Building culture in Australian football: A-League, W-League teams talk COVID, family and leadership

A new football season in Australia is upon us and, while COVID-19 continues to play havoc with scheduling, ESPN took the opportunity to do a mental health check around the grounds with the clubs to reflect on a crazy coronavirus-affected year.

The picture that emerged was unexpectedly upbeat, with players reporting a positive shift in club culture as well as tales of babies, business ventures and a healthy dislike for compulsory quarantine.

Family was a recurring theme, and Brisbane Roar midfielder Tameka Yallop was one of those who added to hers during the COVID lockdown.

"As I was going to get on my flight the borders closed in Norway so I got stuck in New Zealand with [wife] Kirsty and we ended up having a baby over there!" Yallop laughed. "That was definitely meant to happen in Australia but we were with her family and I was training with a men's team there, so it worked out well."

- A-League on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. Only)
- A-League Tipping: Create a comp and test yourself against the best!

Eight months is the longest stretch the Matildas veteran has ever endured without competitive football and, on the eve of a 12th season with the Roar, she says the passion in the club is still as strong as ever.

"We have a picture in the changeroom from the very first season, of us holding up the trophy," Yallop said. "I'm a round-faced chubby little human who now looks very different, so it's funny but I think we've had one thing from the first season till now that hasn't changed and that's our mantra of PLF!

"I probably shouldn't say this in an interview but it's 'Play like f---' and it kind of just means you go out there and give it your all. Everyone understands the meaning behind that and draws something different from it and we've managed to keep that going for a very long time."

Men's captain Tom Aldred agrees the Roar culture compares positively to his experience at previous clubs.

"In terms of a club perspective it's very similar to when I was at Blackpool and at Motherwell," Aldred said. "We had a lot of success and both of those clubs were hard-working lads who worked to improve every single day. There is a real community feel to it and you know that everyone is fighting for the same things -- there's a good feel to the culture of this club."

For those players away from home, a good culture becomes even more important and striker David Ball says he couldn't be happier at Wellington Phoenix.

"I honestly feel like it's one of the best cultures I've had in my career," Ball told ESPN. "I've managed to be in some successful teams that have been promoted and when you're winning games it's always a sign of a good culture at the club and it's a great culture that they've built here."

Wellington are based in Australia again for the foreseeable future and Ball said the support from around the league the last time they were here was outstanding.

"It was one of the toughest periods of my career -- being away from home and my family for that period of time," he recalled. "We got a lot of messages from other A-League players thanking us for coming over and making the sacrifices that we did in the COVID time, which shows how much the players respect us as a team and want us to be a part of the league."

A couple of hours up the road, Leena Khamis spent Christmas surrounded by family after a return to the Western Sydney Wanderers.

"I'm really excited for another season -- I'm excited every year but this one's a bit different for me," Khamis said. "I didn't think I was going to play, I thought I had my last game last season for Canberra, but I love being back.

"The [Wanderers] team culture has always been great, but it's even better now we have our new facilities, our home training pitches, our home ground at Bankwest Stadium -- the unity in the club is now next level.

"It's like a family, within the whole club, men, women and youth."

- W-League on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)
- W-League Season Preview: Predicted XIs, new recruits, key players

Wanderers defender Dylan McGowan also managed to get some family time during the season shutdown earlier in the year, travelling back to Scotland where he thankfully managed to steer clear of COVID-19 -- unlike brother Ryan who, along with his wife and daughter, all contracted the virus.

Back home now, with a new coach installed and a solid preseason under their belts, McGowan says the Wanderers are ready to give a good account of themselves and despite the pandemic continuing to cause uncertainties -- saying that the unbundling of the leagues from the governing body will certainly give A-League and W-League players more clarity.

"We care a lot about what is going on, it's all looking different with the TV rights going down and a lot of pay-cuts that were negotiated but now we know who we are dealing with as players," McGowan said. "Our own chairman was installed as chair of APFCA and instead of waiting for FFA to pass things down to the clubs it's our chairman that we are talking to and trying to build a better league with."

Melbourne City players also have a direct line to APFCA through their vice-chairman Simon Pearce and skipper Scott Jamieson said that throughout a tricky year the communication was excellent.

"The key people in the decision making for us, Brad Rowse and Simon Pearce, were always available for me to call with any questions or to answer any questions in the Skype sessions for players," Jamieson said. "Someone like Simon Pearce has so much on his plate but for him to take the time out during the tough few weeks and months was really important to us."

In the last year of his four-year deal with City, Jamieson says the club culture has come a long way.

"They've made great strides, I definitely feel as a club we have gotten closer -- not just the staff in the office and the playing group, but also the fans. We are on a path where we are working more like a family," he said.

"There's definitely a strong connection with our W-League team -- we've always had a relationship where we support the women and vice-versa, it's something that I think this club does very well in treating the women's side as well as the men, and that comes down to a massive respect for both."

W-League goalkeeper Teagan Micah is new to Melbourne City but can already feel the vibe that Jamieson refers to.

"We have meetings together with the heads here at City, we see the men at training -- we really feel like part of the club which I haven't always experienced," she said. "The culture here feels so professional, the facilities are the best in the league, I think that's where City has really set the bar high."

The Melbourne City women face this season with a vastly changed side, with all but one of their starting XI from last season's Grand Final win now plying their trade overseas. In complete contrast, their fellow finalists Sydney FC was the first W-League side to lock in what is a largely unchanged roster.

Captain Teresa Polias is set to become the first W-League player to chalk up 150 appearances this season, and told ESPN that establishing the squad early pointed to the high regard and respect the Sky Blues have for their women.

"It was really nice to see the club get straight onto it at a time when everyone was unsure of what was going on and to back us by re-signing the core players and adding some youngsters and backing them too," said Polias.

Sydney FC CEO Danny Townsend is another busy man with his finger on the pulse through APFCA however prior to the pandemic, with his Sydney FC hat firmly on he had made it a priority to lock in his A-League squad for another year. While that meant more mouths to feed during the shutdown, A-League captain Alex Wilkinson said that making everyone feel valued was just part of the everyday culture of Sydney FC in an environment where family comes first.

- A-League Season Preview: Predicted XIs, new recruits, key players
- Lynch: Sydney the benchmark as A-League begins amid uncertainty

"They have an holistic approach, with the men, the academy and W-League teams training at the same place -- we all support each other throughout the season," Wilkinson said.

It's been a tough month for all the men's sides involved in the Asian Champions League but, after being on the road in a quarantine-like bubble in Qatar followed by hotel isolation on their return, Wilkinson conceded it was great to have those matches under their belt.

"From an A-League point of view, the Champions League was the perfect preseason -- you can play all the friendly games that you like but you can't mimic the intensity and the way a normal competitive game is played," Wilkinson said.

Over in Perth, also speaking from hotel quarantine after the Champions League campaign, Glory forward Bruno Fornaroli agreed the preseason tune up was valuable but it was frustrating to then have two weeks without training as a result.

Fornaroli is fervently hoping 2021 does not bring a repeat of the nation-wide shutdown that interrupted last season.

"It was crazy, a new experience for everyone, it was hard for us we couldn't play, we couldn't return to Uruguay, we were stuck here and there was no money -- because we are foreigners, we were not allowed to have [the Australian government funded] JobKeeper," he told ESPN.

"I was lucky, I have had a good career and I have always taken care of my money and I was prepared."

Fornaroli left Melbourne City to move to Perth last season and says life in Western Australia is suiting him.

"I think the culture is different at Perth Glory, more a family club that feels a bit smaller but the people are more together," he said.

"They don't have all the facilities that Melbourne City has, but they have what is important to me, I love to be here for my family, my children love it, they only want to go to Uruguay for holidays now!"

Perth's W-League team was not affected by the shut down and captain Natasha Rigby is hopeful that there are no disruptions as the side prepares for a fresh start under new coach Alex Epakis.

"It was really sad to see [former coach Bobby Despotovski] go. He was a great coach and he gave me my opportunity but we are so excited to have Alex coming in because he is bringing with him so much passion and his professionalism as well," Rigby said.

"I think that it's going to be an exciting year for everyone, because it looks very different -- the usual internationals are not coming in and the Matildas are overseas but it really allows the local players to step up. It is what I feel we need at the moment -- to give them an opportunity to develop and refine their skills at a young age."

One development Rigby would like to see at the Glory is more connection between the men's and women's teams.

"The W-League is kept quite separate. As a club I feel that we should have more integration, it would be really beneficial but we don't even see the men," she said.

Playing for the only team in the W-League that does not have an A-League counterpart, Canberra United, American defender Kendall Fletcher sees an opportunity for the women's game to flourish in Australia's capital.

"I actually like that Canberra has the women as the focus," Fletcher told ESPN. "Not having an A-League team, the fans here rally behind the group. It was unlike that at my previous clubs where people rally around the club in general, but in Canberra its something special that it is just the women's team and you ask a lot players and they don't like coming to play in Canberra because we have such a good atmosphere and vibe from our fans."

Further south, Adelaide United W-League captain Dylan Holmes says the club is making a conscious effort to support their women's team.

"It's an area the club has been very open about addressing and it was such a great move by the club to appoint [former coach] Ivan [Karlovic] as head of women's football," she said.

- Australia ready to focus on national second division
- ESPN's W-League Next Steps Series: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

"He is a point of contact at the club that we didn't necessarily have in the past and he knows the playing group so well and he really cares about everyone of us, so we all feel super comfortable going to him with any issues that we have or anything we want to talk about."

Adelaide men's captain Stefan Mauk agrees the club is making it a priority to bring all the teams together.

"For the first time we are doing a fan's day where we will do a training session with the women's side and it shows we are Adelaide United -- not the men, not the women, not the youth but one club where everyone supports each other," he said.

The A-League will be a new experience for Melbourne Victory's new signing, Rudy Gestede. With the Victory side finishing their quarantine in Sydney, the Benin international was yet to link up with the team when he spoke to ESPN but is looking forward to a new adventure.

"I needed a fresh challenge after leaving England, I didn't want to stay where I was, so I spoke to the manager and had a good feeling about it," he said. "Then I found out about more the city and only heard good words about the city and the club so it became easy for me to accept [Victory's offer].

"I have friends who lived in Melbourne for some time and they said to me that it's a lovely place to live and so far, they didn't lie!

"I think they want to build a good team spirit which is very important to succeed -- I am going to be part of it and do my best to bring my experience and my value and make sure we have a strong season and compete for the title."

Also hoping for another tilt at the title, the women's Victory outfit has welcomed home experienced campaigner Lisa De Vanna from Italian club Fiorentina.

"I didn't know what I wanted to do when I came back from Italy. I did call Sydney because they showed me a lot of respect when I played two seasons there and I've got a lot of respect for Danny [Townsend]," she said. "But to be honest I wanted to come to Melbourne because one it's home and my sister just had a baby and and two, I just want to be around family and have good people around me -- have a life outside of football as well, because I think I need that outlet from football to get the best out of me."

De Vanna believes this W-League season offers great opportunities for new talent to emerge.

"It's going to be very competitive season and it might be more about development but now the door opens for all those players that never got a look in," De Vanna explained. "This is a big opportunity, not just for the W-League but also for the Matildas -- in two years time the World Cup is here and players should be training their backsides off to get into that."

The W-League will fit in a complete round before the end of 2020 and, though the Newcastle Jets women have a bye, their men will be in action with the final hit out of the year against the Central Coast Mariners in the traditional New Year's Eve slot.

The Mariners are putting the finishing touches on their playing roster as they hope to avoid another wooden spoon and defender Ruon Tongyik says that despite the team's struggles on the field, he is loving life on the coast.

"I think for me they are a real community based club," he said."They have a really good culture in terms of their fan base -- out of all the clubs I've been to, I do really enjoy the family orientated places, so I'm really enjoying my team."

For their derby rivals, the energy out of the Jets is surprisingly positive. Despite uncertainty over their ownership and rumours of player unrest, caretaker coach of the A-League side Craig Deans, says it's not distracting the players from the job at hand.

"At the start of preseason [club CEO} Lawrie [McKinna] addressed the coaching staff and players and it hasn't been something we've spoken about again as a group," he said. "I've talked a bit to the older players as it's something that impacts them more but the players are enjoying coming in and working hard.

"This is the third ownership change I think since I've been involved with the club and if the culture within the club and the area was a poor one then we wouldn't be having this conversation because there wouldn't be a club. It's a big compliment to the players and the people of this area that we keep working hard and our fans keep turning up to support us. The spirit within the club is pretty special."

W-League defender Cassidy Davis agrees. Davis, who also works in the community department at the club says they are working hard to stay positive and stick together.

"It'll be nice just to get on the field, play games and get the fans back in the stands," Davis told ESPN. "The best feeling is walking out on the field seeing our fans -- Newcastle is a very community based town and that's the best feeling getting out and enjoying a win together."