Asian Football - No end yet to the remarkable rise of Western Sydney

The story of Western Sydney Wanderers's debut season does not yet have the requisite happy ending to qualify fully as a fairytale but for sheer improbability it would be hard to match in club football anywhere in the world.

Asian Football - Western Sydney reach A-League final in debut season

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Tony Popovic as Crystal Palace first team coach in 2012 (PA)

A little over a year ago when the club's birth as a new A-League team was hurriedly announced by Football Federation Australia, it had no name, no club colours, no coach, no players and no fans.

On Friday, having already collected the Premier's Plate by leading the standings at the end of the season, the Wanderers take on the Brisbane Roar in the semi-finals of the championship play-offs.

Unbeaten in 12 matches, the Wanderers will face the defending champions at the Parramatta Stadium they have turned into a 21,500-capacity fortress, complete with fans who have already become a byword for passionate support in Australia.

Anyone looking for the driving force behind the remarkable rise would not have to look far beyond Tony Popovic, a former central defender who played 144 times for Crystal Palace.

The former Socceroo quit his assistant's role at Selhurst Park to return home and take up his first head coaching role, charged with transforming a bunch of out-of-contract players topped off by marquee signing Shinji Ono into a team.

After a slow start, they got their first goal and first win in their fourth match but by January were embarking on a run of 10 successive wins which took them to the brink of their first silverware.

"When we got together, we didn't just want to make up the numbers and as the season progressed, the players have grown in confidence," Popovic told Reuters at the club's training ground this week.

"Their quality showed in our run of 10 consecutive wins, which is difficult to do anywhere in the world. We're pleased with the way the team has progressed as a whole and the players still want more, and we're hoping to finish it off."

Although Popovic has been careful to share the plaudits around, his players have lavished praise on their coach with former Japan playmaker Ono describing him as "the best" he has played for.

"I've found a great leader here in Popovic. He's changed my game by leaps and bounds," central defender Nikolai Topor-Stanley said at training.

"It's all about the small details he never overlooks that really make the difference. I think it's taken me seven years as a professional footballer to really understand what is truly meant by that."

The Wanderers were a gamble forced on the FFA by the demise of Gold Coast United which has paid rich dividends and helped the eight-year-old A-League to what chief executive Damien de Bohun describes as a "breakthrough" season.

"The Western Sydney Wanderers story has been a remarkable story but for the league more generally, we've seen crowds, broadcast figures and memberships all up by 20 percent," he said this week.

"The A-League has joined the mainstream of Australian sport."

Although the arrival of Italian Alessandro Del Piero and England's Emile Heskey have helped, Wanderers were particularly significant because of the club's position in the sprawling western suburbs of Australia's most populous city.

Far from the beachside suburbs and landmarks like the Opera House, the area is home to the majority of the city's population and a keenly-fought battleground for the country's major sports.

"Western Sydney is in many ways the heartland of Australian football, many of the great Australian players like Harry Kewell, Mark Schwarzer and Timmy Cahill came from here so it made perfect sense to have a team here," de Bohun told Reuters.

"The other thing that was clear is that football is the sport for all Australians - it's multi-cultural and appeals to everyone - and Western Sydney has a very strong multi-cultural diversity."

The club, part-funded by a government grant, was put together in just 146 days before the start of the season last October and discussions were held with Germany's Michael Ballack before Ono was signed.

Fan participation was an integral part of the plan from the start and forums were held around the area to consult on everything from team colours - red and black hoops - and the club's name.

The club's maiden victory was against the Roar in Brisbane - one of three wins this season against the team who have won the A-League title for the last two years - and confidence is high that their inaugural season will not end on Friday.

"It's been a fantastic journey, one that we've thoroughly enjoyed as a club but we don't want it to end just yet," Popovic added.

"Now is not the time to reflect but I'm sure at the end of the season we will enjoy our achievements."

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