The Wanderers centre-backs open up on their relationship, the debut season, how Tony Popovic has changed their football and their Socceroos ambitions.
Wanderers FC defenders Michael Beauchamp and Nikolai Topor-Stanley talk to footballaustralia.com.au deputy editor Paul Johnson about a history making season, the passion of fans and how they have become the competition-s premier defensive duo.
PJ: Much of the Wanderers success this season can be put down to your consistency at the back, even after the club-s rushed beginnings. What do you put it down to?
MB: I have known Topor for a long time, he used to mark me at the corners and things like that, which I used to hate, and I think he even scored one against me.
When we-re on the park we talk a lot to each other and get along well, and the boss has guided us, and we both feel like we are reading the game so much easier.
NTS: We are comfortable with each other, but you have to give credit to the team around us. Big, Ante Covic is an experienced campaigner and is always communicating and our left and right backs are willing to take on our criticism or direction willingly, which comes into play as well.
Then there is Popa being a centreback. He has been there and done that all before and his experience and knowledge of the game and has changed both of our ways of defending.
PJ: Sorry Michael, but how is the relationship with Popa these days? You infamously managed to put one in the net in his final Socceroos game.
MB: Yeah, thanks for bringing that up mate.
I-m pretty sure he told that story to Shinji. We played in Suncorp against Brisbane and Shinji came up to me right before the game and goes, “The boss just told me you scored a goal in his retirement game”. Nice to think about as you run on to the pitch….
For me that is the most disappointing memory of mine from football, especially the media side of things. Own goals happen, but because it was the retirement game it was made more of.
Popa had just scored and came off and I-m pretty sure he said, “Make me proud” but that was one of my lowest points - feeling I had let so many people down, and I copped a massive hammering from the media. It-s all part of the job though.
Thankfully he didn-t hold it against me and gave me the phone call to come here. He hasn-t spoken to me about it personally but Shinji told me about it, so he obviously still thinks about it. We-ll have to get him the trophy.
PJ: You could just show the video of his back-heel for Crystal Palace…
MB: He finished that in style; that was classy. I will blame my (own goal) on Schwarzy and say he shouldn-t have come out.
PJ: When you say Popa has changed your way of looking at defending, how has it changed?
NTS: Not overlooking the small things and going back to basics. Basic body positioning and what actually is good defending. It-s little things that have changed my perception.
People look at the stats and say, “You guys must have a magic understanding” but other things come into play, where it might be a slight tweak in body position and it ends up saving a goal, or you might be in the right place at the right time.
MB: You took the words out of my mouth. From day one when the boss came in it has all been about the body shape and turning that little bit extra or reading the play from a certain angle, you do get your foot in there and prevent the goal and they-re things we have been working on from day one and it-s showing now.
Overall we have worked on defending from the front all the way back and it-s helping with people listening to what we say and they are all giving their all in defence.
PJ:The fitness is noticeable, the pre-season did galvanise you, but if the cover needs to be made it is always there from the whole team.
MB: Put a GPS on Bridgey (striker Mark Bridge) and see how many times he runs past halfway. He is killing it this season that-s what it is coming from; the strikers are willing to run 40 metres back and put the pressure on and that-s what the boss has drilled into everyone.
PJ: The emphasis early in the season seemed to be heavily placed on defence but the attack has flourished - how much did the original structures help the team?
NTS: We worked on certain ways and systems but our main aim was to play attacking football and give nothing away. That sounds simple, but it took a while to gel, which naturally it does for new players coming together and it has shown that we are more ruthless as the season has gone on.
You mentioned Ante before, as he has gotten older he feels he has become a better keeper, due to his mental attitude, and that makes those in front of him better. Fair assessment?
MB: It is great to have so much confidence in him, for me it is the best I have seen him. He has pulled some saves out that you wouldn-t think he would get to them. It comes down to Ronny (goalkeeping coach Ron Corry) getting the best out of him and he has confidence in the boys in front of him and that probably helps.
A lot of the boys signed here because of the boss and they knew him as a player and now as a coach, the way he handles the boys is outrageous and that-s why they want to fight for him.
The way the story is this season you won-t see it again, unless it is us next season.
PJ: Nikolai, are you in career-best form?
NTS: That-s in the eye of the beholder, I-m just trying to win games and it-s the most successful season I have had in terms of results and I-m fit. if you want to look at it in that way then sure, tick the box, but I-m still hungry for more and still want to win the championship.
Do you fear any team? You obviously respect teams but defensively you have handled everything: from Berisha-s trickery, to the Victory-s pace and the Mariners- structure, nothing seems to phase you.
MB: You hit it on the head there. We definitely respect everyone, any player can hurt you, a defender can hurt you, but I don-t fear anyone. I look forward to the challenges of these players who are all quality in their own right.
We might be on half the wages of these strikers but we do well and it doesn-t matter if I-m up against an 18-year-old or Heskey, that-s what you want to do.
PJ: Bringing Socceroos back up, you were both mentioned by the media before the last squad was selected. You have both worn the green and gold before, but how much of a goal is it for both of you and what do you take from those sorts of reports?
MB: I take it for what it is, talk. I haven-t received a phone call from Holger. I just concentrate on every game, you never know who is watching a game anyway. If it happens, it happens, but age is on Topor-s side and I believe he has the quality to be there, it-s just a matter of opportunity and having the right coach to give him the chance and I hope Holger is that coach. Australia needs somebody strong like him and Topor… I-ll take that $100 off you later!
NTS: It-s no secret anyone who has been involved wants to be there again and Megs has been to two World Cups and he-ll cherish that for the rest of his life, but at this stage it-s just talk from people and I try not to read too much into that.
Having not made the last WC squad is not going to break me, I move on and accept it, otherwise you fall at the first level and that goes back to the culture we have here at the Wanderers.
PJ: How special has the club been? The fans, the club, the staff, 10 in a row… it-s a record season whichever way you slice it.
MB: It didn-t matter from five, six in a row to the 10. Yeah it-s a great achievement but there is still more to be achieved this season. Maybe when I-m retired I might think, “That wasn-t a bad run” but there is still silverware to be won and overall it-s a great achievement by everyone including the club staff and the fans… Getting 10,000 in Newcastle - it-s crazy and they have definitely got us over the line in a few games. They want to go the games now to be a part of the atmosphere and not just support us.
NTS: It-s been a successful season in terms of the interest we are generating and the results thus far, but to be champions we have to win the grand final and we are not guaranteed success even though we are the Premiers, but we are going to give it a damn good shake.
PJ: How do you see the season if you don-t win the championship?
MB: It will still be a successful one, but here in Australia everyone forgets about the Premiership, if a team wins the grand final they are classed as the champion.
I still have so many people who stop me in the street and say, “No matter what happens from now you have had an unbelievable season and the team has done massive things for the area,” but I don-t like hearing that because we still have two games to go and it-s going to be disappointing if we don-t get there after what we have done so far.
Come Friday, again it-s going to be war.
NTS: We won-t be happy until we win that silverware. You can look back and say we had a great season, but we aren-t champions till we win that silverware and we knew the rules before we started the season.
PJ: Crowds are passionate, Nikolai - you have played for Perth and Newcastle and now Wanderers, but Perth fans hate you, Wanderers fans love you. How much can it get to you in Perth or help you at home?
NTS: I wouldn-t be happy if Perth fans weren-t cheering me. MB: They-re cranky that the big man left, that-s why. NTS: I wait for it every game and when it dies down I-m sure I-ll be disappointed, but our fans are dominant. My father lives overseas, but he has lived here and followed sports his whole life and he was at the Newcastle game and he said it was the best atmosphere he has ever seen in Australia, and I-m not sure if that is his pride talking, with his son being a Premier, but what we have achieved together as a club and community is phenomenal.
PJ: Is it what makes football take off in this country Michael?
MB: This has been the best season of A-League, whether it-s because of the marquees that have come in, or because of our club, we have all played a role, the quality of football has been great as well.
Going back to our club, I don-t think you see just one jersey like you do at our stadium, the amount of red and black or white and red is unbelievable. You walk out there you wish you had shares in Nike.
From the RBB behind the goals to what it is now, the chants they have worked out, getting the crowd involved, supporting us, even clapping us when we have lost at home has been fantastic and that-s why people want to come to the games.
Come Friday there will be more history made for sure.