IT’S a sunny late morning at Fairfield Showground, and a few metres from where Macarthur FC’s players are training, the famous local markets are in full swing.
As shoppers peruse some 600 stalls looking for bargains and diamonds in the rough, Macarthur boss Ante Milicic knows how they feel, some 15 months after he began assembling the A-League’s newest squad.
The fact that Milicic is in the middle of plotting setpiece routines and tactics for Sunday’s semi final against Melbourne City is proof that the former Westfield Matildas boss has an acute eye for what makes a footballer and what makes a competitive A-League squad.
Now the dice seem to have landed more in their favour, with the semifinal moved to Netstrata Jubilee Stadium due to Melbourne’s COVID-19 restrictions – ostensibly it’s a neutral venue, but just a 40-minute drive from Campbelltown for his players.
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Coming to the end of the club’s first season, Milicic’s squad has in a sense taken more than a decade to put together, the product of a true student of the game who has been studying what makes players tick for as long as he can remember.
For years, through a variety of coaching roles, Milicic has been taking notes and filing them; writing his impressions of players around the world, dissecting their strengths, setting out where they might play and how they could be deployed.
Coaching at World Cups, at tournaments with the Olyroos and the Young Socceroos, scouting at the Asian Cup, Milicic made notes; not always literally looking for players but seeking to frame in his head the type of players he would look for as a club boss.
The results have been plain in a Macarthur side that has quietly accumulated points and sat in the top six for almost the whole season, making the finals and winning an elimination final away to the Mariners, all without making a huge fuss – very much in the image of Milicic, in his first year as a club head coach.
“I knew I needed a core of players who were influencers and would accelerate a team culture, players like Mark Milligan, Adam Federici, Tommy Oar,” said Milicic.
“I spend a lot of time on InStat (scouting software) and I had a clear way I wanted to play. I always go back to my notes and the kind of players I had marked down over the years.
“In the early days we missed out on a few players who had been decent in the A-League but you felt had potential to improve, initially it was a hard sell (to get them to join Macarthur). But then someone like Millsy signs, and suddenly we were being approached by players.”
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As a start-up club, Milicic found, he did have a blank page to start with – but also some unexpected problems. “This has been our hardest year – because of COVID, the majority of our squad had not played professional football since March 2020 or earlier,” he said.
“The other teams had played games in the bubble (in July), but by the time we kicked off, some boys hadn’t played a competitive game in a year. Tommy Oar didn’t play in one of our 10 pre-season games, others just a few minutes.
“You have to manage their loads carefully, but it’s impossible to make up the lack of a pre-season. The more your squad plays together the quicker the understanding, especially when you’re trying to instil a certain way to play, but we couldn’t always have that consistency.
“The best run we had was three wins in a row when the team was unchanged for three weeks in a row, but then we had a couple of injuries.
“So to get to where we are is rewarding, but of course we haven’t finished yet.”
Milicic is particularly pleased with the impact of his foreign signings, headlined by the 14 goals of striker Matt Derbyshire and the elegance of Spanish duo Markel Susaeta and Beñat.
“Those two from Spain have shown the young boys what professionalism is,” Milicic said. “So humble, so respectful, excellent team men.”
But from a personal point of view, Milicic takes most pride from the way his team played when he stepped back briefly in the wake of his father’s death in April.
“We played Melbourne City at home, and drew 1-1 against a team that had just beaten Melbourne Victory 6-0,” said Milicic. “It was a very emotional time, of course, it still is. But I think the way we played showed how far we’ve come.”