The last decade of the Sunshine Coast Football Club’s journey embodies the ‘rollercoaster ride’ metaphor wholeheartedly.
Founded in 2007 and nicknamed “The Fire”, the club are led by Sporting & Technical Director Melvyn Wilkes, who has first-hand insight into the tumultuous 10-year stretch that saw them go from a dominant force in the now defunct Queensland Soccer League (QSL), to struggling in the National Premier Leagues Queensland (NPLQ) and then to rebranding as a hub for youth development.
Upon the disbandment of the QSL, the NPLQ was born in 2013 with Sunshine Coast FC taking its place as a founding member. However, upon the implementation of the NPL, the Fire could not replicate the same level of success of its senior men’s in the years prior where they had achieved three Championships and a Premiership between 2008 and 2012.
As a part of the newly established NPLQ, the Fire were now required to establish a junior program from U12 to seniors, which was at the time a license requirement of (the then-named) Football Federation Australia and Football Queensland.
From a semi-final spot in their debut NPLQ season, to a lowly 8th position finish in 2014, the Fire began to stutter in the new competition setup. This proved to be the turning point for the owners of the club as they looked for a more long-term strategy which involved the integration of the clubs successful youth into senior football.
At the end of 2014, Sunshine Coast FC Head Coach & Technical Director Kevin A’Hearn Evans parted ways with the club, leading to the separation of the Head Coach & Technical Director roles, with the club owners focusing their attention towards youth development to ensure a pathway for its bright young players.
At this point the best young players would progress into the Queensland Academy Sport (QAS), which eventually filtered into the Brisbane Roar youth program. Today, Sunshine Coast FC remain one of the major developers of youth players in the country.
At the end of 2014, club owner Noel Woodall and Sunshine Coast FC enlisted the assistance of their overseas networks to bring in a Technical Director who had vast experience in developing young players and preparing them for senior football. The incoming Technical Director would be tasked with revamping their youth development program to create a beacon to mirror what our European counterparts were delivering on a weekly basis.
Step forward Melvyn Wilkes, a vastly experienced developer of youth players and coaches, having spent well over 20 years working as a youth coach at clubs such as Manchester City, Nottingham Forest and West Bromwich Albion. In addition, Wilkes worked as a licensed coach educator for the FA and the PFA and represented the FA on UEFA study technical visits, whilst also working as a National Team coach for Guinea Bissau alongside his role as Technical Director for West Bromwich Albion.
Wilkes’ arrival in November 2014 was the starting point for the Fire to make headway into revamping their youth development program whilst also aligning the Senior program as one unified organisation. This would prove to be a substantial undertaking.
Wilkes recalls from the time: “I remember being called to the owner’s house after a couple of days of arriving on the Coast from the UK. We sat around his dining room table at his beach side residence in Peregian Beach.”
“The owner, Noel Woodall, reaffirmed his request for “accountability” from his staff, who he had believed had been underperforming with misplaced trust in previous years.”
As with any business and program, the first port of call was to observe and listen. Wilkes again recalls his first engagement with the parents and staff from the club.
“Noel had advised me that a parents information event had been set for 1 week after my arrival at the Sunshine Coast Stadium (home to SCFC Fire),” he said.
“I stood on the stage in the foyer and spoke openly about my background and my plans moving forwards. Upon the conclusion of the meeting, I had my first indication of how fractured the club was and how there was zero culture going on.”
Wilkes cites the intrusion of misinformed parents with personal agendas as one of the greatest drivers of the toxic environment the club had found itself in.
“Parents were continuously asking; “Who’s coaching this team, who’s coaching that team, we have had this coach for this year and we don’t want him or her again”, it went on like this for around 20 minutes from various parents of players,” he said.
The first three months of the 2015 season proved to be as instrumental an eye opener for Wilkes as he had ever encountered. All of the recruitment for the season had been done prior to his arrival, staff were under qualified or simply unqualified and teams acted like their own mini-football clubs. Change was overdue.
By mid-2015, the disharmony and lack of club culture was evident. There needed to be a renewed starting point and after assisting the next head coach of the seniors, Wilkes was ready to put plans into action.
Wilkes recollects telling the owners at the time that: “This will get a lot worse before it starts to get better, but you have to trust me and give me the time to affect the changes needed, irrespective of the outcomes.”
To the owner’s credit, they stuck by their very word, even after the club suffered relegation from the NPL, with Wilkes spending time with the owners over many cups of tea, keeping them up to speed.
Gradual removal of problem parents and players, as well as negative and under qualified staff, helped to reignite The Fire’s spark.
At this point, the investment into the juniors had overtaken that of the seniors, however, the club owners were still paying its senior players, but not out of the junior funds.
“We will definitely need to go backwards in order for us to move forwards, however, we will not deviate from our course and our plan, nor will we be prepared to throw silly money at Senior players,” Wilkes recalls explaining to the club’s owners at the time.
“We produce our own kids and players which is the platform and foundation for our club, it’s based around discipline and culture and stability.”
Within a subsequent five-year period, the club had blooded numerous young players who are now plying their trade in the NPL and above at various clubs. Despite suffering a relegation, the club have remained steadfast in their rebuild.
2020 was undoubtedly one of the most difficult years in our recent history, with a global pandemic knocking every country sideways. However, this did not intervene with Sunshine Coast FC and it’s plan to progress, as the club amalgamated its private school and football club into Australia’s sole full-time youth football program.
The full-time academy is the only one of its kind in Australia, and at this present time is attracting interest from every corner of the nation, as well as interest from overseas parties who view the program as potentially being a part of a wider network.
Through the program, players receive 16+ hours per week of training, combined with fully funded private tuition. As well as a full-time sports science program that offers the likes of thermo imaging of muscles on a weekly basis, HR variability testing, GPS player tracking and much more.
Very much akin to what Wilkes had built and driven in the UK, the Fire now have a sporting club model that has football at its core.
The redevelopment of the grounds and land acquisition around the college is ongoing, as the venue transforms into an elite sporting training and competition venue, which is located 10 minutes from the newly developed Sunshine Coast International Airport. Wilkes believes this will ensure the College and venue is a prime destination for elite sporting athletes and visiting teams, with the Olympics and Women’s World Cup a target to host training camps alike.
The Fire’s transformation as a representative sporting association in the Sunshine Coast is a testament to the foresight from the club’s owners and Wilkes to revamp the club for good. It is an undeniably significant untold tale in Australian football’s pantheon of incredible stories.