No one has enjoyed as big a change in fortunes as Ian Fergsuon this season.
There have been plenty of big stories the Hyundai A-League season, not all of them good. But none can quite match the ups and downs of Ian Ferguson-s second year in charge of Perth Glory.
His first season in WA was, to be frank, a disaster. A second-from-bottom finish and a once great club in disarray. No one quite knew if Ferguson or Perth owner Tony Sage would come back for seconds.
But to the surprise of many, Sage invested more of his money and trust in the Scot, with a finals appearance the absolute minimum job-saving requirement.
So Ferguson went on a massive recruitment drive, giving the Perth arguably the biggest turn-around of players in the competition.
But the players he brought in - Shane Smeltz, Travis Dodd, and imports such as Liam Miller and Andrezinho - weren-t so much the risk, as Ferguson-s tenure with the club itself.
And as expected, Glory got off to an impressive start, winning their first three games before collapsing into a mid-season slump that again almost cost the club its coach and owner. A slump, interestingly, that was bookended by defeats to Central Coast Mariners; the first a week 4 2-1 loss in Gosford, the second a week 12 1-3 turnover at nib Stadium.
In that nightmare run of nine games, Glory took a pitiful four points. By the time they faced Newcastle Jets on New Year-s Eve, the club was close to breaking point.
But something happened in that game. After putting his team in front, striker Billy Mehmet was controversially sent off after just half an hour for a none-tackle on Andrezinho. Ferguson blew up on the sidelines but his team dug in and held on for a 1-1 draw.
They backed up that gritty display with a thrilling 3-3 draw with Brisbane Roar at nib Stadium. And from there they won nine of their next 13 games, scoring 25 goals in the process.
For Ferguson, in particular, it-s been a vindication of his choices, his ability and his staff, when so many were calling for his head.
“It-s been a roller-coaster,” the Glory coach says. “So many ups and downs. But it-s been a great season because where we-ve ended up has been so different to where we were last year, so I-m delighted with the turnaround.
“It-s not just one person; it comes from the backroom staff and all the players - they bought into my philosophy and how I wanted things to work on and off the park. A lot of credit goes to them.
“It could have easily gone down south at one point, where tony was under a lot of pressure and myself under pressure to get results and from the turn of the year it-s been fantastic.”
So what happened? Why did it take going to the wire for such an obviously talented squad to realise its potential?
“The first time we played the Roar we got our backsides kicked (4-0, week 8). There were three or four away games where we didn-t do very well. The biggest thing for me was how we stop this rot away from home.
“That was important for the players too. They needed to understand that this is a big club, and we want results. Even though we got hammered for it, it was probably something that brought home a few home truths for a lot of people.
“The next time we played them we did very well. Against Brisbane, Newcastle and Sydney away, the results started to change towards the end of the year and you could see the momentum and the confidence get better in the boys, and that-s what I tried to drive home.
“I‘d been through this the year before and I didn-t want it going the same way. We sat down with the boys and had a good chat and I got a good response when I told them , ‘Don-t accept defeat-.
“And that was a big learning curve for the players and myself; we can beat these teams, we can get three points here and look how quickly it drove us up the table.”
Nine wins from 13, 27 points from a possible 39, and 25 goals scored for Perth Glory-s best A-League finish. And all that with the now clichéd minimum four hour flight to anywhere from the WA capital.
“I don-t like making these excuses but it does take its toll playing in Perth,” Ferguson says with a laugh.
“Somebody said it take s a year or two off your career playing here! I don-t know if that-s true or not...”
One of the criticisms that still hangs over Glory, however, is their playing style, which some commentators have tried to portray as less edifying than the likes of Brisbane and Central Coast. But football-s capacity to have so many styles is one of the intricate beauties of the game, and Ferguson has certainly learned from his mistakes to get the best out of his squad.
“We tweaked the system a bit,” he says. “Instead of playing 4-4-2, we went to a 4-2-3-1 and from there on in we found a position for Steve McGarry, who didn-t have the legs to go box to box anymore. but what I noticed in our five-a-side games was how smart he was in tight areas, how he linked up, liked combination play. We gave him that no.10 role and he-s been so influential for us this year.
Another star performer has been midfielder Liam Miller, who has provided the same spark for Glory that Thomas Broich does for Brisbane - as anyone who saw his pinpoint ball from deep that dropped onto Billy Mehmet-s foot in the minor semi-final against Wellington can attest.
“When Liam-s at the top of his game he-s so important; he-s so composed on the ball and he can get out of tight situations and how he can see things. His pass to Billy Mehmet the other - that would have been goal of the season and it sums Liam Miller up.”
All that stands in the way of Ferguson having perhaps the biggest form turnaround in A-League history are the Central Coast Mariners.
Glory have already promised they will go for broke to get the result against a Mariners side struggling for form, and Ferguson is open in his philosophy and belief of how his team can upset the Premiers- in their own backyard.
“If you give good players time on the ball they-ll hurt you. [Central Coast] play the diamond shape and it becomes very narrow, and they-re good at playing one or two touch, and that-s what we-ve got to stop.
“But we need to use our width because we play with two wide players, 7 and 11, and we-ve got move the ball quicker and switch quickly, so we can get the benefit of our wingers and fullbacks. I likely fullbacks getting forward and making overlapping runs, I like my wide players coming.
We-ve got to try to contain the Mariners, let them have the ball at times and counter-attack quickly.”
That-s confidence. A coach who will so clearly spell out his game plan, who has seen the best his players have and no expects it from them every week. A despite the long road to get here, that journey might just have given Perth Glory the momentum to go all the way.