Australia's coaching bottleneck: Why Papas vs. Rudan was a breath of fresh air

Newcastle Jets' 1-0 win over Western Sydney Wanderers on Wednesday night might seem insignificant, amid the barrage of A-League Men's games this February. Yet more than the competition playing catch-up after COVID-enforced postponements, the fixture really is noteworthy given the wider framework of Australian football.

Australian football's focus is stretched rather thin right now -- the A-Leagues as a product on and off the pitch, the sustainability of those competitions and the clubs within them, end results with the Socceroos and Matildas, not to mention the prospect a national second division and the domestic transfer system. Momentarily, at least, the focus really should have been on McDonald Jones Stadium.

And as the National Premier Leagues (NPL) begin their seasons across the country this month, it's hard not to look at the match-up between Mark Rudan and Arthur Papas as respective coaches within that context.

The footballing benefits of a national second division rightly speak to more opportunities at a national level for players, but lost in that noise is the fact they apply also to Australia's coaches. Given the premium of professional coaching jobs, a bottleneck exists. This creates entirely different working dynamics in a job that specifically requires extensive time and effort for examining detail, as well as technical and interpersonal development.

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What's more, along with Warren Moon at Brisbane Roar, the likes of Papas and Rudan weren't groomed and immediately endorsed from within A-Leagues or national team setups. Ultimately, they weren't entirely known quantities going into the ALM. For Rudan, Moon and Papas, the fact they even became coaches at ALM level when they did spoke to the difficult financial circumstances the clubs found themselves in.

Each of the three have been tasked with turning desperate clubs around, but the enormity of those tasks is obscured by the fact they represent a professional coaching gig in Australia.

Much as the trio weren't known quantities in relation to the ALM, they were not inexperienced. If anything, they were battle hardened with clear ideas on how they wanted their teams to play football. It's because of this, despite their vastly different approaches to the game, that they all arguably coach with the proverbial chip on their shoulder.

Papas believes Newcastle's very different tactical approach isn't about proving a point, but the prevailing narrative of inexperience is something that particularly grates given he lived an almost nomadic existence over the previous decade to build coaching experience.

"I don't necessarily think it [Australian coaches outside the A-Leagues level] has a bearing on implementation," Papas told ESPN. "All I know is that there is a large body of work that's happened over a number of years across numerous platforms, whether it's the AIS, NPL, India, Saudi Arabia or Japan and back to Australia. With those experiences and with an open mind, you grow and add layers.

"For myself, seven out of 10 years have pretty much been in Asia, so you're dealing with different circumstances like language, culture, foreign players within that, administration that has different ways of working, and different types of management and ownership.

"What it does is help build your belief in your own process, and I feel I'm a very different coach to what I was a decade ago."

Despite Rudan's playing career, given where Wellington Phoenix were in the A-Leagues order when he took over in 2018 -- and after formative coaching years at NPL level with Rockdale City and Sydney United -- he is reasonably aware of what he represents to aspiring coaches across the country.

"I do feel a responsibility as someone who's come up from the NPL. I was fortunate to be in the position I was in, when the chance to coach Wellington came about," the Wanderers coach told ESPN. "I still feel that I have something to prove now, but I very much did feel that way when I took on that Wellington role."

Rudan also said that exposure to the NPL created a heightened proclivity to sign and play different players. This matters in the face of ad hoc and risk-averse squad composition in the ALM, and Moon has particularly exhibited this with Brisbane,.

"Coaches coming from that [NPL] level can impact the player pool, because players like a Max Burgess or a Tomi Uskok were personally, known quantities," Rudan said. "That might not have been the case otherwise.

"But I was ready and there are coaches out there who would be now, because at different levels, you face a different set of challenges -- from match preparation, to match day, to the logistics. It's a different kind of pressure, and you have to be on your toes."

That need for an ability to adapt is something not lost on Ben Cahn, head coach of Brisbane s Olympic FC, who is a rarity in the sense he's a full-time coach at NPL level.

"You've got the constant battle of managing different people who live different lives -- some can be on a roof somewhere all day, or at a desk, or on the sofa, and it's very unpredictable," he said. "When that's your base, what you actually do at training, you have to work with everybody's different starting points.

"Then there's the resources behind it, and though under-resourcing might exist at A-Leagues level and not all clubs are the same, it's a different world below that. These things are very, very real."

For some clubs outside ALM level, there's still no shortage of expectation, but it's something Melbourne Knights coach Steven Bebic doesn't particularly view as a constraint.

"For a club like Kroacija [the Knights] the expectations are always quite high, and rightfully so; however we have to work within certain parameters and like all clubs don't have an infinite level of resources available," he said.

"For me that means ensuring my energy is fully focused on factors I can control, be it the quality of session designs, our training standards, building our identity among other things -- rather than losing focus and energy on factors out of my hands, which are part and parcel of working at a large club."

Ultimately, Cahn agrees with Rudan that necessity is the mother of invention in such volatile and isolated coaching circumstances.

"It absolutely helps as a coach, without a doubt, because it's a huge learning curve," Cahn said. "I'm certainly grateful for working at this level, and I'm also very fortunate that I can do that full-time at Olympic. As a coach, you can want things to be perfect and you want your sessions to be works of art, but the reality is every single day presents some kind of unforeseen challenge and we have to learn to adapt. It's a healthy skillset to carry forward if you're willing and able to be robust."

Coaching outside the A-Leagues represents sacrifice for Australian coaches -- even at youth levels at A-Leagues setups. Especially for clubs at community level, and with coaching licences for NPL mandatory, the financial and logistical outlay from aspiring coaches is significant.

And that's only for coaches at youth levels, who are spending in the thousands of dollars out of their own pockets for entry-level coach education. With that in mind, aspirant senior coaches are betting big on themselves. The value for money of coach education in Australia is a complex topic in itself. Like many things, though, the dynamics of coaching outside the A-Leagues level means experience can still be the best teacher.

"The coach education discussion is absolutely necessary, because it does require a big investment of time and effort, as well as money," Cahn said. "Ultimately, my biggest growth as a coach hasn't come from those licences, it's come from my own drive to research, self-reflect and learn from as many coaches as I can to broaden that knowledge base.

"It's not lost on me how fortunate I am to be afforded the opportunity to invest the time I can into coaching and develop from it."

Bebic echoed that sentiment despite the varying logistical and financial dynamics between Queensland and Victoria.

"I think the badges are only one part of your coaching journey and they definitely give you a foundation to build off, in terms of organisation, planning and preparation," he said. "I was fortunate enough to have both Joe Montemurro and Ivan Jolic on my C Licence, and both were fantastic, showing there is a different way to view football.

"However, from my perspective the most crucial aspect of development as a coach will always come from doing; the hours you spend on the park actually coaching, the hours watching football, researching other coaches or teams you admire, and finding out the detail behind why certain things are done a certain way, having uncomfortable conversations with players or boards, are all invaluable experiences which you can't gain at any course."

In absence of a wholly professional infrastructure, such a uniquely complex environment for Australian coaches distinctly informs the development of a playing identity and process. With the lack of full-time jobs for coaches, they can either leave the country or take on jobs at local level and develop outside the A-Leagues system.

But specifically because they're outside that system, much like with Australian footballers, neither choice can guarantee or even increase the possibility of an eventual professional status within Australia -- despite the invaluable experience gained.

That's what made Wednesday's Newcastle-Western Sydney game exceptional, because there was a cosmic alignment of circumstance and timing that allowed the coaches to display their experiences at this level. Whether they accept it or not, they represent Australian coaching outside the professional environment.

In the context of what has come, and what is to come in Australian football, it is hard to understate the importance of that.