The secrets of A-League coaching success

The A-League is becoming more cutthroat and coaches need support, guidance and a proper pathway to gain the experience needed to give them the best chance of success, according to three coaches who have seen the competition get ever more ruthless.

Already this season five coaches in the A-League have been replaced, with Gary van Egmond, Alistair Edwards and John Aloisi sacked and Ange Postecoglou and Graham Arnold moving on to different jobs.

Sydney FC’s Frank Farina and Melbourne Victory’s Kevin Muscat are two head coaches who have been under pressure in recent weeks. Tony Popovic, who was appointed to the Western Sydney Wanderers before the start of the 2012-2013 season, now has the longest tenure in the competition despite being in the job for less than two years.

With a combined 54 years of experience in leading teams in the A-League, NSL and State League arenas, Miron Bleiberg, Ian Crook and Branko Culina have seen how the system can chew up coaches and then spit them out.

And dormer Newcastle Jets and Sydney FC boss Culina believes that the pressure A-League coaches face has intensified further.

“I feel for those individuals involved, particularly the younger ones, that have been put in the deep end and not had the support around them to ensure they are successful,” he said.

“We’ve seen just recently, it started with Mehmet Durakovic, a young coach with hardly any experience who was thrown in the deep end. Then we’ve seen it this year with Alistair Edwards, with John Aloisi, now we’re seeing it with young Clayton Zane getting into it.

“We even saw Rado Vidosic, who wasn’t so young, but didn’t have that senior experience even though he had that experience being an assistant coach. There’s a lot of talented, good people who’ve been burnt and in most cases it’s been the clubs at the top who made the decisions and who have then failed to provide them with the support that they needed.

“It’s a pity because of some of those coaches may get another go, but some may not ever get the chance again to prove how good and how valuable they can be to the Australian football scene.”

Ian Crook held assistant and head coach roles at Sydney FC and is now serving as Football NSW’s Coaching Coordinator and he now feels that coaching in the A-League has become “one of the hottest seats in the world.

“There isn’t enough protection I don’t think for coaches,” he said. “I understand that people have got to make decisions and it’s what they believe is best at the time, but personally I don’t believe people are given the time.

“When most people go into a job at a new club, they’ve got a squad there, so it takes probably two to three years to get in a squad that you believe is right to go on with how you want. A lot of them aren’t getting a year at the moment.”

PIc by Kevin Airs/

Alistair Edwards was axed by Perth Glory after 17 games in charge while John Aloisi lasted 18 months with Melbourne Heart.

However ex-Gold Coast United and Brisbane Roar coach Miron Bleiberg believes the high turnover rate in the A-League this season is largely because of the number of rookie coaches. Bleiberg says the competition isn’t becoming too cut-throat when compared to the rest of the football world.

“It's like anywhere in the football world or even better - John Aloisi wouldn't have survived that long in any other football nation,” he said.

“The A-League this year has started with an unusual line up of coaches with very high percentage of young inexperienced coaches, hence the result. There is only one coach over 50 – Ernie Merrick – and I think he proved to everybody that nothing is wrong with being over 50 and experienced.

“Two of the leading clubs in the world – Barcelona and Manchester City – appointed experienced campaigners this season. Without doing any research I'm happy to bet that our coach Ange Postecoglou will be the youngest or second-youngest coach in the World Cup.

“Could be that the media here has to do with it, called 'mateship', but I'm not sure that to have so many young inexperienced coaches in the A-League and in our National Teams, the Under-17s and Under-20s, is doing good to football in this country. Experience is a valuable commodity in any field of life.”

Exactly what makes a good coach remains a bone of contention to some.

A coach can know football inside and out and be a brilliant tactician, but if he loses the dressing room, he is gone. In the same vein, a coach may secure decent results but if fails to gain the support of media and fans, or cannot work effectively with a club’s owners, then he will also face the chop.

A good relationship with supporters and journalists can also prolong an under-performing coach’s tenure.

Bleiberg, who started coaching in Australia in 1985 with Melbourne Knights, says winning matches makes up 80 percent of a good coach’s attributes.

Pic by Getty Images

“In the days of private ownership - a healthy relationship with your boss – is worth 20 percent,” he said. “If you also have money to keep everybody happy then you can dream about being the next Alex Ferguson. I had it in my first two years with Gold Coast United. Tony Popovic has it now.

“You need to have the urge to keep learning and improving, however, there are two more important thing that you have to have and you can't buy by attending coaching courses.

“A) an 'eye' for a player - to identify the right player for the right position for the specific need of your club. B) To have a high 'Social IQ' in order to be able to deal with all the things, like handling the media and managing owners and boards, and more.”

In the eyes of Culina, knowledge of the game and tactics, good man-management, managing media and fan relations, recruitment and dealing with club owners are all vitally important skills to a coach’s make-up.

“One without the other doesn’t quite fall into place,” Culina, who kicked off his coaching career in 1989 with St Albans Saints, said. “Recruiting is vital today but again you have to be allowed to recruit because a lot of the recruiting these days is done by people who don’t know football. A coach doesn’t always have complete control over recruiting.

“Man management goes without saying, if you don’t have man management you’re not going to survive. That’s extremely important.

“Tactically, I think that’s been neglected in Australia for a long time. I’m a great believer in tactics, especially when you don’t have the best team at your disposal and the best players. Tactics play a vital part in that because at the end of the day, a coach they doesn’t have the best players is still expected week-in week-out to be competitive. If tactically you’re not astute, that’s an area where you’re going to fail.

“What is also important is a coach’s ability to relate, not only to the media, but to the supporters. Because of the supporters through social media have a far bigger influence on the running of the team we would probably like them to have. But that’s the way it is today.

“A coach has to be an all-rounder. No coach is excellent in all of those but the ones that are good at most of those, will last a lot longer.”

PIc by Kevin Airs/

Crook, whose first coaching job in football was as an assistant coach with Northern Spirit in 1999, agrees.

“All of them are important,” he said. “I don’t think any one has a bigger part than another. They’re all vitally important to be able to do that.

"The other thing is that I’m hoping once it gets to next season for instance, I can’t see that Mike Mulvey’s going to get fired, I can’t see Tony Popovic, Ernie Merrick. Obviously Clayton Zane’s just in the job, John van’t Schip just came back into the job, Phil Moss is only new into the job, so I’d like to believe if we’re talking this time next year it won’t be the case.”

The outlook for a coach sacked in the A-League is grim. While securing another coaching position is not impossible, there are just 10 roles to go round. Many Australian coaches are forced to head overseas because of the limited number of professional positions available.

“It's hard to get a job in the A League purely because it a 10 club competition,” Bleiberg, now coaching with Victorian Premier League club Oakleigh Cannons, said. “In England you have 92 professional clubs. Most nations have at least two pro divisions, which means 30-40 pro clubs.”

Culina was controversially sacked by the Jets before the start of the 2011-2012 A-League season and joined NSW Premier League outfit Rockdale at the end of 2012. The 56-year old said the biggest problem in Australia is there is no pathway for coaches.

“A player knows if he plays in the different state competitions and then the youth league or whatever, there’s a chance he’ll play in the A-League,” Culina said.

“We never had that for the coaches. Let’s give coaches a pathway as well if they do well. I’m seeing that now that I’m back in the Premier League, which I haven’t coached in for 20 odd years. The Premier League should be a pathway for coaches.

“The coaches in the various State Leagues, it’s a mini A-League job, because they are on a smaller scale having to deal with everything. They are far more qualified then a youth coach or an assistant coach at an A-League club, because when you’re an assistant coach you have no responsibilities for any of those things.

“When you’re a youth coach you have even less responsibility because no-ones going to worry what results you had, no ones going to worry about who you recruit etc etc.

“I’ve seen some really good coaches at state level who’ve got buckley’s chance of coaching at the A-League. I just think it’s unfair to them because they’ve done all the right things.

“A lot of the appointments being made now in the A-League are made by people not involved in football, because the game has been taken over by rich owners who most of them do not understand the sport. And they have employed people to run it for them in a similar situation, therefore they are not as thorough in recruiting the best people, they tend to stick to people they know.”

Victory boss Kevin Muscat is one A-League coach who has been feeling the heat at times this season. Muscat, who had served as an assistant under Ernie Merrick, Mehment Durakovic, Jim Magilton and Ange Postecoglou, took over from Postecoglou three games into the current A-League season.

With Muscat at the helm Victory have managed six wins, six losses and four draws from 16 matches. The club was spanked 5-0 by Wellington and Sydney FC back-to-back, but haw recorded a draw and win in its last two matches. Victory currently sits in fourth place on the ladder, on equal points with the Mariners.

“I personally don't think he is under pressure,” Bleiberg said. “His true coaching ability will be judged next season when he'll choose his own players.”

PIc by Kevin Airs/

Crook feels that Muscat deserves some slack considering the decimated playing roster he has had to deal with.

“People don’t understand in that time is the players he had missing, that never gets mentioned,” he said. “I think the day that played Sydney they had Traore missing, they had the central defender missing. Nichols is gone and Milligan was missing.

"It doesn’t matter how good Man City's bench is, if you take out four or five of their best players [and then it can happen]. 5-0 is disappointing but it’s only a short-term thing, he needs time there. They started to get some players back and they beat the Mariners [away], which is no easy feat.” 

As the A-League has grown and developed the spotlight on coaching has increased. The demands are strong and coaches need more skills, education and credentials than they ever have before in Australia. 

Coaching in the A-League is not for the faint-hearted. With eight rounds left in the regular season, odds are that at least another manager will be relieved of their duties in the next few months.

“It’s more difficult now than ever before because of the popularity of the A-League, the exposure that it’s getting,” Culina believes.

“Coaches always had to more than just a coach. Everyone thinks, the experts think, all you have to be is be knowledgeable about football, you have to put on a good training session and that’s it. No, it’s not.

“We’ve seen that if coaches are given the right resources, Australian coaches, and the support that they need that they can be successful. We’ve seen that with the likes of Postecoglou, Graham Arnold and probably a few others.”