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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.

Football Coaches Australia presents ‘The Football Coaching Life Podcast’ S2 Ep 5 with Gary Cole interviewing Catherine Cannuli

Football Life Podcast Cannuli

Catherine Cannuli has recently been appointed as Head Coach of the W-League team at Western Sydney Wanderers after spending a number of years as Assistant Coach after she finished up her playing career at the Club.

Cath had a terrific playing career as a junior and senior player, becoming a 15-year-old first-team player at Marconi before also playing W-League football with Sydney FC and Brisbane Roar, as well as receiving four caps for the Matildas.

Her coaching career began at Southern Districts with the Raiders before quickly adding the U14’s and eventually the Technical Director role. Catherine is open in discussing how great the Association have been in helping her grow and develop as a coach and in allowing her to juggle her coaching role at WSW whilst learning to understand the demands of full-time coaching.

We discuss the impact that Alen Stajcic has had on her career as both a player and a coach as well as how he helped her ‘fall back in love with the game’ after she walked away from the game and the national junior teams.

In her role as TD with Southern Districts she is focused on helping players love the game first as well as trying to fit in more games and training sessions to provide more learning opportunities for players and coaches.

It becomes very evident that Catherine wants to leave a legacy for the W-League program at Wanderers where all players, coaches and staff are full-time.

Please join me in sharing Catherine Cannuli’s Football Coaching Life.

Hosken Reserve Master Plan released for final feedback

Moreland City Council has released an initial Hosken Reserve Master Plan to the community, in preparation for a final round of feedback before a green light towards the upgrade.

Hosken Reserve serves as the primary ground of Victorian National Premier League team Pascoe Vale FC.

The plan features an upgrade to the two pitches at Hosken Reserve, as well as the development of a hybrid grass-synthetic soccer pitch to be used by Pascoe Vale FC. In addition the clubrooms, lighting and car park are being upgraded. 

In December 2020, a report was tabled at the Moreland City Council meeting recommending a new master plan developed through an in-depth community engagement process. Since then, several rounds of development and community consultation have occured.

Pascoe Vale FC President Lou Tonna explains that the plan is a result of years of consultation and it should satisfy all constituents. 

“There was a master plan in 2009, and unfortunately a lot of it hasn’t been activated. There was some community pushback in regards to that plan, and it went to community consultation. There were a few things adopted by the council and it went to a refresh group, who aimed to get a reasonable outcome for the entire community,” Tonna said.

“This being the school, the Tennis club, the football club, and also the residents. I believe this master plan has hit the mark.”

In May Moreland Mayor Cr Annalivia Carli Hannan believed the plan would satisfy members of the local community.

“Our community health and well-being is strengthened by sport participation as well as by general community use of open space. Inner metropolitan councils have increasing demands on our limited open space, with competing needs and uses. I want to thank community members, including sports clubs and local residents, for their feedback and contribution,” she said.

Tonna says that the development should be finished within three years and that the outcome is a positive one for the community.

“It’s going out to community consultation, and we are hoping it will be finished in the next one to three years,” he said.

“We’d like to thank everyone who contributed to the refresh group. We are very happy with the outcome of the master plan, and believe it’s great for everyone involved. This isn’t just about Pascoe Vale, it’s about the whole community.”

You can read more about the development of the Hosken Reserve plans, or find out how to make a community contribution, here.

Knights Stadium: More than just a home ground

Knights Stadium is one of the most iconic venues in Australian football – for many it is more than just a stadium.

The ground was built in 1989 with storied history. Melbourne Knights, formerly known as Melbourne Croatia SC, were two-time National Soccer League (NSL) champions and four-time minor premiers at the ground during the 1990s.

The Mark Viduka Stand can seat up to 3,000 people, while another 12,000 can stand around the pitch. The ground represents the largest football-only sporting ground in the state of Victoria – testament to the history and strength of Melbourne Knights FC.

Knights Stadium in 2002 with the Mark Viduka Stand.

Former Melbourne Knights president Andelko Cimera says he was part of the club while Knights Stadium was becoming a reality.

“We were playing at the old number two pitch at Olympic Park, where the dog track was, and that was virtually our home. We were looking for alternatives and a couple of properties came up – a drive-in in Altona and a drive-in at North Sunshine,” he said.

“We settled on Sunshine because it was a little bit cheaper. I think we paid $180,000 at that time in 1984. 12 months later we started developing the stadium.”

Melbourne Croatia at the time tried to secure the rights to play at Heidelberg United’s home ground Olympic Park and several other venues, before a decade-long donation drive allowed them to raise the money to purchase the land and develop a facility at the current site of Somers Street.

94/95 NSL champions

Melbourne Knights FC President Pave Jusup says that much of his childhood was spent at Knights Stadium.

“We only saw the stadium for games. We would always strive to go there, and sometimes the juniors would have an important game that’d let us on the second ground, even the main ground,” he said.

“If you walked into the wrong part of the ground the groundskeeper would grab you and make you be a ball boy, and you’d get a hotdog and drink after the game. It was a whole childhood for a lot of us.”

Jusup adds that Melbourne Knights and the stadium serve as a key pillar within the Croatian community.

“There are a lot of memories that have been created there. A lot of people are tied to the physical place and it is a hub of the Croatian community along with the Croatian club in Footscray and the original Croatian church in Clifton Hill. We are the three constant and long-term fixtures in the community,” he said.

Cimera explains that there were both positives and negatives towards the stadium being community ran and operated.

“There were advantages and disadvantages. It was our property, it was our ground. It was up to us whether it was Sunday night, Saturday afternoon, or Friday night game. It was always available to us,” he said.

“The disadvantages were that everything was up to us. The maintenance of the ground was up to us. The facility became a burden to the Croatian community, which involved all our payments, all our rates which were paid for by the community.”


Both Jusup and Cimera agree that the biggest games were always against South Melbourne.

“It became a fortress for us in the 90s. It was difficult to take points away from our ground for teams,” Cimera said.

“I think our record crowd was when Hadjuk Split was here, that was close to 15,000. I remember when we played South Melbourne we had 12,000 people. The games between South Melbourne and us were always the biggest crowds.”

During the 2000 National Soccer League season, over 11,000 people descended upon Knights Stadium to watch Melbourne Croatia vs South Melbourne Hellas.

“Around 2001, they were top of the table and unbeaten, while we were mid to low-end of the table. We beat them 4-0. That is one game that sticks out in my mind,” Jusup said.

For both Cimera and Jusup, they acknowledge that the supporters and members of Melbourne Knights want to see Knights Stadium and the club feature in a second division.

“It’s not only the Melbourne Knights. It’s the juniors too because they can have a career path. Right now they can’t see a career path. Without promotion and relegation, it makes it very difficult,” Cimera said.

“We’ve got a lot of latent fans who are disappointed in the situation we find ourselves in. There are a lot of people who would put their hands up and into their pockets to help propel the club if given the opportunity. We’ve gone through a period of consolidation, but there’s a new generation of people who want to propel the club into the limelight as their parents and grandparents did,” Jusup said.

If the opportunity to join a second division does arise for Melbourne Knights, then their home ground won’t look out of place on the national stage.

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