fbpx

John Didulica: “Football can help Australia to navigate the challenges that we’re going to face as a nation”

John Didulica

John Didulica’s insight into Australian football is entrenched in a broad and intimate exposure to the game from all areas of the pitch and beyond across many years of playing and working in the game.

His long-standing involvement in football has seen him take on a variety of roles including helping to usher in the Melbourne Heart in their inaugural years as Director of Football Operations, leading Professional Footballers Australia as their Chief Executive Officer and now as Director of Football for a Melbourne Victory side looking to rebuild in the A-League.

His chat with Soccerscene saw a whole range of topics covered, namely his efforts to help push the Victory into a new era, his impactful learnings from his time at the Heart and his recent efforts in helping to produce the ‘Football Belongs’ series with Optus Sport.

Didulica Photo

Obviously, it’s been a very challenging few years for Melbourne Victory’s A-League side with underwhelming performances on the pitch and difficulties off it, how was it for you coming into a club off the back of some difficult seasons?

John Didulica: I think it’s been an exciting time for me personally to be back involved with football. Melbourne Victory has had such a proud history in its own right, but equally the club has played such a big role in shaping modern Australian football. To be given an opportunity to work here is a great honour and privilege, like anybody who gets to work in football.

The fact that they’ve had a couple of lean years on the pitch doesn’t detract from all the great things they’ve done over the best part of two decades. Coming into the club, with that in mind, it’s not about re-engineering everything or discarding a couple of decades of history. It’s just about trying to more deeply understand what’s worked, what hasn’t worked and where we need to get better to ensure that we’ve got the right standards across not only the team but also all the other areas of the club.

And making sure that we start, day-by-day through our actions, showing that we want to be better. There’s nobody in the world who can come in with a magic wand and say “If you do ‘A, B and C’, you’re going to get a better performance on the park”. The key thing for us is, through our actions, to everyday try and be a little bit better. That’s certainly led by Tony Popovic – that’s the way he approaches his preparation of the team and I think as a staff that’s what we’re adopting.

Hopefully the results on the pitch will in-time reflect that, and restore the confidence of the team, the members and the club which has been tested in recent seasons and we need to show them that we can be trusted with their club.

For you, was it about coming into the club knowing exactly what needed changing or was it about listening and learning?

John Didulica: I think it always has to be about listening and learning. Absolutely that has to be the starting point. I’ve got some models and framework which I like to operate within, but populating that and identifying what needs to be done sequentially is very much about listening and learning.

It’s about seeing where we’re at now, what the acute areas that required immediate attention were, and in our case, it was pretty obvious. We had a brand-new coaching team that we needed to bed down; we had a lot of squad reconstruction that needed to happen; we had to reboot the entire medical department, so, there were a whole of things facing us right from the outset.

Counterintuitively, that’s helped us to build a lot of momentum as it’s forced us to get things done pretty quickly and in a really decisive way. And with a lot of new people on board there’s a lot of really good ideas being shared and I think overtime we’ll start bedding those things down.

But it’s certainly not about disregarding what’s happened over the best part of two decades just because of a couple of lean seasons. I think if anything, the lessons from 3-5 years ago are a lot louder because Victory’s lost its way in the last couple of seasons.

We’re still lucky to have people like Carl Valeri around who has been a great servant at the club for many years and who works in the role of Player Operations Manager. It can just remind us of what we’ve done well in the past and can ensure that we’re continuing to bottle the great things that Victory has done in the past rather than reinvent the wheel.

MVFC

With the acquisitions of Tony Popovic and numerous proven A-League talents, what are Victory’s objectives for the coming season on the pitch?

John Didulica: Our aspirations are absolutely to challenge for trophies, that’s our expectations internally and I’m sure they’re shared by the members as well. They want to see a team that’s challenging for Honours – that’s certainly Tony’s mindset.

We’re strategically focused on bringing elite Australian talent into the squad and that’s been our absolute priority. Chris Ikonomidis, Josh Brillante, Jason Davidson, Jason Geria, to name a few, are all highly regarded elite proven international level players. So, to have those guys come in it’s a really powerful core and foundation for the club.

And, we might not get everything right in season one because we have so much to do, but I’m really confident that we’ve got a super strong core that will ensure we have a successful season and will only get better in the years to come.

There’s a seduction to going for a couple of big-name players and bringing them in and hoping that they can be a sugar hit, but I just don’t think that’s sustainable and I don’t think that’s what we need at the moment. Because we’re going through so many changes, we need to be able to make as many sure bets as possible. I think with a lot of the players and coaching staff we know exactly what we’re going to get, and we know their history is decorated.

There has been a drive at the club to re-engage the Victory faithful who have ridden through the tough recent history. For Victory fans, what do you believe are the key values off the pitch that need to be reflected on the pitch?

John Didulica: The number one thing I think is for the administration team to match the ambition that the fans have for their club. Our fans at Melbourne Victory are hugely ambitious for what Melbourne Victory can be. Games like we had against Liverpool, that was a magical moment for a lot of people.

Building AAMI Park, something like that doesn’t happen without Melbourne Victory being a success. There’s huge moments and huge steps forward for the sport that are a consequence of Victory doing well. So, the fans see that and are proud to be associated with this club.

Where we need to get back to now is matching the ambition that the fans have for this club. And that’s what we’re committed to doing and I think the board’s demonstrated that by signing Tony Popovic, who’s one of the best Australian coaches and players that are very ambitious, so we know we’re going to get people who are just as ambitious as we want to be.

And I think that sits at the heart of what we’re trying to achieve – matching the fans’ ambition and energy for our club. And if we do that, I know we’re going to be successful. Because we’ve got fans who live and breathe the club and if we reciprocate that then I know we’ll be successful.

Popovic

You’re now coming into an A-League side that has been around since the beginning of the league’s creation, but taking it back over 10 years ago you spent a few years at the Melbourne Heart from their inauguration. What did you learn from your time at the side in their early years?

John Didulica: One of the things I’ve often learnt on a personal level is to be resourceful and resilient. We didn’t have huge budgets and we ran incredibly lean. We were up against Melbourne Victory who had had such great success as a club.

From my perspective it was great to add to the tapestry of football in Melbourne. The pressure of the Melbourne Derby was, for me, one of the real highlights in A-League history. Those nights have been fantastic regardless of whether you were on the red side of the fence or the dark blue side of the fence, they were great nights.

In terms of that experience [at Melbourne Heart], resourcefulness and resilience were key. What resonated with me during that period was getting a more acute understanding of what the implication taking shortcuts were. When you’re at a club that’s resource-poor, sometimes you have to do that. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s not sustainable.

So, very much coming into Victory it’s key that we’re not going to take shortcuts. We’re going to make sure, to the extent possible, remove as much risk from what we do. That means bringing in high calibre people, servicing them effectively and having the right support around people. Even in those days at Heart we still managed to produce some incredible players; Aziz Behich, Eli Babalj, Curtis Good – these guys were all capped because of the opportunity they were given.

There’s a lot of lessons that I’ve taken with me about the capacity to run youth effectively and hopefully that can be something we can continue to build on here at Victory.

Melbourne Heart

A challenge for Australian football throughout its history has been its search for an identity in the midst of such a diverse sporting landscape. From doing such a deep dive with ‘Football Belongs’, what was confirmed about Australian football for you and what surprised you?

John Didulica: Ultimately, what I was investigating through that series was why is it that we’re not comfortable in our own skin. As football fans we’re always looking for some sort of external validation for who we are. And the more you unwrap football the more you understand the way Australia’s evolved, and therefore the role played by football in shaping modern day Australia and how deeply embedded football is in all of these key themes of Australian life.

And that’s something to be so proud of as a code. We don’t need external validation for what we are as football supporters, I think we should be incredibly proud of what we’ve done. Projecting that forward, I think football has the power to help Australia become a far more progressive nation in the decades ahead.

In the same way football helped Australia navigate the influx of migrants has shown, with the likes of John Moriarty and Charles Perkins, it showed a genuine way of respecting Indigenous footballers. There’s a lot football can do about helping Australia navigate the challenges that we’re going to face as a nation in the generations ahead.

As a sport, we need to take a leadership role in those areas. Anyone who is passionate about football knows it is more than just a sport. Nobody follows football for the ninety minutes on the pitch, as beautiful as that is, we’re all in it because it touches us far deeper. It’s about connecting to your ancestry and the broader community and being able to explore the broader world.

How many football fans would know the capital cities and flags of the world by virtue of their passion for football? Football is an incredible portal to the world and we need to celebrate that more. And it’s about having confidence in celebrating.

A club like Victory is a great segue in regards to ‘Football Belongs’, because Victory’s got a lot of opportunity to lead in a lot of those areas. We’re the biggest football club in the sporting capital of the world in the world’s biggest sport. If you bring those three things together, Victory is uniquely positioned to lead in an incredibly compelling and exciting way.

Asian Cup 2015

Player sentiment up, average age down: PFA releases annual report

Sentiment is well and truly up for A-League players, according to the annual Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) report.

This time last year, only 33% of A-League players felt confident about the direction of their football careers.

According to the PFA’s latest annual report, that number is now 56%.

Of the A-League’s 312 players, 200 responded to the 2020/21 A-League survey, capturing 70% of the current cohort, with the results proving that even despite the ongoing turbulence and uncertainty of COVID-19, the majority of players feel much more confident about their futures within the game.

The report highlights that Australian players actively want to remain in the A-League, as opposed to seeking opportunities overseas.

The key numbers that demonstrate this include:

  • 55% of players said they would like to stay playing in the A-League next season, up from 45% last year.
  • 56% of players are confident about the direction of their football careers, compared to 33% in 2019/20.
  • Only 4% of players would move to an overseas league even if it was for similar money and/or playing standard.
  • Only 16% of players who would prefer to move to an overseas league would only do so if the money and standards were better.

Other highlights of the report include that the average A-League player is getting younger.

Over the last 14 years, the average age of the A-League player has consistently trended upwards.

In 2020/21, however, this changed and the average age trended downwards, dropping from 27.6 to 25.1.

The number of players utilised in the A-League who were aged 21 and under came in at 107, representing 35% of the 300 players who received A-League minutes during the 2020/21 season.

The youngest squads on average belonged to Central Coast Mariners and Adelaide United, with average ages of 23.6 and 23.9 years respectively.

Another highlight was the fact that of the league’s 312 contracted players, 300 received A-League minutes.

“These reports have been immensely valuable, helping the PFA and the players better understand the industry in which they are employed, monitor the application of high-performance standards, assess technical progress and survey the players’ experience,” PFA Co-Chief Executive Beau Busch said of the report.

“For the last five years, we have been able to utilise these reports to formulate evidence-based positions to improve the environments in which our members work through collective bargaining.

“Promisingly, after a period of significant uncertainty, the players have indicated that they are more confident in the direction of their careers and the future of the competition than this time last year, signifying a positive shift in the perception of the A-League.”

The report also highlights the fact that A-League attendances were the lowest ever in the competition, thanks in large part to COVID-19, with an average attendance of 5,660.

Foreign players in the league reduced by 12 to a total of 51, whilst the average salary in the A-League is $136,791.

Access the full report HERE.

Jamie Harnwell driving the game forward in Western Australia

Jamie Harnwell is Perth Glory’s record appearance holder, with 256 games across three decades. Now Chief Football Officer for Football West, he spoke to Soccerscene about the changes from the NSL to the A-League, the challenges of running a football federation, and his favourite footballing moments throughout his career.

So firstly, what’s the biggest challenges facing Football West at the moment?

Harnwell: I think it’s interesting. Football West is in a really good position, being very fortunate with COVID over here and able to get out and play. The challenges are more for our clubs I suppose, and then Football West supporting them. Facilities are always a challenge for every sport, but certainly for football. We need to make sure there are enough grounds and space for people to play, but also aspects like lighting, adequate change rooms, and those sorts of things are suitable for clubs. We have a number of them almost putting up the closed sign because they have too many players and not enough space for them to play.

The other challenge for Football West and the clubs is the increase in governance requirements. We are basically a volunteer sport in many ways. And the increasing legalities and issues across that for volunteers to deal with can be difficult. So it’s time that we at Football West need to be able to support our clubs, make sure they’re adhering to good practice, and doing the right things so that they can continue to grow.

How has professional football in Australia improved since you first debuted with Perth Glory in the late 90s?

Harnwell: I think it’s actually professional football now. You know when I first started playing, I think there was ourselves and maybe Carlton who were actual full-time professional clubs. The rest were part-time as people were still working during the day, going to training at night, and trying to juggle the two. So certainly the transition into the A-League and full-time professionalism for all clubs has been huge, and just the continued increased coverage and media around the game has made us much more accessible. It’s easier to see and has a much better chance of building that supporter base across the game here in Australia.

What areas do you think the game can continue to improve on going forward into the future?

Harnwell: There’s always talent development and making sure that we stay on pace with best practices and what’s happening in other parts of the world. We are a smaller nation in the grand scheme of things in football, so we need to be smart about how we approach those sorts of things and make sure we get bang for our buck for everything that we do. The other thing is we need to try and increase the commercialism of the game and make sure that we continue to get funds into the game that can assist in the youth development that can help in costs for clubs and all those types of things. So that’s the way I know Football Australia is working hard on it. They’re starting to bring more and more partners into the game. But if you look at the mega machines like AFL, then we probably still have some way to go in that.

How can football win across young athletes into joining the sport over others?

Harnwell:
I think we’re really lucky as a game. I can’t speak for other states, I suppose – but the numbers here at Football West in Western Australia just continue to grow year in year out. We are a very attractive game for parents to pick for young boys and girls. It’s a very easy game to choose and very easy to play and train. So we’re certainly well-positioned in that respect – making sure that our clubs provide positive environments that they enjoy what they do. There isn’t the overarching focus on just winning games, but more a longer-term development based approach that will make sure talented young players will stay in football rather than going across to other codes.

On a personal level, what is your most memorable footballing memory?

Harnwell: There’s probably a few, I suppose for myself as a player – it would have been the first NSL Championship that we won. We’d had a couple of cracks at it before and sort of fell away in the Grand Final. So that first win in 2003 was huge, and really got the monkey off our back, and managing to score in that game with the massive crowd was fantastic. But I’m also a Manchester United fan, so the treble was pretty good as well. So I don’t know which one ranks better for me!

© 2021 Soccerscene Industry News. All Rights reserved. Reproduction is prohibited.

Most Popular Topics

Editor Picks