Squad stretches: the inside story of building a team in the A-League

Heather Garriock was used to getting bombarded with dozens of messages on social media. As a former Matilda, and by then the coach of Canberra United, that wasn’t unusual – but rarely did she engage or click through anything that was sent to her.

These messages were different, though. Sent ahead of the 2018/19 season, they were from a passionate football fan in South Africa, begging Garriock to watch YouTube clips of two international players seeking professional contracts overseas.

After 20 messages, Garriock relented. The highlights featured South African internationals, Refiloe Jane and Rhoda Malaudzi, who Garriock would end up recruiting after impressing at an in-person trial. The two players, with over 100 national team caps between them, eventually lit up what was then the W-League and helped define Canberra United’s season. Malaudzi even won the club’s Golden Boot award.

This might seem like an unusual story, but when it comes to scouting and recruiting players in the women’s game, sometimes a chance message on social media can make all the difference.

Unlike in men’s football – seemingly built on player agents, scouting networks and the transfer market – the same kind of ecosystem has yet to develop in the women’s game, making scouting and recruitment a very different process.

According to several A-League Women's head coaches, it usually starts during the previous season. For Sydney FC’s Ante Juric, every game provides two opportunities: to create success in the current campaign and to plan for success in future ones.

“I’m very pro-active,” Juric said. “Even during the season, you’re scouting players. You see what you need and whether you’ve got back-up; you figure that out over different stages of your own season, and then you start writing your notes and planning for next year, targeting those players you need.

“When I started, the team was very stale and on the older side. We didn’t get to the grand final; we needed to change things. So that first year had a lot of movement of players – we brought some new ones in, a couple of foreigners in the second year, too.

“So we built a core of about ten players, and from there, we tried to bring in players that I’ve scouted throughout the year or for longer through my work in Junior Matildas and the NSW Institute. I was lucky in that sense in terms of already knowing the players, but it’s also experience in the game: knowing who you want and watching week-in, week-out.

“It’s a lot of work, a lot of thinking, some tough calls with some people. Luckily, a lot of people want to come to Sydney FC.

“This is where I’m very pedantic. Initially, I get bombarded with 100 names. I trust my own eye: players might send resumes but I need to see what I’m getting. If there’s no video, I won’t bother. And even then, I need full games and a few other things. It’s a risk.

“It all comes back to value. If I’ve got people here and I’m happy with them, I’m not going to go searching for three months to find someone who’s a needle in a haystack.”

While many professional clubs often create roles specifically for player analysis, scouting and recruitment, much of that work in the women’s game is done by head coaches themselves. For Alex Epakis, head coach at Perth Glory, that required going the extra mile – literally – to recruit players.

“As soon as that final whistle went in the last game (of last season), my mind was already thinking about players: who we could bring in, how we could attract the best,” he said. “Bringing players to a team that comes last, which is on the other side of Australia, and during COVID – that’s difficult.

Alex Epakis
Perth Glory coach Alex Epakis

“So I had to be really clear on the message and on the program itself. I identified players who I thought could make a difference straight away, and also players who could make a difference in the next 24 months. So we put a list together and the club gave me free reign to build the squad how I wanted – not just for this season but for the next couple of seasons.

“I was flying to Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney; I was meeting parents, players, agents. It was a really busy [period], but I knew I had to get the jump on other clubs.

“Some of the players sitting on the bench [at these clubs] are certainly worth building a team around. It might not happen straight away, but I know there are players who have qualities that are scarce. So it was a no-brainer to lock them in to ensure they have stability in what they’re doing and that we have stability in what we’re doing.

“There’s good value in a lot of players, especially young ones. The budget certainly dictates what we can do, but a lot of my budget is also spent on relocating players, whereas Sydney and Melbourne don’t have to worry as much because they’ve got players on their door-step. So whatever we offer, we have to multiply – a fairly big slice goes towards the cost of relocating and housing players.

“From my experience, you’re not always going to get everyone that you want. You’ve got to have options; you’ve got to be prepared to go deep in your list if some things don’t work out. And that’s fine – that’s the business of football.”

Outside of watching live games, A-League head coaches also rely upon other resources to gather information on players while scouting. The advent of NPL.TV, which streams all women’s National Premier League 1 games for free, has made the job much easier – especially during the pandemic where interstate travel has been almost impossible.

Much of the work done in the off-season by the head coaches, from watching NPL games to trawling through Wikipedia pages, is largely voluntary and often ad-hoc. The resources available to use statistical databases and analysts also varies widely.

That inconsistency is similar when it comes to the recruitment itself. While some clubs allow head coaches the final say on which players to sign, other clubs have more formalised processes. Brisbane Roar, for example, have established a three-person panel for player recruitment that includes new head coach Garrath McPherson, the state Technical Director, and the club’s Football Director.

“I think decisions on a player or team member [should be collaborative],” McPherson said. “If you think about any job interview, there’s generally a panel of people; one person making that decision maybe isn’t always the best decision.

“We meet once every couple of days, go through the current list – we know who our best and brightest talent is, we know who the Queenslanders are – and use our new state-centric approach to build a roster that reflects the club’s vision. It’s been really handy because it allows for different perspectives and insights.

“It’s kind of like a jigsaw, but the picture of the jigsaw changes if you can’t fit a piece. If we thought Player A could start here with Player B, and the qualities they possess, you then might try and secure them because they’d work together well. But, all of a sudden, it doesn’t work with Player A, so then the other ones can change, too.

“The one thing we have as an advantage moving into this year is with the club’s vision of a state-centric approach and giving the best Queensland footballers an opportunity to shine. We know who those players are, so that’s provided a stable starting-point for us. Whether they’re interstate or overseas, we know who they are, where they are, and what they’re doing.

“It’s piece by piece, it’s very methodical. We’re currently getting to the final pieces of the puzzle, but the picture itself has shifted across the whole process based on whether we were able to bring someone in or not.”

Given the lack of consistent and accessible information across the women’s game, head coaches must often rely on their own networks – as well as the networks between players themselves – in order to put together a squad. For Adelaide United head coach Adrian Stenta, those ‘shadow’ networks are crucial.

“Networking happens a lot more in the women’s game because you do have players playing for more than one team in a calendar year,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of conversations with NPL coaches in South Australia and around the country about players, and they’ve got some contacts overseas as well in leagues that fit in nicely with our schedule.

“We’ve got a couple of key people who we trust – they don’t have the official title of working for the club – in different states around the country who are sort of like interstate contacts. They’re on the ground, seeing the players first-hand.

“We also get good access to national team staff at all levels, and that sort of network extends across all Matildas programs, as well as good contacts in New Zealand and some in America as well with their national team set-up. So that forms part of our decision-making process.

“We’re lucky at Adelaide in that we’ve always kept in really good contact with former players as well. Because of those good relationships that we’ve formed, we’ve always been able to go back to them and get some advice or information or a contact from them – a player that might be in the same league or a former team-mate or someone they’ve played against.

“It’s an endless pit, really – I could spend my whole time, every minute of every day, working on it. The offseason is probably the busiest period in that sense.”

While all head coaches take statistical data into consideration when scouting players, one of the less tangible – but perhaps more important – qualities they look for is the character and personality of the players themselves. There are no databases that capture this information, so for Melbourne City head coach Rado Vidosic, the game’s ‘shadow’ networks are even more useful.

“I like to speak to players; I like to have a video meeting with players and parents where I can explain what City is all about, I can show them my ideal way of playing, I can show them what types of training and leaning outcomes they’ll be faced with,” he said.

Rado Vidosic
Melbourne City coach Rado Vidosic

“You try to watch the games, watch their behaviours, try to get as much information about them as possible. Sometimes you need to talk to some of their friends, sometimes the agent, sometimes a coach they used to play for.

“Sometimes you have to take the risk and bring a player in, and when that happens, you need a strong core group with a positive mindset and positive goals to try and build the culture of the club.

“It’s difficult when a lot of clubs turn over too many players so you’re constantly in that environment where you’re starting from scratch. If you’re bringing in one player to come into an established culture, behaviours, values – then it’s much easier. But when you have so many new players each season, it’s not that easy.

“I’m now doing some questionnaires to talk to the players before they come to Melbourne to see – from a mental point of view, from a social point of view – where do they stand? Also to get information about how we could challenge them, what we need to organise for them, and what they want from the experience.”