The road to Western Sydney

From one of our best nursery clubs, to years abroad as player and coach - it's no surprise Tony Popovic is on the verge of breaking records.

If there was any doubt the Western Sydney Wanderers are a real championship threat, it was dispelled in their round 23 away win against the previous front-runners Central Coast Mariners.

That victory was the Wanderers' eighth win on the trot, an equal Hyundai A-League record.

Going into their round 24 home bout against Wellington Phoenix, the Western Sydney boys are aiming to equal the all-time Australian national league record of nine consecutive wins.

It-s a record that has stood for almost three decades, when Sydney Olympic were the first team to win nine in a row during the 1984 National Soccer League (NSL) season.

It didn't take long for Sydney Olympic's record run to be equalled. South Melbourne also went on to win nine on the trot during the last stages of the 1984 season and into 1985 - a streak that included successive victories over Olympic in the two-legged 1984 national Grand Final.

Nine consecutive wins was achieved once more in NSL days, by the rampaging Sydney United early in the 1996/97 season. Sydney United also went on to make the grand final that season, going down to the Brisbane Strikers.

There were some prominent names that featured in these record winning runs.

Future NSL Championship-winning coaches Nick Theodorakopoulos and Gary Phillips both came to eminence as players during Sydney Olympic's record streak of wins in 1984.

Meanwhile a teenage Ange Postecoglou started every match of South Melbourne's 1984-1985 winning streak.

The Sydney United class of 1996/97 was certainly a team to behold, and included a number of names who were still making headlines in the first few years of the A-League a decade or more later.

Players such as David Zdrilic and Ante Milicic, who between them scored a stunning 16 goals during the nine-match streak, and teenagers Jason Culina (just 16 years old at the time) and Jacob Burns were all members of the Edensor Park side.

Zeljko Kalac, Mark Rudan, and 1996/97 NSL coach of the year Branko Culina were also prominent parts of this Sydney United mini-dynasty.

But perhaps the most conspicuous individual from Sydney United's talented team of 1996/97 was a spritely 23-year-old defender by the name of Tony Popovic.

Despite his young age Popovic had been a regular part of the Sydney United first-team line-up for eight seasons, after coming through the youth ranks at Sydney Croatia, as United were called back then.

It's a little known fact that Popovic's second-ever senior team coach was none other than Graham Arnold, who was caretaker Sydney United coach through part of Popovic's debut NSL season 1989/90.

Popovic made his contribution to Sydney United's 1996/97 record winning run just before embarking on a 10-year playing career abroad, with Sanfrecce Hiroshima (Japan), Crystal Palace (England) and Al Arabi (Qatar).

He was snared to Hiroshima by Eddie Thomson, who knew Popovic well through his coaching roles with Australian senior and under-23 teams throughout the 1990s.

In fact the international career of Tony Popovic is one of the most prestigious of any Australian: he is one of just four Australians to play in a finals tournament at under-17, under-20, under-23 and senior national level.

Was it any accident that Brazil scored their two goals against Australia in the 2006 World Cup after Popovic came off the field injured?

Popovic's five years as a Crystal Palace player included a stint as club captain, one of a select few Australians to captain a team in the top tiers in Europe.

When he came back to Australia in 2007 it wasn't just a return to his home city, but to playing under his 1996/97 head coach, with Branko Culina at the helm of Sydney FC at the time.

Assistant coaching stints at Sydney FC (2008-2011), and then back at Crystal Palace (2011-2012) stood Popovic in good stead leading into his first head coaching role at Western Sydney from mid-2012.

So it's perhaps no accident that Popovic is on the verge of a record-breaking winning streak as coach.

Coming through one of the country's most successful club nurseries, playing under some of the nation's most revered coaches, a few years abroad as player and coach, and a thorough work-out as an Australian international has provided the ideal background for an extraordinary debut head coaching performance.

With his western Sydney childhood club Tony Popovic once helped Sydney United win an Australian national league record nine matches in a row.

Who's to say he can't equal this record - or even break it - as Western Sydney Wanderers coach?

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