Soccer-Fifth time's a charm: Popovic bids to end A-League final hoodoo

FILE PHOTO: Western Sydney Wanderers soccer team coach Tony Popovic laughs at the team's training facility at Rooty Hill in the western suburbs of Sydney, October 21, 2014/REUTERS/Jason Reed/File Photo

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - After coaching A-League teams to four Grand Final defeats, Tony Popovic will hope to bury the hoodoo by guiding Melbourne Victory to a record-equalling fifth title in Saturday's decider against the champion Central Coast Mariners.

The former Australia defender struck out in three Grand Finals at the Western Sydney Wanderers (2013, 2014, 2016) and lost the fourth with Perth Glory in 2019 with a team that were by far the best of the season.

The weight of heartbreak might have been too much for some managers but Popovic dusted himself off and returned to the league with Victory three years ago after an ill-fated stint coaching in Greece's second division.

Now 50, Popovic is philosophical about his Grand Final record, reckoning he has learnt from the setbacks.

"What I've learned from a few of them is that I've always tried to do the opposite of what I did when I lost a final," said Popovic.

"And I've realised that that doesn't work because you're always searching for something different.

"Now, I've just stuck to more my instincts, the process, understanding what the group is, the dynamic, and what works best for them as opposed to trying to do the opposite of what I had done before.

"And I feel comfortable with that. In the end, it's one game of football and a trophy is on the line."

While hard luck has been a feature of Popovic's coaching career, it has not defined it completely.

He remains the only coach to lead an Australian team to Asian Champions League glory, having steered the Wanderers through an epic voyage of long-haul flights to secure the 2014 trophy.

No Australian team has come close since.

Denying the Mariners back-to-back A-League championships at their home stadium in Gosford would nonetheless rival Popovic's achievement with the Wanderers.

Victory fans would delight in another title to match the five won by bitter rivals, Sydney FC.

But it would mean upsetting a Mariners team that have been unstoppable under new coach Mark Jackson, who took over from Nick Montgomery last year.

The Mariners won the Premier's Plate as the top side at the end of the regular season with a total of 55 points, 13 better than third-placed Victory.

They also won the final AFC Cup this month, Asia's second-tier club competition, and are favoured to claim their third A-League championship.

Based in a sleepy coastal hub north of Sydney, the Mariners lack the glamour and resources of big-city rivals but have built a culture of excellence and deep community roots.

It has made them the favourite side of neutral fans in Australia, and the 20,000-seat Central Coast Stadium is sure to be rocking.

"They've earnt that right to have that," Yorkshireman Jackson said of his players.

"It's great to see the support around from the community.

"We've had the mindset of not hiding away from these big games."

(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Michael Perry)

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