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Life in the A-League bubble; Soccerscene exclusive with Western United’s Steven Lustica

When Steven Lustica signed on to join Western United in early 2020, little did he know that the world was within weeks of chaos.

By March, the future repercussions of the global pandemic were beginning to become clear and the 29-year-old’s return to Australia for the second half of the A-League season came to a halt before it even began.

The former Brisbane Roar, Adelaide United, Western Sydney Wanderers and Hadjuk Split midfielder had most recently been plying his trade in Uzbekistan with Qizilqum Zarafshon; playing 14 times and scoring once. Despite interest from a few Asian clubs, a conversation with one of Australia’s most successful young coaches brought him back home for the short term future and he was soon to remind domestic fans of his talent during Western United’s run to the finals.

In this Soccerscene exclusive, I asked the Canberra born Lustica about the behind the scene realities of A-League football in 2020, his return to Australia, Mark Rudan and his thoughts around the recent impasse between the club owners, players and the PFA, as well as the potential ramifications for the league moving forward.

In typically stoic and positive fashion, Lustica was quick to sight the benefits of being locked away as a squad for the final two months of the season.

“Life in the bubble during COVID provided many challenges and difficulties that players had never experienced before, yet spending 7 weeks in a hotel together also provided us with the opportunity to gel as a team; not only on the field but off it”, he said.

Forced to postpone marriage plans with fiance Marina when the restrictions made the mere notion of organising a wedding impossible, Lustica credits Western United and the camaraderie built in isolation with helping players manage the most unusual of situations.

“At times it wasn’t easy being away from family for such an extended period of time but our club was great in helping us get through it and make the experience memorable”, he said.

“Obviously once COVID hit it was a big shock for everyone. No one knew what to expect or what was in store for us. The club stayed strong during this period and provided a fantastic support network which allowed us to come back fit and ready to go once the restrictions were lifted.”

“It was a credit to the club, staff and players that we all came back in such great condition and with a positive attitude to finish off the season the best we could. It was a crazy ride going into the bubble and then finishing the season off but one that we are very proud of and now we can focus on building from our first season”.

The spirit and unity in the United camp were on clear view after the season restart, those elements of team culture Lustica had sensed immediately upon his arrival.

“I signed with the club in January so I missed the first 6 months of the season. However, from my first training session I felt a real positive energy around the place. The boss gave the players the freedom and confidence to go out there and express themselves.”

The boss of whom he speaks is of course, Mark Rudan. The former Wellington Phoenix and Sydney United 58 manager had obviously made an instant impression.

“Mark Rudan is a very demanding coach in a positive way. He sets his goals very high and expects the same from all his players and staff. He provides positive energy and really instilled a winning mentality into the team. He challenges all his players to improve each and every game.”

“I believe the success we had this first season is heavily attributed to his style. He has created a great culture around the club, where there is a balance between working hard and enjoying training every day to improve and achieve our goals”.

Recent discussions between the club owners and the PFA had many concerned that the new A-League season could well be under threat; should a deal prove elusive. The parties eventually agreed on one and with a reduced salary cap and a host of local and foreign talent having departed, I asked Lustica if he was pleased with the outcome.

“I am happy to see an agreement has been reached between clubs, players and the PFA. This is an important step for us all, however I do think the lower salary cap will have a major effect on keeping and attracting quality players in the A league. It is no secret that Asia, especially India, are enticing players with attractive salary packages that the A league can’t match. This will only diminish the quality of the A League.”

Sadly, Lustica’s words may well ring true in the short term future. However, the man who dons the number 10 shirt for Western United has a few other things on his mind. Improving on the fifth place finish achieved in the club’s inaugural season and avenging the loss to Melbourne City in the A-League semi-finals will drive both he and the team.

However, I suspect Lustica is desperately hoping that the ‘new normal’ which we are about to enter also allows those wedding plans to click back into gear and sees Mr and Mrs Lustica finally able to tie the knot.

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Melbourne Victory Managing Director Caroline Carnegie on the club’s rebuild

Caroline Carnegie has been leading Melbourne Victory FC through their rebuild before the start of the new A-League season as Managing Director of the club. In an exclusive interview with Soccerscene, she discusses the challenges faced so far, making a better A-League, and how clubs can re-engage lapsed fans.

What has been the biggest challenge of being Managing Director of Melbourne Victory so far?

Caroline Carnegie: There are a lot of challenges at the moment. There are the broader COVID-related challenges which everybody is experiencing, and then there’s the club-specific ones. Without sugar-coating it, we obviously had our poorest season on record last year. So coming in there were a lot of challenges that we needed to deal with and a lot of them centred around member sentiment and fan engagement. There was also making sure that across all our stakeholders we were communicating our direction and what was happening at the Club. I think our fans and members are pretty realistic. Although we certainly want to win silverware every year, we know it won’t be the case every season, which means we need to be really clear with everyone about what we want to achieve and the direction of the Club, which we have lacked a little bit certainly over the past couple of years.

Since stepping into the role, I have tried to make sure that we challenge the way we’ve been thinking about our business and how we go about delivering on and off the pitch. This means everything from the smallest to the biggest detail has been or is being stress tested, and we are all really testing ourselves as to whether we’ve been doing things in the best way or we can be a little bit more progressive, and to make sure that we put our members and partners first in everything we do moving forward. One of the things I was keen to do early was to put a true Director of Football in place, which I did first up with John Didulica. It is a role that the Club has needed for a while, and appointing JD has meant we now have a consistent whole of football approach from top to bottom with men and women.

While we can’t implement it all in 30 seconds, our planning is around making sure that all of our programs are truly elite and we progress our academy programs to be able to provide a true pathway into Melbourne Victory senior men’s and women’s over time, and also to make sure that we treat our men’s and women’s elite teams with equality. We know if you support Melbourne Victory you support our teams. Our men or women and our business is trying to make sure we promote that in all aspects of what we do.

Another example of trying to listen and deliver what our people want was the decision to return all of our home games to AAMI Park – which was so well received by our members and fans.  They had been calling out for that move for a really long time and I am glad the Club could deliver it and we cannot wait to make AAMI our fortress this season – and beyond of course. The move to do that was also important so we could show all our stakeholders that we are listening, and everybody is working very hard at the Club to position Melbourne Victory at the top of everything we do.

We are also excited that we will have a member’s forum a little closer to the start of the season – hopefully in person – to provide our people with a chance to have their thoughts and feelings about the Club heard and to share them with our team.

How much input did the A-League clubs have with the re-branding of the A-League and the W-League under one banner?

Caroline Carnegie: They had a lot to do with it.  APL is now owned by the Clubs since unbundling occurred earlier this year, and the Board of APL includes Club Chairmen.  The Board and the Clubs were involved in the decisions and it was great that we could be the first league to come out and show true equality in naming our men’s and women’s leagues consistently.

How important is it to have a dividing identity and geography between the three Melbourne teams?

Caroline Carnegie: It’s really important. It is important for all teams – not just the Melbourne clubs – to have a clear identity and target demographic, and geographically separating just helps us to be individually stronger.  It creates an environment where we can also promote the game on a broader scale and build a little ‘cross town’ rivalry at the same time.

What initiatives are Victory and the A-League taking to re-engage lapsed fans?

Caroline Carnegie: From a league level you’ll see a lot of changes to start with. We’ve just come through the unbundling process from FA which means at APL there is definitely a big focus on making sure that everything is reviewed, and a new and fresh approach is undertaken. It is really exciting to see what the team there is doing, and great that our Club can be a small part of that.

At Victory, as I said before, we are spending a lot of time trying to make sure we communicate better and in a more transparent and targeted manner with our people. We want our family to know who does what at Victory, what our plans are and the direction we are heading.  You should have started to see that so far in the off-season with the level and quality of engagement, even through our social channels.

We have made sure our player announcements are different and we are creating really exciting, dynamic content that speaks to our fans, and our membership campaign was another great example of that.

We have adopted a member-centric approach, and hopefully our fans can see that and want to jump on board and join the movement. After a couple of difficult years for everyone, we certainly continue to need their support and we are looking forward to seeing them at AAMI Park in Round 2.

10 ViacomCBS Executive Producer Geoff Bullock: Bringing a fan-first approach

Fans

10 ViacomCBS’ concerted efforts to aid in the revitalisation of Australian football over the last few months has stirred a largely positive response from the passionate Australian fanbase. The extensive coverage seen across Channel 10’s news networks and various social media channels speaks volumes of the broadcaster’s dedication to help football reach its lofty potential.

The clarity provided by a primary broadcaster who is aligned in its passion for the game, coupled with the governing bodies, is undeniably promising for football going forward.

Geoff Bullock has been a vital part of our collective matchday experience of Australian football since his beginnings at Fox Sports as a Producer for for football in 2006. Bullock has certainly ridden all of the highs and lows that have come with being an adherent of the game like the rest of us.

In a wide-ranging chat with Soccerscene, the current Executive Producer for football at ViacomCBS gave us insight into the strategic direction, plans and thinking behind the new broadcasting home.

Football home

What has it been like taking on this project of 10 ViacomCBS being the home of all things Australian football? Have you always had an interest in football?

Geoff Bullock: I’ve been involved in football since I was about four, playing for the Gosford City Dragons with my dad as the coach. So, it’s always been my number one sport for the past 15 years as I’ve been lucky enough to be working on the broadcast of Australian football. And now to get to do it at Channel 10 for a new era is really exciting.

It’s just good to be involved when there’s a fresh start for football on the horizon. And I’m just excited about the role that we can play to hopefully energise football in Australia.

How is the 10 ViacomCBS production team looking to differentiate how football will be presented in comparison to any previous broadcaster’s time in charge of Australian football?

Geoff Bullock: What we want to do is provide a fan-first approach to broadcasting football here. And with the two platforms in Channel 10 and Paramount+ it gives us – in addition to the live broadcast – the opportunity to offer replays on-demand, mini matches and highlights for A-League Men and Women’s. That includes the Socceroos and Matildas internationals, which we’ve been broadcasting on 10 and 10 Bold and putting mini-matches on 10 Play.

I think it allows viewers to digest football in different ways to what they maybe traditionally have. We’ll also preview and review all of the games with our team as well. Each game will have a preview and review show attached, which allows our experts to dive in and give viewers a deeper look. And we’ll do some magazine shows and podcasts through the week as well to provide extra content.

The other thing I’m excited about is that we’re looking to do a deeper stats dive than we’ve done before. So, there’ll be greater insights on potential players and matches that we’ll be able to get from the deeper stats dive.

Traditionally, for the domestic game whilst they have been comprehensive in terms of milestones and players, we’ve never really taken the leap to include expected goals, pass mapping and possession mapping. That’s the territory I’m hoping we can get into for the A-League which will take it to a new level.

AL

Within the envisioned coverage, what areas of football are being focused on as its key points of difference in comparison to other sporting codes? How valuable do you believe embracing active support is?

Geoff Bullock: I think COVID-19 has shown how important it is to have fans at the game. Whether we’re in the stands or watching on TV, we know what we’re missing when the atmosphere isn’t there. It’s just a massive game-changer at the venue and on TV to have that buzz of the crowd at the games. I can’t wait to have that back.

And I think it’s even more important with football than other sports because of the unique nature of active support. It provides a soundtrack for the game that we’ve missed. The interesting contrast is probably the Euros where we finally got some crowds back at games and it was a massive lift.

That’s so important for us to take advantage of, that active support. We’re trying to provide a fan-friendly experience as well. We’ve worked hard with the APL to provide two fan-friendly Saturday 7:45pm timeslots, so that fans are able to get to more games that are on at a better time.

We’re looking forward to covering active support in the broadcast as well when we can. It’s no doubt been a while since we’ve seen a massive Wanderers march to the stadium which was always huge in the broadcast. Seeing that amount of people marching to the ground definitely provides a sense of occasion and anticipation before the game. It makes people want to stick around and watch.

March to stadium

We’ve seen football over the last few months covered extensively on Channel 10’s news and socials. What are some examples of the strategies being taken to entice younger social media savvy modern audiences?

Geoff Bullock: Quite a few strategies are in place, like our Saturday night coverage is going to be built around a multi-screen experience with those two simultaneous matches that I mentioned on Channel 10 and Paramount+. This is being done with the younger fans in mind.

Football fans, as we know, are accustomed to basically consuming their content on multiple devices. I believe a lot of people in that under-30 age bracket very rarely watch any kind of TV or stream without their phone in their hand.

So, we’re going to build the Saturday night around that multi-screen experience where you’ll be able to watch a game on 10 and on your device with Paramount+. It’ll be a chance for those fans to be across all the highlights and talking points from two games live as it happens.

We’re also exploring a few solutions that might allow us to scale up a separate coverage on a Saturday night that will deliver alternate commentary across the split-screen experience of those two games. That’s something that we’re going to work towards as the season unfolds, and also potentially a social media or influencer-driven commentary stream which we’ll look to do.

With the deep-dive stats that I mentioned earlier they’ll be going out on our social media platforms as well. That’s something that will allow those younger fans to engage in more analytical discussions around football. When you talk to young football fans, you find that there’s not much about the game that they aren’t across, and I think this will give them more of an opportunity to talk more in-depth about Australian football rather than the default of European football.

I think that’s one of our big challenges, to try and engage football fans in Australian football in the same way that they’re engaging with European football. And I’m hoping that if we can bring our level of detail up to the same sort of standards that fans are seeing overseas, then hopefully that will help them to switch on to the local game.

MVC

In terms of coverage beyond matchdays, are there plans to produce content that dives deeper into Australian football and its various stakeholders (clubs, fans, players)?

Geoff Bullock: Definitely. I think part of the strategy that we’ve been talking about is not taking Australian football fans for granted. Basically, bringing our coverage up to the standard that they’d expect. We want to give them the experience that they deserve based off their level of intellectual buy-in to the game.

Young fans here in Australia commit very heavily. You just look at the hours they have to stay up at night to watch these teams overseas. They’re committed to learning about these teams that aren’t even on their doorstep.

I think we need to match that in our level of commitment to them to be able to deliver that. With the APL we’ll be delivering features and exclusive content across broadcast, digital and social media platforms that will give them that detail of the local game – both the A-League Men’s and Women’s – that will allow them to basically have that same sort of intellectual connection that they should have. Because these are the clubs that are actually here and that means they can support them in the stands week-in week-out.

Fans here in Australia can get so much closer to the stars of these teams, like they’re far more accessible than they are in any other league. The access for these fans is so much different to what it is for some stars overseas and that’s what we want to encourage. We want fans to know that they’re amongst their heroes at these clubs.

World Cup qualifiers

Australian football has undoubtedly seen some rollercoaster times in recent years. Why do you believe now is a critical time for 10 Viacom CBS to get involved in football?

Geoff Bullock: It’s ridden a few waves that’s for sure. We all know it’s had its ups and downs based on national team performance and marquee players in the league, but it’s never really had a long-term sustained period of growth. Particularly over the last couple of years the popularity of the competitions has dropped off.

So, I think the timing of a longer-term broadcast deal with free-to-air exposure really couldn’t have come at a better time. And the fact that that deal has come along at the same time as the unbundling of the A-League from Football Australia (FA), it should provide clubs with a bit of confidence to invest further in the game and hopefully that’ll provide a better, more marketable product. Not only whistle-to-whistle but off the pitch as well.

I think there’s now an opportunity, like there never really has before, for the clubs to back themselves and have a crack. And maybe we’re starting to see that with Perth Glory getting Daniel Sturridge on board, which is a huge boost.

There’s always a bit of a knock-on effect when you’ve got these big stars signing for a club and suddenly there’s clubs looking over their shoulder not wanting to be left behind. The building blocks are there for a really exciting season, and with a number of clubs with spots to fill hopefully they follow the lead that the Glory have taken and they have a go.

Daniel Sturridge

How can 10 Viacom CBS help to capitalise on interest and grow women’s football leading into and following the 2023 Women’s World Cup?

Geoff Bullock: It’s exceptionally exciting. The World Cup is going to be massive here in Australia. But the one thing we always know in Australia about having a tournament on home soil is that people get behind it. We saw how Australia embraced the Asian Cup back in 2015. Particularly with a lot of Asian teams we don’t traditionally get behind. So with a World Cup it’s going to be even bigger.

The women’s game is really important to us. I think everybody is aware in Australia it is the fastest growing asset within football. And we’re going to treat A-League Women’s exactly the same as we treat the Men’s. The same sort of program will be structured around each game. Our best commentators and experts will work across both competitions, so you’ll hear Simon Hill calling A-League Women’s matches as well as A-League Men’s.

We’re massively excited about the Matildas returning to play some games on home soil in October. But we’ll also be tracking it because we’ve got the Women’s Asian Cup starting in January early next year. And we’ll have programming around those games and that competition which will be hosted in India, so the kick-off times will be pretty decent for an Australian audience. So, it might really work well with the A-League still going on here. In that period, it will be a frenzy of football which is pretty exciting.

WWC 2023

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