Zoran Popovic has reached the end of the road to his short venture as coach of Floriana FC.
On Sunday, it was revealed that the Serbian had decided to step down from his post to return to his family in Belgrade after steering the Greens to the verge of a Championship Pool berth.
Sunday's emphatic 3-0 victory over Sliema Wanderers confirmed Floriana as one of the revelations of the season. Popovic's boys had surpassed all expectations and cemented themselves as one of the most in-form teams in the top flight.
This scenario contrasts sharply to the bleak patch the former Floriana midfielder faced when he took over last summer at a time when the club was at the start of an overhaul.
Manolito Micallef, Trevor Cilia, Simon Agius, Christian Cassar and Mario Caruana were among the players who headed to the exit door along with former coach Danilo Doncic. They were replaced by the likes of Pablo Doffo, Orosco Anonam and Alexandar Madzar as a string of young players were honed to make their Premier League debut.
Still, Popovic was not disheartened and after bringing over classy goalkeeper Dejan Maksic, also from Serbia, he slowly started to transform his new-look team into a solid outfit that, without too much hype, marched relentlessly towards a pre-season target of a top-six berth.
"It was not an easy journey for us," Popovic told The Times a few hours before his departure from Malta yesterday.
"When I came to Malta the situation at Floriana was not very good. The team had lost some key players and the new group included a bunch of youngsters, talented OK, but without too much experience to adapt to top-flight football.
"Obviously, with a team like that we found it difficult at first but gradually the team gelled together and these young players started to show their unquestioned ability.
"They worked really hard in training and it's thanks to them that Floriana are where they stand today.
"I must also single out the attitude of experienced players such as Doffo and Anonam who were very influential figures in the squad. There was a lot of scepticism when we started this project but now everyone can see that Floriana have a very strong base. This team can achieve a lot in the next couple of years."
Popovic reckons Floriana can rely on valid players even though the average age is low.
"If you look at our defence we have Sunday Eboh and Julian Briffa, a very efficient duo in my opinion," Popovic remarked.
"However, in their absence Floriana can bank on the likes of Mauro Bonnici, Owen Bugeja and Duncan Pisani who although still in their teen years are ready to do a good job for the team. The same applies to Luke Agius, Steve Bonnici, Ryan Darmanin and Clyde Camoin... all of them represent the future of this club.
"They still need time but if Floriana keep this group of players together I'm sure that in two years they can challenge for the major honours."
In season 1993-94 Popovic was on the books of Floriana, in the same team with other club stalwarts including John Buttigieg, the late David Cluett, Mark Miller and Brian Crawley.
During that campaign he helped the Greens to an extraordinary result in the Champions Cup when they eliminated Lithuania's Ekranas in the preliminary round before bowing out to Portuguese giants Porto 2-0 on aggregate after a goalless draw at Ta' Qali.
"That was a memorable chapter in my playing career," Popovic remarked.
"At the time, Floriana had a very strong team with some great players like Buttigieg and Cluett. We had a couple of excellent displays against Ekranas and Porto.
"Unfortunately, my stint with Floriana only lasted six months as the club was forced to release a foreign player because there was one more than the quota required. I was the one to go since I was the last one to arrive.
"Still, during that time I made a lot of friends and that relationship was one of the reasons I decided to return this year."
Popovic thinks Maltese clubs have to invest more heavily in their facilities.
"I think, in Malta there are a lot of talented players but they need good set-ups to become good players," he said.
"You can mention all clubs in the Premier League and I can select at least two players from each team who, in my opinion, are capable of winning a contract abroad.
"Gilbert Agius is a great player and I am sure that six or seven years ago he would have easily figured in a bigger league. Andrew Cohen is another fantastic player.
"The most important thing for Maltese clubs is to have adequate facilities and a good structure in youth sectors. In every locality you will find young children playing the game, so, it is up to the clubs to take care of their development.
"There is talent here, no doubt, but everyone involved must ensure that all effort is being done to nurture the country's future champions."
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