Alex Epakis: Tough Baptism But Big Plans For The Future

In the first of our #DubWrap features, Ben Gilby spoke to Perth Glory head coach Alex Epakis about his background, the club’s W-League campaign, their squad of hugely talented local youngsters and plans for a brighter future.

Above: Perth Glory head coach Alex Epakis. Photo: Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Alex knew from the age of 22 that coaching was going to be his way of making a mark on the game.

“I played in the local NPL. I wasn’t going to be a professional player but I was comfortable with that and I thought that I wasn’t going to be a professional player, but I wanted to be in the game professionally.”

“I had to make a decision about what that was going to look like and I realised it was coaching. I started on that journey at a young age and, I think looking back at it now I’ve just turned thirty, that decision I made eight years ago has turned out to be one of the best I’ve made in my life.”

“Throughout that journey I had time at the Sydney FC Youth Boy’s Academy – that was my first proper coaching role. From there I moved on to Sydney University where I was also working with Canberra United as an assistant coach in the summer as the timings of the two seasons allowed that. So I spent a bit of time with Heather Garriock, which was a fantastic learning experience for me.”

“I only did that for one year because from a football point of view I couldn’t commit to 12 months of coaching. Sydney Uni was a big project and I didn’t want to let them down. So, I did four seasons at Sydney Uni, one of which was as assistant coach, three as head coach for the women’s team. I also coached the men’s team there in an interim position across two seasons.”

“It was a university for academics, but it was also for my education as a coach. I got to experience everything. I was fortunate enough to work with some good players (including Michelle Heyman) and good coaches and we had success.”

“By the end of last season there, we lost in the Grand Final after having been on a thirty-eight game unbeaten run. We lost there to Manly and I thought after that it was a good time to take a step back and have breather to balance my life out with other things.”

“Of course then, as tends to happen in football, when you announce you are going to step back for a bit, an opportunity that you’ve been waiting for presents itself and that’s what happened with Perth Glory.”

“It came out of the blue, the W-League pre-season was in full swing, so I wasn’t expecting an opportunity, but I got a call on the Friday from the CEO and I was there on the Monday.”

Coming into the W-League season, Perth Glory were in a very difficult position. The Western Australian state borders had been closed for much of 2020 and for so long it was not even certain that the club would be able to compete in the competition for this season as a consequence. Therefore very few players were attached to the club. I asked Alex what those early days and weeks were like.

“Ah, mate…! The club did a very good job of painting the picture of the difficulties that the season would be and what was happening. I didn’t go in there with any false ideas, but there’s one thing preparing for difficulties and another thing experiencing it!”

“I arrived on the Monday and I had to go into quarantine for two weeks, so I couldn’t coach the team. By the time I got out, we only had ten days to go until the first match.”

“In that period I also had to fill the last four or five positions on the squad and I had to do that remotely. There were thirteen players already signed, so I had to fill the rest. I wasn’t aware of the capabilities and balance of the players that were already at the club. So, I was taking a punt on the players that I was signing in the hope that they would balance the team. So, yes, there were difficulties, but it was an opportunity that I couldn’t turn down.”

Above: Perth Glory celebrate Caitlin Doeglas’ goal against Adelaide United back in January. Photo: Tom McCarthy

“The club were informed that they were able to play in the competition very late on. This was because there was the reality that Perth Glory may not be allowed to leave Perth to play. There was talk of relocating us to Sydney for the whole season, but none of the players were able to do that. So, if that was going to be the case, we wouldn’t be able to field a team this season.”

“The reality is that if things were different and I had more time, I would have put the pieces together differently. But, with coaching, you have to make the best of the crop you have, and if it wasn’t for Covid, I don’t know if I would have got the opportunity at the club that I did. Whilst Covid was difficult, it also presented an opportunity to me and players.”

That opportunity saw Perth Glory field an incredibly young team that, regardless of setbacks and circumstances just kept plugging away in a highly admirable manner.

“The squad had fantastic resilience. There was never a moment, despite the difficulties that we faced on and off the field, that a player dropped the tools or dropped their level of commitment or engagement. For that, I was so grateful.”

“There were countless times when we could have just fallen off, but we kept going. The players certainly developed. I was very proud to coach the team, and we had a very young and inexperienced team.”

“I really believe that I have given players an experience and an education and an opportunity that will hopefully set them up for success, whether that be with Perth Glory or other clubs in the future.”

“We were teaching inexperienced players to become competitive players, and that is not an overnight job, but we’re closer now than we were when we started.”

Above: Gemma Craine on the ball for Perth Glory just before injury struck. Photo: Tom McCarthy

The difficulties were compounded by the early season injury to Gemma Craine, who had looked in excellent form in the opening games home and away against Adelaide United.

“We didn’t have many attackers to start with and Gemma was a player that I saw in my first session when I arrived. She was a ‘train-on’ or a ‘triallist’. I gave her a position in the team on the spot. I think she had been in and around Perth Glory trials before, but never given an opportunity for whatever reason, but for me, we needed someone with an X-Factor, some bite up front and she fitted the bill.”

“We lost seven games this season by one goal. I think that if we had someone like Gemma, some of those may have been draws or even wins. We’ll never know, but she certainly was a loss. I won’t sugar coat it, it was very difficult to replace her.”

One of the major positives in the campaign for Perth Glory was the incredible determination, work ethic and spirit within the squad that ensured that they never stopped trying to create despite being in losing positions. I asked Alex whether this ethic was one he and his coaching staff worked to instil or if it was naturally there with this group of players.

“I can’t say that I had a conscious plan in instilling effort and desire. My idea is that should be a given for a footballer at a professional level. The reality is that you don’t always get that. I was very fortunate. The players just looked around and said ‘we’re a young squad, we’ve got countless hurdles in front of us, but let’s just give this a red hot crack.’”

“There were times when I thought, ‘how about I save myself here and play a very defensive set up and we’ll try not to lose games.’ But I can safely say that myself and the players never went out not to lose a game. Despite what was happening, we still went out trying to win every game.”

Artwork: Graphics by PW

“I don’t think the players would have taken it on board to sit off anyway. It’s not my style and it’s not their style. We were a young team and we had nothing to lose so our view was that if we were going to go down, we were going to go down having a real good crack.”

We then turned our conversation towards the future of Perth Glory’s W-League side and started debating whether the club could consider entering a side in the WA NPLW in a bid to keep the youngsters together ahead of the next W-League season.

“It’s something we’re certainly looking at,” said Alex “We’re not necessarily thinking about a full time program over winter, but I have brought to the attention of the club that we need to look at ways of engaging with the players more often because it seems silly that they go off to the NPL for seven months which is supposed to set them up for the premier competition which is for four months and we’re expecting them to be up here (holds hand high up) by the time pre-season starts.”

“We need to find a way to bridge the gap between the NPL and the W-League so players can get to a place that we need them to get to and we are looking at ways internally as to how we can make that happen.”

In terms of preparations and potential recruitment for the next W-League season, Alex is very clear that it’s already under way.

“As soon as the final whistle went in our last game of this season at Melbourne Victory, I was already making plans. Not just from a recruitment perspective, but from a club point of view. Tony Pignata (Perth Glory CEO) and Terry McFlynn (Academy Manager) in particular have been very supportive. I can’t thank them enough for the support that they’ve given in the difficult times, but also the support that they are giving now to enable me to go and do what I need to do to put the pieces together.”

“Player recruitment is certainly a very hot topic at this point in time. In terms of adding experience, well, experience is certainly a word that we like, but I look around and I think, ‘is it quality or experience that I want, is it just experience or is it just quality?’ For me, I want quality players on the field and quality people off the field. Now if that means they are 25 or 18 it’s irrelevant, but they are the people that we want. That is my framework when I go and talk to players that I want for next season.”

Above: Hana Lowry – one of Perth’s young stars who has just signed up for another season. Photo: Tom McCarthy.

With Perth Glory having a big crop of very young players who have great potential, the club are already beginning to secure some of their key players for another season.

Teenage duo Hana Lowry and Tijan McKenna have already been signed on for another year along with experienced club captain Tash Rigby.

“I am personally extremely pleased and proud that three of our core players have committed to the club going forward. It sets a fantastic foundation and direction for the squad and all three players have great value within the team.” Alex said.

“Tash proved to be a strong leader throughout adverse times this past season. Her commitment to the team and club on and off the field is priceless and she is one of the fiercest competitors I have come across in my coaching career to date. We are extremely pleased to have her lead the group next season and I look forward to working with her to continue to guide and set the direction for the team.”

“Hana is an outstanding talent. She was immense in her efforts and performances throughout the whole season when she certainly took the opportunity to step up and be a key player for the team. Hana has the potential and mind set to develop into a top-level player and I look forward to playing a part in that process.”

“Tijan is another key long-term signing who proved last season that she is able to go toe-to-toe with all players. She certainly stood out to me early in my time here and developed considerably over the course of the season.”

“All three women are local WA players who embody the values and commitment that we are seeking to form the cornerstone of our team direction.”

Above: Perth Glory captain Tash Rigby who has just extended her stay at the club. Photo: Tom McCarthy.

“The club have a spine of WA produced players that can potentially play for Perth Glory for a long time. We want to make sure that we support their individual goals which may well mean that at some stage they go overseas, but while there are WA girls playing in Australia, we want the best ones to be playing for Perth Glory and we want to not just retain our best crop from WA but also want to track the best talents from around Australia,” Alex continued.

“At the very least this season, any player or any coach in the W-League can turn to Perth and say ‘Wow! More often than not there were more teenagers on the field than there were over aged players’, so at least players can feel that if they come to Perth, there is an opportunity for them regardless of age.”

“We want to have a pool of talent coming through and there is a lot of work that we can do behind the scenes in the off season and ensure that we keep our best players in Perth whilst they are in Australia and support them until they can go to bigger and better things overseas.”

We concluded our chat by examining what potential goals Alex has for the club for the next W-League season in terms of progression.

“Next season started for me the day after the last game against Melbourne Victory. I’m an ambitious coach and no player wakes up to not be ambitious and not want to win. The plans are that we need to improve, we need to win games, we need to be competitive in games for 90 minutes and we need to continue to build a playing style that is recognisable for us and that we believe is effective against any opposition.”

“Once you can do all those things, then you can start to think of goals and where you want to finish. We’ve got to get the core things right first and if we can nail and improve those areas, success will be a by-product.”

“I’m really interested in the next couple of months in nailing down the players to bring the style to life. Once the style is brought to life consistently over 90 minutes, we’ll get closer to winning games. When we start winning games we can start to talk about where we’re going to finish. But, in a nutshell, we need to improve: that’s the main aim.”

Given the long-term approach that Alex Epakis is taking to his work in Western Australia, it looks like the club are in a good position to make progress next season.

Look out for another #DubWrap feature with another W-League Head Coach/Player looking back at their season soon!

Impetus’ coverage of Australian Women’s Football is supported by The Chicken Salt Co. They are offering every Impetus reader 5% off all orders of Chicken Salt from their website. Go to https://www.chickensalt.co.uk/?mate=impetus and place your order – 5% will automatically be taken off of the cost. The coupon code is impetus.

Artwork: Graphics by PW.

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