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Vaughan Coveny: How the NSL bred elite players, coaches, and administrators

Recently, George Vasilopoulos and Peter Abraam spoke with Soccerscene to explore how the NSL’s community-driven model became a production-line for elite sporting administrators and commercially thriving clubs.

With the prospect of a future National Second Division gaining traction, the revival of the community model in Australia’s topflight may once again become a reality.

To continue the conversation, South Melbourne legend Vaughan Coveny joined the returning Vasilopoulos to share his experiences from a player’s perspective and provide his insights into the club’s culture of success, both on and off the park.

“I was playing at Wollongong and Frank Arok was manager at the time. South Melbourne was one of the biggest clubs in the country at the time and everybody wanted to go there. I was honoured to get the call,” Coveny recalls.

“What made the club so successful was the high expectations and standards set by everybody. It wasn’t just one factor or one superstar player, but the whole club. That drive for success and high level of standards filters down. It’s how these big clubs create that aura about them.”

The Kiwi would go on to make almost 300 senior appearances for South Melbourne over three stints, scoring more than 100 goals.

“Initially, Frank (Arok) was there with Ange (Postecoglou) as his assistant. We had a young squad. Frank was a bit older and experienced, he had coached Australia and just oozed enthusiasm and love for the game which rubbed off on the players,” Coveny said.

The forward scored more than 100 goals for South Melbourne FC.

“He got a lot out of that younger group and was responsible for developing a lot of those players to eventually play for the Socceroos.”

Coveny himself would go onto become the record goal scorer for the New Zealand national team, while many others forged successful careers domestically and abroad.

Although Arok inspired and nurtured the young playing group, he departed in 1996, leading to the appointment of his assistant – at the time untried head coach, Ange Postecoglou.

For George Vasilopoulos, Former South Melbourne FC President (1989-2002), there was plenty of pressure to make the correct decision but ultimately, he decided the best approach was to promote from within rather than seek an external candidate.

“It was risky, as he was seen as a very young man for the job. There was a lot of resistance from board level but at the time I was happy to take the risk given his character and knowledge,” Vasilopoulos said.

“I remember that we lost a number of games to start the season and people were convinced it was the wrong choice. Many people wanted to sack him, but I was there in 1979 when the club finished last and the reason for that is that we sacked three coaches. I learned a lot of lessons from that period, good and bad. I knew we needed to stick by him.”

“In those days I would attend every training session and spend every weekend with the players, travelling to games and in the dressing rooms. I had an extremely close relationship with the group. They would tell me that he was the right man for the job, and it was them, not the coach causing the poor results.”

Coveny experienced this period first-hand and was part of the squad that ultimately went onto achieve great success under Ange Postecoglou.

After a disappointing 1996 season where South finished 8th, the club would make a preliminary final before winning back-to-back championships in 1998 and 1999.

“When Ange took over, he brought his own style. A different style and philosophy to Frank. He had a great team to work with and because he (Postecoglou) was a previous player, he knew exactly what it meant to win championships,” Coveny said.

The club’s talented group drove the team’s on-field success and this further built the strong relationship the players and coaches shared with the fans.

Like many other football clubs throughout Australia, South Melbourne’s fanbase was, and continues to be, entrenched in the city’s migrant community.

This is something Vasilopoulos believes contributed to the tightknit atmosphere which promoted inclusion and ultimately led to a large supporter base made up of people willing to invest time and money back into the club.

“Football promotes diversity. When I started following the club in the 1960s it was vital for bringing people together. A lot of people who arrived in Australia at the time not knowing the language or customs had a common interest to focus on,” Vasilopoulos recalled fondly.

“This wasn’t just for Greek people but for all of the people in the area who supported the club. It was a place for people to get away from politics and work and come together for the love of football.”

For the players, this commercial success during the 1990s led to many benefits. From elite training facilities to world class infrastructure, the lucrative sponsorship dollars were heavily reinvested into the club and its personnel.

Coveny remains New Zealand’s record goal scorer.

“I played my first game when Bob Jane Stadium opened. I remember we lost against West Adelaide, but there were 16,000 people at the ground.”

“That’s why the players want to go to the best clubs. We had great fans, but also the best facilities and the best of everything. As a player, it encourages you to develop and excel.”

“Club sponsors are so valuable to clubs. At the time, our sponsors and supporters were very generous. If players or staff were producing on the field, we got the best of everything. This translated to contract negotiations, where players at most of the clubs were well looked after. Without the sponsors and the fans, that revenue simply wouldn’t have been there,” Coveny said.

The success of the club during this period, commercially and on-field, was founded on a community model where passionate fans and administrators contributed their time and money. Although this led to the club becoming a powerhouse of Australian sport during the 1990s and early 2000s, the sporting landscape has largely changed. Today, many argue whether this will governance style would translate to the modern era where privatisation rules and clubs rely on the investment and influence of their owners.

Coveny, who now works as Head of Football at Essendon Royals, is hopeful but somewhat pessimistic that at the community-driven model can translate to today’s elite sporting environment.

“I think it’s a lot harder these days. It could work but now you need the resources and facilities. In football, we always struggle for grounds and funding and often have to share facilities with other sports,” he said.

“It may be achievable, but it would need a lot of work and people and clubs would have to work extremely hard to make it happen.”

Why 2021 was a groundbreaking year for Australian football

Olympics

As 2021 draws to a close, it has proved to be another fantastic year of growth for the game.

With the 2023 Women’s World Cup on home soil edging closer, the tournament is one of the main driving forces behind facility funding and infrastructure in particular that will play a key role for the Matildas and visiting teams.

In a recap of 2021 highlights, Soccerscene picks out five contributors towards a groundbreaking year for Australian football.

The APL have officially been given the reigns

The long-awaited hand over of Australia’s professional leagues has provided A-League club owners with greater impetus to invest than ever before. The impact of the unbundling, which was officially confirmed at the last possible minute on December 31, 2020, is yet to be fully realised. But it has to be said that the signs thus far point to a positive future for football.

The Australian Professional Leagues (APL), the entity charged with growing the professional leagues in Australia, have already begun to endear themselves to the passionate domestic football fanbase, simply through making substantial decisions for the benefit of football in the short and long-term.

ViacomCBS

So far, the APL have delivered. A unified A-Leagues which has seen the Men’s and Women’s game united under one banner; the wholehearted support of broadcaster 10 ViacomCBS as the home of Australian football; the launch of the KEEPUP digital platform to serve as the go-to hub for all things domestic and international football; and a $100 million investment into football here from American private equity firm Silver Lake.

There is no denying that those who have sought to take the game in a positive direction are seeking to do as such through their actions, rather than their words.

Investment in National Premier Leagues infrastructure across the country

National Premier Leagues (NPL) sides across Australia placed a significant focus on the growth and investment into their infrastructure in 2021.

As of November, the upgrades to Clennett’s Lightwood Park are underway, ensuring that Kingborough Lions FC’s home ground will be given a significant opportunity to potentially host training basecamps for the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023.

The club were recipients of a portion of the Tasmanian Government’s $10 million pledge to upgrade facilities in preparation for hosting World Cup content.

Tasmania

NPL NSW 4 side Parramatta Eagles FC were successful in securing a well-overdue upgrade to the iconic Melita Stadium. The Eagles contributed $20,000 to the upgrade and were successful in obtaining $50,000 from the Community Building Partnerships Program.

Melita Stadium is a historic venue known to all that love the world game and has been given a new lease on life thanks to the funding. Beyond the historic relevance, the arrival of the upgrade to Melita Stadium in 2021 contains with it the symbolic implication of an overriding investment into football facilities across the board.

Edgeworth Eagles’ nearly $1.5 million development has ushered the historic Northern NSW side into a new era. A quarter of a million of the investment went into floodlighting to provide adequate lighting for the club’s many programs and teams, leaving them as the only NPL side with 500 Lux on their ground.

Eagles

In addition, Victorian NPL 2 side North Sunshine Eagles saw a newly redeveloped $8.4 million facility based in Ardeer established to house their entire junior setup out of More Park from 2022.

The facility has two full size rectangular pitches, a 21x12m fully enclosed futsal court, a mini pitch (suitable for MiniRoos), four female-friendly changerooms as well as a fully accessible sports pavilion, community social room and expanded carpark.

The efforts being made by these clubs (and plenty more) must be commended, particularly in light of yet another COVID-19 impacted season that forced competitions across the country to end early.

State federations make strides to advance the game 

Exciting partnership news extended across the country, with notable deals including: Football South Australia announcing a new eight-year partnership with leading LED manufacturer One World LED & Sportal; Football West linking up with Veo Technologies to support West Australian clubs; and Capital Football beginning their new apparel partnership with Australian sports clothing manufacturer ISC.

Football Queensland have taken immense strides as a member federation this year, following the release of Future of Football 2020+. In August, FQ Members voted on 11 resolutions put forward with an overwhelming show of support for the Future of Football 2020+ reforms, the first the game has seen in 20 years.

Football West CEO James Curtis stepped down from his role with the intention of setting a precedent of leadership succession for the West Coast’s representative football federation, and perhaps for Australian football as a whole.

Football West

In a sport where in-fighting and over-politicising has undoubtedly impeded the game in the past, such movements are indicative of the changing approach to how football is governed.

The women’s game is given the focus it deserves

With the excitement of an upcoming Women’s World Cup to be co-hosted with New Zealand in 2023, opportunities have finally been presented to the women’s game to give it the attention and investment it has deserved. Such spotlight is undeniably overdue, especially considering the overwhelming presence and support of the Matildas across the Australian sporting public.

With the women’s game expected to grow in interest and participation over the next decade, female friendly amenities are essential in ensuring a safe and inviting space is facilitated for women to prepare for competition and training.

The lack of female friendly football facilities has been slowly rectified in 2021, with the likes of Nepean Football Association side, St Marys Band Rangers FC, recently seeing an upgrade to the facility at their home ground, Kevin Dwyer Fields. Fresh paint, new bench seating and most importantly lockable showers and toilets for females has been added to the existing change rooms.

The Nest

Football Australia’s announcement in August of a High Performance Coaching Initiative will look to help women’s football move beyond the well documented barriers. In an Australian football first, over 150 women coaches at various levels will partake in a comprehensive study to better understand their coaching landscape in the first phase of the Initiative.

By taking on an evidence-based approach, women coaches in football will be supported, engaged with, developed, and retained to increase the numbers in high performance.

For regional football, a NSW Government funded talent identification and youth development program was announced in January to take place over the next three years to help young girls who aspire to play for the Matildas.

The $750,000 initiative is designed for girls aged 12 to 18 years old, with funding to support the establishment of training hubs across the state and identifying talented young players will be further supported through the provision of training camps and player support scholarships.

Australian football finally has the ‘new dawn’ it’s been waiting for

Starting anew, with expansive scope available to Football Australia, the APL and the member federations to lead Australian football out of its tumultuous, and often chaotic, adolescent years, the opportunity is now here to ensure that Australian football reaches its lofty potential.

There is plenty to be excited for, particularly with a National Second Division touted for 2023 that will arguably stamp Football Australia and the APL’s commitment to uniting the game between the professional, semi-professional and grassroots tiers.

Ultimately however, Australian football needs to work to win back many fans who have become disenchanted with how the game has been run. In an interview with Soccerscene ahead of the A-Leagues season, 10 ViacomCBS Executive Producer Geoff Bullock acknowledged that the broadcasters were looking to bring a “fan-first approach to broadcasting football” in Australia. If one thing is clear about the future, Australian football must reignite the passion of the fans in this country.

References to a ‘new dawn’ for Australian football will understandably be taken with a grain of salt from the footballing public. But even the most tentative Australian football adherent would feel a greater hope and optimism for the future. It’s simply a matter of patience.

Fans

Marshall Soper – the Gifted Journeyman

When Marshall Soper, the former Socceroo great, witnessed the demise of Harry Souttar with his ACL injury in the recent Socceroo World Cup home clash against Saudi Arabia on November 11th, his thoughts flashed back to the 29th March, 1987 when he was playing with Sydney Olympic against Sydney City.

With one turn of his body early in the first half, Soper was writhing on the ground in agony after tearing the cruciate ligament in his right knee and was forced to sit out the season following a complete knee reconstruction.

It was ironic that Luke Brattan, the Sydney FC holding midfielder, also befell the same fate in the FA Cup clash against Sydney Olympic on 24th November.

A lot of water has fallen under the bridge since Soper captivated the football community after his first appearance for Apia-Leichhardt in the 1981 NSL season, followed by his rapid rise to Socceroo stardom in 1982.

Who could ever forget the matches against Juventus in 1984 when the Italian champions toured Downunder.

His performances, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne were simply mesmerising as he toyed with the Juventus defence, leading to the expulsion of Cabrini, the famous Italian left back, who had no answer to Soper’s skills in Sydney.

Yet Soper’s failure to capitalise on his huge talent was also exemplified after his outstanding display on the Socceroo’s tour match against Arsenal at Highbury in November, 1984. On the night he gave the England left back and captain, Kenny Samson, nightmares while scoring two goals for the Socceroos in a 3-2 loss to the Gunners.

In August, 1985, Red Star Belgrade, the Yugoslav champions toured Australia and the goal Soper scored at St George Stadium in the 4-1 win by the Socceroos was world class.

Beating two Red Star defenders at the half way mark, Soper sprinted to a position just outside the penalty area. The advancing keeper tried to narrow the angle but Soper pushed the ball with the outside of his right foot into the corner of the net.

First team players and coaches Marshall Soper front row, 6th from the right

 

It was at this time, people recognised that this man was no mere mortal as he made the big name Red Star players look ordinary that day.

Soper’s life has always been dedicated to the game he loves in his extraordinary playing career and for the many years he has spent in technical coaching roles in Australia and Asia.

He returned to Australia in March, 2020 from his three year stint as Technical Director at Yangon United in Myanmar due to Covid 19 and is currently weighing the options in his football life.

In this interview with Roger Sleeman, Marshall Soper discusses his experiences in Myanmar, the standard of football in Australia and how it can be improved, reflects on his playing career and outlines his aspirations in football.

ROGER SLEEMAN

In your three years in Myanmar, what was your experience of facilities, youth development and football standards?

MARSHALL SOPER

Like the rest of Asia, the country is pouring money into football while the investment in Australia is at a standstill.

Yangon United has a full time professional setup for the 1st team, U 21’s and U/18’s. They own their stadium, have an accommodation facility adjacent to the stadium complex which has 120 rooms, full time chefs, restaurants, coffee shops, swimming pool and gymnasium and support staff.

I had my own driver and the players would walk from their accommodation to the training ground while the club has a fleet of buses to transport supporters to matches.

The club plays in the National League and in 2019 we played in the Asian Champions League and topped the group.

The first year I joined the club, they hadn’t won anything but in that same season, they captured the three domestic trophies.

It was a full on job for me and not without stress levels while working with coaches, adapting players to professionalism and training seven days a week, sometimes twice a day.

The youth teams played during the week and the 1st team at the weekend so I was either at a training session or a match.

It’s a country which is crying out for help and so committed to youth development which is sadly not the case in Australia.

Here, there’s not the push to develop youth because clubs want to win on the day, rather than having a long term plan. Hence the drop in standards of our national team and our resulting poorer ranking in Asia where we struggle to beat countries like Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia.

Marshall Soper addressing coaches & players regarding pre-season

 

ROGER SLEEMAN

You attended the Socceroos clash with Saudi Arabia on November 11th.

What were your impressions?

MARSHALL SOPER

If you look at the positions the players take up on the pitch, there seems to be a startling resemblance to what the National Curriculum espouses.

The game is still too basic as we use very wide players to cross the ball from three quarters of the pitch at best and there is no attempt to beat opponents, especially through the middle of the park.

On the night, Mitch Duke and Jamie McClaren should’ve started the match to attack the heart of the Saudi’s defence, particularly with the speed of Martin Boyle.

If it hadn’t been for that great block in the first half by Harry Souttar which precipitated his injury ,Australia would’ve probably lost the match but overall our tactics were negative, while the Saudis were perfectly prepared and played us out of our comfort zone.

They dominated the middle of the park and we failed to penetrate from the wide areas.

The truth is, the Saudis had enough of the ball and chances in front of goal to win the game easily.

ROGER SLEEMAN

I performed a basic statistical analysis of A-League players four years ago and discovered that only 10% of them were competent on both sides.

Can you explain this, and what responsibility do technical directors have to improve this situation?

MARSHALL SOPER

At the moment, there is a poor understanding of how to develop the complete player in both the A-League and at NPL level.

As I mentioned previously, the emphasis is on winning rather than developing and in the A-League we’re importing questionable overseas players who are earning easy cash, rather than producing youth players of high quality.

In terms of the youth policy, are we coaching the coaches correctly?

Also, are we appointing people in TD roles with the right knowledge and philosophy to develop players to their maximum potential?

Do these people understand the full spectrum e.g. do they know what it’s like to be injured, what is required of a technical player or a hard working player to be successful and can they develop two sided players.

I doubt if we have the right people in this country to accomplish these objectives.

ROGER SLEEMAN

While you have been back in Australia, have you been approached to coach?

MARSHALL SOPER

I’ve had a number of calls and conversations from A-League clubs who have talked about the position of striker or front third coach but I prefer to look at starting my own academy where I can determine the structure and provide a transparent pathway to European clubs.

Recently, I signed an agreement with 90.1.1 Management Agency which is located in Central Europe and my name is now on their website.

The organisation is a group of licensed football agents who carve a pathway for young players and suitable movement for established players.

I want to cater for quality European players to come to Australia and Asia and for young players from Australia to play in Europe and Asia.

Currently, Kusini Yengi from Adelaide United is managed by the group.

 

Team coaches together with Marshall Soper for weekly match review

 

ROGER SLEEMAN

Not a year goes by when football supporters ask the question as to why you withdrew from the 1985 World Cup qualifiers. It’s firmly believed, if you, Craig Johnston and Tony Dorigo had been available for the two home and away matches against Scotland, our chances to qualify for Mexico,1986 would have increased considerably.

Your comment.

MARSHALL SOPER

I have to carry this burden on my shoulders but we were receiving a very poor pay deal with the national team compared to what the clubs were paying us.

If we were injured for the Socceroos we would’ve received small compensation so we had to ask ourselves, was it worth playing when you were feeding a family?

The answer for me at the time was no and remember there was no PFA in existence at the time to support the players.

ROGER SLEEMAN

Your rejection of the Arsenal manager, Don Howe’s contract offer on the Socceroo world tour in November, 1984 after you scored two goals against the Gunners and played mind games with the England captain and left back, Kenny Samson, is still something your followers can’t understand .

Can you please explain?

MARSHALL SOPER

I had other offers from other clubs, apart from Arsenal and as I look back at what could’ve been, the matter becomes purely hypothetical.

Did I make a difference in Australian football? History records, I was the only player to win five National Cup competitions, two each with Sydney Olympic and Parramatta Eagles and one with Apia-Leichhardt.

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