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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.”

 

 

Former South Melbourne FC president weighs-in on second division

Former South Melbourne FC President George Vasilopoulos has provided his insights into the National Second Division, stating he believes many issues which prevented its formation in the past still exist.

But despite the financial and geographic barriers, Vasilopoulos remains optimistic that the inception of a promotion/relegation system could reignite Australian football.

“People have been wanting to do it since the National Soccer League was established in 1977. Can you imagine how exciting it would be? People would fill up stadiums to see their team challenge for promotion,” he said.

“It would give football fans a new lease on life. There would be more sponsorship, more members, and more support.”

Reenergising the A-League is a current priority for the game’s leading administrators. With average crowd numbers stagnating over recent seasons despite growing participation, Australian football is at somewhat of a crossroads.

“The A-League started very well. I was so pleased to see large crowds attending the games but over time hit a bit of a downturn,” Vasilopoulos said.

“It takes time to build things and I am keen to see how it will play out, but recently crowds have gone down. This naturally leads to a reduction in sponsorship and money. Administrators have to work harder to find dollars which creates pressure.”

As an administrator for almost 30 years, including a 13-year period as President of South Melbourne FC from 1989-2002, Vasilopoulos attended many meetings to brainstorm a second division’s viability.

Unfortunately, the league never materialised, and he believes many of the issues that administrators faced then are still obstacles today.

“The second division has always been discussed. It would be a huge benefit for the sport, but the issues today are the same – there is a tyranny of distance in Australia and the key question remains, how will it all be funded?” he added.

“We could never come up with a legitimate strategy to make it work. Flying teams and their staff regularly over long distances is extremely expensive, not to mention accommodation and all of the other costs associated with it.”

The feasibility of a National Second Division may lie in modern solutions, with a conference style system touted to minimise travel proving a popular idea.

“Conferences with the winners playing off in a tournament is a brilliant idea. That would generate interest for fans and viewers who would know there is a massive prize at the end of it all,” Vasilopoulos said.

“You see how people react to knockout football with the popularity of the FFA Cup. There’s a lot of interest in seeing lower league clubs challenge for the cup but having a prize like promotion at the end of it would take it to another level.”

With a conference system a legitimate option to solve travel concerns, administrators are beginning to piece together a realistic model for the division. Although much work remains to be done, the formation of the Australian Association of Football Clubs (AAFC) Championship Partner Group will only bolster funding and support, with the group’s 35 member clubs aiming to launch the second-tier in 2022.

“Having these strong, historic clubs like Marconi, Sydney Olympic, South Melbourne, Heidelberg and so on supporting the division will only help to get it off the ground. Generating that interest in the grassroots is important but if these clubs want to go up, then someone must come down and creating a system that involves relegation may be a real challenge,” Vasilopoulos said.

“Relegation may make it impossible financially. There are a wealthy people behind these clubs who contribute a lot of funding. Would a person want to put money into a club, millions of dollars if they are at risk of being relegated?”

“It’s difficult because there is definitely merit to a second division with promotion and relegation, but clubs would need financial support.”

Vasilopoulos added that a short-term solution could involve promotion without relegation, at least in the interim to top up the league and build momentum before eventually bringing in relegation down the track once the system has matured.

“From this season there will be 12 teams in the A-League. If they want to bring in a system slowly, they could have promotion playoffs for the first few years without team’s in the top league facing relegation,” he said.

“In the old National Soccer League there were 14 teams. We could create a system where for the first few years the winning second division team gets promoted and builds the league’s numbers up. This would give FFA time to create a sustainable system over time.”

For more information on the Championship Partner Group, visit here.

 

Preston Lions FC receives green light for facilities upgrade

Preston Lions FC will commence work on its new football pavilion in February 2021, after receiving unanimous support from the Darebin City Council.

The new pavilion at BT Connor Reserve will feature four change rooms equipped with toilets and showers, and a new community space for social purposes.

Preston Lions Vice President David Cvetkovski was thrilled to announce the news, stating it was a massive step forward for the Lions.

“It’s the first step of our infrastructure master plan. The new pavilion will provide state-of-the-art facilities for the entire Preston Lions family,” Cvetkovski said.

In a major boost for the club, the pavilion will include women-friendly change rooms, access for people with disabilities, and other modern amenities.

“We have been working with Darebin City Council for some time, a lot of work and planning has gone into this. After a challenging year with COVID-19, it’s a great result for the club and for the local community,” Cvetkovski added.

Preston Lions FC will be making a sizable contribution to the upgrade, which is expected to be completed approximately one-year after its commencement date.

Sport Australia launches resource to assist community clubs post COVID-19

Sport Australia’s has launched Game Plan, a new diagnostic tool designed to help clubs bounce back after the effects of COVID-19.

The resource replaces the pre-existing Club Health Check and will provide administrators the means to test their clubs performance in order to identify areas of improvement.

“We know sporting clubs have had to adapt to our ‘new normal’ so sport can return and that can come with challenges,” said Rob Dalton, Sport Australia Acting CEO.

“Many sporting clubs are also run by volunteers who may be time poor or have varying levels of experience in running a club. Our Game Plan tool is designed to make life easier for these clubs by connecting them with information and resources they need to help them operate more efficiently and effectively.”

Administrators can check how their club is performing in 13 key areas including four foundation modules that underpin all club operations – Governance, Strategy, Finance and Workforce.

The modules are quick and easy to complete. Once a club has finished a module, they receive a maturity rating, information and resources to help them improve, and an action plan to assign responsibilities and timelines.

“The best part about our Game Plan is that it’s not limited to a single user – any administrator of a club can complete modules suited to their role, whether that’s coaching, sponsorship or finance. Clubs can also access the platform at any time to assist them in or outside of season,” Dalton added.

The new tool has already received positive feedback from administrators who work in a range of sports, including football.

Minister for Youth and Sport, Richard Colbeck said Sport Australia’s Game Plan is another way the Australian Government is supporting sport through COVID-19 and beyond.

“A key focus of Game Plan is assisting community level sporting clubs and volunteers as they recover from the impacts of COVID-19. Clubs and sporting organisations can access resources to help them grow their membership base as well as support the recruitment and retention of volunteers in a new sporting environment,” he said.

Sport Australia’s Game Plan can be found at gameplan.sportaus.gov.au or read more at the Club Development page.

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