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Naum Sekulovski might be in the twilight of his playing career, but he won’t be finishing up with football or his beloved Preston Lions anytime soon.
The former Perth Glory star has taken on the role of Sponsorship Manager for the 2021 season.
Preston has always been a club that has enjoyed enormous support from its community and its playing members.
The chants of “Ma-ke-don-ia” on game day bring goosebumps to all in attendance at BT Connor Reserve.
Even whilst playing at the relative depths of State League 1 for this former National Soccer League heavyweight, Preston has been able to rely on the incredible support of its fans who vote with their feet year in, year out.
However, it is the ability of the club to mobilise the support of the business network within its community that is truly impressive.
In recent years, the Preston Lions committee has enjoyed enormous success in mobilising the support of the business community within its ranks, signing on an extraordinary amount of sponsors a trend that has well and truly continued into 2021.
“At the top end of this year, back end of 2020, [Preston Lions President] Zak [Gruevski] approached me about taking on the role of Sponsorship Manager,” Sekulovski said.
“I’m coming to the twilight of my career as a player, so I’ve always wanted to understand how I can get more involved behind the scenes.
“I’m always going to have that football attachment and I’m interested in the business side of running a football club, so I jumped on board.”
Outside of football, Sekulovski works in pharmaceutical sales, meaning he felt he had a skillset that would allow him to hit the ground running in the role.
A cursory glance at the club’s social media feed over the last few months would demonstrate that Preston’s support goes far beyond boots on terraces and that Sekulovski has certainly gotten off to a fast start.
Since taking on the role, the Preston mainstay said he has been blown away by the business support afforded to the Lions.
“It’s been a really big eye-opener for me and one that I’ve really tried to translate over to the players and the people at a junior level,” he said.
“To be honest, the level of support has been a bit overwhelming.
“At last count, we’ve ticked over 100 sponsors for the year. We’re in a really, privileged position, but we’re here because of the hard work of all the people that have been on the committee over the last few years.”
Preston has kicked off its own “Preston in Business” program of business events for sponsors and is providing corporate hospitality on gameday, which started with a historic night of football at BT Connor Reserve when the club took on Melbourne City in it’s season opening match of the NPL3 Vic season, attracting a bumper crowd on the night.
The club saw another massive turnout last Friday night for their NPL3 Vic clash with Melbourne Victory, showing the Round 1 turnout was no flash in the pan.
“To have that many businesses and invited guests attend our first President’s Club function for 2021, it just made sense to have a program like “Preston In Business” that we could use to help those sponsors engage with and leverage off one another.
“We’ve got so many diverse businesses in our group.”
Following 2019’s State League 1-winning season, not even the loss of the 2020 year could slow Preston down.
“And it’s not just about the men’s program. We are striving to get to the heights of Victorian football at all levels and we are firmly in the frame of mind that when a national second division presents itself, we want to be a part of that discussion.
“We’re a united front across our men’s, women’s and junior programs and everything is coming together.”
Facilities have also been a major agenda item for the club and redevelopment of BT Connor Reserve, which has been aided by the City of Darebin Council, as well as the generous donation of money and services from the Preston business community has been crucial to the club’s drive forward.
“I think we’re really only just scratching the surface of what’s possible in terms of our partnership with Council and Government,” he said.
“The administration of the club has been working so hard over the last six or seven years and it’s thanks to a passionate group of volunteers which makes the progress we’ve made extraordinary.
“To see that pay off with the night we had against Melbourne City and our new partnership with them, it was incredible.
“I grew up watching Preston. That Friday night I left the sponsorship stand to go and see some of the game with the rank and file and sitting there with so many people in the industrial back streets of Reservoir at our first official night game was something special.”
Preston remains on the lookout for businesses looking to support their charge forward.
Anyone interested in supporting the club or joining as a sponsor/partner should contact Sekulovski or Preston via their Facebook page or club website.
Bobby Despotovski has what some may call the perfect balance of considered objectivity and passion for football in Australia. Having announced his decision to leave his role as head coach of Perth Glory’s W-League squad late last year, the 2005/06 Johnny Warren Medal winner has had a break from the pressures of the top job for a few months now.
A West Australian through and through, Despotovski is Perth Glory’s all-time leading goal scorer and second on their all-time appearances list. As coach of the club, he led Perth to two Grand Finals and was the recipient of the W-League Coach of the Year in season 2016/17.
Despotovski sat down with Soccerscene to discuss his love for West Australian football, his fondest memories from his time in the W-League, playing a hand in the development of Sam Kerr, Australian football’s future and the significance of the 2023 Women’s World Cup for Australia as a whole.
What was the reason for you calling an end to your time as a W-League coach for Perth Glory?
Bobby Despotovski: COVID-19. I would not be able to take weeks off to go into a hub as that would jeopardise my work. When COVID wasn’t present it was fine, but as soon as COVID-19 hit that was it. That was the reason I quit.
Through all of the challenges of COVID-19 there was a bright moment as it was revealed Australia would be hosting a World Cup with New Zealand. Being that you’re such a vocal champion of football down under, particularly in Western Australia, what was your reaction to seeing that Australia was set to host a Women’s World Cup?
Bobby Despotovski: Obviously I was happy for Australia
A tournament of that stage coming to Australia is great because it’s going to put football in the mainstream of the Australian public and they’re going to see how big football all over the world is.
To be quite honest, it is going to open eyes in the media and in the wider public in terms of getting them to appreciate the wider game of football and how big it is worldwide.
That’s a great point, it could be a really significant moment in terms of bringing football into the mainstream.
Bobby Despotovski: 100%. It happened in Japan and it happened in America. Specifically, America [is a good comparison], because the American and Australian [football] market is similar in terms of our football not being the mainstream game. And then all of a sudden as soon as they had their Men’s and Women’s World Cups it becomes a mainstream sport.
So that needs to happen here in Australia as well, so that people can appreciate the game and have their eyes open to something else.
Being that you were the Perth Glory W-League coach for five years, what do you believe have been the greatest improvements in the W-League from your start to now?
Bobby Despotovski: [When I came in] we put into place a five-year plan.
Because as soon as Europe started becoming stronger, I sort of knew that all of the best [W-League] players from the Australian market are not going to go anymore to America, they are going to go to Europe. It is very hard because the European leagues go for a lot longer than the American league.
So, I knew that we were going to lose all of the best players and that’s why we started a five-year plan. About four years ago we, the Glory, started up that all the local good footballers had a career path to go through. We were right in the thick of it and we had a good squad of young players coming through, in fact we had seven young players that had actually represented Australia in the younger levels.
So, we were in a good space to be knowing that none of the clubs will attract international players because Europe is the market now.
That’s great, you & the club actually set out to evolve the club and to give Western Australia a platform to have these players come up. It’s important that you put in place a strategic direction. But, have you seen that with the W-League as a whole?
Bobby Despotovski: Not really because [for example] we’ve seen Melbourne City struggle big time this year because they invested heavily in overseas players and the best Matildas players. And realistically, what happened in the A-League happened in the W-League.
What is going to happen to the Matildas has already happened to the Socceroos, unless we make changes.
Australian football, in general, is very good at watching what they develop without having a second plan to develop more players that need to come after. And that was evident in the Socceroos with the Golden Generation disappearing, or retiring, and there was nothing after.
I think that Australian football is the only nation in the world where you can be twenty-two years of age and have represented the Olyroos, but you haven’t played three games in the A-League. Which is unheard of in football terms across Europe, South America and wherever else.
Where do you think Australian football as an industry is at in the present?
Bobby Despotovski: It’s in the crossroads to be honest. The A-League has obviously suffered because of COVID, which is evident. And obviously COVID is not a good thing to have happened to the world, but COVID-19 was the best thing for Australian football going into the future.
And why I’m thinking that is because we’re not going to be spending any more money on the 38- and 40-year-olds coming to Europe for their retirement funds here, we’re now going to invest in our kids here to start playing. Maybe in the short-term the league might suffer until these kids grow up to become footballers, but you’ll have a sustained program going forward for the long years ahead.
You can see with Australian football at the moment there’s a direction being taken towards alignment. Do you endorse this as the next step for Australian football?
Bobby Despotovski: Absolutely. We need a second division but who’s going to fund that?
People have to understand that you have a lot of regulations in the A-League. There is a collective bargaining agreement, which is a $72,000 minimum wage for the footballers and once you go into the second division, is that classified as a full-time professional? So, if you have a minimum squad of 23 its over $1.6 million. You tell me who has $1.6 million to pay their players in the second division? Or for that matter here in Perth.
We’re talking about our second division without our first division, the A-League, being sound. We [currently] don’t have a television deal [past July] and we’re talking about the second division being broadcast.
If you start the second division [in the next few years] it’s going to impact the A-League crowd wise. At the end of the day, you have to think about the longevity of the league. There’s no point in introducing a second league, because say South Melbourne, Sydney Croatia or Marconi Stallions want to go in there. We need to think about how its going to impact football around Australia.
Comparing the NSL era to now, are there major differences in terms of the standards at clubs?
Bobby Despotovski: The clubs are full-time, all of them are full-time, but playing wise it is not much different. When you look at it, the players that you used to have here now are your imports from overseas. Now you have a player like Diamanti whereas before we had Paul Trimboli. So, at the end of the day, you’re now paying for the quality and that in itself shows you where Australian football went.
What are some things you look back on fondly in your career as a player?
Bobby Despotovski: The whole lot. Especially when the clubs started and we were unknown and we would just have a good time. We could go and play football, have a couple of beers and go out and then jump on the flight back home. That’s what I look back on
I don’t remember many games and things like that, because that’s hazed. But you meet wonderful people along the journey and the friendships stay. And that’s the most important thing that you get out of the game.
What do you see as your greatest achievements in your time coaching at Perth Glory?
Bobby Despotovski: Putting the steps in for the club’s longevity and creating a right path for the girls. I could talk about a grand final or Sam Kerr, but even with that we only played a small part in Sam Kerr’s development.
Probably about 5-6 years ago there were a couple of interviews that I gave when I was calling that if she started scoring a few more goals that she was going to be one of the best players in the world and everybody laughed at me. That was our target to teach Sam Kerr to start scoring a lot more goals and we changed her position from winger to striker.
Now people are taking the credit for her development which is fine, I don’t care about that. I’m just happy [to] see Sam Kerr doing what Sam Kerr does, because she’s a wonderful human being.
What have been your own most significant learnings about Australian football in your many years of contribution to the sport here?
Bobby Despotovski: I quickly learned what Australian football is and what the character of an Australian footballer is. They were very fit, could run, tackle, hassle and could do all of that, but they were not technically sort of gifted. So, the technical abilities of the players were neglected and the physical attributes were prioritised. Which is fine, I don’t dispute that but somewhere along the line we lost that hardness.
This is where the 4-3-3 system came into play and the technical people from Holland came and disregarded everything that categorised an Australian footballer. They took that all away and focused on developing skills.
So, what I’ve been saying for the last ten years is that nothing categorises an Australian footballer now. An Australian footballer is in between being hard and being half-fit with a new skill level. That’s why we see a lot of Australian footballers coming back from Europe because they are not gifted technically and the physical attributes have been taken away from them.
Is it then a case of the development of Australia’s footballers being a microcosm for the sport’s wider struggle to find its identity?
Bobby Despotovski: Put it this way, from the old NSL, a majority of the players who went overseas played in the Premier League and they didn’t come back.
The players who go there and come back claim to be homesick, how untrue. They are not good enough. Let’s admit that we are not good enough and then start working on that. The first step to solving a problem is admitting there is a problem. Let’s admit what we are not good at and then start fixing it, but don’t take away what we are good at.
We lost two generations of kids and that’s why the youth national teams are struggling. 20 and 21-year-olds are not playing competitive games.
Owners of clubs want instant results as well, and so there is not an emphasis on developing footballers for Australian football because it’s a private entity. And I am not blaming owners of the clubs as they have to put in the money and their hands in their own pockets, but there has to be an emphasis on developing young players and young players getting opportunities.
“I’d like to share with you what I walked into in January 2020,” Johnson told the audience in Melbourne.
“I walked into Football Australia and what I understood from the off was that the organisation had really lost a sense of unity. I believe the organisation had lost its connection with the community.”
Johnson criticised the focus of the governing body’s financial model, believing it was not looking after the best interests of the game overall.
“The business model was heavily centred on the A-League,” he said.
“That was what decision making evolved around, while other parts of the game, in my opinion, were neglected. The business model was disconnected, fractured and was inefficient. It was inefficient because of the duplication of administration. It wasn’t set up to foster growth for a thriving football ecosystem.
“The model denied the most significant part of our game, our identity, our community, our people, our stories, our diverse and multicultural base and our great national teams.
“In place of this identity, we’ve allowed a narrative to proliferate over the past 10-15 years that is divided, politicised, old soccer against new football, but this is not what our game is.”
The former Brisbane Strikers player admits that the game is far from perfect in this country and needs to address a range of issues.
“We have some really serious challenges ahead of us,” he said.
“We don’t own enough facilities for our growing base, we have too many players, we are turning children and families away from our code because we don’t have enough infrastructure around the country. This is a real issue.
“The performance gap that we released in 2020 tells us that the age group that plays the most minutes in our elite men’s competition (the A-League) is the age of 32. We are not giving enough opportunities for our players under 23. We also have challenges with our football pyramid, we must reconnect our pyramid so we can unleash this potential of an ecosystem.”
Since Johnson was appointed as CEO early last year, the governing body has shifted their business model allowing them to deliver strategic priorities and focus on initiatives such as: the implementation of the domestic match calendar, the proposed introduction of a domestic transfer system, a half slot to the ACL for the FFA Cup winner and more. Johnson believes factors such as these are vital to reconnecting Australian football’s national pyramid.
In his speech at the Community in Business event, the former senior executive at the AFC, FIFA and the City Football Group also strongly emphasised the importance of recognising the game’s history properly, something the game has continued to neglect in previous years.
“We have a rich history and it must be celebrated,” he said.
“There are moments in our game, that not only shaped the game, but they shaped the way that our country is. In 1974, we sent our first men’s team to the World Cup led by Rale, in 1993 Maradona came here, in 1997 Iran broke our hearts, in 2005 a famous penalty got us to our first World Cup in many decades and in 2020 we won the rights to host the Women’s World Cup.
“Our game is full of these moments and I think if you all think about those moments, people will remember where they were when they occurred. We forget that our clubs in this country predated federation. We forget that football was the first sport in Australia to have a national competition in the 70’s. We forget the first cup competition in this country was in the 60’s, the Australia Cup.
“We forget that women played football in this country as early as 1909. Nearly 42 years ago, our very first Matildas stepped out onto Seymour Shaw Park for the first Matildas match. Now, we are only a few years away from the biggest sporting event for women in the world coming to our shores.
“We forget that 99 years ago our Socceroos played their first match against New Zealand. We are one year away from 100 years.
“We forget the role that football played in the lives of indigenous children, like John Moriarty, Jade North and Kyah Simon.
“We forget that our national competitions have always been the hallmark of our game. The NSL for many, many years. Our history provides us with platforms to move forward to and to launch a bold, exciting future for our sport.”
Johnson sees the Women’s World Cup in 2023 on home soil as the perfect avenue to establish a strong future for the game.
“We are focused on creating that link between our national teams, in particular the Matildas and our community,” he said.
“Our base of 2 million participants is great, but only 22% per cent of our base are women and girls. There is a direct link between the importance and relevance of national teams and the base of community. With our national teams starting up again, you will see over the next 3 years (particularly with the Women’s World Cup) that our base will grow further and it will grow well.
“Our ‘Legacy 23’ framework is an ambitious plan to maximise the opportunities that the legacy of the Women’s World Cup (WWC) will provide us. Legacy is not something that starts after the WWC, it started last month. We’ve got to try as best as possible to ensure the WWC has a long-lasting legacy, similar to what happened with the Sydney Olympics in 2000.”
The FA CEO concluded by calling on every single stakeholder to be open to change, including the governing body itself, and push forward to make the sport the best it can be.
“If we are to reach the potential of our game, each and every one of us, every stakeholder, Football Australia, Member Federations, clubs, leagues, our community need to be open to change,” he said.
“Change and innovation are the commodities that we must deal with in 2021. I’m under no illusions that Football Australia must continue to earn the trust and confidence back from our stakeholders and community. To do this, we need deeds not just words.
“Let’s seize this opportunity and put our best foot forward.”
Football Victoria will also be celebrating the five-year anniversary of CIB in 2021, a program which was the brainchild of current FV Head of Commercial Anthony Grima and prominent business identity Professor Greg Stamboulidis.
FV’s Community in Business network was established after extensive research was conducted in 2014 on sponsorship data. At the time around 2,000 businesses invested commercially into grassroots community football in Victoria, with significant financial contributions made to over 350 clubs in the state.
Grima further explained to Soccerscene the origins of Football Victoria’s Community in Business program.
“It was created to provide a platform for businesses, football clubs and their sponsors, media and all levels of government to unite in their shared passion for the world game,” he said.
“It really was born out of one of those ‘write on the napkin’ type moments over a coffee in Ivanhoe. The idea just grew legs from that very moment. It seemed right and we knew the grassroots game needed it.
“We knew that this shared passion would lead to the development of meaningful relationships between the vast range of stakeholders in football and provide them with affordable and effective opportunities to connect with one another for mutual benefits and returns; and at the same time achieve important outcomes for football in Victoria.”
The membership-based program had its launch event in late November 2015, on the back of the Socceroos Asian Cup success earlier in that year.
“We were thankful to have the then Socceroos Head Coach Ange Postecoglou and Socceroos legend Josip Skoko, amongst others, to launch the new community initiative,” Grima said.
“Approximately 100 guests of the Victorian football community were invited to help us launch the new initiative. The event was hosted by George Donikian, who we are also very grateful to, being our inaugural MC and first Honorary Member.
Since then, the Community in Business brand has continued to grow exponentially, with over 100 businesses in any given year signing up as members to fund the program.
A major drawcard of these events are the special guests who attend the multiple functions across the year.
“Our feature guests continue to reflect the ethos of supporting every level of the game,” Grima said.
“We make sure that we are always celebrating Victoria’s football achievements, by unifying the achievements of football past, present and future in this country and the diversity of our great game.”
Guests from over the years include Harry Kewell, Graham Arnold, Craig Johnston, Archie Thompson, John Aloisi, Lisa De Vanna, Melissa Barbieri, Tony Vidmar, Paul Wade, Craig Foster, Les Murray and many more.
Other notable events over the course gave members the opportunity to meet former Manchester United and Liverpool players such as Wes Brown, Louis Saha, David James, Emile Heskey and Steve McManaman.
Occasions such as this couldn’t be possible without the assistance of event organisers, who the federation works alongside.
“A big thanks must go to the team at MSE Events,” Grima said.
“The events are very thoughtfully considered and planned, as much as possible, around special events where the celebration doesn’t end at the luncheons.
“For example, when Brazil and Argentina were in town, we gave all our members free tickets to these matches.”
Grima believes that without the support from clubs, businesses and the football community as a whole, the program wouldn’t be where it Is today.
“I am personally proud of how far the program has come,” he said.
“It is called Community in Business because it is a network that is owned and valued by the community. We are all in the business of making this community great. Together we can achieve more for our game, unified as friends in football.
“Community in Business continues to demonstrate how business and community can work together to achieve extraordinary outcomes for our game.”
More information on Football Victoria’s Community in Business program can be found here.