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Q&A with Heidelberg United Technical Director Daniel Girardi

Daniel Girardi is the current technical director at Heidelberg United FC. He has previously worked at various clubs across Australian football, including Adelaide United, where he was a scout and an assistant to then head coach of the youth team Michael Valkanis.

Girardi has transferred the wealth of knowledge he has picked up over the course of his coaching career to spearhead the current youth development program at Heidelberg.

Girardi, alongside other coaches and staff, have implemented a philosophy at the club that focuses on critical areas to develop young footballers.

For example, it’s not enough to just develop a footballer, but rather a ‘total footballer’ that is a good person, friend and member of the community. Alongside having the technical, tactical and physical skills, Girardi believes it is necessary to exhibit good behaviours on a consistent basis.

Training programs are based around emphasising individual development within a team context, whilst coaches working with their different squads are encouraged to collaborate together as a unit to focus on the long-term development of players.

In a wide-ranging interview with Soccerscene, Girardi further explains why the youth development setup at Heidelberg has been successful, his career progression, the importance of a national second division, his own views on coaching standards in Australia and more.

First of all, tell me a little bit about your personal career in football and how you ended up in coaching?

I started playing in Adelaide. Like any junior you go through the ranks of a club, I went through Adelaide Blue Eagles. I went on to play with the senior team, from there I had coaching opportunities but I was very naïve and I didn’t want to take them. My senior coach at the time, Zoran Karadzic, said to me ‘Daniel, to be an even better player you need to understand the little intricate things, things that you don’t see that we need to see as coaches’. So at an early age of 17, he asked me to coach a junior team (under 8’s) so I did that while I was still playing. Then from there I went into further coaching, I became a junior technical director and coached all the way through from juniors to eventually senior head coach.

From there I moved to Adelaide United, Michael Valkanis asked me to come and join the team there. I joined United as a scout, as well as an assistant to the youth team, and that’s where my football mindset and career met as one. I honestly thought to myself ‘you can do this as a full-time job’. In Australia it’s very difficult, but at the same time you can put a program together to make it work. I tried to make it work now in my daily life, but again it’s very difficult. You have to coach early mornings and late at night, but it’s a passion that’s why you do it.

At Adelaide, I got to work with Josep Gombau, Michael Valkanis, Angelo Costanzo, Guillermo Amor and Pau Martí. Between all of them, my acceleration as a coach grew exponentially. Just the understanding, the little things that they can teach you about what to look for in a player, how to run, when they should pass the ball, timing, things like that, where in Australia we are not there yet. It was good for me to understand that the game is very simple but it’s the hardest thing to do. People talk about playing simple, but what does that mean?

There are 6 basic style rules that govern football throughout the world. If I see you, you see me, there’s a line of pass, we pass that ball. If there’s no line of pass, I need to run with the ball in order to find the next line. After that, the third rule being if you can’t find a line of pass and you can’t run with the ball, you need to protect the ball. We never player square – that allows counter attacks. Receiving always with your furthest foot so that you can face forward and no two players should be in the same line.

Would you say that standards and methods in local coaching have improved over the period of time since you began coaching?

That’s a hard question. I think the general understanding has improved. People are watching a lot more football, they understand they need to keep the ball and not give it away. But actually understanding the way you keep the ball is very different. In Europe, from a very young age, positionally, kids know where they are on the pitch. Kids know where they shouldn’t be, they know who they should pass to and when they shouldn’t pass to those players.

In Australia, people just see a pass and they just pass the ball. They are not understanding that if I pass the ball the wrong way to my teammate, not to his furthest foot, I’ve put them under pressure straightaway. If I don’t pass that ball with the right ball speed, I’ve put them under pressure straightway. When a player runs with the ball, does he or she use the furthest foot so their body is between the opposition player and the ball? What is the player’s orientation to the player with the ball and without? What’s their orientation to the defender? So, there’s the little things, I don’t think the level of detail is there in Australia yet.

Tell me a little bit about your current role at Heidelberg and your overall involvement in the current youth set up at the club. How did it come about?

I was speaking with George Katsakis a couple of years ago and he asked me if I was interested to join the club as technical director. At the time, I said yes I’d definitely be interested. Heidelberg is a big club. Heidelberg in the last five-six years is one of the best clubs in the country, because of the guidance from the board, Steve (president) and George as senior coach. So, I joined knowing that we are trying to develop players for that senior team. That’s what the goal always is.

However, we focus on how we can accelerate their growth in order to get them to the first team quicker, but at the same time make sure they are our juniors. We don’t want to go and continuously buy players, we don’t want to continuously bring players in from other clubs, we want to bring through our own. We want to have a long-term culture of developing Heidelberg boys and girls. Boys and girls that live in the area, that live and breathe wanting to be a part of Heidelberg, of Alexandros, it means something. To have players who start with our MiniRoos and give them every opportunity to progress into the junior setup and then to the seniors. That’s the main goal.

Heidelberg have strong teams at a junior and senior level across men’s and women’s competitions, what do you think is the formula behind this success in developing young talent at the club?

For me, 100%, having the facility continuously upgraded is so important. You need to have pitches, equipment and the club has always been willing to buy all these things. They’ve bought us new goals, new mini-goals, the smart goal system now, trackers, VEO and we’ve established a new collaboration with Oxidate – we are always cutting edge. So, we are trying to build that DNA and at the same time use technology effectively.

Importantly, we have really good coaches. Brian Vanega (U21s) who unfortunately had to leave due to family commitments, Jeff Olver who has come back to help the club, Renato Liberto (U19s), Adrian Mazzarella (U17s), Sinisha Ristevski (U16s), Jim Daglaras (U15s), Kai Maxfield (U14s); these are all coaches who have either got A licenses or B licenses. They all understand that we are trying not just to look at one team, the U17’s or U19’s or whatever. It’s a culture of looking more at the overall picture, the 200 boys and the 200 girls at the club and saying ‘how can we develop them as a group rather than individually?’ Anyone can go and kick a ball but you can’t play football by yourself, there’s 10 other people on the pitch. So, we focus on how we can get all of them up to the level we want them to be at.

What type of programs, initiatives have you introduced in regards to learning opportunities for other coaches at Heidelberg United? What do you provide coaches at the club with?

We provide them with an innovative online session planning and player management system called SoccerPLAY. It’s got hundreds of different sessions and drills that they can use for ideas to create and implement our methodology. Additionally, at any time, we are able to provide feedback to help improve the sessions and the coaches. At the same time, we also do coach to coach sessions and are always looking to improve the program.

We have a new athlete development and high-performance collaboration with Oxidate, headed by Jacob Falla, which is specifically designed to educate the players about football development, physical performance (strength, conditioning, recovery, nutrition) and overall wellbeing. We have a club philosophy which connects all players via the ‘three wheels’, the Skills Phase for our MiniRoos, Growth Phase for our junior NPL teams and Elite Phase involving our seniors. You are trying to build across these wheels to get them into to the top teams at the club. We continually reassess what we are doing across all the different pathways to make the necessary improvements daily, weekly, monthly and yearly.

A snippet of Heidelberg United’s philosophy.

How crucial do you think a national second division is for the progression of youth development in Australian football?

It’s imperative. I’ve actually spoken with James Johnson and his team about it a few times. I think you need more than just a second division; you need a third division. I think that the NPL should be that you go from that league to a third division and so on. The more levels there are, you give more opportunities to the kids in order to develop at the level that they’re at. At the end of the day, we’re not just trying to develop a footballer. We’re trying to develop good boys, good girls, good sons, good daughters, it’s the overall person we are trying to develop…a total footballer.

The women’s side of the game is seeing huge increases in participation numbers and a home Women’s World Cup is on the way in 2023 which will lead to even more playing the game. How important is it capitalise on this and build female youth development standards and produce the next generation of Matildas?

Again, it’s imperative. The girls’ game has gone from A to Z in the last couple of years and it’s only going to continue to grow. The standard of the girls is phenomenal and improving all the time. It’s so important that the football community and country get behind the Women’s World Cup. I’ve coached girls’ teams and their enthusiasm for the game and desire to improve is brilliant. We need to capture that and harness it for both the girls’ and boys’ games to make a better competition for Australian footballers going forward.

Philip Panas is a sports journalist with Soccerscene. He reports widely on football policy and industry matters, drawing on his knowledge and passion of the game.

Football Coaches Australia presents ‘The Football Coaching Life Podcast’ S3 Ep 2 with Gary Cole interviewing Steve Corica

Corica FCA

Steve Corica is Head Coach of A-League Men at Sydney FC, where he narrowly missed out on three A-League Championships in a row, losing to Melbourne City in the Grand Final last season. What a remarkable start to his first senior head coaching role!

He played his junior football in Innisfail in North Queensland, before heading to the Australian Institute of Sport and playing just under 500 professional games in Australia, England and Japan.

Steve’s preparation for coaching began while he was playing, and he started to gain his coaching licences before taking on an assistant role with the Sydney FC Youth Team.

He served a seven-year apprenticeship at Sydney with the Youth Team and then as an assistant to Vitezslav Lavicka, Frank Farina and Graham Arnold before taking on the Head Coach role in 2018. He learned from each of these coaches and also learned, like most ‘he didn’t know, what he didn’t know’ when taking on the Head Coaching Role.

Steve believes that team and club culture are key to success. He understands that while he is the driver of the culture, that buy-in from all of the players is integral to behaviours being demanded from the playing group of one another.

Steve’s ‘one piece of wisdom’ was ‘to be yourself’. Know how you want to play, the style of football you want to play. Be strong when you do get setbacks, but believe in what you’re doing, stay strong and keep believing in the style of football you want to play.

Please join me in sharing Steve Corica’s Football Coaching Life.

Catherine Cannuli: “It wasn’t easy to pursue coaching as I felt like I was back at square one again”

Catherine Cannuli

June 1 this year saw long-time stalwart of the Western Sydney Wanderers – Catherine Cannuli – appointed to the role of Head Coach of the Women’s side for the upcoming 2021/22 A-League Women’s season.

In addition to having built up an impressive resume through her role as Women’s Technical Director at the Southern Districts Football Association, Cannuli has been announced as the latest addition to the Executive Committee at Football Coaches Australia (FCA).

Her landmark year of achievements thus far reflects her immense efforts in working to reach what she acknowledges as a personal high point in her coaching career. Cannuli’s success is undoubtedly a testament to her determination, but her transition from player to coach was self-admittedly challenging one.

The lack of clear routes towards securing coaching roles at all levels of the game has led FCA and Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) to announce – within their Memorandum of Understanding strategies –all members of PFA’s Alumni will have their joining fee to FCA waived in an effort to provide additional support to aspiring coaches.

In a wide-ranging chat with Soccerscene, Cannuli spoke on her efforts to reach the point she is at now in her career and highlighted the significance of this recently announced FCA and PFA Alumni partnership.

Coaching

It was announced in June that you were to become the new Head Coach of the Western Sydney Wanderers. What has that been like for you so far?

Catherine Cannuli: It’s been exciting and challenging. Obviously, with the current COVID-19 situation that we’ve been in, I probably had four or five weeks in charge as the head coach and then we went into lockdown. So a lot of it has been done from behind a computer. But it’s been a great time to be able to plan and make sure that everything was ready to go come first day of pre-season.

In terms of opportunities for females in football following the end of their playing career, can you give us some insight into what was going through your head as you were coming to the end of your playing time?

Catherine Cannuli: I really didn’t think about coaching straight away to be honest. I retired and I thought I was going to get my weekends back and be a normal person. My friends were always having a go at me for missing so many significant birthdays or weddings.

It was after being off for about six or seven months, and not having football, where I realised more than anything what it left in me as a person. Football’s been such a big part of my life. It took me some time to realise that I couldn’t be a player anymore, because the commitment at the time was really hard – juggling full-time work and doing everything that I wanted to do. I was at a crossroads in my career at that point. It was thinking ‘do I sacrifice another four years or do I just focus on work and preparing for life after football?’.

It was at that point that I got into contact with the Southern Districts Association and explained that I wanted to give back to our community and asked what I could do to get involved with the girls. I went down and did some sessions with the team at the time, and within six months I’d landed myself my first coaching gig. I took over the First Grade Women’s team there and that was it. I fell into coaching.

What was it like mentally traversing that transition period between playing and coaching?

Catherine Cannuli: It was clear, because everything that I’d spoken to the club about they were on board with what I wanted to do and the vision that I had for young girls in the South-West region. For kids in the Liverpool and Fairfield areas, young girls like myself didn’t have the opportunity to be mentored or be coached. They didn’t have an environment where they felt they’d be able to really excel.

For me it was pretty clear from day one that I wanted to make a change. It was hard to transition, because after my first couple of years in coaching I remember going back to some of my coaches that had coached me for a long time and apologising. Because I didn’t realise what it actually took to be a coach. As a player, you turn up; you train; and you go home. As a coach there’s so much planning going on in the background that players just wouldn’t have an idea about.

The transition was definitely difficult, but after my first 12 months of coaching, I chose to dedicate myself to it. I had a business at the time and I stepped away from it to be able to then go into coaching. At the time I was working at Westfields Sports High School and Southern Districts and learning my trade, and it wasn’t easy when I decided to pursue coaching as I felt like I was back at square one again.

But it was really important for me to experience it that way. Even now that I’m at the top of my game as the Head Coach of the Western Sydney Wanderers, I feel that as a coach it is really important that you learn your trade, go through different environments and see different things before you actually get there. It shapes you as a person and as a coach.

Cannuli

What have been your key learnings in your role as Women’s Technical Director at the Southern Districts Football Association?

Catherine Cannuli: I think that the main one has been learning to build an environment for not just your players, but your staff and everyone to excel in. I think it’s important that everyone knows what your vision is and what direction you’re wanting to go in within your program and your football. It’s important that everyone understands that if they’re on this journey with you, they have a clear understanding of what the message is and what you want to do.

Whether I’m at Southern Districts or at the Wanderers, having that clear message with your players and your staff of ‘this is what it’s going to take to be successful’, and that we can do it as a collective.

Sometimes you see people saying ‘it’s my way or the highway’, whereas with me it’s about bringing people on the journey with you and making them understand what you want to achieve and how you want to achieve it.

Do you feel the partnership between FCA and PFA Alumni will aid aspiring female football coaches?

Catherine Cannuli: I think back to when I did my first C License and how far coach education and support has come. FCA have been a massive game changer in the coaching space, not only for females, but for males.

For any coach that aspires to be better and wants to be helped, even for those A-Leagues players wanting to transition out of playing into coaching, I think it’s important that there’s a mentorship and a process in what we want to do and how we want to do it.

Sometimes when we jump straight into the deep end it becomes difficult to have an understanding of what the role of a coach is. If you are a player, the role of a coach is a very different role to when you’re a player.

The partnership between FCA and PFA is huge. I’ve always said that football needs to come together and we need to work together as one. This is showing that together we can be stronger. And these partnerships are only going to allow our players and people to grow and further develop their skills in that space.

You’ve recently been announced as an addition to the Executive Committee at FCA. What initiatives will you be looking to drive as a part of your work there?

Catherine Cannuli: I think the main one is to give as much coach education as we can for all coaches. Giving all people from all different levels the number of resources that they can get onto. You can already see that with a lot of the workshops that we’ve been running. The numbers that we’ve been getting for these have been fantastic.

For me, the key thing with FCA is to drive its existence for people to understand that FCA is there and what it can do for coaches. Because I’ve already seen how it supported me over the last two years as a member. And I think, down the track, FCA is going to have such a significant impact on the coaching life. It’s going to be amazing to see where it’s going to be having known where it started.

FCA

What changes and opportunities for the women’s game are you hoping to see come to the fore leading into and after the 2023 Women’s World Cup?

Catherine Cannuli: The greatest achievement for me with receiving the opportunity to be the Head Coach of the Western Sydney Wanderers is that other females can look to this and say: ‘Hey, I can be a Head Coach at the A-League Women’s as well’. That’s the most important, that young female coaches can actually aspire to be a coach in the A-League Women’s.

The more that we see it on the TV and the papers that there are female coaches leading the way, there’s going to be even more opportunity for young females to come through NPL clubs and do coaching.

At the moment, the number of coaches in the female space in a professional environment is probably quite low. And that’s something that we need to keep driving change for; changing the dynamics around females not thinking that there are those opportunities for coaching when there are.

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