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A telling contribution: The rise of Preston Lions under Zak Gruevski

At BT Connor Reserve, home of Preston Lions, it has not been an uncommon sight to see over 2,000 people in the stands supporting their team.

It is a typically frosty winter’s night in Melbourne on Friday, July 9.

The famous Preston Lions Football Club and its hordes of support are preparing to welcome Nunawading FC.

For the vast majority of clubs playing in the various National Premier Leagues Victoria divisions, the recent easing of Victorian Government restrictions allowing up to 1,000 spectators at games would allow them to operate matchday with minimal restrictions and fuss. Not Preston.

At BT Connor Reserve, it has not been an uncommon sight to see more than 2,000 people in the stands supporting their team.

With a spectator cap of 1,000, the Lions have needed to meticulously manage the gate, ensuring sponsors, members, spectators, players and officials check-in upon entry.

It is an administrative hassle, but it is a stark reminder of just how far Preston has come.

For that reason, the night is full of mixed emotions for outgoing Club President, Zak Gruevski.

Having announced the end of his presidency at the club – a reign that lasted over seven years – it provides an opportunity to reflect on just how far the club has come, as well as the important strides forward the Lions still hope to make.

“Like most, I didn’t go to President’s school,” Gruevski said.

“The journey really started from a call out to the community to say that Preston was in some deep trouble.

“At the time, they really weren’t that far off putting the padlock on the front gate and sadly saying goodbye to an iconic club.”

Towards the back end of 2013, Preston was a world away from the relative heights it enjoys now.

Ladened with over $200,000 in debt, mainly to the Australian Tax Office, undermined by terrible infrastructure and suffering from the consequential lack of juniors at the club, the glory days of Victorian Premier League success in 2007 felt like an age ago, much less the golden era of the National Soccer League in the 80s and early 90s.

Prior to his own presidency, Gruevski – who before becoming President of Preston served on the board of Football Victoria – explained that the work of his predecessor, Zoran Trajceski, was crucial to giving the club something of a blank slate to build from.

“Zoran was a bit of a figurehead. He galvanized a number of people behind him to say, ‘hey, let’s not allow our club to fall by the wayside,’” he said.

“That took us to a position where there was a fundraising sub-committee established and they set out to clear the club’s debt.

“My brother was heavily involved in that group, and he’d often ask why I was on the Federation board, however for me that was a great learning experience and helped me understand the business of football and how it works as an administrator.

“I was a lifelong supporter of Preston and I always remembered going to the games as a kid and I now found myself in a position where I was able to give a bit back to the club from a time perspective.

“So I joined the committee that year.”

In 2014, the club was able to announce that it had cleared its debt with the ATO and at the end of that year, Trajceski stepped down handing the reins over to Gruevski and a new committee.

With a new committee elected at the 2014 Annual General Meeting, Gruevski took on the role of Presidency with gusto, seeing the election of a new breed of committee for the club as the perfect opportunity to try and start fresh.

One of the first issues he wanted to tackle was the ‘seniors-first’ mentality.

“The senior men’s side are the flagship team, but they’re only one team of 23 or 25 or however many teams we’re fielding in any given year,” Gruevski said.

“Whilst they’re important, there’s a broader picture about the club and we’ve had some great kids and great women who have come through our club.

“When we took over, we literally only had 35 kids registered at the club making up three junior teams.

“The facilities were poor… we had two half pitches of lighting for our juniors, the lighting on the main pitch was disgusting to the point it was dangerous for the players even for training.

“Why would anyone want to come to the club?”

As a committee member first and then a President, Gruevski admitted that at times it was hard to look any more than one year ahead.

Many of those first years were simply just about surviving, being competitive on the pitch from a senior’s perspective and just battling through.

However, with the debt cleared and some breathing space achieved, Gruevski wanted to begin looking beyond the short-term fixes.

“With this new committee and the assistance of some trusted advisors, we wanted to stabilize and formulate a five-year plan for 2015-2020 to set the tone for where we wanted to go.”

And the plan centred around one keyword – hope.

“We wanted to give people hope,” he said.

“And we knew we could only do that by doing three things. One, we needed to bring people with professional skillsets to the club. We had to demonstrate to our sponsors, members, players and supporters that we had and were bringing quality people to the club.

“Secondly, we had to address the mistrust. We had to establish trust and transparency and for us was key.

“From that first AGM, it was important to us to be able to say to our members, ‘look, here are our books, this is what we’ve inherited, and this is the reality.’ We got the books audited and we invited any question anyone wanted to ask.

“And thirdly, we had to have a plan. It wasn’t good enough to say here’s a problem and ask members how we should fix it. We had to show them that we were working on solutions.

“That helped to show that we had integrity and helped to build that reputation and that trust again, and I think we’ve been able to sustain that over a number of years.”

The five-year plan for Preston wanted to inspire hope in its supporter base, and it did so by focusing on three key pillars – Facilities, Community and Communication.

Gruevski encouraged open communication between him, his committee and Preston’s members & supporters.

“In the first year or so it was a lot of just listening to people. I’m happy to hear anyone’s views,” he said.

“But if there was one thing that frustrated me, it was the negativity. I used to tell people, ‘I know the history, I know where we’re coming from isn’t great.’

“But for me, it was about where can we go? Any time someone told me something negative, I’d ask them to think about something positive that they could think about, or to give me an idea that they thought would make things better.

“We took all those ideas and threw them into the mix as part of formulating our plan. I wanted to treat people fairly and bring in proper governance structures and processes.”

What was clear to Gruevski, however, was that whilst communication was important, particularly in the early days, the real strides forward that needed to be made were with the former two pillars of facilities and communication.

“We saw that the facilities were poor, and we knew we wanted to be able to bring people back to the club,” he said.

“You can do that with success on the field, but the other way and the more sustainable way is to bring life to your club through the MiniRoos and juniors programs.

“We set out in year one to grow from the 35 and we grew our numbers to 80. In year two we grew to 180 and the third year we ended up with around 280 kids, which we’ve maintained and grown to almost 400 registered players between Miniroos, juniors and seniors men and women.”

As participation grew, the need for vast improvements to the facilities at BT Connor Reserve became more and more apparent.

“People didn’t want to come to the club. They’d tell us the facilities were poor, or they’d say our reputation wasn’t very good,” Gruevski recalled.

“Even me, before I was president, I wanted to bring my son to Preston when he was five or six, but the club didn’t have any programs for kids his age back then.

“He didn’t come back until he was 10 or 11.”

Gruevski adds making appointments such as junior co-ordinators and working with the City of Darebin for improved facilities was crucial.

It is in securing investment from council that Preston has really excelled in recent years.

“If you look at what they’ve invested in our facilities, it’s upwards of $5-6 million in five or six years,” he said.

“That’s gone towards new lighting, upgrades to pitches and new fencing and a new state of the art pavilion that is currently under construction. That fencing, in particular, we used to joke and say that when we got rid of the fence we got rid of the remnants of Pentridge Prison.

“The fencing was a 1.5m or 2m high. It was disgusting. How are you meant to welcome families and people to that sort of environment? It was a hangover from a previous era.”

Many might read that and wonder, how on earth has a suburban soccer club managed to win that much investment from council?

For Gruevski, the answer is simple, even if its execution is not.

“You’ve got give them a reason to invest,” he said.

“You’ve got to be able to clearly explain what your vision is, what you want to achieve.

“As a club, we engaged with blind football, the indigenous community, women’s football and we were able to demonstrate this to Council.

“We actually went to Council and our Councillors and presented our five-year plan to them. We showed them our collective – ours as a club and theirs as a Council – responsibility to our local community and improving access to sport.

“And to do that, we needed help to improve our facilities.

“You can’t ask me and my club to grow our participation base, if we don’t have anywhere to put the kids, or if it’s so dark that it’s dangerous.”

Consistent engagement was key.

“We engaged with Council officers, the CEO and Councillors because at the end of the day we needed to give them reasons to invest in our club and our sport.

“We were persistent, too. If we missed out on a grant one year, that was fine, we’d come back next year and we’d tell them again, this is what we want to do, this is why we want to do it and then we’d back that up with our numbers.

“We didn’t want to be whingers and whiners. We wanted to present professionally and I think they took notice of that approach. They wanted to work with us.”

With improved facilities and a growing junior base, Gruevski and Preston’s attention turned to on-field success, as the Lions sought to rise to a level more befitting of their historic status in the game and their growing present-day fortunes.

Of course, in the quagmire that is State League One North-West, that’s easier said than done, even with the impressive resources and support the club managed to generate.

Preston championed a proactive approach to member communication using the club’s digital channels, specifically social media, to encourage a new breed of fan to their games.

“We made a commitment to being really strong on social media,” he said.

“This was how we were going to communicate with our people. The old days of putting a story in the Macedonian newspaper were done, social media was a gamechanger for us.

“It helped us encourage people back to the club, whether it be as sponsors, as members or just to come to the odd game. The younger generation really took it on.

“These days they feel like they’re going to miss out on something if they don’t come to a game, so they would come down and come to a game.”

Even in State League One, crowds at BT Connor Reserve were often closer to 1,000 than they were to 500.

Not that it made life any easier in the division.

It took five years for Gruevski to realise his on-field vision of seeing Preston make the jump from State League One to NPL3.

The Lions finished second in the division in 2016, fourth in 2017 and missed out on promotion on the final day of the season in 2018 in front of almost 4,000 home fans, before eventually being crowned champions in 2019.

“Getting out of that league was extremely difficult,” he said.

“In some respects, we’re finding NPL3 a bit easier to manage than State One.

“When we lost that game in 2018, it brought many of us to tears. We were that close, and we lost it at the end. We had supporters at training in the lead up to that game. It was massive.

“But that disappointment was a turning point for us because it drove us to the championship in 2019.”

Gruevski makes no hesitation in crediting coach Louie Acevski for much of the on-field transformation of the club.

“He came to the club because of the vision we had and what we wanted to achieve,” Gruevski said.

“He’d just finished with Hume City, and he wasn’t interested in coaching again in a hurry. I just reached out to him and shared with him what we wanted to do, the people we had as part of our team and we were able to get him on board and that was the start of the way forward for the club on the pitch.”

And success on the park in 2019 has propelled success off it. Not even the loss of the 2020 season could slow Preston down.

With their brand new lighting on the main pitch, Preston took the decision to play home games on Friday nights at BT Connor Reserve, and their first game under lights was marked by a historic turnout.

Thousands of supporters attended the game and Gruevski was keen to note the ethnic diversity of the club’s supporter base.

“The response from day one to Friday nights has been superb,” he said.

“For the first time in several years since I’ve been involved, kids are starting to talk about the club on a Wednesday or Thursday night at training or at school about whether or not they’re going to Preston on Friday.

“We’ve connected with the broader community. Obviously, everyone knows that the club was founded and is traditionally supported by Macedonian immigrants and their families.

“But we’ve been super proud that we’ve been able to engage really well with the local community as well. We currently have 24 different nationalities at our club.

“That’s something we’re super proud of.”

As part of their registration fees, all MiniRoos and junior parents get a free season pass enabling entry to senior men’s games, which has also helped encourage greater attendance at Friday night games.

Of the thousands who attended the season opener against Melbourne City, this included more than 120 sponsors and invited guests at the club’s newly launched Preston in Business program.

On the night, they defeated Melbourne City’s academy team 2-1 in an absolute thriller.

It was the perfect debut for the club’s new sponsorship program, which has driven enormous financial support for the club.

“We really want to look at how we can help our sponsors grow as well,” he said.

“But it’s grown because sponsors have confidence in where their money is going and they know we’re creating opportunities for them as well.”

Whilst Gruevski is departing the role of President, he has been keen to impress that operationally, nothing will change.

“It’s business as usual,” he said.

“Even though I’m finishing up in this role, we have the same Treasurer (now elevated to the role of Chief Financial Officer), the Vice President [David Cvetkovski] is now the President, and co-Vice Presidents have been introduced, with the balance of the Executive Committee remaining committed as always.”

Gruevski’s role at the club will see him move onto the club’s Advisory Board, where he will champion the club’s efforts on a number of key projects including securing a junior boys NPL licence and continuing to be involved in National Second Division discussions.

“I’ve got the relationships and I’ve represented the club in these forums before, so I’m happy to continue working on anything that sees the club get stronger.

“It would be a shame for us to walk away completely from something we’ve helped build.

“We’re proud of what we’ve done, but we know there’s still a lot to be done and I’m still passionate about helping the club achieve that.”

Feature and body image credit: Matt Johnson

Matthew Galea is a sports journalist with Soccerscene. He reports widely on football policy and industry matters, drawing on his knowledge and passion of the game.

Wheelchair football’s Victorian return comes with challenges still to face

Football Victoria’s Wheelchair Football Volunteer Coordinator Daniel Levy admits that the onset of the pandemic was more than a challenge for all abilities football.

Across 2020 and 2021, the wheelchair competition barely played a handful of games. But that didn’t deter Levy or FV, who he says are now more supportive than ever.

Both wheelchair and powerchair football competitions have gotten underway after a very successful All Abilities April. The month saw come and try days held across the country as well as initiatives like Football West’s ‘Football for all’.

More than anything though, the return of wheelchair football in the state meant the most to the players.

“Everyone was frustrated for the past two years, because a lot of our players had other activities cancelled,” Levy told Soccerscene.

“They were just over the moon to be back and life getting back to normal. We had a good turnout and everyone was really rapt to be out.

“The first couple of weeks are always really tough because they’re not in the routine and some of them turned up late, but it’s all good.

“They have to rely on maxi taxis which often pick up more than one person at a time and drop people off on the way and things like that. Something always goes wrong at the last minute, but we’re pretty flexible.”

While the return is a major positive for the competition and inclusive football as a whole, the next stage for the organisers is to continue to grow the competition to a point where it can sustain itself better.

Victoria’s wheelchair football competition is run out of just one location in Keysborough currently, as there isn’t a high enough participation level to justify more.

“It’s a long haul for a lot of our players. One is in Chum Creek, near Healesville, we’ve got some that are out near the airport,” Levy explained.

“They have to come a long way, and that’s not cheap. If we were able to grow the competition, we could have a north and south competition so that people didn’t have so far to travel.”

Initiatives like All Abilities April will give wheelchair football and other inclusive competitions the chance to continue that growth.

“The All Abilities Month is an additional opportunity to get the word out there,” Levy continued.

“FV’s helping us with a marketing campaign, printing out posters that we can put up in leisure centres and things like that.

“It’s been a great initiative for us, and two of our players wrote their stories and that got published by FV as part of their social media campaign. We’re getting the word out there, but we certainly need to do more work to attract more players.”

For the players, who Levy says he’s ‘grown up with’ after being involved with wheelchair football for 17 years, the process provides them with more opportunities as well.

“To be honest for most of the players, it’s not that much about the competition, it’s mostly social,” he said.

“It’s being able to get out and be with people, spending time with them and having fun. Are all of our players diehard sportspeople? No they’re not.

“They want to get out and have some exercise, but most of their enjoyment comes from the social interaction.”

Benchwarmers: Mitigating soft tissue injuries for local players

Australian sportswear company Benchwarmers are targeting the issue of soft tissue injuries through their innovative product.

The company estimates that hamstring strain injuries account for 12-16% of all injuries in English, Australian and New Zealand professional Football. A key component of this can come from a players’ time on the bench.

Traditionally played as a winter sport, amateur soccer players are at risk of injury in cold conditions.

Speaking to product creator Andrew Lauder, the body length sportswear came about from noticing an increase in hamstring injuries at local level.

“We noticed kids and adults going out with hamstrings,” Lauder told Soccerscne.

“They’re sitting on these cold benches that are on parks everywhere, and they don’t really warm up. They just go out on the field and then they’ve pulled up with a hamstring.

“Two and two doesn’t take rocket science to figure out – sitting and cooling those muscles down and then using them straight away is fraught with danger.”

A custom designed Benchwarmer.

Designed for local and amateur players, Lauder wants to mitigate the risk associated at those levels. While elite athletes have access to the best medical staff, he doesn’t want to see younger players at risk.

“At amateur and junior level, we don’t have proper medical staff or people that understand body mechanisms, and they just send the kids or amateurs out,” Lauder continued.

“That’s when it pulls them all out. Benchwarmers is more just to say, ‘hey keep them warm’. A lot of them throw a hoodie on, but the legs and everything are still exposed.

“The main things that they are using all the time are the calves, quads and the hamstrings. We found it to be a very important thing.

“In junior and amateur level, when some of these guys and girls get hurt, they go into shock. They put them on the bench and have one of the medical staff looking at them who’s not really experienced, they might be a parent who’s done a course.”

Being custom-made, Benchwarmers offer a ultra-lightweight solution that includes insulated inside pockets, a hood, resistance to water and wind, and fully fleeced lining for extra warmth.

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