Take a bow, Wanderers: you are the pride of the league

It's tough to decide whether the extraordinary Western Sydney Wanderers fans or coach Tony Popovic are the star debutants of the A-League season. But they are both in the grand final. Each has been exceptional.

The Wanderers fan group has challenged every other club in the league to raise their match-day experience and enhance the defining characteristic that sets football well apart from any other pursuit - the atmosphere.

If you haven't taken the opportunity to attend a Wanderers match at Parramatta Stadium, get your kids and pals along quick smart, because it's a thing of beauty to see a congregation of fans endlessly driving on their team, showing their passion with great pride and making it the premier sporting atmosphere in the nation. And this after just 12 rounds.

Forget about the flare throwers from the Sydney derby the week before. There were only two implicated out of a magnificently vocal and involved crowd of more than 26,000. And that pair will be banned. In any context, that's an exceptionally small number of troublemakers at a major sporting event; my calculator has two zeros after the point and an eight as a percentage.

The FFA's response was swift and correct. Yes, the Wanderers fans are an amazing addition to the league. Yes, we love to see the passion and noise, the songs and exhortations, but flares are not welcome. The risk to the game is too high. To the supporters: guys, you are offering so much, changing the landscape of what a fan group can provide in Australian sport - don't spoil it.

Last week the Wanderers out-sang Sydney FC supporters group The Cove. This week, at home, there was no point taking them on decibel for decibel - they ruled at Parramatta Stadium. Next week our eyes will be on the contest in the stands as much as on the field.

Now to the coach. Tony Popovic has made the most impressive coaching debut in memory.

The reasons are many. First, Popovic had a clear idea of what he wanted to produce. His football, which he refined under Vitezslav Lavicka and in a higher pressure atmosphere with greater scrutiny at Crystal Palace in England, led him to a clear focus on player requirements. On a shoestring budget, as well.

So clear, in fact, Popovic was content to reject an ageing Michael Ballack and understood what Shinji Ono could offer instead. Many debutants would have either gone for the name and reputation or simply acquiesced to the club.

He was also clear on wanting his close mate and assistant coach Ante Milicic on board, whatever it took.

Most coaches lack important traits, whether technical or personal. The ability to lead and manage a group of men is one. That's not an issue for Tony.

His media management has been impressive. As was his immediate talk of identifying with the region and recruiting players with certain personal characteristics. Popovic's goal of constant improvement sets the benchmark for the team's daily work. He challenges the group to always go a step further, but one at a time.

Many coaches simply want to be liked, or admired. That achilles heel can affect decision-making and in turn compromise the chances of success. Players see the hunger for acknowledgement, which they interpret as weakness. Tony could care less. He is there to do the job his way - a rare trait in a first-time head coach.

Perhaps the most positive sign, however, is the evolution of the playing group after 12 rounds. Every one of them is performing close to their peak, a sign of a well-managed group. The foreign players are starting to grow in output; Ono is coming into his own and is likely to be the signing of the season. Mark Bridge has shown a glimpse of what we know he is really capable of, and the work ethic of the team is exceptional.

So it is with their connection to the fans. After every game, win or lose, the bond is clear to see and the players love the red-and-black band of supporters who wear their hearts on their sleeve. That rapport is crucial to building the club culture and the coach is the leader of this process, especially at a new club.

There are plenty of games to go and many dramas yet to unfold, but we can be delighted that the new club is excelling in terms of passion and coaching excellence. Now get to Parramatta Stadium and see for yourself.

The story Take a bow, Wanderers: you are the pride of the league first appeared on Blacktown Sun.

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