Stajcic’s A-Leagues blueprint to tap into ‘our most precious resource’ – and emulate our rivals

Stajcic to balance Perth Glory with experienced spine | Preview | Isuzu UTE A-League

Perth Glory head coach Alen Stajcic believes the A-Leagues can replicate the success of Japan’s J.League with an expansion program designed to tap into football’s “most precious resource”: participation numbers.

The former Matildas and Central Coast Mariners Men’s head coach is back in Australia after two years in charge of the Philippines women’s national team, returning to club football off the back of a maiden World Cup campaign for the Filipinas.

Stajcic has worked magic in his past two roles, guiding the Mariners back to the A-League Men finals after a two-year hiatus before his Philippines success, and hopes to go three for three in Perth after the torrid times that befell the West Australian club following winning the 2018-19 Premiership.

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Stajcic relishes the fact his new club is based outside of the dominant football cities of Sydney and Melbourne; much like the Gosford-based Mariners, Glory is a regional club – and its model is one Stajcic hopes to see spread far and wide to “every corner of Australia” as the Australian Professional Leagues (APL) ramp up their plans for A-Leagues expansion.

The A-Leagues are indeed already in the process of rapid expansion; the Liberty A-League Women has welcomed Western United and Central Coast Mariners into the league over the past two years, and for the first time the competition has grown to a full home-and-away, 22-round regular season. 

A 13th club for both leagues is en route for the 2024-25 seasons, with Auckland’s expansion bid taking a significant step forward with the appointment of AFC Bournemouth owner Bill Foley as the preferred bidder for the new license. Canberra looks a sure bet for the A-League Men’s 14th license, with APL CEO Danny Townsend confirming in March both Canberra and Auckland “fit the bill” in building strong, sustainable clubs in communities spread far and wide.

“I’ve said it many, many times and not just once: the regional clubs are the heartbeat of Australian football,” Stajcic tells KEEPUP. 

“I don’t believe that the A-Leagues belong to Sydney and Melbourne, I believe that the A-Leagues should expand and should expand rapidly throughout every corner of Australia. The biggest advantage we have as a code is that we’re the number one sport across the whole country in terms of participation, not just on the eastern seaboard or western seaboard like NRL or AFL are. So why wouldn’t we exploit our advantage and put clubs in every market and in every town?

“I’d love us to be able to touch every single regional community. To have teams in Townsville like we had before (with North Queensland Fury), Coffs Harbour, Wollongong, Canberra, Tasmania, and Darwin. 

“We really are the World Game and we’re the universal game across Australia. So why wouldn’t we seek to tap our most precious resource, which is the fact that everyone loves our game?”

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Both Macarthur FC and Canberra United stand out as expansion markets in the Liberty A-League Women and Isuzu UTE A-League Men respectively, given Macarthur’s introduction to the A-Leagues in 2020 came without a women’s side, while Canberra has operated since the inception of the Liberty A-League without a men’s side. 

All the while, Football Australia is in phase two of the implementation of a National Second Tier (NST), canvassing Request for Proposals from clubs around the country hoping to join a division below the A-Leagues in a targeted 2024 launch.

Stajcic admits he looks at the need for expansion purely through a footballing lens – but hopes to see the process escalate rapidly in the coming years.

“I have no commercial perspective… but the more clubs we have, the quicker we get to an A-League 1, 2 and 3, just like the J.League has done where they go down to four and the quality goes all the way from J.League 1 to 3.”

The J.League celebrated its 30th anniversary in May, growing from a 10-team league in 1993 to three tier system in 2023, made up of 60 clubs around the country.

“It just gives everyone the ability to connect to a local team, everyone can be within touching distance of the top echelon of football as well as grassroots football,” Stajcic says.

“And on top of that, we’d have more opportunities for professional players, both boys and girls, more opportunities for professional coaches, more opportunities for administrators in our game and lovers of our game to be connected to our game.

“Just purely taking out all the other things that impact the ability of us to run a league professionally, purely from a football perspective, I’d be expanding as quickly as I can to every corner of Australia.”

Stajcic took the reins in Perth in August, ending the club’s extensive search for a new head coach after Ruben Zadkovich’s surprise departure after the 2022-23 campaign.

Glory’s head coach hunt coincided with a search for new owners, with a consortium led by Melbourne property group Primeland announced as the club’s purchasers on October 17.

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Stajcic admits preparing for the new A-League Men season amid the ownership uncertainty was a challenge – but now that the first game of the season has arrived – Sunday evening’s clash with Newcastle Jets at HBF Park – he’s eager to see what his new side can achieve on the field.

“I’m feeling optimistic and hopeful – but more so than all those things, I’m just excited,” he says.

“Training is training and pre-season can be a drag sometimes, you really want to get into the competition and test yourself as a team and see where you can really improve.

“We have improved as a group, and I think all the players that have been here for a period of time would agree to that sentiment, but it means nothing to go out and prove that when it really matters.

“I don’t know if it’s going to be in Round 1, 2, 10 or 15, but I know that this team is going to get moving sooner or later.”