Alex Wilkinson: A life after football with Sydney FC

Many professional footballers face a harsh reality when their playing careers come to an end.

So entrenched in the weekly routine of training and playing, they find it difficult to adjust to a new way of life without the activity which has dominated their lives and provided their livelihood.

Not so for Alex Wilkinson – the former Northern Spirit, Central Coast, Sydney FC and Socceroo defender who was earmarked for a career in football management at least five years ago by the management of Sydney FC.

As the club captain, he exhibited extraordinary leadership skills and always expressed a desire to be involved in the game after his playing career finished.

Furthermore, his contribution for a number of years as the President of Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) clearly indicated his interest in supporting players during their careers and was a natural progression to football management.

Consequently, it’s no co-incidence since his appointment as Head of Football Operations in July 2023, that Sydney FC are entering a period of renewed strength both on and off the field.

In this interview with Roger Sleeman, Alex Wilkinson discusses his role at Sydney FC, the new era for the club and other key issues in the game.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – NOVEMBER 20: Alex Wilkinson of Sydney FC heads a shot at goal during the A-League match between Western Sydney Wanderers and Sydney FC at CommBank Stadium, on November 20, 2021, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

ROGER SLEEMAN

Reflecting on your extensive football career, do you miss playing, and did you envisage a successful transition to your current position  at Sydney FC?

ALEX WILKINSON

I was lucky to have such a long, playing experience and if you had said to me when I was a 16 or 17 year old I would play at the top level for 21 years, I would’ve been happy with that.

I was fortunate to play with some outstanding performers, good teams and win some trophies.

Obviously, playing for the Socceroos was the pinnacle which gave me a great sense of pride.

Critically, if I could go back in time there are no regrets but the ball also rolled with me as I had very few injuries and the right coaches at the right time.

So many players with ample ability don’t necessarily have long careers either due to injuries, unfavourable coaches or luck just not going their way.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – AUGUST 30: Alex Wilkinson of Sydney FC lifts the A League Trophy after the 2020 A-League Grand Final match between Sydney FC and Melbourne City at Bankwest Stadium on August 30, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

R.S.

Can you elaborate on your duties and responsibilities as Head of Football Operations?

A.W.

For the last few years, retirement was on my mind but I had no desire to follow a coaching career.

I was more interested in the business side of the game so I undertook a degree in sports management and coaching.

During this process, I sat down with club management to discuss a future role which led to my current position.

I’m also very close to completing my MBA which has been of major assistance in my role.

The role involves looking after A-League squad member requirements, helping the Academy players transition into a full time environment and some involvement with the women’s squads.

For the Academy players progressing to the senior squad, it’s important they adjust to full time football, especially if they’ve moved away from home.

I assist them to have a stable life off the field which provides for better on field success.

R.S.

Since you commenced the role in July 2023, are you achieving your objectives?

A.W.

Wanting to cement a place in the business space of football, after 20 years as a player is a great challenge starting from scratch.

However, at Sydney FC the job has been made easier through my constant liaison with the football, marketing and media departments.

R.S.

Under the leadership of Ufuk Talay, the club is really capturing the attention of the football community.

How much input have you contributed to this success?

A.W.

It was a hard act for Talay to follow Steve Corica with three grand finals, a premiership and FA Cup.

However, he has brought a different way of playing and a definite style to the playing group. After 17 weeks in, the players are benefiting which is showing with the great run of wins and elevation up the table.

I’m confident in his playing methods and the players are enjoying it , even with the physical demands of pressing and how high up the park he wants them to play.

Opponents are finding difficulty with the relentless pressing , denying them time on the ball and consequent, increased turnover.

Dave Zdrilic has also made a major contribution with the critical experience he has gained overseas.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – JANUARY 16: Nicolai Muller of the Wanderers shoots under pressure from Alex Wilkinson of Sydney FC during the A-League match between Sydney FC and the Western Sydney Wanderers FC at ANZ Stadium, on January 16, 2021, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

R.S.

Are you happy with the transition of youth team players into the first team since your appointment?

A.W.

This year, especially, the young players are getting greater game time and you can watch the ceiling of their performance increase accordingly.

It doesn’t always work smoothly but we’re getting results now.

The jump from the Academy to senior football can’t be underestimated but its working for them and the club now.

R.S.

Which of the new players have made a big impact in the team?

A.W.

Jake Girdwood-Reich who isn’t even a centre back has really shone, Corey Holman has taken like a duck to water in the number six role and has the ability after ball winning to mount attacks. Jordan Courtney Perkins is making great strides in the left back position for the injured Joel King, even though he was previously a centre back, Hayden Matthews has shown great promise in the last few matches and Jaiden Kucharski is a great talent who scored 20 goals last year in NPL and is knocking on the door to play regularly.

R.S.

How important is Joe Lolley to the current run of Sydney FC?

A.W.

Lolley’s contribution has been critical to the team and I believe he’s been the best player in the A-League this season.

Under Talay, he’s taken his game to a new level with work ethic and desire to win the ball back.

His dribbling ability is unquestionable and the killer ball, shots on goal and one on one duels are a feature of his game.

R.S.

How closely do you work with Talay and Zdrilic?

A.W.

The football department is really working well and although I’m not out on the training ground every day, when I’m not in the office, I try to be there as much as possible.

The culture within the football department is solid so the coaching staff will listen to my input.

Both Talay and Zdrilic will let you make suggestions and they’re not close minded.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – JANUARY 12: Alex Wilkinson of Sydney FC kicks during the FFA Cup Quarter Final match between Sydney FC and Brisbane Roar at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium on January 12, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

R.S.

What was your take on the 4-1 win in the Sydney derby two weeks ago?

A.W.

A demolition and one of the better wins for Sydney FC over the years.

From the first minute we showed we wanted it more and were more aggressive and dominant.

They couldn’t get out of their half in the first 10 minutes and after we scored the two early goals, it was virtually all over.

We didn’t sit back after scoring those two goals and Talay has encouraged the players to be relentless, create pressure and aggressiveness which led to the third and fourth goals.

The pace of our game is really upsetting opposition which happened in this game so all we have to do is maintain consistency for the rest of the season.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – AUGUST 10: Alex Wilkinson of Sydney FC in action during the Australia Cup Rd of 16 match between Bentleigh Greens SC and Sydney FC at Kingston Heath Soccer Complex on August 10, 2022 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Graham Denholm/Getty Images)

R.S.

Does Sydney FC have the potential to become a super club like Melbourne Victory and the Wanderers?

A.W.

I think we’re already there but while the salary cap is present, it’s difficult for teams to maintain this status. When players want to be rewarded, it’s hard to pay them more so they leave the club. Therefore, you have to have this production line in constant motion to keep the club at the top of the ladder.

Overseas clubs can see the value of Australian players so if clubs like ours can continue to produce quality players through our Academy, we have a great source of revenue.

Also, fans want to see young players who have no fear, more than happy to dribble and take opponents on. As the players develop and they have opportunities overseas, the regular income stream for the club is guaranteed and the national team also benefits.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – OCTOBER 08: Alex Wilkinson of Sydney FC passes during the round one A-League Men’s match between Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory at Allianz Stadium, on October 08, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

R.S.

How did you regard the Socceroos performance in the Asian Cup?

A.W.

Great success in the last World Cup but the Asian Cup was disappointing, especially when we should’ve beaten South Korea.

However, the Asian countries are well ahead us in terms of investment in the game and in 10-15 years if we don’t invest more, they will be the favourites when we play against them.

R.S.

As immediate past President of the PFA, are we utilising the abilities of past players sufficiently?

A.W.

Probably not, but just because they played shouldn’t guarantee them a position.

The PFA has a past players program which players can access to find jobs plus well being initiatives.

In the business side of sport, the former players need to be qualified rather than being appointed because they played the game.

We need to grow the professional game so more money is attracted and an increase in A-League teams would provide more opportunities for former players in coaching and administration.

Notwithstanding, the transition from playing to the real world of football business can be difficult and I’m living it now.

However, I fully support the introduction of greater input and influence from former players.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – FEBRUARY 11: Alex Wilkinson of Sydney FC celebrates winning the round 16 A-League Men’s match between Western Sydney Wanderers and Sydney FC at CommBank Stadium, on February 11, 2023, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

R.S.

What is your opinion of the proposed National Second Division?

A.W.

It will certainly create more opportunity for players at semi-professional level and will bring more money into the game.

Also, with the proposed broadcast deal for the Socceroos, Matildas and National Second Division, it would be ideal if the clubs received some funding from this package to boost their operations.

In saying that, there will be significant costs with interstate travel, accommodation and general overheads.

There is also the question of promotion and relegation which seems to be in the too hard basket.

Nick Galatas on addressing the link between National Second Tier with promotion and relegation

The National Second Tier (NST) competition is building towards its expected start date of March/April 2025, but its final structure has not been settled.

While eight teams were initially announced with representation from Victoria and New South Wales, we are still yet to find out who will make up the rest of the ‘national’ component.

We will at least have an update on this around June 2024, as the Request for Proposal (RFP), Assessment & Review and Completion Phases are all completed.

Association of Australian Football Clubs (AAFC) Chairman Nick Galatas has been a vocal advocate and involved in establishing the NST from its inception, but despite the previously announced foundation clubs, there is still work to do to ensure the NST starts in the best possible shape.

At this stage, eight foundation clubs have been confirmed, but there is a push to increase the number to at least 12.

Despite 26 clubs advancing to the RFP phase, only 8 foundation clubs proved to be a major drop off from what appeared a healthy pool of teams to choose from.

“There were 26 clubs that looked to be in a great position to be selected to start in the new NST,” Galatas told Soccerscene.

“From those, it would be expected to get 12 for a kick-off in 2024 but didn’t pan out that way.”

A lack of structure around how promotion and relegation will work with the NPL does leave some uncertainty for the clubs left out of the NST. Many clubs remain eager to be part of the expected four additional teams to be added for the competition’s commencement early in 2025.

For Football Australia, consistency will need to be applied across the board about how clubs go up and down between the NST and NPL when promotion and relegation commences. Football Queensland has made rules that a Queensland coming into the NST will revert to the competition it was in before it joined the NST. That is inconsistent with the approach of other member federations.

For example, with Preston Lions FC competing in Victoria Premier League 1 in 2024 prior to the commencement of NST, if they get relegated is it one step below to NPL Victoria or the original league they are in now?

Galatas outlined how everyone must be on the same page to form a unified system.

“As a scenario, we can think ahead to, say, 2027 and it’s the third year of competition, which is may also have expanded by then and include Queensland teams,” he said.

“For example, if, say, Preston Lions from Victoria and Sunshine Coast Fire FC from Queensland are relegation candidates in that season, it’s untenable that those teams would face different predicaments if relegated with Preston to the NPL and Sunshine Coast to oblivion.

“Hypothetically if we talk about relegation, everyone agrees that a Victorian-based club would be relegated to NPL Victoria even if originally from a lower league.

“However, when you compare it to a Queensland club, getting relegated means that they go into oblivion, which doesn’t add up. It’s fundamental and accepted practice that a relegated team goes down one rung and it has the chance to come up again.

“Football Australia needs to discuss a relegation scenario with all of the member federations and ensure there is a consistent approach. It will run the competition and must ensure the member federations work together with it and the clubs to achieve this outcome.”

Galatas outlined what he hopes to see out of the upcoming application process, moving one step closer to an Australia-wide competition.

“Instead of the eight confirmed teams we see now, it should be 12 teams from hopefully at least four states or territories to achieve the best competition,” he said.

“I would have liked to have seen a 2024 start date with 12 teams and have all the big players ready to go, but instead we’ve had a delay. But so long as we use the additional time to start strongly, the extra year to wait is not important in the overall picture.

“Having Queensland plus at least one of South Australia, Tasmania and Canberra to include four states from the get-go is the ideal platform to build on.

“Then we can look at Western Australia and the remaining areas as we build – we are just starting. We can grow the competition without rushing into it too much from a logistical point of view.”

10-year milestone of Australia Cup achieved with ongoing benefits for semi-professionals

The Australia Cup is the nation’s premier knockout cup competition which has reached its 10th year of existence.

The competition was founded as the Football Federation Australia (FFA) Cup and has been won by five different clubs, with nine unique sides appearing in its respective finals down the years.

Knockout cup football before the reintroduction of it was something which remained an unappreciated element of Australian football with the first attempt of sustaining a competition occurring back in the 1960s with the Australia Cup – the first and only national club knockout competition which was held from 1962 until 1968.

The FFA Cup was ultimately renamed to the Australia Cup in 2022, suiting as a more fitting title for what has become an important piece of silverware within Australian football.

The competition has contributed immensely to the sport in a variety of aspects. Semi-professional clubs across the country have the opportunity to compete against the nation’s best upon their entry in the round of 32, providing spectators with the possibility of witnessing a David and Goliath like matchup. The ‘cupsets’ provide a sense of urgent, frantic football in which fans are jubilant to receive.

Those at the business end of the competition are recipients of prize money, with the winners claiming a cheque worth $131,000. As of 2021, competition winners are placed into continental football play-offs within Asia. Due to the consistent restructure of Asian continental club football, winners of the Australia Cup from 2021 were eligible to qualify for the Asian Champions League via a playoff position, in 2022 the AFC Cup playoffs were up for grabs, with the latter to be changed to the third instalment of Asian football being the newly founded tournament, the AFC Champions League 2.

10 years of cup magic within Australian football has complimented the competitiveness across the sport. The mind races back to all the ‘cupsets’ witnessed throughout the years including the notorious Green Gully victory over the Central Coast Mariners in 2015 where Liam Boland scored from his own half. Not to mention in more recent history, in the cup run Sydney United 58 had gone on.

For lower-ranked clubs across the nation to have the opportunity to compete with professional established clubs has not only provided fans with nostalgic moments, but has opened the another gateway into competing across the continent. The Cup has established itself amongst a trophy of significance in that has also acted as an attraction for international marquee players to venture to Australia from overseas, knowing there’s now three different titles within the sport they can compete for.

The more frequency of football – combined with the magic of the cup – will only serve to open more financial and beneficial opportunities within the sport across the nation.

Based upon its first decade, it’s safe to say its presence has been palpable.

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