner

19, May, 2019 @12:07 PM

Article image
A-League season preview part II: Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Sydney
Continuing our A-league preview series, our football writers give their verdicts on the four teams they believe will be among the mid-table melee

Richard Parkin, Jonathan Howcroft and John Davidson

04, Oct, 2016 @7:30 PM

Article image
A-League 2018-19 preview part two: Newcastle Jets to Western Sydney Wanderers
Sydney FC have recruited well, Perth and Newcastle are contenders, but a long season awaits Phoenix and Wanderers

Jonathan Howcroft

17, Oct, 2018 @5:00 PM

Article image
A-League team-by-team report card: two out of 10 for quality
At the midpoint of the season, Sydney’s dominance puts them in a rosy light, but suggests almost every other team is coming up short

Ante Jukic

03, Jan, 2018 @6:00 PM

Article image
A-League opening round starts with a bang, record crowds, and a few red cards
Between DeVere’s stunning equaliser, the Mariners’ rousing revival and Sydney’s thumping derby win it’s been a busy round

John Duerden

09, Oct, 2016 @7:30 PM

Article image
Sydney FC crowned A-League champions for fourth time after shootout win in Perth
Sydney FC beat Perth Glory 4-1 on penalties in the A-League grand final after the match ended 0-0 after extra-time

John Davidson

19, May, 2019 @12:06 PM

Article image
Sturridge, City slickers and a race for the spoon: your A-League Men guide | Joey Lynch
All the ins, outs and in-betweens – and a bit of John Keats – as 12 clubs go for glory in the 2021-22 season

Joey Lynch

16, Nov, 2021 @4:30 PM

Article image
A-League returns with a coronation, but could end with a free-for-all | Jonathan Howcroft
The A-League comes out of lockdown on Friday, but with plenty happening during the hiatus it could be an unpredictable end to the season

Jonathan Howcroft

15, Jul, 2020 @5:30 PM

Article image
A-League 2015 grand final preview | Paul Connolly
The league may still be young but the rivalry between the two perceived ‘biggest’ clubs gains added lustre with a second Sydney-Melbourne final

Paul Connolly

15, May, 2015 @12:17 AM