As Horace Greeley (maybe) wrote: “Go West, young man, go West.”
Tony Popovic headed that call in 2018-19; making the move across the Nullarbor to take the reins of Perth Glory in their 14th season in the A-League.
It was a decision from the 58-time Socceroo and former ACL-winning head coach with Western Sydney Wanderers that bore immediate fruit: Popovic guiding the Glory to their first Premier’s Plate since the 2003-04 NSL season and an A-League grand final in front of a record 56,371 crowd at Optus Stadium.
As eye-catching as his work has been, however, Popovic is not the only former professional player now making waves on the coaching staff of Perth Glory.
Jacob Burns – with 116 games for Glory in his playing career – is serving as the club’s football director and Richard Garcia – 58 games for Glory – is the Y-League and senior NPL WA boss.
Terry McFlynn – 214 appearances for Sydney FC – was recently named as W-League and academy manager and as the boss of the U20s whilst Steven McGarry – 114 games for Glory – serves as both the boss of the club’s U18 side and as a technical director within an academy that sent nine players to recent Australian junior international opportunities – up from the three total at the U17 and U19 Asian Championships.
Heading into the second year of Perth’s Popovic experience it will be up to McGarry, who moved to Australia from his native Scotland in 2010 to play with Glory after stints with St Mirren, Ross County and Motherwell, and his fellow academy staff to begin produce players that can tempt Popovic to increase the 865 minutes (third-fewest in the A-League) he afforded to players 21 and under in 2018-19.
“I speak to Tony every day,” McGarry said of the Glory A-League boss.
“He wants to know what’s going on at the academy.
“From the principles of what a Popovic Perth Glory team looks like, that’s definitely worked through the age groups.
“From a formation point of view, in the younger age groups, he’s not quite concerned (with formation) as long as the style and principles are filtering down through the club.
“In the older age groups, there’s a really good environment of ex-professionals and knowledge to help these players.
“At the moment the club has got a system they like to play. For us to give every advantage to those players – whether they’re 18s, the 20s or they’re playing NPL/NYL – if they go up and they’re invited to (A-League) training they’re doing the same things as we’re doing at U18 level or vice versa.
“We’re doing a lot the same stuff in the detail, a lot from the first team.
“Against Manchester United, we’ve had two players that were 15 manage to get on the pitch; Joshua Rawlins and Gabriel Popovic. If there’s a connection to that top-end academy it’s going to give them every opportunity to excel.”
Obviously for McGarry, the challenges of helping to run Glory’s two-star academy – far away from the large majority of Australia’s registered player base on the east coast – raises a number of unique challenges in and of itself.
In response, the 39-year-old explained that the club, led by Burns, had sought to establish a Glory way that was unique not only in WA but also around the country.
“Obviously Jacob Burns, the head of football, wanted to have some point of difference and do something different from local clubs first of all but also from other A-League sides,” McGarry told dailyfootballshow.com.
“At the moment, we’ve got an underpinning program – the Glory Development Centre – which runs from kids eight to 11. We’ve then got our under 12s squad that runs through to our 16s NPL squad and we’ve got our senior academy.
“We’ve got 60 players who come in in the morning and basically try to replicate what the academies are doing over in Europe. The boys are coming in four times a week on-field and have two strength sessions just to try and get in parallel what a lot of the clubs are doing overseas.
“So, we’ve actually got a full pathway all the way through to the senior squad, which is fantastic and that’s something the club, but especially Jacob, has worked hard to put in place over the course of the last year.
“It’s difficult, from our point of view, to consistently get challenges and measure players against the best. It’s not easy just to go on a bus ride and drive up the coast to another A-League academy so it’s something that we’ve kind of strategically look to put in place with regards to going on tours.
“Across all age groups, we’ve looked to try and give all age groups a trip.
“We’ve recently been over to a tournament in Singapore (the JSSL Singapore International 7s Tournament) where we played against Arsenal, Atletico Madrid and Valencia. We managed to beat Valencia and Atleti on the way to the final but, unfortunately, got beat 2-0 buy Arsenal.
“We’ve also been across to Europe last October; we took a group of U16 players and played against the best Barcelona side in that age group. We went in and saw them training and playing in these facilities which were just the benchmark of world football.
“We travelled across to Britain and played against Manchester City, they were the champions of England, and that was another fantastic experience.
“For me, there wasn’t much difference with regards to quality. It’s a bit like bridging the gap for us, looking at the best practices in the world and how can we bridge the gap and get our players, how can we make WA players up to that level?”
McGarry was recently named as a member of the FFA’s review into pathways for young Australian players, meaning that he will now be entrusted with helping to figure out how to take the quality demonstrated by Australia’s younger teenagers at tournaments like the JSSL Singapore International 7s Tournament and turn it into results for the Joeys, Young Socceroos and, eventually, the Socceroos.
“I don’t think there is a massive technical gap,” McGarry said of Australia’s adolescent talent.
“I do think that at some point, from 16s above, there’s something missing. Whether that is exposure to competitive games every week for the kids… do the kids in the NYL, do they play enough games of the best against the best? Do our own kids in WA, do they have the opportunity to measure themselves against the best of the best every week?
“So, we’ve looked at that and looked at different scenarios where on top of our normal week we play elite games or in-house games. We’re trying to get to around the 45, 50 game mark to try and get to as many games as these guys are paying in Europe and South America.
“(Australian Technical Director) Rob Sherman’s come in and, at the moment, we’re looking for direction from him in regard to how the NYL is going to evolve.
“Are we going to play more games? Is it going to become a reserve league? That’s probably about getting those players from the age of 15, 16 through to 21, 22, 23 more game time and more exposure to competitive games.
“We’ve not got a second tier at the moment. Hopefully, that comes within the next couple of years and we can then start playing younger players earlier, more exposure.
“Some things are difficult, and you can’t always control that, and we try and come up with different solutions along the way.”