Individuals, not systems, the focus at Western's new AIS-inspired academy

Western United coach Mark Rudan with Dylan Pierias Source: Getty Images

It's not very often that you’re given the opportunity to forge an entity that could come to define the very soul of a football club, but that is the opportunity that has presented itself to those at Western United in recent months.

This Sunday, the sophomore club's academy sides will play for points for the very first time against Box Hill United at Wembley Park in Melbourne’s East.

Initially, the club’s moves into the youth space will be small ones; with Western set to field an Under-21 side under the stewardship of former Olyroo Ante Moric in their local senior NPL3 Victoria competition, and an U-19 team guided by New Zealand international and South Melbourne legend Vaughan Coveny in the competition below.

Though the relationship, at this stage, is just a partnership, Western have also forged a pact with women’s Victorian state league powerhouse Calder United, who, after losing last year due to COVID-19, are seeking to replicate a 2019 season that saw them win every trophy on offer in the top Victorian women’s league.

“I’m excited, they’re [Western’s players] excited and the club’s excited,” Moric said.

“We believe that we picked out some of the best talent in the west that hadn’t had an opportunity. There’s so much talent in the west. There’s so much talent everywhere in Australia but especially here in Melbourne.

“You go down to Geelong and Ballarat – they came from everywhere to have a go.”

Western first entered the A-League ahead of the 2019-20 season after receiving one of two expansion licences from Football Australia (then, the FFA) in late 2018.

On-field results were positive for the green and black-clad side, navigating the highs and lows of expansion to reach finals football and, in Italian superstar Alessandro Diamanti, field one of the most skilful and larger-than-life players to hit Australian shores - across any code - in decades.

Off the field, however, growing pains were clear.

With the privately-funded boutique stadium in Melbourne’s west still stuck in the planning and concept stages, the club played across a range of venues in Victoria during their first season: Geelong’s Kardinia Park, Ballarat’s Mars Stadium and Footscray’s Whitten Oval.

Though the ground-hopping did ostensibly fit with their vision of being a team ‘Of the West’, this nomadic trek across cavernous AFL grounds did little to foster the creation of a strong, emotional and loud connection with fans.

These fledgling steps into the youth space, the club believes, are the first of many designed to address that.

For Rudan, the Western academy will centre itself less around the creation of a mirror of his senior side but, instead, as an environment in which players' individual capabilities are developed.

From there, their ability to slot into a system - bolstered by their higher base - can be polished.

“You’ll see with Ante Moric and Vaughan Coveny that our academy players, it’s more likely that they won’t be playing the same system as we do in the first team because it’s not about systems for me, it’s about development,” Rudan told The World Game.

“That’s making sure that the individual gets enough time where they can hone their skills and improve every day on their skillset.

“We talk about improvement and things that players are good at and we sometimes work too much on the improvement [of weaknesses] side of things, I think it’s also important to continue to work on their good skillsets - if they’re a good dribbler, good first touch, good shot on them, or even their running capability. It really is about improving and developing the individual.”

Born in Sydney’s west, Rudan is a product of the famed youth academy of Sydney United, which across the years also helped produce Australian football luminaries such as Tony Popovic, Ante Milicic, Zeljko Kalac, and Mile Jedinak.

He also spent a period at the legendary Australian Institute of Sport program - rooming with Mark Viduka - at a time when it was honing the development of a cohort of players that would go on to make up Australia’s ‘Golden Generation’, and the Western coach is hoping to import some of the techniques that worked so well back then into his new academy.

“For us, it’s almost like the Institute of Sport,” he explained. “I was there for a couple of years and went there as a midfielder but I left as a central defender and ended up having a career in the game because of that.

“I’m not talking about changing positions. For me, what I got more out of the institute was being a better footballer, being better educated in terms of what a professional footballer should behave like in terms of diet, sleeping habits and the level of professionalism.

“That’s the kind of attitude that we want at our academy: becoming a better professional and honing your individual skills - because a good player can play any system.

“It’s not so much about sticking to a philosophy or even a playing formation, I think style matters, it’s the principles that are important, it’s not so much the formation. I think a lot of people get that wrong.

“For example, can your first touch and body shape be in a position where you can go forward first? That’s giving you a bit of dissecting in certain skills that we’re looking for.”