Despite a successful stint in China with Chongqing Lifan, Brendon Santalab decided to take up Tony Popovic’s offer to return to the A-League, and the rest they say is history.
Four years ago, Santalab thought his football career was on track. Based in China, he’d done a stint with Chengdu Blades and was scoring freely at Chongqing.
There were no plans to return to Australia, at least not in the near future.
Until former Sydney FC teammate Tony Popovic asked the striker yet again to play for his new A-League club the Western Sydney Wanderers, and he figured saying no a third time might be a mistake.
But it wasn’t until well after he’d joined the three-time grand finalists that Santalab fully understood the extent to which that decision would lengthen his career.
Santalab was 30 then, doing well but unaware how out of tune he was with his own body.
“There’s a lot of money in China but it’s not that professional to be honest, so coming here was a huge eye-opener for me,” Santalab told AAP.
“I really loved the way things were here when I joined the club and I thought, ‘this is where I really want to be’.
“I fell into a great professional set-up which has done me the world of good.
“For my body, to be starting games at this age and scoring goals is a great achievement due to the club and the way we operate here.”
Testament is that at 34 years old, Santalab has surpassed former fan favourite Mark Bridge (32 goals) as the club’s all-time leading scorer, his brace against the Wellington Phoenix last weekend taking his overall tally to 34 and this season’s to 11 from nine starts in 18 appearances.
Certain moments, like last month’s calm dummy, swivel and strike against Sydney FC and Sunday’s not dissimilar effort against the Phoenix, suggest his form and on-field maturity may be peaking.
He partly puts that down to Popovic’s capacity to impart composure on his sometimes volatile repertoire of emotions.
Yet Santalab is categorical none of it would be possible without the club’s medical staff, who might know his physical limitations better than even himself.
“Without those people around you it makes it really difficult,” he said.
“It’s a great connection, and you need that.
“My job is to be on the pitch, and their job is to keep me on it — we work hand in hand and the goal is that I’m injury-free.”
Santalab plans to reassess after next season whether he has it in him to continue.
Popovic, on the other hand, believes he can play on a lot longer.
“He made a drastic change in his approach when he arrived, that’s why he was given a two-year contract last year, at his age,” Popovic said.
“We know we have to manage him, we know what we’re doing with him and that’s why he produces when he plays.
“We’ve got to do everything to help him maintain that.”