Valkanis’ vision for one of Israel’s biggest clubs & why Aussie coaches match it with the best

Former Adelaide United captain and Melbourne City head coach Michael Valkanis has been tasked with rebuilding Israeli giants Hapoel Tel Aviv. As he prepares to take the reins, the Australian chats to KEEPUP’s Sacha Pisani about the historic role, his vision and whether perception around Aussie coaches is changing abroad.

Never had an Australian coached Hapoel Tel Aviv, or an Israeli Premier League side for that matter. That was before Michael Valkanis.

Valkanis’ appointment – on a two-year deal plus one – has made history, with the former Adelaide United defender and Melbourne City head coach tasked with awakening a sleeping giant of Israeli football.

Hapoel, which translates to ‘The Worker’, is a club steeped in history. Only arch-rivals Maccabi Tel Aviv (23) and Maccabi Haifa (15) have won more Israel Premier League titles than the 13 of Hapoel. The Tel Aviv-based side have also competed in the UEFA Champions League and celebrated European wins over Chelsea, AC Milan, Paris Saint-Germain and Celtic.

However, they have not won the league in 13 years and last season resulted in a 10th-placed finish in the 14-team competition. Hapoel were even relegated to the second division in 2016-17 for just the second time in their history, though they bounced straight back up.

Valkanis is relishing the challenge and together with the club’s American owners, who also own a stake in England’s Championship outfit Plymouth Argyle, they have a big vision for Hapoel.

“I love attacking football. That comes from within my nature to be on the front foot,” he told KEEPUP.

“One of the things that excited me straight away was the support they have. They have an amazing supporter base. So passionate about their club and what they stand for. They are a successful club and I looked at why in the last 10 years, they are where they are. The supporter base didn’t change, even when they dropped down to the second division, it remained steady. You want to be at a place that has that sort of energy and support.

“I was also really excited with the youth at the team. We had five boys in the Under-20 national team that went to all the way to the semi-final of the World Cup and they were very important players. That makes me excited too because you can see a future ahead.

“There’s a lot going on but the vision is that one day we want to be successful, be up there competing with arch-rivals Maccabi Tel Aviv, playing the sort of football that will excite our fans.

“I see a team in red, I love it. I was a red at Adelaide United, I was a Liverpool supporter as a boy. I see a team that’s attacking, brave and a team that makes a supporter base really proud and they work really hard.

“Hapoel means the working and there’s only one thing, we need to work, work, work, run, run, run, play football, attack, be a team all as one.”

The interview process was a gruelling one for Valkanis – an Isuzu UTE A-League Premiership winner with Adelaide in 2006, a former Reds captain an ex-caretaker coach, who also spent time in charge of Melbourne City in 2017 following the departure of John van’t Schip.

Image source: Adelaide United

“It’s really difficult to get opportunities in Europe especially as Australian coaches,” said the 48-year-old, who for the first time will be able to oversee his first pre-season as a coach. “There’s so many coaches looking out for a job.

“When the opportunity presented itself and the agent said they like your profile and want to interview you, I thought lets go for it. It wasn’t like I was under pressure to get a job. This excited me.

“It was a pretty big process, a lengthy process of interviews. One that we spoke about at length when we did pro diplomas and A licenses many years ago, but I’ve probably never been a process like that at length before.

“Usually you speak to a technical director and you take it to the next step and speak to the CEO and you’re in. This was a bit longer. They have new ownership too from America and they have their ideas, and want to go into a different direction and change a lot of the setup, and who we are perceived to be and our identity.”

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There have been a handful of Australians to play in the Israeli top flight, where 21-time Socceroo Nikita Rukavytsya became the all-time leading foreign scorer in 2022.

The former Perth Glory and Western Sydney Wanderers forward played for Maccabi Haifa in 2022-23, while veteran Australian Trent Sainsbury (Maccabi Haifa in 2019-20) and current Socceroo Ryan Strain (Maccabi Haifa in 2021-22) have also experienced the Israeli Premier League.

Valkanis said he is eyeing Australian players for Hapoel.

“As soon as you get the job, the phone doesn’t stop ringing. LinkedIn keeps getting messages. We have a scouting process here at the club very similar probably to Brentford, where it’s very data based.

“Always you have to look at some Aussies because you want that Aussie mentality, the grunt and now we’re developing players that want to play football which is important. So always looking.

“The good thing about Australia is that a lot of the younger talent are playing A-Leagues and men’s football. The last two or three years, a lot of young players have been given an opportunity. That resurgence now we’re seeing them going abroad because they’re playing senior football. There’s a lot of good possibilities we’re certainly looking at.”

Valkanis brings European experience

Since leaving Melbourne City six years ago, the one-time Socceroo has been based abroad.

First, he followed Van’t Schip to Eredivisie outfit PEC Zwolle as his assistant in 2018 then he spent two-and-a-half years alongside the Dutch legend as his right-hand man with the Greece national team.

A move to KAS Eupen in Belgium followed and it is there we he gained a real appreciation of European football.

Initially an assistant at the Belgian Pro League side in 2022, having joined forces with Socceroos legend and board member Tim Cahill, Valkanis was put in the hot seat the following month after the strugglers sacked Stefan Kramer.

The threat of relegation was real, but the South Melbourne product preserved Eupen’s top-flight status in 2021-22.

“It was a great experience. Okay I was in Holland before that and I knew all about relegation battles but we were quite safe there,” Valkanis recalled. “I watched the relegation battles of other team and I saw what pressure is all about because in Australia we don’t realise what a relegation battle is all about and how much it changes a footprint of a competition and even the mindset of a player.

“It did play on my mind that I really wanted to stay on and I planned and put forward a plan of what I wanted to do moving forward. My problem was I agreed already on my next job and I was going to do something else.

“After my time with the national team, I decided to change path and do something else instead of being an assistant and head coach. While waiting to go to Aspire, I was sent to Eupen and the chance presented itself to be a head coach and that’s where I got the bug again. This is football for me.”

He continued: “I didn’t realise the magnitude of a relegation battle until the team manager, the day I took over as head coach, I was leaving from the carpark and the team manager of the club that had been there for many years and he’s dad has worked there for the last 30 years.

“He came up to me, hugged me, congratulated me and said please save us. It’s our livelihood, it’s our job, it’s our love this club. Please do whatever you can, we believe in you.

“That day when I got in the car, that’s when it hit me. I have a lot of responsibility but it’s what drives you to be a head coach.

“We still have a really good relationship. He sends me messages… when we did survive with three games remaining, I have a photo where he was hugging me after the game. I always look at that.

“It reminds me a lot of what Eupen was about and what football means to people. It’s not just about us coaches and our ambitions that we want to do something nice and fulfil our ambitions, it’s about all the other people around the club and what it means to them. It’s about the players and where they’re trying to get to in their careers. It was a big learning moment.”

Perception changing for Aussie coaches abroad?

Put another shrimp on the barbie… cooking BBQs, Christmas in summer and wearing thongs: That’s how Australians have been perceived abroad as coaches and players, past and present, have tried to crack Europe.

But Ange Postecoglou has been blazing a trail for his compatriots abroad – firstly through his work with Yokohama F.Marinos in Japan, which helped land him the job at Celtic, where he galvanised the Scottish powerhouse and ended his two-year tenure with a domestic treble.

Now the A-Leagues legend is head coach of Premier League outfit Tottenham. The 57-year-old is the first male to lead a team in England’s top tier.

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Kevin Muscat is also making waves with F.Marinos in the J1 League, while Joe Montemurro is winning silverware with the Juventus women’s team in Italy.

So, is the attitude towards Australians changing?

“There is so much competition here and there’s so many coaches. It’s still difficult because it seems like we’re on the other side of the world or on another planet,” Valkanis said. “If there is anyone that’s changing that perception, it’s Ange.

“What he has achieved is unbelievable. He showed he had something special from not only the South Melbourne days but at Brisbane Roar, and the Socceroos, F.Marinos and Celtic. Even going to Celtic, he said it himself, people were thinking who’s this guy and it didn’t matter what he’d done. Just imagine what he’s been through and he’s been our best coach ever in terms of what’s achieved. It’s difficult.

“Joe Montemurro’s done fantastically well in the women’s game. He is a great coach and I’ve worked with Joe. We keep in touch and speak about the difficulties of making it in Europe. You have to stick it out. The guys now in jobs, we can’t sit and take a moment and say we’re really proud because we know how football works and it could go just like that. We can only keep pushing through it and showing we’re capable.

“I’ve been an advocate that I believe a lot of Australian coaches would probably do really well in Europe because we educate ourselves a lot, a lot.

“Talking to a lot of coaches, we devalue ourselves a little bit because where we are geographically. We sort of have a chip on our shoulders, we’re Aussies they don’t really think we’re good enough.

“So we do all this extra works. We will watch more games than anyone, we will watch more training sessions than anyone, we will listen to more coaching podcasts than anyone, we will try to speak to high-level coaches more than anyone so we can always learn because we feel that we need to be better.

“Here, they might just get a UEFA Pro License and because they get that, they think they’re Pep Guardiola. In Australia I’m telling you, we are that committed to becoming really good coaches and leaders, that all it takes is an opportunity and someone to believe in us for us to go and do a job.

“Ange will open the doors to a lot of people and whoever else is working out there, Kevin Muscat in Japan doing a great job, Joe Montemurro etc. We just have to continue pushing and flying the Australian flag. It’s nice to show we know something over there (in Australia), we’re doing a good job over there.

“We might be on the other side of the world but we’re developing good footballers and we’re also developing good coaches.”