Mark Rudan, the Western United senior coach, has always been a quiet achiever.
As a professional player he always let his boots do the talking either as a no nonsense central defender or fullback.
Life after football can be very difficult for many former players but Rudan has made the transition to coaching with total aplomb.
After cementing his career with NSW NPL 1 club, Sydney United, where his teams won a number of honours, Rudan turned the fortunes of a depressed Wellington Phoenix in the 2018/19 A-League and recently completed an outstanding, maiden season with debutantes, Western United.
However, if you ask Mark Rudan whether life is easy in the cutthroat world of football coaching, he will confirm a consistent work ethic , detailed research, analysis and preparation and superior man management skills are essential in any coaching success story.
In this interview with Roger Sleeman, Rudan reflects on his playing career, coaching experience and football philosophy.
You were part of that amazing Sydney United production line of the 1990’s which included Jason Culina, David Zdrilic, Tony Popovic, Ante Milicic, Paul Bilokapic , Ante Moric and Sean and Mark Babic.
Can this ever be replicated?
Football goes in cycles but a lot of things we do now on the pitch were done in the 1970’s.
However, these days, there are vast improvements in preparation, player welfare and diet.
People try to complicate the game but it can be a very simple if you treat it that way.
In relation to the golden era at Sydney United, you have to remember there was a strong tradition in the Croatian community and a way for our parents to integrate into the wider community through the football club.
Consequently, we gave everything on the football field in recognition of our heritage.
I remember the youth coaches like former Socceroo, Dennis Yaager who helped me so much and in particular,Maurice Sullivan, the legendary club flanker, who coached me in u14’s and was a great influence on my career because he told me if I put the work in I could make the grade.
When you first came through the Sydney United youth system, did you ever believe you would reach the pinnacle in Australian football coaching?
When I first started playing, coaching was the furthest thing from my mind and I just wanted to be the best player I could be.
I wasn’t blessed with exceptional talent but I possessed an inner determination, resilience and a motivation to get the best out of myself which are qualities often more important than star quality.
Today, I regularly see young talented players who have the skills set but don’t have the necessary qualities to fight for success.
My identification with coaching really developed when I was in Germany at Allemania Aachen with Jorg Berger, my second coach at the club.
His understanding of the game and ability to adjust tactics and formation during a game and his man management skills, separated him from any other coach I’d known.
He was the first person who really made me think coaching could be an option after my playing days were over.
How much did Les Scheinflug, coach of the Young Socceroos, influence your philosophy of football at the 1995 finals?
Les was good because he liked me and that does help when the player has the confidence of his coach.
Les made me vice captain to Mark Viduka which was a great honor.
Also, he played with a back three which I utilise as a coach today.
Who was the major influence in your playing career and early development?
Yaager and Sullivan encouraged me to have the belief I could go so far in the game but you needed to follow certain steps to get there.
After the 1997 World Cup loss to Iran in Melbourne, I went up to my colleagues from the AIS like Muscat, Horvat, Viduka and Moore who inspired me.
At the AIS, Ron Smith and Steve O’Connor converted me from midfield to central defence and playing next to Craig Moore was a great plus because he coached me in that position.
What did you learn playing in Japan at Avispa Fukuoka during the 2008 season ,and can you relate your experiences?
I was 32 years of age when Pierre Littbarski took me there after I was coming out of contract with Sydney FC. Fortunately, John Kosmina was prepared to let me go because there wasn’t a long term future at the club for me.
Japan showed me what true professionalism was. If they could train six times a day they would because you had to drag them off the pitch.
I wished I’d gone there when I was younger because it would’ve developed me as a footballer.
Their youth system intrigued me and in my first training session in Japan, their first touch, positional play and passing ability were incredible
I watched their Youth Academy players who played 50-60 games from 13’s up, while training every day.
We talk about overkill and overtraining here but you only have to go there to see how they’ve achieved so much which changed my ideas on the youth system as it should be presented in Australia.
Foe every youth player who we rate in Australia, there are a thousand like them in Japan.
How important was your coaching experience at Sydney United?
Sydney United is a high pressure club and I believed if I could cut my teeth for 3-5 years, it would be ideal for my coaching preparation.
I wasn’t a player who had a big name and could get a job easily so I had to do it the hard way with the necessary work input to provide longevity.
The year before , the club avoided relegation by one point so I was able to change the whole structure of the club , including the youth team setup.
In the first year we became champions of the NPL and we won the Australian Championship.
All in all we won two Australian Championships, two Premierships and the Waratah Cup in the five years I was at the club.
It was a great grounding before I received the offer from Wellington which helped me not to be overawed and end up on the scrapheap in the first year.
Your efforts at Wellington Phoenix were remarkable?
Can you explain how you did it?
At the moment I walked into the club , I could see both players and staff were down.
I spoke to each board member, including chairman Rob Morrison and asked, do you think we can win a trophy?
There wasn’t much belief but I was optimistic and I wanted to rebuild just as I’d done at Sydney United.
It was a matter of planning to change the objectives and culture of the football club.
Roy Krishna was a large part of your success at Wellington.
How did you extract maximum value from him?
I knew Roy had natural pace and he could finish.
I got to know him well and particularly his background so I was able to gain his respect and assist in his self motivation.
I changed his role to more of a central striker rather than a winger.
I told him before the season started he would be the leading striker in the A-League but he didn’t believe it.
We worked hard every day on his positioning, different runs and their timing and his finishing.
The fact he won the A-League Player of the Year and the Golden Boot in 2018/19, followed by Diamanti winning the player of the year in the recently concluded season were proud moments for me.
Could you tell us about Diamanti?
As a coach, I needed to get the best out of him.
Initially, he called me Mr. as all the Italian players do.
However, I had to earn his respect and looking at his record, it was no different when I brought Steve Taylor to Wellington who was managed by some great people like Sir Bobby Robson.
Dimanti fitted into the culture of the club but I needed to fit him into the team pattern which he proved many times over.
A feature of your season at Western United was your ability to blend experience with youth, e.g. Diamanti, Berisha, Durante, Calvert and Paine with Perias, Dillon,Skotidis and Cavallo.
It was a brave step so were you confident of achieving success?
Long days up to twelve hours in establishing the new player structure was the norm but as a coach it’s my job to get the best out of all players and develop their full potential for the team
Risdon had been out in the cold for a few seasons but came back to his best and returned to the Socceroo squad.
Also Paine was challenged and had his best year yet and Burgess came out of his shell and really hit his straps.
Besart Berisha was a revelation during the season.
How did you achieve that outcome?
We knew he hadn’t played much football in the last twelve months after Victory let him go.
One conversation with him in Germany convinced me I wanted him for the new club because he revealed the mentality I required for the team to succeed.
Berisha is a great professional who doesn’t like being taken off and he gave me the glare when he was replaced in one match. I spoke to him about the importance of working together which really resonated with him.
He has that winning mentality and was so important in the winning streak of seven wins in eight games post COVID-19.
Young players looked up to him because in every moment he demonstrated his quest to improve performance, despite his age.
That magnificent goal setup by Dylan Pierias for Steve Lustica against Sydney FC in the second last round of normal competition was a spellbinder.
Why didn’t Pierias get more game time during the season?
Pierias was previously an out and out winger so we had to improve his aerobic capacity for the wingback position. There’s no doubting his electrifying pace as he cruised past King and Tzavellas to design that goal against Sydney F.C.
This took all year to develop because he had to be trained in the wing back position and we had to improve his defensive qualities.
These young players are used to playing a 4-3-3 formation and find it hard to adjust to a 3-5-2 system.
4-3-3 only allows you to play with one striker and this is the reason we’re not producing any good strikers at the moment.
What is the future of Western United?
It will be the biggest club in Australia within 5 years because its located in the largest growth corridor in the country and some of the best people in Australian football are on the Board and employed in the Executive.
I have a three year deal and I’d certainly like to be there for the opening game of the new stadium which is two to three years off.