Is coaching in Australian football a closed shop?

by John Davidson on Jul 21, 2012

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Cast your eyes around the ranks of coaching in Australian football and you see a plethora of ex-Socceroos and elite players in the top jobs.

From the A-League to national teams and the State Leagues, it appears that you almost have to have represented Australia or been a professional player at the highest level – or close to it – to become a professional coach.

That’s certainly the view of young Aussie coach Arthur Papas.

Papas, who has had stints coaching at the AIS, Victorian Premier League and the National Youth League, departed overseas last month to take charge of the Indian under-23 Olympic national team.

At first glance it seems a strange move from one of our brightest young coaching prospects, as India is far from a footballing superpower. But Papas says it is all about his further development as a head coach.

“As a character I prefer working under pressure because it challenges me and this what I’m constantly seeking. With this position the team also plays in the Indian I-League as a professional team, so I get to be a head coach in a professional league that is really starting to grow and, to be honest, I want that,” he says.

“If we talk about me leaving Australia I think it’s hard, with someone like myself, I reckon I’ve gotten up to this stage in my career by working hard, improving consistently and relying heavily on my ability to learn to prove what I can do once in a position. To progress further though I sort of don’t think to get ahead in Australia it’s going to be purely reliant on those characteristics. I’m always behind people in Australia because of the stereotype of what it takes to be an elite coach.

“I’m certainly not ungrateful because I have been given opportunities and in return every time I have been given an opportunity I feel I have excelled. My point is I feel I have pushed and pushed as hard as I can but I just think the next jump I need to make is going to be really difficult for me domestically, so I thought to myself, alright, what’s the other way of doing things.

“And for me, there’s not another Australian coach at the age of 32 who’s taken an International foreign team. Does this mean it gets back to me to the A-League as a head coach in the future? No it doesn’t, but in my mind it’s about having a go, daring to be different and accept challenges that many others would not even blink towards.”

At 32 years of age, Papas has already had 16 years learning the craft of coaching, after completing his first coaching course as a teenager. The school teacher continued his football education, hanging up his boots as player in the Victorian Premier League at 25, to focus on coaching. Papas studied the greats coaches of football and went back to university to improve his knowledge. He faced many knock-backs and hardships but refused to give up, committing to work hard and learn everything he could about the beautiful game.

He gained experience as an assistant coach at the Melbourne Knights, led junior state teams and finally succeeding, after many attempts, in gaining a coaching scholarship at the AIS. There he worked with Jan Versleijen, Gary van Egmond and Han Berger, before taking a role as head coach of Oakleigh Cannons in 2011 which he led to a grand final appearance and the coach of the year award. Papas then had a brief stint as assistant youth coach at Melbourne Heart, before heading to Newcastle to rejoin van Egmond as assistant first-grade coach and head coach of the Jets National Youth League team. Along the way he has helped developed players like George Lambadaridis, Jake Barker-Daish Joseph Konyit and Craig Goodwin. Papas now finds himself in a new adventure at the coalface of Asian football.

Papas is under no illusions about his new role and the current state of Indian football.

“From a football point of view I know India isn’t a world power, so I’mnot making out that I’ve joined the elite in football, but what I do know is that I’m definitely going to be a better coach for my experiences,” he says.

“If I can’t get to the level I think I should be at or I want to be at then at least I want to say, I was the best coach I could be and I never made any shortcuts to reach the level I have. And that’s always my way of working, I just want to always be challenged, be true to myself, never compromise my values and always keep being pushed, and then my work has to justify it. I have to be good enough to justify that.“

Papas’ opportunity in India came about through Australia’s Dutch coaching connection. Papas was endorsed by Rob Baan, former technical director of Australia, who is now filling that role in India. It is his goal to improve the style of football the Indian under-23s play, focus on the technical prototype for Indian players and remove the emphasis on producing athletes. Papas is a big believer in youth and the adage that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. A passionate andhard-working individual, Papas remains a committed Socceroo fan and says he is not against former professional players becoming elite coaches.

“It’s about not being so close-minded to the various make-ups, which contribute to the success of a professional coach. Surely we have to reach a stage in Australian football where we can acknowledge this and not be so blind and close-minded regarding this. In my opinion you almost disrespect every football fan in the country who didn’t play at the top level by not acknowledging a case like mine, I am no different to them and all I did was choose a path to pursue, combined it with a talent, and added a mental steel and determination that borders on obsessive,” he says.

“It’s weird. The longer I’m going… I feel like I’m starting to fight a cause for everyone that hasn’t been at that level but wants to do something. I get a heap of feedback now and people contacting me about what have you done to get there, it’s so hard, I’ve been working this hard for so long, I can’t get acknowledged, people bypass me so easily.

“If there was a comparison overseas with top coaches that have done it with very little playing pedigree, I’d say it’s a one off. It’s not and some of the best cases in the world prove this today. It’s actually respected in many areas other than here. Maybe it’s because you’re a threat to the stereotype that’s trying to be built in the country. Is it about what you know, or who you know?”

In the A-League, coaches Graham Arnold, Gary van Egmond, John Kosmina, Gary van Egmond, Tony Popovic, Ange Postecoglu and John Aloisi are all former Socceroos. Ricki Herbert played for the All Whites, Ian Ferguson represented Scotland, Ian Crook was a professional player in England, Japan and Australia (regarded as one of the best English-born players not to have played for England) while Rado Vidosic played professionally in Europe and Australia.

In the State Leagues the likes of Sydney Olympic's Peter Tsekenis, Sydney United's Jean-Paul de Marigny, Marconi's Luke Casserly, South Melbourne's Peter Tsolakis, Bentleigh Greens' Goran Lozanovski, Dandenong Thunder's Stuart Munro, Green Gully's Peter Ollerton, Heidelberg Untied's Andrew Vlahos and Moreland Zebras' Joe Palatsides all played for Australia or had long NSL careers. Our Joeys, Young Socceroos and Olyroos coaches are also all ex-Socceroos, the same as many of our A-League assistants like Ante Milicic, Michael Valkanis, Zelkjo Kalac, Steve Corica, Ron Corry and Kevin Muscat. Socceroo assistant coaches Aurelio Vidmar, Tony Franken and Robbie Hooker all wore the green and gold as players.

Of course, not all of the coaches in the different levels of Australian football have played for Australia, or played professionally in the NSL, A-League or overseas. But a huge majority have, and it certainly doesn't hurt to have played at the highest level and represented your country. It definitely gives you a profile, a valuable insight into the top level and elite coaching, and most importantly, connections in the football world. It's a no-brainer. However, does success as a player guarantee success as a coach?

History says that is not the case.

While some elite players have become fantastic coaches – such as Pep Guardiola, Roberto Mancini, Marco van Basten, Cesare Prandelli and others like Jurgen Klop and Jürgen Klinsmann - there are plenty more who were brilliant off the field but haven't gone close to replicating that form in the dugout. Think Diego Maradona, Bobby Moore, Ruud Gullit, Roy Keane, Bryan Robson, Graham Souness – the list goes on and on. In fact, some of the best coaches in professional football today are those who had either none, very limited or very poor playing careers, like Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger, André Villas-Boas and Brandon Rogers. Obviously, judging an individual should be more about their coaching ability and tendency to get results, rather than their playing pedigree.

Papas says he has not had to leave Australia to achieve his ambitions, but to ensure he doesn't get complacent.

“For example if I had gone to the Victorian Premier League and I got sacked, I’d never get another opportunity. Never. That’s it. I’m finished,” he says.

“There’s many coaches that are working in the higher levels now in Australia that at State leagues have either been sacked or had poor results but they’ll get the opportunities still because their name carries them, but not their performance. Everywhere I go I have to be successful.”

Initially, Papas' goal was to win an A-League championship by the age of 35. For now that's on the back burner, and the aim of the Calcutta-based coach is to continue to improve and gain experience in Asian football. The dream of one day coaching in Europe – something that virtually no Australian has yet achieved – remains.

“I do want to work in Europe and if it means I have to stay in Asia for two to three years to build up my reputation and even my network globally, because, like I said, I don’t have one here but maybe through the likes of Rob and others, basically they look at me for the way I work and not for anything else and I can start to get opportunities in Holland, Belgium, England and start to look that way,” he says.

“Because I love it mate. I really enjoy it. For me the best time is getting on a field. And all the other stuff I really can’t be bothered with so I just want to get into those environments again where I can enjoy my football.”