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Johno Clemente: How Australia’s youngest NPL senior coach is reinventing leadership

With a number of Matildas thriving at top European clubs and Australia set to co-host the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, administrators have the perfect opportunity to establish a sustainable national framework for women’s football in the country.

Despite progress at the elite level, work still needs to be done at the grassroots to ensure the women’s game reaches the heights FFA is aiming for. This means fresh ideas, investment, and buy-in from community clubs around the country.

Jonathan ‘Johno’ Clemente embodies this mantra. The young, ambitious coach has only just started his career, but is already driving change with a bold, new-age leadership style.

Appointed as Head Coach of Heidelberg in 2019, Clemente is only 21, making him the youngest senior National Premier League (NPL) coach in Australia. With wisdom beyond his years, he has built a strong people-centric culture which he hopes will set a new standard in women’s football around the nation.

Clemente joined Heidelberg after leading Essendon to promotion in his first season.

“There’s a good saying in football, male players need to perform to belong, whereas women need to belong to perform,” Clemente said.

“It’s about making everybody feel valued as a person and a player. That’s the way I want to lead, through emotional intelligence and building a culture which promotes that.”

“It’s a move away from that old style of leadership, where most coaches would have that ‘my way or the highway’ approach. I believe it’s a two-way street where we work towards a common goal, so it’s important the players know that I care about them as individuals and that I equally know what they need from me through direct feedback, so I can improve with them.”

Clemente’s has already enjoyed success during his short career to date. Following junior coaching at the Essendon Royals, he was appointed Technical Director before also taking the reigns as the Senior Women’s Head Coach.

“The team had been relegated and a lot of players were wanting to leave. I immediately thought long-term, with the vision of gaining promotion and how great of a challenge that was. It was a real sink or swim situation, but I knew I had to back myself because I wanted to coach seniors, so I jumped at the chance,” Clemente said.

“That’s where I began to adopt my philosophy. I was lucky to have had great coaches growing up. It took some time, but I learned to be confident in my decisions and be ruthless when I had to be. But ultimately, I thought the most important thing was to create a culture of respect and positivity, I knew that the rest would follow.”

After a rocky start, Clemente led the Royals to promotion, leading to him drawing the attention of Heidelberg United.

“As difficult as it was to leave Essendon, when I got the call from Heidelberg, I knew straight away that I had to go because it is a huge club and a huge opportunity to coach in the top division,” he said.

“The transition was seamless. One issue with women’s NPL is the high turnover of NPLW players. It can get toxic as a lot of players move in groups and chop and change teams regularly.”

“My goal is to change the perception of the league by ensuring that Heidelberg’s girls come here to enjoy football and get better as players and people. I set the standards early so that the players enjoy training sessions and want to come back.”

Although COVID-19 hampered Clemente’s first year in charge at NPL level, the foundations he set are already creating massive benefits for the club. Player retention is at an all-time high, vindicating his coaching philosophy and approach to building team culture.

Clemente is a vocal mental health advocate, something he incorporates into coaching.

“Every single player re-signed for next season. They’re all chomping at the bit to play for Heidelberg again which to me is a huge indicator that we are on the right track. I think it’s really important to give the girls ownership of the team. We’ve got a strong leadership group and I’ve told them this will only be as good as you make it and challenged them to set the standards,” he said.

Clemente’s attributes his successful approach having high-quality coaches when he played, but also his experiences outside of football. The young coach has had challenges with mental health and now is a strong advocate for mental welfare, something he incorporates into his coaching.

“It’s so, so important. That’s why I’ve resonated so well with the women players. The same applies for men, players will have off days and it’s important to be flexible and understanding,” he said.

“There are no no-negotiables in football anymore. If a player has to work every night until 6:30PM and needs to arrive a bit late to training, you need to understand that and make them feel welcome and warranted. It’s important to still set high standard but there has to be a balance.”

As part of this mental health conscious approach, Heidelberg FC has appointed Darby Dexter, a Leadership and Culture Consultant to assist player welfare.

The club has also invested in an app, Inspire Sport to help juniors report on their mood and mental wellbeing to assist coaches in understanding the needs of their players and how best to communicate with them.

“Football really needs to invest in mental health and not just tick boxes. It’s important to build a culture of high performance and open communication where the stigma of speaking about mental health is removed,” Clemente said.

With coaches like Clemente reinvigorating the grassroots of female football, the years leading up to the Women’s World Cup will be vital to establishing a sustainable framework.

Female participation rates have steadily increased over recent years and FFA has outlined its goal to achieve 50-50 gender participation by 2027, but while Clemente believes this is achievable, he says it is important to make sure this is done correctly through investing in the right people and programs.

“Women’s football is developing quickly, which is a positive but it’s important clubs are involved for the right reasons. It sounds simple, but sometimes councils give grants to clubs who have a girls’ programs, so it’s important that clubs are genuinely creating these programs to nurture talent and get young girls to fall in love with our game,” he said.

“That’s the challenge for all clubs. To care and invest in both genders equally. It’s all about getting the right coaches in and getting the contact hours in at an early age.”

 

 

Football Victoria cancels competitions in Melbourne for 2021

The City of Greater Geelong has engaged with Football Victoria to further plans for a regional soccer centre.

Football Victoria (FV) have announced the cancellation of all metropolitan Melbourne competitions for the remainder of the 2021 season.

In a letter to the football community, FV CEO Kimon Taliadoros and FV President Antonella Care explained that the decision was made in the best interests of those who make the game what it is in Victoria.

“FV’s vision is to provide Football For All, Anywhere, Anytime, and alongside the valuable feedback of our stakeholders, this has continued to shape our decision making process. Importantly though, the safety of our community sits above all else, as our most important consideration for all football decisions throughout the pandemic.

“Our NPL and Competitions teams have worked day and night to produce an extraordinary body of work, planning multiple scenarios for every competition. This work is detailed, well-considered and milestone driven.

“We would like to express our gratitude to our football community, who have engaged in roundtable discussions, completed surveys and provided direct feedback to the team, all of which has been absolutely essential for us to best align with the needs of our community.

“Many of the planned scenarios have been eliminated in recent weeks, due to the key dates passing with extended lockdowns across the state.

“Unfortunately, the most recent Government announcement means our options to complete the 2021 season for our metropolitan Melbourne competitions have now reached an end.”

“We know this news is disappointing, particularly following last year’s abandoned season.

“Winter sport has borne the brunt of lockdowns and in turn, the impact on our football community has been immense. Our Clubs, Associations, Officials, Administrators, Volunteers and Players have bravely weathered the storm, rallying through each round of restrictions, showing a resilience that I know will keep our community strong through yet another challenge.”

As a result of the cancelled competitions in Melbourne, there will be no outcomes in regards to promotion and relegation between divisions. No premiers or champions will be crowned as well, as a result.

FV are still optimistic of a return to football for participants in Regional Victoria, subject to the easing of government restrictions and the governing body’s outlined conditions.

The organisation will also engage with clubs involved in the NIKE F.C. Cup and Dockerty Cup finals, to determine whether these games are able to be completed by the end of the year.

More information in regards to FV’s Fee Refund Policy will be sent out to the community by Friday, 17 September.

For further developments and to access other resources visit: https://www.footballvictoria.com.au/

Sunshine Coast FC: The story behind Australia’s only full-time football youth program

Wilkes

The last decade of the Sunshine Coast Football Club’s journey embodies the ‘rollercoaster ride’ metaphor wholeheartedly.

Founded in 2007 and nicknamed “The Fire”, the club are led by Sporting & Technical Director Melvyn Wilkes, who has first-hand insight into the tumultuous 10-year stretch that saw them go from a dominant force in the now defunct Queensland Soccer League (QSL), to struggling in the National Premier Leagues Queensland (NPLQ) and then to rebranding as a hub for youth development.

Upon the disbandment of the QSL, the NPLQ was born in 2013 with Sunshine Coast FC taking its place as a founding member. However, upon the implementation of the NPL, the Fire could not replicate the same level of success of its senior men’s in the years prior where they had achieved three Championships and a Premiership between 2008 and 2012.

As a part of the newly established NPLQ, the Fire were now required to establish a junior program from U12 to seniors, which was at the time a license requirement of (the then-named) Football Federation Australia and Football Queensland.

From a semi-final spot in their debut NPLQ season, to a lowly 8th position finish in 2014, the Fire began to stutter in the new competition setup. This proved to be the turning point for the owners of the club as they looked for a more long-term strategy which involved the integration of the clubs successful youth into senior football.

At the end of 2014, Sunshine Coast FC Head Coach & Technical Director Kevin A’Hearn Evans parted ways with the club, leading to the separation of the Head Coach & Technical Director roles, with the club owners focusing their attention towards youth development to ensure a pathway for its bright young players.

At this point the best young players would progress into the Queensland Academy Sport (QAS), which eventually filtered into the Brisbane Roar youth program. Today, Sunshine Coast FC remain one of the major developers of youth players in the country.

At the end of 2014, club owner Noel Woodall and Sunshine Coast FC enlisted the assistance of their overseas networks to bring in a Technical Director who had vast experience in developing young players and preparing them for senior football. The incoming Technical Director would be tasked with revamping their youth development program to create a beacon to mirror what our European counterparts were delivering on a weekly basis.

Step forward Melvyn Wilkes, a vastly experienced developer of youth players and coaches, having spent well over 20 years working as a youth coach at clubs such as Manchester City, Nottingham Forest and West Bromwich Albion. In addition, Wilkes worked as a licensed coach educator for the FA and the PFA and represented the FA on UEFA study technical visits, whilst also working as a National Team coach for Guinea Bissau alongside his role as Technical Director for West Bromwich Albion.

Wilkes with coaches
Wilkes (far right) with Guinea Bissau coaches Rob Williams (far left) and Causso Seidi (middle)

Wilkes’ arrival in November 2014 was the starting point for the Fire to make headway into revamping their youth development program whilst also aligning the Senior program as one unified organisation. This would prove to be a substantial undertaking.

Wilkes recalls from the time: “I remember being called to the owner’s house after a couple of days of arriving on the Coast from the UK. We sat around his dining room table at his beach side residence in Peregian Beach.”

“The owner, Noel Woodall, reaffirmed his request for “accountability” from his staff, who he had believed had been underperforming with misplaced trust in previous years.”

As with any business and program, the first port of call was to observe and listen. Wilkes again recalls his first engagement with the parents and staff from the club.

“Noel had advised me that a parents information event had been set for 1 week after my arrival at the Sunshine Coast Stadium (home to SCFC Fire),” he said.

“I stood on the stage in the foyer and spoke openly about my background and my plans moving forwards. Upon the conclusion of the meeting, I had my first indication of how fractured the club was and how there was zero culture going on.”

Wilkes cites the intrusion of misinformed parents with personal agendas as one of the greatest drivers of the toxic environment the club had found itself in.

“Parents were continuously asking; “Who’s coaching this team, who’s coaching that team, we have had this coach for this year and we don’t want him or her again”, it went on like this for around 20 minutes from various parents of players,” he said.

The first three months of the 2015 season proved to be as instrumental an eye opener for Wilkes as he had ever encountered. All of the recruitment for the season had been done prior to his arrival, staff were under qualified or simply unqualified and teams acted like their own mini-football clubs. Change was overdue.

By mid-2015, the disharmony and lack of club culture was evident. There needed to be a renewed starting point and after assisting the next head coach of the seniors, Wilkes was ready to put plans into action.

Wilkes recollects telling the owners at the time that: “This will get a lot worse before it starts to get better, but you have to trust me and give me the time to affect the changes needed, irrespective of the outcomes.”

To the owner’s credit, they stuck by their very word, even after the club suffered relegation from the NPL, with Wilkes spending time with the owners over many cups of tea, keeping them up to speed.

Gradual removal of problem parents and players, as well as negative and under qualified staff, helped to reignite The Fire’s spark.

At this point, the investment into the juniors had overtaken that of the seniors, however, the club owners were still paying its senior players, but not out of the junior funds.

“We will definitely need to go backwards in order for us to move forwards, however, we will not deviate from our course and our plan, nor will we be prepared to throw silly money at Senior players,” Wilkes recalls explaining to the club’s owners at the time.

“We produce our own kids and players which is the platform and foundation for our club, it’s based around discipline and culture and stability.”

Within a subsequent five-year period, the club had blooded numerous young players who are now plying their trade in the NPL and above at various clubs. Despite suffering a relegation, the club have remained steadfast in their rebuild.

Youth coaching

2020 was undoubtedly one of the most difficult years in our recent history, with a global pandemic knocking every country sideways. However, this did not intervene with Sunshine Coast FC and it’s plan to progress, as the club amalgamated its private school and football club into Australia’s sole full-time youth football program.

The full-time academy is the only one of its kind in Australia, and at this present time is attracting interest from every corner of the nation, as well as interest from overseas parties who view the program as potentially being a part of a wider network.

Through the program, players receive 16+ hours per week of training, combined with fully funded private tuition. As well as a full-time sports science program that offers the likes of thermo imaging of muscles on a weekly basis, HR variability testing, GPS player tracking and much more.

Very much akin to what Wilkes had built and driven in the UK, the Fire now have a sporting club model that has football at its core.

The redevelopment of the grounds and land acquisition around the college is ongoing, as the venue transforms into an elite sporting training and competition venue, which is located 10 minutes from the newly developed Sunshine Coast International Airport. Wilkes believes this will ensure the College and venue is a prime destination for elite sporting athletes and visiting teams, with the Olympics and Women’s World Cup a target to host training camps alike.

Incoming ground

The Fire’s transformation as a representative sporting association in the Sunshine Coast is a testament to the foresight from the club’s owners and Wilkes to revamp the club for good. It is an undeniably significant untold tale in Australian football’s pantheon of incredible stories.

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