Lucy Zelic - 'In conversation with': Marko Rudan

SBS The World Game host Lucy Zelic spoke with Western United head coach Marko Rudan as part of her new series of long form interviews with football personalities from Australia and abroad

It’s been quite the football journey for Western United coach, Marko Rudan. Pursuing his love affair with the game via the iconic fields of Edensor Park as a youngster, the central-defender carved out a professional and international career spanning across 16 years before retiring with A-League outfit Adelaide United in 2009.

In 2015, he was inducted into the Sydney FC Hall of Fame after captaining the side to Championship success in the competition’s inaugural season and his eventual transition into coaching saw him win multiple titles with his boyhood club, Sydney United.

Dabbling in television punditry on both Fox Sports and SBS, Rudan established himself as a leading football analyst but it would be his role as head coach of Wellington Phoenix that would showcase his true talents.

Real, raw and honest, I caught up with ‘Rudes’ as he is affectionately known, to find out what we can expect from WUFC, his thoughts on Australian coaches and why he turned down Newcastle Jets four years ago

Less than 10 days out from the A-League season starting, how are you feeling?

Tired! [Laughs] I know excitement is building, not just for our football club being a new club but everybody else in the league. There are long hours, we’re working extremely hard and we understand the sort of football club that we’re at and we’re very clear on who we want to be and where we want to take the club.

Initially it was excitement but right now, two to three months into the job it can be, and many coaches will tell you the same thing, it can be very taxing and exhausting.

Can you give us an insight into just how much work behind the scenes goes into building a new club?

As soon as the license was given, I know that Lou Sticca and Steve Horvat in particular worked tirelessly to build the football club. Steve is very passionate about this club - it’s as important as his family!.

I know how hard they’ve worked to set up the meetings with council and make sure they got the license and the plans that they had. Speaking to Steve, he sold me on his vision and then it was a matter of finding your coaching staff and administrators.

You’ve got to put a playing list together and it’s never easy as a new club because you’ve got to find 23 players in a short space of time.

As a football coach who was part of the process of interviewing every staff member, it was very time consuming. It’s hard to tell you exactly what each person does but I can tell that they do work 24 hours, 7 days a week and we’ve got fantastic people here. They’re all in it for the football club and I am extremely proud of them.     

Mark Rudan
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Western United are the new kids on the block this season. Why will it be a success? 

Because I think we have good people involved at the football club. If I look at my backroom staff, there are people there like John Anastasiades whose been very successful in the NPL in Victoria. John Hutchinson is another one. He had a hard time when he transitioned from player to coach at the Mariners because of the culture that was instilled and the environment that was there at the time. He actually took himself out of his comfort zone and I respect him greatly for that. 

There are so many great guys here that really want to make an impact for the playing group. I am so big on people and if you can get the right humans involved and treat them with respect, I know they’ll walk through a brick wall for anybody or any player at the club. 

How are you hoping to build a strong relationship and rapport with the fans?

That comes down to our culture and our values as a football club. We are the new kids on the block, we understand that. What will set us apart will be our values, our culture and more importantly our identity.

When a fan can associate their own values or themselves with a club, then you’re able to bring them over and then it becomes about keeping them there and then the next question is how do we continue to keep them there?

I know the easy fix is by winning games but it’s important that they feel connected to the club in different ways, more so than just watching a team that’s just going to win.  We need to grow the game and our fan base and I believe it’s through our core values and what our identity is.

You made such an impact at Wellington Phoenix where you were open about your decision to leave. How do you reflect on your season with the club and your first gig in the A-League?

It’s interesting because as a coach, I know that it was my first year with an A-League club but I had been coaching senior football for the best part of nine years.

There were other opportunities that I could have taken to coach in the A-League but I chose not to for different reasons.

Wellington was an interesting one. When everybody told me not to take it, speaking to family was the key. I went out on my own initially because I told them ‘I’ve got to go for the first three months and try to crack a whip here and get this club going in the right direction again’ and I had my own plan.

Ultimately it was emotional and I am quite a passionate person and I am quite open too. In my initial press conference people were asking ‘who’s this Aussie whose never coached in the A-League before talking the talk?’.

It was important for me to start off that way because one thing that I did find very quickly at the club was that they lacked confidence so it was important that they saw a leader who had a lot of confidence.

The messages to the players were quite clear, that we were going to change and I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy fix or one that was going to happen overnight, it was one that gradually improved as the season wore on.

Everyone’s got their different ways of doing that I certainly had my ways of instilling belief in every single player, not just from a football perspective but staff members too. 

I will never ever have a bad word to say about the football club nor the city or the country, I fell in love with the place. I know there was a certain core of fans that were quite upset with what happened thereafter. 

Mark Rudan

That’s surely a testament to you and how much they valued you?

That’s a nice way of looking at it and I hope that’s the case but all I can say is there was no bullshit from me and what you saw was what you got and when you saw an emotional response it was because that’s me.

I was going down two paths - my family made a decision that they weren’t going to come and that it made it extremely hard. As much as I wanted to stay, I was left asking myself; am I letting down my family or am I letting down the football club?

From a personal point of view it’s probably the greatest year that I’ve had. I don’t say that lightly.

I look back now at the person that I am sitting down and the view that I have on life and how I look at things is completely different to the person I was few years ago or even 12 months ago.   

Can you go into some of the reasons why you didn’t feel it was the right time to accept those previous A-League offers?

I was having dinner at home and I got a call from Ange Postecoglou (then Socceroos coach)  not long after the FFA took over the Newcastle Jets. He asked if I would be interested in the Newcastle Jets job and explained that part of the process at the FFA was that as Socceroos coach he had a say in who they would hire.

I think some people didn’t like that or were offended saying ‘how can a national team coach get involved with a decision like that?’ I looked at it as a positive because I’d rather a football person and a coach have that say rather than an administrator.

It happened very quickly and he said ‘mate if you’re interested come and meet us at 10am tomorrow morning’ and that’s where the process started.

I met Luke Casserly there and Kyle Patterson was involved as well as Damien de Bohun.  Basically, we came to an agreement that I would give it ten days, I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time and within that ten days I wanted to really look into the club.

Overall I found there to be a lack of communication. I thought if I was going to be working for Newcastle Jets that was run by the FFA and I am having this many problems in a short space of time, I can only imagine what the rest of the year is going to look like.

I’ve always said that as a coach I needed people that believed in me and what my beliefs and principles were and the way I like to setup football clubs.

Are Australian coaches being given the best opportunities to succeed with the pathways available to them?

No. I am very passionate about this subject as well because I am a massive advocate for Australian coaches.

What we’re seeing now with courses is that we’re teaching coaches to be too robotic.

When I was finally given an opportunity that I wanted to take, I knew it wasn’t just about me, I was doing this on behalf of all of the NPL coaches out there because unfortunately what I saw, was this recycling of A-League coaches.

One thing we continue to do is overlook Australian coaches and again in the A-League, this is no disrespect to any of the foreign coaches that are here, but there’s got to be a tougher process as to why they’re coming here because I believe Australian coaches are good enough.

I don’t want to close the door on foreign coaches or foreign players, I am not saying that, all I am saying is have more respect for Australian coaches because they’re damn good. 

You were hugely successful as the coach of your boyhood club Sydney United. What did you take away from the years you spent in the NPL?

Quite a bit. How to manage a training session for arguments sake.

So you might think that you’ve got 20 players that you’re going to start the session with but because it’s a semi-professional environment, you may have anywhere between one and five players who just can’t turn up because they’ve got to take an extra shift at work or they’ve got uni on.

It is not their bread and butter and you’re trying to get them to invest in themselves and the football club and ultimately you’ve got to take a step back and say ‘they’re semi professionals’.

I used to go in with three training plans every day because ‘what if one goes down, what if three players aren’t there today?’ I had an assistant, Jerry Bilokapic who did it for nothing. He worked for five years with me for nothing so I’ve got to try and get the best out of him because he loves the club and I am demanding all these things.

It’s a real tough environment to coach and play in. I learned a lot as a coach and I developed my own coaching style.

I started off as a bit of a dictator, then I went though this complex phase where I kept changing formations and that didn’t quite work.

You go through this self-reflection phase where you start to ask players about yourself. It was really important to grow and develop as a coach.

A-League Major Semi-Final - Sydney FC v Adelaide
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You’ve had the best of all of the worlds available to you. You were a footballer, then you had a career in media and now you’re a coach. When you combine all three of them, what do you feel you took away from having those experiences under your belt? 

In one way I was kind of fortunate that I didn’t hit that level that the Zelic’s, the Viduka’s and the Bosnic’s did.

One thing I do know when I speak to a lot of these guys is that when you do stop playing, you hit this massive low.

I was pretty grounded. I had an ok career, I was able to travel and play in places like Germany, Switzerland, Japan and China. I was really lucky to be open minded to a lot of football played, different coaches, different languages and cultures as well which rounded me as a person so I was able to take away a lot from my playing career.

I always knew I wanted to be a coach. Around 27 or 28, is when I started questioning what my coach was doing and saying.

As a coach you need to be tactically aware of things, you need to manage people extremely well but then you have to manage media and that’s where I was lucky that I was able to work in media and understand how they think.

When you put all that together, here I am now and in a country that’s extremely tough. If I didn’t do well at Wellington, I would have been on the scrap heap. I probably never would have been given the opportunity to coach professionally in Australia again.

All of these experiences as a player, working in the media, working at the NPL level, I would never have it any other way.

I am glad that I didn’t go straight from playing A-League into becoming a coach at an A-League club, that I went through the grind of the NPL and really learnt my craft and spent six hard years there.

Trophies is something for the players to enjoy and everybody else at the club but if I can make them better everyday as a person or a footballer then I go to sleep better than the night before. 

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity)