Oh what a glum period it’s been in Australian soccer.
We have battles about control of the game’s governance, World Cup qualification jitters, and a relatively benign beginning to the domestic season.
A shot in the arm could hardly have come at a better time and Josep Gombau returning to coach in the A-League – after being announced as Western Sydney Wanderers’ new mentor yesterday – is just that.
Because the man who steered Adelaide United to the FFA Cup win in 2014 (the club’s first major trophy for eight years), and built the side that would become 2015-16 champions under Guillermo Amor, is one of the most compelling personalities our sport has seen here in recent years.
It hasn’t only been in South Australia that we’ve known this. In mid-2014, when fans around the country were able to pick a coach to lead an “A-League All Stars” team against Italian club Juventus, Gombau received 40% of the vote. Next best was Mike Mulvey on 21%.
Yet Mulvey had just steered Brisbane Roar to a title while Gombau, in his first season with the Reds, only led his side to sixth (with as many losses as wins).
But there was so much to like: the goal celebrations (remember that time he grabbed Awer Mabil and held him aloft?); the way he inspired loyalty from his players, who he called his family; the media interviews in which he’d passionately talk about what he wanted to achieve.
And, though I’m loath to admit it, at that time possession football was in and Gombau was delivering it with the help of his armada of fellow hispanophones.
His popularity in Adelaide only increased in his second season at the helm (2014-15). Fans who had backed him through the bad run at the beginning of the previous campaign with “In Josep We Trust” signs were rewarded with the coach leading them to triumph in the inaugural FFA Cup… while wearing a hoodie.
Josep Gombau wins a Cup Final wearing a hoodie. #Confidence #WearsWhatHeWants #FFACupFinal
— Ned Zelic (@NedZelic) December 16, 2014
Despite a strong start in the A-League, however, the Reds struggled in its closing months and had to settle for third.
Suddenly, in the off season, United’s flamboyant coach announced that he was leaving “due to family reasons” and the reins were handed to Guillermo Amor who Gombau had brought to Adelaide a year earlier.
After a terrible start to the 2015-16 campaign, Amor made a few adjustments and took the club to its first championship.
If social media is a guide, Gombau has remained popular among Reds fans. His role in building the team that finally won United a title and his charisma haven’t been forgotten. It seems that most also know that, though the official explanation for his departure two years ago was “family reasons”, there was a back story. There always is.
I doubt Gombau will have Western Sydney threatening for trophies this season. He’ll need time and the club’s supporters might have to be patient – something they’re not noted for.
He might also need to be less dogmatic about his high-possession style; other coaches have learnt how to beat it.
That, however, shouldn’t be the only thing that defines Gombau’s coaching. During his time in Adelaide many players improved. Guys like Tarek Elrich, Craig Goodwin and Jimmy Jeggo played a lot of their best A-League football under him.
I hope the move is a successful one for Gombau, certainly as long as his return with another club doesn’t come back to bite Adelaide United.
And I really hope the past few years on the scene haven’t dulled the enthusiasm that gave us knee slides, high speed touchline runs and entertaining media grabs. That’s the kind of colour we’re short of.
His return to Hindmarsh for the November 26 clash between United and Wanderers might be confronting for the crowd that loved him during his time with the Reds.
But it will undoubtedly be compelling. Josep Gombau is that kind of guy.
Paul Marcuccitti is InDaily’s soccer columnist.
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