Bobby Despotovski has what some may call the perfect balance of considered objectivity and passion for football in Australia. Having announced his decision to leave his role as head coach of Perth Glory’s W-League squad late last year, the 2005/06 Johnny Warren Medal winner has had a break from the pressures of the top job for a few months now.
A West Australian through and through, Despotovski is Perth Glory’s all-time leading goal scorer and second on their all-time appearances list. As coach of the club, he led Perth to two Grand Finals and was the recipient of the W-League Coach of the Year in season 2016/17.
Despotovski sat down with Soccerscene to discuss his love for West Australian football, his fondest memories from his time in the W-League, playing a hand in the development of Sam Kerr, Australian football’s future and the significance of the 2023 Women’s World Cup for Australia as a whole.
What was the reason for you calling an end to your time as a W-League coach for Perth Glory?
Bobby Despotovski: COVID-19. I would not be able to take weeks off to go into a hub as that would jeopardise my work. When COVID wasn’t present it was fine, but as soon as COVID-19 hit that was it. That was the reason I quit.
Through all of the challenges of COVID-19 there was a bright moment as it was revealed Australia would be hosting a World Cup with New Zealand. Being that you’re such a vocal champion of football down under, particularly in Western Australia, what was your reaction to seeing that Australia was set to host a Women’s World Cup?
Bobby Despotovski: Obviously I was happy for Australia
A tournament of that stage coming to Australia is great because it’s going to put football in the mainstream of the Australian public and they’re going to see how big football all over the world is.
To be quite honest, it is going to open eyes in the media and in the wider public in terms of getting them to appreciate the wider game of football and how big it is worldwide.
That’s a great point, it could be a really significant moment in terms of bringing football into the mainstream.
Bobby Despotovski: 100%. It happened in Japan and it happened in America. Specifically, America [is a good comparison], because the American and Australian [football] market is similar in terms of our football not being the mainstream game. And then all of a sudden as soon as they had their Men’s and Women’s World Cups it becomes a mainstream sport.
So that needs to happen here in Australia as well, so that people can appreciate the game and have their eyes open to something else.
Being that you were the Perth Glory W-League coach for five years, what do you believe have been the greatest improvements in the W-League from your start to now?
Bobby Despotovski: [When I came in] we put into place a five-year plan.
Because as soon as Europe started becoming stronger, I sort of knew that all of the best [W-League] players from the Australian market are not going to go anymore to America, they are going to go to Europe. It is very hard because the European leagues go for a lot longer than the American league.
So, I knew that we were going to lose all of the best players and that’s why we started a five-year plan. About four years ago we, the Glory, started up that all the local good footballers had a career path to go through. We were right in the thick of it and we had a good squad of young players coming through, in fact we had seven young players that had actually represented Australia in the younger levels.
So, we were in a good space to be knowing that none of the clubs will attract international players because Europe is the market now.
That’s great, you & the club actually set out to evolve the club and to give Western Australia a platform to have these players come up. It’s important that you put in place a strategic direction. But, have you seen that with the W-League as a whole?
Bobby Despotovski: Not really because [for example] we’ve seen Melbourne City struggle big time this year because they invested heavily in overseas players and the best Matildas players. And realistically, what happened in the A-League happened in the W-League.
What is going to happen to the Matildas has already happened to the Socceroos, unless we make changes.
Australian football, in general, is very good at watching what they develop without having a second plan to develop more players that need to come after. And that was evident in the Socceroos with the Golden Generation disappearing, or retiring, and there was nothing after.
I think that Australian football is the only nation in the world where you can be twenty-two years of age and have represented the Olyroos, but you haven’t played three games in the A-League. Which is unheard of in football terms across Europe, South America and wherever else.
Where do you think Australian football as an industry is at in the present?
Bobby Despotovski: It’s in the crossroads to be honest. The A-League has obviously suffered because of COVID, which is evident. And obviously COVID is not a good thing to have happened to the world, but COVID-19 was the best thing for Australian football going into the future.
And why I’m thinking that is because we’re not going to be spending any more money on the 38- and 40-year-olds coming to Europe for their retirement funds here, we’re now going to invest in our kids here to start playing. Maybe in the short-term the league might suffer until these kids grow up to become footballers, but you’ll have a sustained program going forward for the long years ahead.
You can see with Australian football at the moment there’s a direction being taken towards alignment. Do you endorse this as the next step for Australian football?
Bobby Despotovski: Absolutely. We need a second division but who’s going to fund that?
People have to understand that you have a lot of regulations in the A-League. There is a collective bargaining agreement, which is a $72,000 minimum wage for the footballers and once you go into the second division, is that classified as a full-time professional? So, if you have a minimum squad of 23 its over $1.6 million. You tell me who has $1.6 million to pay their players in the second division? Or for that matter here in Perth.
We’re talking about our second division without our first division, the A-League, being sound. We [currently] don’t have a television deal [past July] and we’re talking about the second division being broadcast.
If you start the second division [in the next few years] it’s going to impact the A-League crowd wise. At the end of the day, you have to think about the longevity of the league. There’s no point in introducing a second league, because say South Melbourne, Sydney Croatia or Marconi Stallions want to go in there. We need to think about how its going to impact football around Australia.
Comparing the NSL era to now, are there major differences in terms of the standards at clubs?
Bobby Despotovski: The clubs are full-time, all of them are full-time, but playing wise it is not much different. When you look at it, the players that you used to have here now are your imports from overseas. Now you have a player like Diamanti whereas before we had Paul Trimboli. So, at the end of the day, you’re now paying for the quality and that in itself shows you where Australian football went.
What are some things you look back on fondly in your career as a player?
Bobby Despotovski: The whole lot. Especially when the clubs started and we were unknown and we would just have a good time. We could go and play football, have a couple of beers and go out and then jump on the flight back home. That’s what I look back on
I don’t remember many games and things like that, because that’s hazed. But you meet wonderful people along the journey and the friendships stay. And that’s the most important thing that you get out of the game.
What do you see as your greatest achievements in your time coaching at Perth Glory?
Bobby Despotovski: Putting the steps in for the club’s longevity and creating a right path for the girls. I could talk about a grand final or Sam Kerr, but even with that we only played a small part in Sam Kerr’s development.
Probably about 5-6 years ago there were a couple of interviews that I gave when I was calling that if she started scoring a few more goals that she was going to be one of the best players in the world and everybody laughed at me. That was our target to teach Sam Kerr to start scoring a lot more goals and we changed her position from winger to striker.
Now people are taking the credit for her development which is fine, I don’t care about that. I’m just happy [to] see Sam Kerr doing what Sam Kerr does, because she’s a wonderful human being.
What have been your own most significant learnings about Australian football in your many years of contribution to the sport here?
Bobby Despotovski: I quickly learned what Australian football is and what the character of an Australian footballer is. They were very fit, could run, tackle, hassle and could do all of that, but they were not technically sort of gifted. So, the technical abilities of the players were neglected and the physical attributes were prioritised. Which is fine, I don’t dispute that but somewhere along the line we lost that hardness.
This is where the 4-3-3 system came into play and the technical people from Holland came and disregarded everything that categorised an Australian footballer. They took that all away and focused on developing skills.
So, what I’ve been saying for the last ten years is that nothing categorises an Australian footballer now. An Australian footballer is in between being hard and being half-fit with a new skill level. That’s why we see a lot of Australian footballers coming back from Europe because they are not gifted technically and the physical attributes have been taken away from them.
Is it then a case of the development of Australia’s footballers being a microcosm for the sport’s wider struggle to find its identity?
Bobby Despotovski: Put it this way, from the old NSL, a majority of the players who went overseas played in the Premier League and they didn’t come back.
The players who go there and come back claim to be homesick, how untrue. They are not good enough. Let’s admit that we are not good enough and then start working on that. The first step to solving a problem is admitting there is a problem. Let’s admit what we are not good at and then start fixing it, but don’t take away what we are good at.
We lost two generations of kids and that’s why the youth national teams are struggling. 20 and 21-year-olds are not playing competitive games.
Owners of clubs want instant results as well, and so there is not an emphasis on developing footballers for Australian football because it’s a private entity. And I am not blaming owners of the clubs as they have to put in the money and their hands in their own pockets, but there has to be an emphasis on developing young players and young players getting opportunities.