Two seasons ago we scored 53 goals, which was second highest in the 27 rounds. But we also conceded 53, which was equal worst.
Across the last two seasons we conceded 103 goals, the worst of any team.
Defence has been the trademark of Popa’s teams and from day one he has worked to build real steel into our side. It’s obviously no coincidence that among the players he brought in, three of them – Spira, Ivan and Davo – have considerable Socceroo backgrounds.
We’re more structured, the communication is better and there’s no confusion as to whose role it is to do what. If you make a defensive error you’re going to be accountable for it. You’ll need to fix it if you want to stay in the side.
The positive signs were there from very early on. It was only our third pre-season game when we played Chelsea and lost 1-0 against a world-class opponent. We were much tighter and we’ve continued in that vein. We’ll take it into the competition proper.
I’m not saying the culture we had under Kenny Lowe was bad. It wasn’t. I just think we as a team could’ve done more. Aimed higher.
Popa has introduced genuine competition for places through his recruitment, which is something we haven’t had enough of in the past.
There are two players jostling for every position and that makes training a contest. Tando Velaphi is competing with me for the goalkeeping spot and we’ve also got a good young goalkeeper, Jackson Lee, coming through. The heat is on every day for all of us.
Popa treats everyone the same. There are no favourites, no guarantees. We all know the score – if you want to put in, you’ll get your chance. But if you disconnect in your own mind it’s going to be obvious and you’ll never get in.
That’s why Popa makes careful decisions about who he recruits.
He brought Santa here because he knows what he’ll get from him. I know what we’ll get from him because I’ve played with him at half-a-dozen clubs. Whether he’s in the team or not, he’ll be pushing at training and he’ll always encourage the young blokes.
He’ll keep the pressure on Andy Keogh for a spot up front and when a young striker needs some advice he’ll sense that and go straight to him.
Santa’s as good a positive dressing-room influence as I’ve seen.
I’ve been fortunate to work with some great people during my career. Frank Farina was a terrific mentor for me at the Roar and Graham Arnold and Peter Turnbull gave me a chance at the Mariners when no-one else wanted to put their neck on the line after my split with Sydney FC.
I feel the same way about working with Popa.
I turned 37 in August, but I don’t feel like I’m getting old. Age isn’t an issue anymore in modern-day sport. It’s all about how you look after your body – what you put into it and how you treat it. If you’re right to perform at training every day and on the weekends in games, then that’s all that matters.
I want to play on at this level into my 40s. I think I’ve got another three-to-five years left. Goalkeepers have proved they can hit 40 and still be playing in the A-League. Ante Covic, Thomas Sorensen . . .
My eldest son, Marley, turns 12 in January and he often jokes with me about us playing together one day. He says, ‘Do you reckon you can hang around long enough?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, no worries, I’ll do my part, I’ll make sure I’m still fit and looking after myself, you’ve just got to do your part’.
That’s a bit of a thing we have, to try to play together at some sort of level one day.
It would be a great way to go out playing the game I love.