Popovic thrives under work ethic of new Palace management

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The Independent Football

Culture shock is probably the best phrase to describe the experience of Crystal Palace's players in the last five months as they have gone from being relegation contenders to First Division play-off finalists under the hyperactive guidance of their new manager, Iain Dowie, and the fitness coach, John Harbin.

Culture shock is probably the best phrase to describe the experience of Crystal Palace's players in the last five months as they have gone from being relegation contenders to First Division play-off finalists under the hyperactive guidance of their new manager, Iain Dowie, and the fitness coach, John Harbin.

But for their 31-year-old Australian international centre-back Tony Popovic, the Dowie/Harbin approach, with its relentless scrutiny of every detail and its broad conditioning work through swimming, boxing and weight-lifting, is simply business as usual.

Popovic, who has made 45 international appearances since breaking into the Australian team as a 21-year-old, has welcomed the fresh approach which Dowie and Harbin, the Australian former rugby league coach who accompanied the manager from Oldham Athletic at the turn of the year, have introduced. Having begun his career with his home city side Sydney United, after which he played for the Japanese side Sanfrecce in Hiroshima, for four years, Popovic has become familiar with an orderly approach which, since he joined Palace in 2001, has been all too scarce.

"In Australia most clubs have a very high work ethic and the way they run their clubs is very professional," Popovic said at Palace's Beckenham training ground this week. "I'm used to that. And that was how everything was run in Japan. That's what the management is trying to do here."

It was while Popovic - whose parents emigrated to Sydney from Croatia - was being turned thoroughly Japanese that Steve Bruce spotted his talents in the national side and signed him to strengthen a Palace side which had narrowly escaped relegation to the Second Division.

"Steve felt he needed someone to be strong and a leader and give a bit of solidity to the back line," Popovic said. But once Bruce made his controversial move to Birmingham City, swapping places with Trevor Francis, Popovic began to feel the burden of leadership weighing heavily on him amid growing turmoil.

"To say it hasn't affected me personally would be a lie," he said. "I want to play at the highest level and I want to be at a successful club and it just wasn't happening here. And it is frustrating, very frustrating actually, when you are used to high standards. To be honest the club felt like it was just crumbling around the team. There was one change after another. I've lost count of how many managers we've had since I've been here. Stability was just never there and it did cause a problem throughout. Before Iain arrived we lost 5-0 at Wigan. The same players are here now, getting to the play-off final. I think that tells you everything."

Popovic, who dismissed the idea that Palace would need to reach the Premiership before he signed a new contract for next season, added: "I think the greatest thing about Iain and John is that they don't just bark orders - 'do this, do that'.'' They are the first ones out there in training and they lead from the front. Results have been great but it was working even if we didn't make the play-offs. You could see that the club was going forward on and off the pitch. This is just a reward for how things have gone for us. The big prize is Saturday and we are going there to win."

Popovic's wife, Amanda, will be in Cardiff to watch him against West Ham today, but his two boys, Christian and Gabriel, are already back in the place he calls home, and to which he plans to return once his career is over - Sydney.

But if Popovic remains an Australian at heart, he is also determined to honour his Croatian roots. "We still have family in Croatia and go there on holiday every year," he said. "I've been brought up the European way, the Catholic way, and that's probably why I was pushed towards football. Most Europeans grow up loving their football, and my father, Bratislav, was no different."

Among his acquaintances when he returns to the land of his fathers is the former Wimbledon champion, Goran Ivanisevic. "I have close friends who are close with him, so I've had the opportunity of meeting him a few times and I've watched him play in England and Australia," Popovic said. He was not there to witness Ivanisevic's moment of triumph on the Centre Court - but that was probably just as well given that he is a self-confessed fan of Pat Rafter. "I sat on the fence for that match," he said with a grin.

Popovic is also mates with several of the Croatian football team scheduled to meet England at next month's European Championship, and hopes to watch some of the matches. Will he be cheering them on to beat his adopted country? Another grin. "Well, I'm not so sure whether I should say that out loud, but, yeah, it could please me," said the man whose goal set Australia on their way to victory over England at Upton Park last season.

As he prepares for what he describes as his most important club match ever, Popovic can draw on the torrid experience of his biggest international challenge, when Australia lost the two-legged Oceania group play-off against Uruguay, and with it a place in the 2002 World Cup finals.

After winning the home leg 1-0, Australia were beaten 3-0 in Montevideo in front of a fervent crowd of 70,000. "It was very, very hostile," he recalled. "We'll have 30,000 of our own fans in Cardiff, but over there we probably had about 30, so it is a different environment when that happens. It was something I'll never forget. But hopefully I'll have happier memories from this Saturday."

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