Best of frenemies: Rudan backs Popovic to restore Victory

They’re soon set to become bitter foes on the field, but Western United head coach Mark Rudan has backed Tony Popovic to reinvigorate the fortunes of fallen A-League giants Melbourne Victory. 

Parting ways with Grant Brebner following the side’s 7-0 hammering at the hands of rivals Melbourne City last Saturday, Victory moved quickly to lock in a new full-time boss: inking Popovic to a three-year deal on Thursday. 

The 47-year-old, who is currently in Croatia, will formally take over at AAMI Park in July, with former Brebner assistant and one-time Blackburn Rovers coach Steve Kean guiding the club on a caretaker basis until the end of the 2020-21 season – a tenure which started with a 5-4 win over the Wanderers on Saturday evening. 

Already a multiple-time A-League Premier and an Asian Champions League winner as a coach, Popovic is expected to receive significant scope to re-shape Victory as he sits fit when he arrives in Melbourne. 

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In a letter to members announcing the hire, club Chairman Anthony Di Pietro declared the 58-time Soccereoo would be “responsible for the entire A-League program overseeing support staff, recruitment, list management and our A-League playing style and performance.”

Kean marking the fourth coach that has guided Victory since his departure at the end of the 2019/20 season, Kevin Muscat’s leadership on and off the park has proven difficult to replace for the four-time A-League champions, but Rudan believes that, in Popovic, the club has finally found a figure that can fill that void.  

“Kevin Muscat was a legend at that club and sometimes he got some unfair criticism,” said the Western United boss. 

“But you can see when a strong leader like him leads the club, the hole that gets left there [when they depart]. 

“Popa [Popovic] is very similar in terms of a character. He knows exactly what he wants and I think it’s great for the league: we’ve always spoken about having a strong Victory side for this competition. 

“They are the biggest club in the land and to nail someone like Popa, [he’s] probably the only Aussie coach I would think would be able to turn that club around. 

“I think it was a great decision by the football club.”

Both Rudan and Popovic are products of the Australian coaching factory that is former National Soccer League giants and current NPL NSW champions Sydney United, rising through the club’s junior ranks when they were led by Hajduk Split legend Vedran Rožić. 

The pair were also teammates at Sydney FC during the 2007/08 season and though they already represent two of the more technically proficient coaches in the Australian ranks, have a shared desire for improvement and development.  

“We catch up and talk a lot about football,” said Rudan. “Obviously we’re good friends and family friends and things like that, but we speak a lot about the game. He’s very inquisitive about why I do something and vice versa. We always ask questions. 

“He’s a student of the game. We’re very similar in that regard, always trying to learn and evolve as people and as coaches. 

“Right now he’s in Croatia and he’s been able to speak to a lot of different coaches and people over there. We go on these tours every year – I do a lot of personal development overseas and speaking to different people and learning. 

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“I think that’s the key and that’s why he sort of goes, comes back and becomes better and different. The game doesn’t stop for anybody; you’ve got to continue to learn and evolve.”

While their form has, admittedly, not been that great against anyone since the beginning of the 2019-20 season, Western have emerged as a particular bogey side for Victory since their entry to the league. 

The side in navy blue has yet to beat their green and black counterparts in five attempts, losing four times and drawing once. 

Rudan has often spoken of his desire to grow the rivalry between his side and their well-established foes, and believes that the appointment of Popovic can help take the two side’s contests to the next level. 

“No disrespect, [but] the credibility goes up a notch as well when you look at someone like Popa – because you can look at what he’s done,” he explained. 

“There’s a bit more spice to it now. 

“As much as we’re friends we would love nothing more than to beat each other as well. I protect my football club and he’ll do the same with his and it will be battle royale.”

Just a point outside the top six and having games in hand on their nearby rivals on the table, Western will seek to propel themselves into a finals space when they face Newcastle Jets on Monday evening at AAMI Park. 

“We certainly have to be at our best,” said Rudan. 

“We respect the opposition; we have to be at our best because we know how tough a game that was last time around and we need to be better.”

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