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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.

Catherine Cannuli: “It wasn’t easy to pursue coaching as I felt like I was back at square one again”

Catherine Cannuli

June 1 this year saw long-time stalwart of the Western Sydney Wanderers – Catherine Cannuli – appointed to the role of Head Coach of the Women’s side for the upcoming 2021/22 A-League Women’s season.

In addition to having built up an impressive resume through her role as Women’s Technical Director at the Southern Districts Football Association, Cannuli has been announced as the latest addition to the Executive Committee at Football Coaches Australia (FCA).

Her landmark year of achievements thus far reflects her immense efforts in working to reach what she acknowledges as a personal high point in her coaching career. Cannuli’s success is undoubtedly a testament to her determination, but her transition from player to coach was self-admittedly challenging one.

The lack of clear routes towards securing coaching roles at all levels of the game has led FCA and Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) to announce – within their Memorandum of Understanding strategies –all members of PFA’s Alumni will have their joining fee to FCA waived in an effort to provide additional support to aspiring coaches.

In a wide-ranging chat with Soccerscene, Cannuli spoke on her efforts to reach the point she is at now in her career and highlighted the significance of this recently announced FCA and PFA Alumni partnership.

Coaching

It was announced in June that you were to become the new Head Coach of the Western Sydney Wanderers. What has that been like for you so far?

Catherine Cannuli: It’s been exciting and challenging. Obviously, with the current COVID-19 situation that we’ve been in, I probably had four or five weeks in charge as the head coach and then we went into lockdown. So a lot of it has been done from behind a computer. But it’s been a great time to be able to plan and make sure that everything was ready to go come first day of pre-season.

In terms of opportunities for females in football following the end of their playing career, can you give us some insight into what was going through your head as you were coming to the end of your playing time?

Catherine Cannuli: I really didn’t think about coaching straight away to be honest. I retired and I thought I was going to get my weekends back and be a normal person. My friends were always having a go at me for missing so many significant birthdays or weddings.

It was after being off for about six or seven months, and not having football, where I realised more than anything what it left in me as a person. Football’s been such a big part of my life. It took me some time to realise that I couldn’t be a player anymore, because the commitment at the time was really hard – juggling full-time work and doing everything that I wanted to do. I was at a crossroads in my career at that point. It was thinking ‘do I sacrifice another four years or do I just focus on work and preparing for life after football?’.

It was at that point that I got into contact with the Southern Districts Association and explained that I wanted to give back to our community and asked what I could do to get involved with the girls. I went down and did some sessions with the team at the time, and within six months I’d landed myself my first coaching gig. I took over the First Grade Women’s team there and that was it. I fell into coaching.

What was it like mentally traversing that transition period between playing and coaching?

Catherine Cannuli: It was clear, because everything that I’d spoken to the club about they were on board with what I wanted to do and the vision that I had for young girls in the South-West region. For kids in the Liverpool and Fairfield areas, young girls like myself didn’t have the opportunity to be mentored or be coached. They didn’t have an environment where they felt they’d be able to really excel.

For me it was pretty clear from day one that I wanted to make a change. It was hard to transition, because after my first couple of years in coaching I remember going back to some of my coaches that had coached me for a long time and apologising. Because I didn’t realise what it actually took to be a coach. As a player, you turn up; you train; and you go home. As a coach there’s so much planning going on in the background that players just wouldn’t have an idea about.

The transition was definitely difficult, but after my first 12 months of coaching, I chose to dedicate myself to it. I had a business at the time and I stepped away from it to be able to then go into coaching. At the time I was working at Westfields Sports High School and Southern Districts and learning my trade, and it wasn’t easy when I decided to pursue coaching as I felt like I was back at square one again.

But it was really important for me to experience it that way. Even now that I’m at the top of my game as the Head Coach of the Western Sydney Wanderers, I feel that as a coach it is really important that you learn your trade, go through different environments and see different things before you actually get there. It shapes you as a person and as a coach.

Cannuli

What have been your key learnings in your role as Women’s Technical Director at the Southern Districts Football Association?

Catherine Cannuli: I think that the main one has been learning to build an environment for not just your players, but your staff and everyone to excel in. I think it’s important that everyone knows what your vision is and what direction you’re wanting to go in within your program and your football. It’s important that everyone understands that if they’re on this journey with you, they have a clear understanding of what the message is and what you want to do.

Whether I’m at Southern Districts or at the Wanderers, having that clear message with your players and your staff of ‘this is what it’s going to take to be successful’, and that we can do it as a collective.

Sometimes you see people saying ‘it’s my way or the highway’, whereas with me it’s about bringing people on the journey with you and making them understand what you want to achieve and how you want to achieve it.

Do you feel the partnership between FCA and PFA Alumni will aid aspiring female football coaches?

Catherine Cannuli: I think back to when I did my first C License and how far coach education and support has come. FCA have been a massive game changer in the coaching space, not only for females, but for males.

For any coach that aspires to be better and wants to be helped, even for those A-Leagues players wanting to transition out of playing into coaching, I think it’s important that there’s a mentorship and a process in what we want to do and how we want to do it.

Sometimes when we jump straight into the deep end it becomes difficult to have an understanding of what the role of a coach is. If you are a player, the role of a coach is a very different role to when you’re a player.

The partnership between FCA and PFA is huge. I’ve always said that football needs to come together and we need to work together as one. This is showing that together we can be stronger. And these partnerships are only going to allow our players and people to grow and further develop their skills in that space.

You’ve recently been announced as an addition to the Executive Committee at FCA. What initiatives will you be looking to drive as a part of your work there?

Catherine Cannuli: I think the main one is to give as much coach education as we can for all coaches. Giving all people from all different levels the number of resources that they can get onto. You can already see that with a lot of the workshops that we’ve been running. The numbers that we’ve been getting for these have been fantastic.

For me, the key thing with FCA is to drive its existence for people to understand that FCA is there and what it can do for coaches. Because I’ve already seen how it supported me over the last two years as a member. And I think, down the track, FCA is going to have such a significant impact on the coaching life. It’s going to be amazing to see where it’s going to be having known where it started.

FCA

What changes and opportunities for the women’s game are you hoping to see come to the fore leading into and after the 2023 Women’s World Cup?

Catherine Cannuli: The greatest achievement for me with receiving the opportunity to be the Head Coach of the Western Sydney Wanderers is that other females can look to this and say: ‘Hey, I can be a Head Coach at the A-League Women’s as well’. That’s the most important, that young female coaches can actually aspire to be a coach in the A-League Women’s.

The more that we see it on the TV and the papers that there are female coaches leading the way, there’s going to be even more opportunity for young females to come through NPL clubs and do coaching.

At the moment, the number of coaches in the female space in a professional environment is probably quite low. And that’s something that we need to keep driving change for; changing the dynamics around females not thinking that there are those opportunities for coaching when there are.

Melbourne Victory Managing Director Caroline Carnegie on the club’s rebuild

Caroline Carnegie has been leading Melbourne Victory FC through their rebuild before the start of the new A-League season as Managing Director of the club. In an exclusive interview with Soccerscene, she discusses the challenges faced so far, making a better A-League, and how clubs can re-engage lapsed fans.

What has been the biggest challenge of being Managing Director of Melbourne Victory so far?

Caroline Carnegie: There are a lot of challenges at the moment. There are the broader COVID-related challenges which everybody is experiencing, and then there’s the club-specific ones. Without sugar-coating it, we obviously had our poorest season on record last year. So coming in there were a lot of challenges that we needed to deal with and a lot of them centred around member sentiment and fan engagement. There was also making sure that across all our stakeholders we were communicating our direction and what was happening at the Club. I think our fans and members are pretty realistic. Although we certainly want to win silverware every year, we know it won’t be the case every season, which means we need to be really clear with everyone about what we want to achieve and the direction of the Club, which we have lacked a little bit certainly over the past couple of years.

Since stepping into the role, I have tried to make sure that we challenge the way we’ve been thinking about our business and how we go about delivering on and off the pitch. This means everything from the smallest to the biggest detail has been or is being stress tested, and we are all really testing ourselves as to whether we’ve been doing things in the best way or we can be a little bit more progressive, and to make sure that we put our members and partners first in everything we do moving forward. One of the things I was keen to do early was to put a true Director of Football in place, which I did first up with John Didulica. It is a role that the Club has needed for a while, and appointing JD has meant we now have a consistent whole of football approach from top to bottom with men and women.

While we can’t implement it all in 30 seconds, our planning is around making sure that all of our programs are truly elite and we progress our academy programs to be able to provide a true pathway into Melbourne Victory senior men’s and women’s over time, and also to make sure that we treat our men’s and women’s elite teams with equality. We know if you support Melbourne Victory you support our teams. Our men or women and our business is trying to make sure we promote that in all aspects of what we do.

Another example of trying to listen and deliver what our people want was the decision to return all of our home games to AAMI Park – which was so well received by our members and fans.  They had been calling out for that move for a really long time and I am glad the Club could deliver it and we cannot wait to make AAMI our fortress this season – and beyond of course. The move to do that was also important so we could show all our stakeholders that we are listening, and everybody is working very hard at the Club to position Melbourne Victory at the top of everything we do.

We are also excited that we will have a member’s forum a little closer to the start of the season – hopefully in person – to provide our people with a chance to have their thoughts and feelings about the Club heard and to share them with our team.

How much input did the A-League clubs have with the re-branding of the A-League and the W-League under one banner?

Caroline Carnegie: They had a lot to do with it.  APL is now owned by the Clubs since unbundling occurred earlier this year, and the Board of APL includes Club Chairmen.  The Board and the Clubs were involved in the decisions and it was great that we could be the first league to come out and show true equality in naming our men’s and women’s leagues consistently.

How important is it to have a dividing identity and geography between the three Melbourne teams?

Caroline Carnegie: It’s really important. It is important for all teams – not just the Melbourne clubs – to have a clear identity and target demographic, and geographically separating just helps us to be individually stronger.  It creates an environment where we can also promote the game on a broader scale and build a little ‘cross town’ rivalry at the same time.

What initiatives are Victory and the A-League taking to re-engage lapsed fans?

Caroline Carnegie: From a league level you’ll see a lot of changes to start with. We’ve just come through the unbundling process from FA which means at APL there is definitely a big focus on making sure that everything is reviewed, and a new and fresh approach is undertaken. It is really exciting to see what the team there is doing, and great that our Club can be a small part of that.

At Victory, as I said before, we are spending a lot of time trying to make sure we communicate better and in a more transparent and targeted manner with our people. We want our family to know who does what at Victory, what our plans are and the direction we are heading.  You should have started to see that so far in the off-season with the level and quality of engagement, even through our social channels.

We have made sure our player announcements are different and we are creating really exciting, dynamic content that speaks to our fans, and our membership campaign was another great example of that.

We have adopted a member-centric approach, and hopefully our fans can see that and want to jump on board and join the movement. After a couple of difficult years for everyone, we certainly continue to need their support and we are looking forward to seeing them at AAMI Park in Round 2.

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