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Mt Druitt Town Rangers coach Stewart Montgomery: “We represent an area that doesn’t get the respect it deserves”

Western Sydney has become synonymous in recent years with the successful cultivation of countless talented players and coaches that call the region home. One of those coaches is Stewart Montgomery, who currently leads a Mount Druitt Town Rangers side that continues to defy expectations.

The NSW National Premier Leagues 1 club were left frustrated by yet another Covid-impacted season, with Montgomery’s Rangers stuck in sixth place. And if not for greater fortune and a few finished chances, it would have been Mt Druitt’s Popondetta Park playing host to the Central Coast Mariners in the FFA Cup in place of the Wollongong Wolves.

Having been instrumental in developing this Rangers side into the resilient and competitive NPL team that it is today; Montgomery’s footballing experience provides significant insight into the effort and long-term planning that goes towards clubs in the semi-professional tier. Here are his thoughts in this Q&A.

Montgomery
Stewart Montgomery (right) following Mt Druitt’s NPL 2 Championship in 2018.

Just to start off, are you able to provide some insight into your own footballing background and what’s led you to where you are now as the Head Coach of Mount Druitt Town Rangers?

Stewart Montgomery: My background in football stems from playing in my younger years and coming through what was the State Leagues of NSW. I played in the National Youth League competitions with Penrith City and into the old National Soccer League. I then ended up at Polonia FC in the Men’s State League.

After a break from football, I started my coaching journey where I took up positions within the Nepean Association in the FNSW Metro League comp, going on to coach in NPL Youth League. From there, I took up the Technical Director’s role and Head of Football at Mt Druitt, where I’ve been for 10 years. During that time, I was also fortunate to be offered a head coach role at Western Sydney Wanderers YL in their inaugural season. It was a great experience and I learned a lot there under Ian Crook.

After the 2020 season, we made some changes to the coaching structures where I filled in and took over. Last year was good and we plan to be back up there again. Given how 2021 went we will keep the same coaching structures for 2022. I’m finishing my A Licence off in the immediate future so it all works well.

What was it like experiencing this second consecutive lockdown in NSW as coach of the Rangers?

Stewart Montgomery: It was the right thing to do, but it was frustrating. We were in a good position and were having a strong season with an ambition to come home strong and secure a place in the semi-finals.

Within the Men’s NPL we were unanimous that it was the right thing to close the competition down at that point, to focus on safety and also what was going to come in the future with regards to making sure that the 2022 season is the best it can be. Credit to all of the clubs and Football NSW for getting that done.

Mt Druitt

It’s certainly been impressive to see the Rangers become such a competitive side in NPL 1 following their promotion a few seasons ago. What has it been like for yourself at the club to be a part of this journey?

Stewart Montgomery: It’s been a long-term plan, and there’s been a lot of really good people that have contributed to that over the years. 10 years ago, when I came to the club, we had our boys’ Youth League sitting in the lowest tier of competition going in Football NSW leagues.

Our focus then was to make our youth and boys programs the best that we could. And that could be done with the right application, management and curriculum-based coaching. We won consecutive promotions in YL and now I believe many people would recognise the Mount Druitt Youth League program is a really strong one. It’s never easy for teams to come and play in our Youth League side.

Once we’d secured that, we looked at how we then move from Men’s State League 1 to NPL 2, and then to NPL 1. Again, that was a long-term plan that we worked on with a combination of youth and experience. And we’ve had some great people that have come through the program and helped us with that. Securing promotion at the end of the 2018 season was all part of the plan, and was achieved through great leadership from a whole range of coaches and players.

Our intentions from there turned to focusing on being the best that we can be in NPL 1. In that first season in NPL 1 it was like “what the hell is happening here?”. In our second game of the season away to Manly United, the first half saw four substitutions made for what were half-a-season ending injuries. We didn’t secure a win until Round 6, and from Round 7 went on to secure a sixth place finish, which was only three points off fourth place.

This season we had secured ourselves in the top half of the table and were really closing in on semi-finals and a top-three finish. For 2022, we’ve stated that we’re going to win the comp.

Mt Druitt

For you coming into the club originally, was there a collective realisation from everyone that there needed to be a shake-up and change? What was it that sparked that shift and long-term planning?

Stewart Montgomery: That same line of questioning was put to the board some 10 or 11 years ago prior to me coming on-board. The existing executive spoke to our long-term executive about needing fresh ideas and blood, and needing to push the club forward. Popondetta always had a fantastic facility and area in which to grow from, but we weren’t growing.

Financially we weren’t in a strong position and we weren’t commercially viable in terms of what we were doing with our local community, by engaging sponsors and bringing our local government authorities and council members into our program so that they could all understand what we were doing and where we wanted to get to.

So there was a whole new committee change where we drove the future desire for the club. From there, we’ve continued to challenge and push for all of the opportunities and grants. We’ve got a $5.5 million synthetic field going on the outside; one-and-a-half synthetics on the outside of where our junior fields are. And there’s a lot of positives still to come.

It was that change to make the internal decisions to put fresh blood in and from there, we’ve had a good bunch of people that are all there for the right reasons. We still keep in touch with our past executives as they, like all of us, put their heart into the club. Many still support and sponsor the club. We are very lucky there. Now we’ve got the likes of Narelle Telling and Jodi Yeo plus others who have given us a balance with the female side of the executive, and our female program is only getting stronger.

We’re really happy with where we are at, but we’re still restless in that we feel we still haven’t achieved anything other than become a serious contender. We haven’t won anything yet and that’s what we’re here to do.

Rangers

What was the transition process like for you to go from a Senior Technical Director to Head Coach of the Rangers?

Stewart Montgomery: We’ve always worked really closely as a team, but there’s obviously a fine line between being the head of the football program and allowing the first-grade coach to have their own freedom. Because I knew the existing coach well, we aligned on many things. So, it was a really consultative approach around how we secured players, what positions we were looking for, what kind of player DNA we were looking for and what were the attitudes that they brought to the club. In essence, a ‘no dickhead’ type policy.

At different times during our push for promotion we went into the transfer market to pick someone that might be coming off their NPL 1 first grade journey who would still have so much to offer at NPL 2 level. And we were really good at picking that special player. It’s a fine line but it’s one we’ve been able to tread pretty well.

In terms of the people that I’m working with, Stamati Glaros has come in and he’s working closely with me. He does as much around the program as I do, and he’s been at the club before. Bringing in those people that really understand what we’re about means we’re not changing too much. I’m big on succession planning.

Tarek Elrich

What has it been like to lead the Rangers and to represent the Mt Druitt community?

Stewart Montgomery: We represent an area that doesn’t get the respect it deserves and we take the park to represent the whole of the City of Blacktown and Western suburbs. We take a lot of pride in that and we’ve got a great, passionate vocal support that gets behind us.

A lot of people are waiting for us to fall over and they’re expecting us to drop back down. So, every day we approach it in the same way where people expect us to not perform, and every time we do the opposite of that we send a message.

FIFA Technical Expert Karl Dodd: “We need to have a holistic approach to our development”

Karl Dodd

Karl Dodd’s proficient understanding of the nature of football on and off the pitch is unlike many others. Having undergone a playing career spanning the old National Soccer League, A-League, Scottish Premier League, National Premier Leagues Queensland and Hong Kong First Division, Dodd has focused his time since retirement in the early 2010s on mastering his skills and resilience as a coach.

A true believer in knowledge as power, Dodd’s professional post-playing career has seen him take on roles as Head of High Performance at Brisbane Roar alongside two separate stints at the Newcastle Jets, whilst also tackling the challenges of leading Guam’s men’s national team and his current role as a Technical Expert for FIFA.

Having spent the last few months recharging himself after some time away from the local game, Dodd speaks to Soccerscene about his aspirations to embody a generalist professional approach, his learnings from his time as head coach of Guam, and the current state of Australia’s football development system.

You’ve had an incredibly varied career in the footballing world, having started off as a player and then transitioned into coaching and consulting. Was it always an aspiration of yours to challenge yourself in multiple ways rather than just sticking to one field?

Karl Dodd: I got some advice early on in my career to have more of a generalist approach. That’s why my studies have probably taken me across varying domains so that when I am a head coach or in charge you have a good understanding of the environment and the staff that are underneath you. I just found with my playing career that there was always a disconnect between head coaches or assistant coaches and what other staff did. That was the main reason, I just wanted to know as much as I could to be well-informed as a head coach.

How do you reflect as a whole on your footballing journey so far?

Karl Dodd: I think it’s one that has been pretty expansive. I’ve been to lots of different places and early on playing was about experiencing as much as I could and different cultures and countries. And then as a coach it was getting into the hardest places where I could learn the most. It’s a new journey where you’re developing yourself to a new point as a coach, and I didn’t want to go where things were easy.

I wanted to go where it was really going to challenge me so that I could handle whatever was thrown at me – and I think that’s where I’m at. After recent coaching experiences I feel that – and I don’t want to use the word ‘bulletproof’ – because I’ve been in some of the most challenging places, I’m in a good place. And reflecting on it, I’m glad I did that because now I can handle – especially with the Australian landscape where you’ve got to wear multiple hats and work in low-resource environments – those situations.

You spent over three years as Guam’s National Team Men’s Head Coach. What was that experience like for yourself? What did you learn from it?

Karl Dodd: For me personally, it’s a test of your values and who you are as a person because you get challenged every day when you go to a foreign place and you’re trying to implement change. That was a big one in terms of who you are and who you want to be from a football point of view.

Some of the best learnings came from being involved in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and having Japan – who have a really big push in trying to win the World Cup and being the first Asian team to do so – hold a lot of conferences where they invited experts from all around the world. When you’re sitting in rooms with Carlos Queiroz – who was the head coach of Iran at the time – it’s a massive eye-opener listening to these experts from England, France and Croatia explain their development policies or curriculums and how they go about things. You just get exposed to so much more. I think also understanding the international calendar, that was something I wasn’t really across but it makes you think differently as a club coach. Like ‘what players am I going to sign’? ‘Am I going to see those young boys if they have tournaments this year’? There’s a lot more to it and that was an important eye-opener being exposed to a totally different environment. From a match perspective, the pressure to win and tactics behind each game is very different to club football. For smaller nations, winning a qualifier is massive to future games being played in that four-year cycle.

What was that experience like taking in the values and perspectives of these experts from leading footballing nations?

Karl Dodd: It made me realise just how narrow-minded we are in Australia. I believe we’re very ‘big fish, small pond’ possibly because we’re so isolated from the rest of the world. The fact that Japan wants to invite all of the countries and confederations to these meetings and conferences to try help each other develop and grow without ego and with the intent of ‘how do we become better’ was really interesting and enjoyable.

How did you go about implementing your values and desired style of play on the Guam Men’s National Team? It seems like it required a lot of adapting to and with?

Karl Dodd: It certainly was. We get taught here [in Australia] that you have a philosophy and way to play but it might not fit in with other countries. The playing style in Guam was totally different so you have to compromise because you want to get from this playing style that they’re currently doing – which may be a risk-mitigative one where they park the bus – to a ‘total football’ style where you’re trying to play football and have a go against other teams rather than reducing the scoreline.

There’s a process to that and you’ve got to find an entry point. Those players and the community and the coaches have to come along with that. If you go in too high, they won’t know, because a lot of them don’t know what it looks like and they don’t know what your playing style looks like. So, you’ve got to explain that and where we’re at and how we’re going to transition across and that takes time. It’s not just a one or two-year process, that’s a decade-long one because those kids have now got to come through. There’s a lot to it in terms of trying to implement a new style, but also a way of operating which was a good challenge as well.

Currently you’re a Technical Expert at FIFA, what does that role entail?

Karl Dodd: I was asked to come on board in the women’s game and it’s been really enjoyable. We’re working with a lot of Member Associations or countries in setting up a lot of women’s football development programs. For example, we’re working with New Zealand with their league development as they’re trying to create a new women’s league, same with Mexico and Singapore. There’s a lot of strategy behind it which is massively enjoyable because you can’t be a one-trick pony, you’ve got to go in and be adaptable in order to understand where they’re at and what are the cultural barriers or what are the limitations and how do you overcome this. That’s what we’re working on plus just growing the professionalism of the women’s game.

Throughout your journey you have no doubt experienced a variety of football cultures and technical approaches. Comparing your experiences overseas to here, what is Australia’s development system lacking and what are its positive aspects?

Karl Dodd: To be honest, maybe I’m biased here, but I didn’t think there was too much wrong previously it just needed some fine-tuning. Perhaps more from a coaching side in terms of methodologies and the way it has gone, but I think we threw out our main strengths which is our physicality and also our mentality.

I think we need to have a holistic approach to our development, not just the football training. We go off on tangents and go too far and forget about the other stuff. Maybe there’s a lot of misconstrued information from the sports science field where it feels like the focus is all about monitoring, rather than the fundamentals of building the capacity of players. If we want to get players overseas in to the top leagues – Japan train 8-10 times a week and our players at the same level are training four times a week and one of them is an ice bath – we have to build the capacity of a player in a safe-manner. Otherwise, how are we ever going to compete with these top European or Asian nations? There’s too much focus on recovery rather than the periodisation or the building of a capacity of a player in a safe-manner. And that’s probably been lost, but that’s just one example. Again, having a holistic approach to the development of a player is key and we just go off on tangents too much instead of doing the basics well and then adding to it.

For many Australian football fans and casual sporting fans, there is arguably a degree of misunderstanding about the time and planning it takes to nurture a country’s growth as a football nation. What do you feel is essential for Australian football to get right over these next few years?

Karl Dodd: Well, that’s the hard thing because there’s no real quick fix. The reality is the situation we’re in is because of what’s happened in the past. What we need to get right is that we’ve got to start somewhere getting it right, you’ve got to start implementing a holistic approach but then it takes time for players to come through that process. If you’re looking for a quick fix, I don’t know how we’re going to do that. The only way is exposure. The more games the national teams can play the better, but then that comes down to a cost and availability of players, doesn’t it? It’s the million-dollar question.

I think one of the main things is getting the right people involved at all levels of Australian football rather than repeating the same dysfunctional processes. If you’ve got people involved that probably shouldn’t be there and those that don’t have a good enough understanding, it will keep going around in circles. It’s why you find a lot of good people aren’t involved because some find it difficult to have the current system and way of doing things challenged. You want a progressive system that’s going to be one of the best in the world, rather than remaining stagnant.

Football NSW Media Manager Mark Stavroulakis: “The end goal is to see the NPL excel as high as it can”

Stavroulakis

National Premier Leagues NSW fans have likely spotted Mark Stavroulakis conducting his duties as Media Manager at Football NSW on a game day across the various NPL tiers many a time. Mark’s infectious passion for the game and efforts to grow Football NSW’s social media presence have long flown under the radar, in a fashion similar to many who dedicate their life to the world game.

In a wide-ranging chat with Soccerscene, Mark speaks on being born into a football-mad Greek household, his excitement for the future of Australian football, and his pure love for the game. Without a doubt Mark’s story, insights and experiences within Australian football – particularly at a grassroots and semi-professional level – are valuable for any aspiring journalist to learn from and apply to their own professional trajectories.

Mark Stavroulakis AFC

What sparked you into football and how did you first become involved in it?

Mark Stavroulakis: Like any football-mad household – especially one with a multicultural background, myself being of Greek origin – I was pretty much born into it. My father was a footballer back in Greece and when he came over here to marry mum, he also played football here. I’d say that it was in our DNA, getting involved in football. And then in the media scene, my father got involved in media when he finished up as a footballer and became one of the leading Greek sports journalists in Australia.

I grew up with my younger brother Nick who also played football. I played as well and went as far as playing back in the old NSL with Sydney Olympic’s Colts and youth side.

I then played in what is now our NPL NSW Men’s competition with St George FC and then after that I pursued my career as a journalist while I was doing my studies at university. Whereas my brother became a professional footballer and represented Australia and played overseas in Italy and England. Long story short, as soon as we were born our dad was like ‘the only sport you’re going to be playing is football’ and we thank him for that, because it’s the best game around and I wouldn’t have had it any other way – it’s given us the life we have today.

In terms of getting involved in the media, I was fortunate enough with dad – there was an iconic publication called the Australian British Soccer Weekly that I had work experience at when I was 16. From then on I took that opportunity and became a freelance writer for the paper before I was given the chance to become the editor at 18, which spearheaded me to where I am today.

What have been your most significant achievements in your time at Football NSW?

Mark Stavroulakis: This is my 16th year at Football NSW, so it’s been a decent amount of time having spent most of my 20s and 30s at the one place. I’ve seen such significant growth in a lot of areas, but when I first got into the job there, one thing I was proud of was the creation of a proper media team and unit external to what you see in lieu of promoting weekend results and promoting our valued competitions. Once I got the job as media manager at Football NSW, I used my contacts at the Soccer Weekly and brought some of the journalists and photographers with me to create a great unit that to this day are still working with me.

The media unit in turn provided match reports, photo galleries, live scorers and basic weekly football info to our audience, and at that time with social media and channels still in its early stages, was the only way fans were able to receive their Football NSW weekly fix.

It wasn’t how it is now where we have loads of dedicated channels at our fingertips giving us updated info on scores, features etc.

So to have been part of this from its early stages was something I was very proud of, as we’ve managed to build and move with the times from there on.

Back then I kicked off the official Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages for NPL NSW and Football NSW and have seen it rise from zero followers to 150,000 plus for both our NPL and company Facebook pages. To have overseen this from its early beginnings – because I was there when this digital engagement was in its early stages and wasn’t the norm – now grow into the audience we have today has been amazing to witness this in live format.

The other aspect I’m proud of is introducing the livestreams to our audience. We pioneered it as a member federation when I first got the job. We were doing one match a week with a company called Spot On Video Recording. Obviously, it wasn’t like it is now where we have the NPL.TV platform which is amazing and have most Member Federations involved.

Back then we had one camera and one commentator, and we selected the match of the round and beamed it live. That really started our journey to where we are today. We’ve been the leaders in terms of the livestreaming platform for NPL thanks to Brian Meinrath who saw the potential it had and gave it a sounding board.

Giving writers, photographers, contractors, and people I’ve hired internally in the media team an opportunity to have seen them flourish and grow was also another aspect of my job that I have been proud of. There’s some who have gone on to amazing things now. We’ve got Brendan Modini who’s now the head videographer for the English national football side, Marianna Galanopoulos who’s one of the head videographers at Football Australia, Matty Connellan is now an SBS presenter for news and is set to be the main face behind the camera in Qatar for the World Cup. There’s been so many people that I’ve given opportunities to because I’m all about giving people a chance and a road to getting to where they want to get to, it’s something that I enjoy seeing them flourish. On a personal level, it gives me a lot of satisfaction seeing where they started to where they end up. Football NSW is a factory for nurturing talent that then go on to other quality opportunities.

I’m very grateful to Football NSW for giving me a chance to administer this, they gave me an opportunity to do my thing back in 2007. Tony Peters was my first boss and was the one who saw potential in me. We’re all about continuing to kick goals and being a team unit at Football NSW, but it’s great to see that we are still growing. We don’t get things right all the time and we understand that, it’s the nature of our job, but one thing’s for sure we have a lot of football purists here. We’ve got the game in the best interests of our hearts and minds and we do whatever we can to try to make it as best as possible for everybody across all levels. It’s a massive job, we are dealing with grassroots football and then we’re dealing with our elite components, competitions, coaches, referees and volunteers – there’s so many touchpoints – and the Football NSW staff have done a phenomenal job in these spaces. It’s just crazy to see how much we’ve advanced and progressed since we started but its pleasing to see that we are heading in a positive direction.

Football NSW
Picture: Geoff Jones

What’s the biggest misconception the Australian footballing public have about your work at Football NSW and beyond?

Mark Stavroulakis: I think the misconception is that people think there are a cast of 1000s that work at these organisations, especially ours – there really isn’t. When you look at the fact that we have more than 300,000 players and you count how many are in the office, I think it gives you an answer to how can you possibly deal with all of these people out there? It’s tough and I don’t want to give out excuses, but it’s a fact. Overall, though, it’s probably that which is our biggest obstacle. People assume that there’s 300 people working here, but it’s probably closer to 50 or 60 across various departments.

From a media and communication perspective, there’s only three of us internally. And to churn out what we’re churning out – features, stories, results, press releases as well as keeping on top of all things social media and so much more. I’m big on the front that football is a game of opinions and everyone is entitled to one, and I respect that. You pay your fees or you pay to get into a game or watch a match, the fact that you’re investing your time into the sport you 100% have the right to have a say on our game. And with the abundance of comment, we read through you have to develop thick skin, you can’t take it all to heart. You have to think ‘what can be done’ and you’ve got to listen. As administrators we don’t want to be seen as not listening to the people. For me it’s important to listen to what the audience have to say and when you don’t that’s where you face issues.

How has it been for you operating in the National Premier League space? What’s it like engaging with turbulent times throughout the competition’s long history?

Mark Stavroulakis: One thing I’ve got to say with our NPL clubs and administrators is that I take my hat off to them all. A lot of these clubs and administrators have put their own money in to fund their respective clubs. A lot of these clubs have formed our competition history, and the reason that the A-League is here today is because of these historic clubs. If these clubs weren’t around then we wouldn’t have football as we know it, I’m a big believer in respecting the history of our game and every member federation has a few amazing historic sides that have done their bit.

We’re lucky that we’ve got the luxury of having a few of them playing in our leagues – Marconi, Sydney Olympic, Sydney United 58, Wollongong Wolves, Parramatta FC and so on – these clubs formed what was once the NSL. To be dealing with different nationalities it makes you grow as a person and understand how each community works. To be able to see that makes my job even more enriching to be honest. Being able to get to these grounds and speak to people of different backgrounds and understand what makes them tick, why they do what they do, how they are with football, I love that. And that’s the bonus of our sport. It’s why I think the NPL is so important to the makeup and the landscape, on top of the obvious reasons of providing a platform for players to go onto the next stage of their careers or even stay in the NPL.

The women’s game has also come a very long way, it’s so refreshing to see how far the women’s game has come. We are lucky as we have our own mini-A-League women’s league happening because all the girls that play in the top tier women’s competition come down to play in our Women’s NPL competition.

It’s awesome to be a part of that environment and it keeps me motivated to get up and go, but that’s the NPL part of it. And then obviously there’s the community and grassroots part of it where we’re doing our best to give back to the local associations that continually do so much. These absolute champion human beings who run grassroots clubs do it for next to nothing just to keep football afloat in our communities across the nation. Monday right through to Sunday there’s community football volunteers putting up nets, working at canteens, being club officials – they’re the biggest champions of all and they need to be recognised more. That’s why whatever we do in our space we try to make a difference with them as well.

Where do you feel Australian football is at presently?

Mark Stavroulakis: Its continually building and I think that we’re always learning. I know everyone is talking about the alignment process and that it’s taking a long time, but I feel we are in a position where we’re gradually building for a common goal and that’s to see this sport prosper in more ways than one. We’re in a transitional phase and we are finding where we are at with everything, and we’re in a position where we know that there’s better times ahead but to get to those better times you need to get through rough waters. And this sport has gone through a bit of that as we all know. We’ve got the right people behind football leading the charge and I think that as a sport the number one objective is that we all stick together.

What would you like to see the National Premier Leagues NSW grow into in the coming years?

Mark Stavroulakis: Everyone’s talking about having a national second division or a B-League, ultimately me as a football fan and as an administrator is to try and see the game succeed. To have a fully-fledged professional setup where we’ve got promotion and relegation happening across all levels is the dream that I’d love to see in my time.

I’d love to see the NPL grow in stature, I mean the NPL.TV platform has already given us a gauge that a lot of people have now switched onto our competitions and understand and support it more than ever before. We have seen many new football followers tune in and not just our valued traditional followers that have stuck with us from day one, but the new fans that have jumped onto football when the A-Leagues were created have slowly embraced our leagues. I think the more that we get them involved alongside our traditional fans, it’s only a good thing for the sport.

Hopefully generating more eyeballs to ensure that we’ve got more people coming to the matches, more awareness and I guess overall just getting a national look and feel of our NPL in a bigger light so that it’s shown on prime time television would be amazing. Getting all of the glitz and glamour of the people in mainstream media would be amazing. The end goal is to see the NPL excel as high as it can, with a dream of hopefully seeing these clubs become part of a B-League and then obviously with the women forming another pathway to their top-tier competition.

Women’s football is the fastest growing sport in this nation and is something we should pride ourselves on and continue to push – with the FIFA Women’s World Cup next year, the female game is only going to get stronger and better and we cannot wait to see more goals kicked in this area.

It’s all about collaboration and bringing the game forward.

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