Central Coast Mariners CEO Shaun Mielekamp: “We’ve come through a long-term strategy and have done the hard years”

Mielekamp

For years now, the Central Coast Mariners have been deftly proving themselves against sides backed by significantly larger budgets in the A-League Men, with club CEO Shaun Mielekamp operating at the heart of that journey for over half a decade.

Following a dismal playing period where the Mariners underwent a six-season finals drought, they grew increasingly disconnected from their community, and even incited an outcry for their A-League license to be revoked – the side secured consecutive finals finishes in the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons.

Much of this was no doubt down to the combined football acumen of former head coach Alen Stajcic, Head of Football Ken Schembri, current head coach Nick Montogomery and his assistant Sergio Raimundo. However, with the Mariners forced to work with having the smallest budget in the league, off-field ingenuity and a renewed strategic focus on youth development set the club on a much stabler course than before.

This has led to numerous current and future Socceroos such as Kye Rowles, Lewis Miller, and siblings Alou and Garang Kuol securing impressive overseas moves after being nurtured by the club.

Greater success and stability on the field has been mirrored off it. In a wide-ranging conversation with Soccerscene, Shaun Mielekamp spoke about the values, practices, and strategies that have led to the side’s current positive momentum.

Jason Cummings

The Central Coast Mariners are a club that has become renowned for the trust they place in Australia’s young talents, but also in unearthing hidden gems from world football. Why do you feel this strategy has been so effective for the club?

Shaun Mielekamp: This has been built over many years and a lot of credit goes to our academy coaches over the years, in particular Monty and Sergio who were the ones to really get the academy firing again when they won the competition. And it’s been built on some of the core principles of what it means to be a part of and come through the Mariners academy. That really did allow us to get a lot more confidence with the young kids coming through the academy to know that they’d be able to crack it into A-League.

I think over several seasons there was a feeling from an A-League level that the academy kids and the local kids weren’t up to the standards, so the academy were searching elsewhere and finding kids from other programs to come in. That probably hadn’t worked anywhere near as effectively, so, it’s really set a template. I went to training today and there’s a whole host of players that are in Luke Wilkshire’s team that are getting a real taste of what its going to be like for them if they keep performing and get to the next level.

So, they’ve become fundamental and then the experience of Monty and Sergio and their scouting networks really allowed them to revisit what we’re looking for from a visa player. Rather than someone who’s going to just be a marquee or key player to lead the team, we were looking for visa players who were still on their journey that fitted the culture and still had a lot to achieve and grow, and who wanted to use the Mariners’ time to increase their development.

Instead of the years where we were getting some of the former Dutch players who were at the backends of their careers (for example Wout Brama or Tom Hiariej), the strategy has shifted to get a player like Beni N’Kololo out of lower tiers in Europe because they’re on the way up, rather than on the way down, which has really been fundamental to fitting into the team culture.

Undoubtedly the Mariners underwent a difficult period with on-field results between 2014 and 2020. What did you learn from that period that you still retain to this day?

Shaun Mielekamp: We knew that we were going to go through some tough times, we had to for the survival of the club. There were some really dark times and really scary moments where you literally weren’t sure how you were going to pay the bills. So, there’s no point having a winning team if the club’s going to fold.

For me, with those years, there were some really hard decisions that needed to be made for the long-term. And if I compare myself to some of the other franchises in the A-League where they’re taking different strategies and spending a lot more money that was probably a bit beyond their means at the time and left them facing significant challenges long-term. Whereas we’ve come through a long-term strategy and have done the hard years, we’ve built an academy to underpin it and have now got a business model that’s ready for its next chapter under a new chairman to get into a growth phase.

As you mentioned, earlier this year Richard Peil took over as the owner of the Mariners, with Mike Charlesworth moving on. How has that transition been and what strategies has the new owner implemented to help grow the club going forward?

Shaun Mielekamp: Richard’s got a huge amount of expertise in strength and conditioning, so he’s really put his own personal brand and knowledge into the athletic development of the players which has been great. He’s been able to see where we really needed some resources. He’s also backed some of the passions of the staff at the club and has thrown some more resources to answer questions that were never really asked because we knew the resources weren’t there.

Now, if you put together a strong case of ‘this is what we need, this is why need it and these are the outcomes’ it comes with a lot of accountability and expectation, but also a better environment to start growing. So, that does see extra resources allocated to coaching staff and marketing and digital areas where we desperately need it.

The Mariners have embraced a community-minded mentality as a sporting organisation, with its club values clear for all football fans to see. How significant has it been for you to maintain and drive this approach?

Shaun Mielekamp: It was easy to manage a club when the answer was always no. Now you get into a position where it’s about making the right decisions for the right reasons, but still holding onto your core values and principles because its easy to get lost and forget some of the things that make the club special.

Earlier this week there were 50-60 people that came to training and the players stayed for hours after training just signing autographs and talking to everybody. It’s really a core value and what we have is something special here on the Central Coast because the players live here and understand how important the club is to the community, being not only the only elite football team but the only sports club on the Coast. This means we represent the Coast on a national level and that comes with an expectation and that buy-in is needed. And if there’s a player, staff member or coach who doesn’t feel that affinity with the region they rarely last long and rarely perform for us. So, it becomes important in our recruitment of players and staff that we see someone’s going to buy-in to what is so special about Central Coast Mariners.

Central Coast

The Central Coast are set to field an A-League Women’s side for the 2023-24 season. How has that process been and what are the next steps to ensuring that team is ready to go for next season?

Shaun Mielekamp: That’s really exciting because it completes the football ecosystem for us here on the Central Coast where we are the number one sport in all areas from young players at grassroots level all the way through to the professional game, its really exciting. Now to have a women’s team offering a professional career for female players is so exciting and it provides another group of athletes to be role models for young girls.

We are looking to lock in the head coach at the start of the new year. We’re commencing training from July 1, so that we can start our recruiting and bringing players in that will be leveraged off of the Women’s World Cup. Hopefully we’re able to recruit some of the players participating in that, and then we’re off and going in November.

Probably the biggest challenge at the moment is making sure that we’ve got all of the resources that we need to make sure that there’s parity with the men’s and that it doesn’t come as any detriment to the men’s either. We’re really excited that Dan Barrett is driving the women’s academy, that’s a huge advantage that we have over the other clubs being that we have an already established and producing academy. And now all of the girls in that academy get to see a pathway not only through to A-League Women’s but also through to the Matildas. If we can start producing Young Matildas that are born and raised on the Central Coast, then we’re doing our job for Australian football.

As a region, the Central Coast offers massive potential to grow football. With the Mariners serving as the region’s flagship team that is distinguished by an ambition to bring through youngsters, what would you like to see from Central Coast Council in terms of investment into infrastructure and facilities?

Shaun Mielekamp: Really simply we need synthetic fields. As we speak it’s raining heavily in NSW and that means kids aren’t kicking footballs when they could be. We understand that the Central Coast Council is in a financial hole that it’s digging itself out of, and we believe they’ve done a great job in appointing VenuesLive for the stadium and we are confident that the stadium will deliver what it needs to from a matchday perspective. What we need from Council right now is more training facilities that will benefit all athletes and squads across the Coast.

Kuol

How are you feeling ahead of the upcoming A-League Men’s season? What are you expecting from the Mariners?

Shaun Mielekamp: I’m really excited because we’ve had such a great pre-season. We’ve had the biggest pre-season we’ve probably ever had in the club’s history with the number of A-League games that we’ve had. Previously the budget has held us back in delivering the pre-season that we really wanted to, so I’m excited to see how that will translate to on-field performance. I’ve got absolutely all of the confidence in Monty and the players that they’ll give everything out in the field and represent the community and the club with great pride and produce results.

I suppose if anything I’m really hoping that the club continues to step forward and for myself, I’d love to see a home semi-final. That’s what we just missed out on last year, and I feel if we had that, we would’ve gone on to bigger and better. If we can get that first packed-out home semi-final done then I know the boys will be up for it and can take us a long way.

Our stadium is so special, it’s such a great football venue. Everyone’s harping on about Allianz Stadium but for me, it doesn’t have any water views. So, we’ve got stuff that others can’t buy and that’s really special. Everybody who can get to a Mariners game and who supports us, get to the games, every voice right now is so important for us.

Western Sydney Wanderers launch new programs for women and girls

Western Sydney Wanderers have launched a number of new programs and activities as part of their ongoing commitment to celebrate and growing the women’s game as part of Female Football Week.

The club have confirmed the launch of their first Girls Only Pre-Academy Development Program designed to advance the skills of players while teaching new skills and techniques to improve their game based on the club’s highly regarded coaching curriculum.

The Girls Only Pre-Academy Development Program will be led by Wanderers community coaching staff under the guidance of Head of Women’s Football Tom Sermanni and Liberty A-League head coach Robbie Hooker.

It is an extension of the Future Wander Women Program that launched in 2021 which gives 100 participants up to u18’s a free program which runs as a 20-week block across Terms 2 and 3 of the calendar year.

On top of both initiatives, the Wanderers will also be re-opening registrations for their FREE Girls Only Schools Clinics which engages students through football to provide them with a positive experience.

Wanderers have been vocal about their commitment to making football accessible to all schools and students in the Western Sydney region.

Female Football Week also sees the club’s FREE Active Mum’s Program return, which is designed to encourage all women to participate in basic football skill activities in a social and supportive environment.

Active Mums sessions are run at convenient times for parents, in parallel with junior training sessions held at Wanderers Football Park.

Western Sydney Wanderers CEO Scott Hudson described the benefits of the Wanderers Female Football Week celebrations and programs for the local community.

“We are very proud to have such an expansive Women’s football program at both a grassroots and elite level,” Hudson said in a club statement.

“Female Football Week is a fantastic opportunity to celebrate the role that so many women play in football at all levels.

“We are delighted that we can not only play a role in the celebrations, but also make a real difference to supporting the growth of the women’s game with a number for initiatives and programs.”

The Wanderers are leading the charge in the A-Leagues regarding giving girls and women the opportunity to train with quality coaches and develop their skills whilst keeping it completely free of charge.

It’s a simple but brilliant program that marks another step for the Wanderers in the female football development space to actively engage, develop and support aspiring young players from the Western Sydney region.

Northern Suburbs and Manly Warringah Football Association representatives discuss NSW’s highest registration numbers

Football NSW has recently disclosed that the 2024 season is recording the highest number of registrations in community grassroots football.

Football NSW reported that registration numbers are up by 10% on the 2023 season with over 230,000 and counting registered members.

An important part of this increase in registration is the overall success and popularity of the Matildas and the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia & New Zealand. This has helped spark an 18% increase in female registration, especially within the younger age groups pushing over 23% from 2023.

The Northern Suburbs Football Association (NSFA) CEO Kevin Johnson has supported the impact of the Women’s World Cup.

Johnson has explained that recent Female membership in the 2024 NSFA season is expanding with an 11.6% growth in female player registrations and an 11.4% increase in female team registrations.

The NSFA is one of the few associations with a Female Football Manager in Kristi Murphy.

“Kirsti has been able to coordinate enthusiasm and feedback of all the clubs into key strategies to increase the female game at an association level,” Johnson told Soccerscene.

“This structure and dedication to female development has had a huge impact on the increase of female players.”

These strategies include junior girls under 6 & 7s hubs.

“These have very important in bringing in new young players and retaining old ones, with Female Junior players increasing by 14.5% and Girls MiniRoos by 22.5%,” Johnson said.

The NSFA has focused on the association’s work in building strong connections and investment in grassroots football. The NSFA also had in 2023 an increase of 30% in sponsorship deals.

“Last year NSFA with local councils Ku-ring-gai, Willoughby and North Sydney held Live Site events for people to watch the Matildas World Cup matches with football activations alongside the matches. This project led to an increasing engagement between the community and the NSFA,” Johnson added.

“This has allowed for the development of facilities and football that is helping the 2024 season’s all-round experience.”

Kevin Johnson believes these initiatives have cemented the NSFA well on track with Football Australia’s pillar 1 in the Legacy 23 plan. which is to reach a 50/50 player gender equity in Football for 2027.

The ‘23 plan works in unison with NSFA’s objectives in making the association a successful and progressive representative of the Northern Suburbs community and Football in NSW.

Neighbouring The NSFA in The Manly Warringah Football Association (MWFA) is Karen Parsons – President of Pittwater RSL FC, who has overseen the development on the ground. The club has seen an increase of 175 registrations in 2024 to an overall 1,473 players.

In addition, the diversity of the club’s players has changed positively with females now making 43% of registrations compared to last season’s 36%.

“We knew the Matilda’s popularity would increase interest in football, therefore the club needed new strategies to encourage club engagement,” she told Soccerscene.

“The MWFA has opened up an under-7s girls league where 5 Pittwater teams now play. We also had a successful MiniRoos and MiniTillies program in February.

“Feedback from members also included the request for equal-skill-based teams in juniors. Therefore we included optional grading into the under-8s mixed comp, which on grading day had a 70% turn-out rate and positive reviews from parents.

“An academy program run by our women’s premier league coach has supported coaching and training techniques for the younger years and increased their progress in the game – also allowing promising kids extra training at lower costs.”

“Usually in before seasons there is a drop of teenagers from the 13-18 age group. However this year there has been a complete retention of 13-18-year-old participants, especially in the girl’s divisions.”

There is a solid ethos of supporting the social importance of sport in the community and approaches from all the clubs have been to maintain the engagement and encourage all to play football.

Karen spoke of the cooperation between the clubs at youth levels, making sure if the kids don’t make a team they can go to other clubs. This has retained more kids both girls and boys playing football.

“Keeping people playing football no matter what club, is always the major focus of presidents,” Parsons added.

“Outside the junior levels, the adult divisions also have had an overall jump with more All Age mixed and women’s teams created, showing this increase is not just concentrated in youth.”

The MWFA has had an overall jump of 752 more registrations from the 2023 season, currently at 19,821.

These case studies are prime examples of how all levels in community football associations are actively maintaining and developing engagement in NSW Football.

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