Ante Juric: The Oracle

By Jamie Dunkin (4/4/23)

Above: Sydney FC lift the Premiers Plate on Saturday. Photo: Kris Goman for Impetus.

When Ante Juric took over as Sydney FC manager ahead of the 2017/18 season, there was something that stood out in his team which made it unlike competitors – a high number of youth players who had never played senior games before.

This wasn’t due to lack of choice or budget, this was the beginning of a long-term project which would change the women’s game in Australia, and kickstart a new era of Sydney’s complete domination of the W-League.

The mixture of youth and experience was an impressive one. Within his first season, Juric guided Sydney to the Grand Final, narrowly losing out to a star-studded Melbourne City side stacked with internationals. 

The next season he brought in three American internationals who played a huge part in Juric winning a championship, but it was the following season that really showed what Juric was about. Blooding young players and giving them a chance. 

During 2016-19, the Matildas first eleven and extended squad all still played in the W-League. By the start of 2019/20, there were considerably fewer internationals in the league. Sydney lost Chloe Logarzo and Caitlin Foord to well-deserved overseas moves mid-season, and instead of panicking, Sydney had already planned.

Above: Caitlin Foord during her time at Sydney FC. Photo: (Sydney) Daily Telegraph

Taylor Ray, Princess Ibini, Mackenzie Hawkesby, Remy Siemsen, and many more had already made first-team appearances by the beginning of the season, and those players all stepped up. Hawkesby had never made a league appearance prior to 2019/20. 

Sydney staged a late charge for the title in 2019/20, but lost out again to Melbourne City in the first pandemic affected Grand Final. Sydney’s starting XI was buoyed by the experience of Ellie Brush, Teresa Polias, Alanna Kennedy, and Aubrey Bledsoe, but didn’t manage to win. A solitary goal to Steph Catley from a Bledsoe error denied the plucky underdogs. 

City were stacked with international talent and a squad who were all well above the level of the Dub. Sydney fielded a youthful team for the most part. City hardly outplayed Sydney – they were just lucky and perhaps more experienced. 

The next season, though, things were very different. The COVID-19 pandemic had resulted in reduced internationals and a change in club approaches to the W-League. City lost Ellie Carpenter, Steph Catley, Lydia Williams, Kyah Simon, Yukari Kinga, and Aivi Luik. 

Juric had foreseen the Matildas’ exodus overseas though. Somehow, he knew the Australian talent who made up the Matildas would go overseas sooner rather than later. The vision of the former centreback meant he had planned for this. 

Above: Remy Siemsen. Photo: Wikipedia.

Scouring the NPL, the Australian youth sides, and seemingly every football pitch in the city, Juric named his first post-COVID squad. He lost the likes of Foord, Logarzo, Kennedy, De Vanna, and foreign stars Bledsoe, Huerta, and Latsko. 

Who did he replace them with? 

Cortnee Vine, Mackenzie Hawkesby, Charlotte McLean, Princess Ibini, Jada Whyman, Taylor Ray, and Remy Siemsen. Aside from Siemsen and Ibini, none had really had consistent first-team opportunities in the league.

The signings of Vine, Whyman, and McLean are particularly interesting. 

Vine had been played as a striker at several clubs with a fairly poor return. Juric saw her pace and rebranded her as a winger. This completely changed things. Explosive on the counter and growing in confidence, it became a signature move for Vine to bang the ball in front of her and chase after it, before slotting away in a one-on-one.

Whyman had been part of a consistently poor Wanderers side, keeping the net for a side who were just not good enough for this level. In Whyman, he found his new number one. With renewed confidence, she became a pillar of this side. 

Then there’s McLean. Never previously playing in the first tier, she went straight to a starting position under Juric as centre-back. The Sydney Uni player was a significant find for Juric — he became accustomed to asking why these players hadn’t been plucked by other clubs. 

In the opening game of 2020/21, Sydney played Western Sydney Wanderers and ran out 3-0 winners. Vine scored the opener, while Whyman and McLean kept clean sheets. Princess Ibini, who made her debut at 15 in 2015, scored a brace in what was the beginning of a new stage in her career at age 21. 

Sydney were well ahead of the pack by the early rounds of 20/21. His side just bamboozled past opposition, with Vine, Ibini, and Siemsen becoming a ruthless trio.

Impressive too was Whyman’s transformation. She became assured, strong, and carried an air of confidence in the side. She kept clean sheets in seven games in her debut season, and oozed confidence which had never really been there during her Wanderers days.

Clare Wheeler was another standout. The former Newcastle Jets midfielder came into her own under Juric, with her sole season in Sky Blue resulting in an overseas move. 

The key moment of 20/21 was an away victory at Melbourne City which showed exactly where the two sides had differed in approaches since the previous season. Sydney were all over City, with their youthful side running rings around a City side who featured very few of their starting players from the previous season’s Grand Final. 

Sydney won the Premier’s Plate in 20/21, plastering teams and producing impressive individual performances. The Sky Blues needed to win the last game of the season to claim the first Plate in 8 years, with Teresa Polias and Princess Ibini scoring from a free-kick and penalty respectively. 

Sydney again lost the Grand Final, however. Whyman produced an absolute masterclass performance, but a 120th-minute corner snuck in — with a suspicion of a foul on Whyman or a falsely awarded corner. 

Losing with the very last kick of the game would kill most teams and managers for years to come. Instead, Juric took his team to the very next level, again promoting more youth players. 

Sydney signed Rachel Lowe, Sarah Hunter, experienced Chilean international Maria Cote Rojas, and New Zealander Paige Satchell. Defender Ellie Brush was ruled out in pre-season with an anterior cruciate ligament injury, so the side was challenged at CB.

Above: Cote Rojas (left) in action for Sydney FC last season. Photo: Sydney FC.

Inspirational captain Polias, similarly, wasn’t to be part of this season. The legendary leader was hanging up her boots to start a family. Natalie Tobin was named captain, with the midfielder becoming a ball-playing centreback. 

Somehow, despite setbacks, Juric got his side to a record that may not be broken anytime soon. Whyman, at her very best and with a tremendous back four, broke the record for consecutive clean sheets. While some records like this come from the keeper having nothing to do, not this one. Whyman almost every game had to make crucial saves. 

Vine also came into mercurial form during 21/22. Yet again alongside a strong front three, she showed her brilliance. The forward shone in a front three which she arguably headlined — all of whom were under the age of 23.

Make no mistake with Mackenzie Hawkesby’s contribution either. Hawkesby had taken over Polias’s set piece duties and deep playmaking with aplomb. The Figtree local even netted a hat-trick against Wellington In Wollongong. Her transformation is incredible. Within a season, she became not just a crucial player for Sydney, but one of the best midfielders in the league.

Sydney won the 21/22 premiership at a relative canter, albeit waiting until the final day and needing a win in Adelaide to secure it. Then came the finals.

The semi-final was possibly Juric and Sydney’s finest hour. 2-0 down at home to Melbourne City, goals to Vine, and Rojas fought Sydney back to 2-2  with the last kick of the game, with City down to 10 players. 

Then comes the first half of extra time. With almost the first corner for the restart, Hunter makes it 3-2. Hunter’s first goal for Sydney FC since joining from Wanderers. What a time to score it. 

Vine scores the sealer as City go down to nine, sending Sydney to another season decider. A monumental victory — the greatest game I’ve ever witnessed — the perfect embodiment of Juric’s Sydney. 

Well documented in the Paramount Plus series Sky Blue: Inside Sydney FC is how Juric approaches team talks and the mentality of his players. Never one to yell, Juric has a measured approach with his players and fosters a positive environment. The former Sydney Olympic player consistently tells his players to enjoy themselves playing, even during do-or-die matches. 

This is perhaps unsurprising, Juric is also a school teacher and this sort of leadership seems to come naturally to him. Perhaps it’s no shock he has such a faith in youth.

This confidence he imbues in his players is clear to see, and when they aren’t at their best, they’ll often be just a half-time break from revving back up to their finest. His speech to his players during the astonishing 4-2 semi-final is an absolute gem. It’s a stark contrast to some of the angry-shouty managers which adorn men’s football, it’s instead a methodical and compassionate speech. 

Sydney again lost the Grand Final, again to Melbourne Victory, but this only seems to make this side stronger and give Juric even more belief in what his young side were capable of. The Sky Blues lost several players ahead of the 22/23 season, including stalwart defender Ellie Brush, left back mainstay Ally Green, Maria Rojas, and Paige Satchell. 

Thanks to an ongoing stability he has fostered which involved blooding youth early, players were able to step up from within again. Juric doesn’t make many overseas signings, with 22/23 seeing American college star Madison Haley join, as well as New Zealand international Anna Green. 

While rivals have seen revolving doors of players coming through, often involving precarious loan deals from America which end before the season does, Sydney have maintained an image of consistency. In Juric’s era, Sydney have not lost a player from a loan deal early. 

Remy Siemsen came and went during the early parts of the season, but Juric was again quick to replace her. Top-of-the-table rivals Western United lost a key player early in the season when McDonald’s guest stint ended and never truly recovered. 

Sydney embarked on a historic threepeat of premierships, playing excellent football and seeing young players rise. Most emphatic of these was 15-year-old midfielder Indiana Dos Santos, who came from seemingly nowhere to anchor the midfield in the latter half of the season. 

Few other managers in the league would’ve given a 15-year-old with zero senior experience the opportunity, especially in a run of crucial games to win a trophy. Juric does, and again, this faith was repaid, and Dos Santos became Sydney’s youngest-ever goalscorer.

When Sydney beat Newcastle Jets 4-0 to claim the 2022/23 Premier’s Plate, it was done with a starting XI featuring entirely Australians, and an average age of 21.2 years-old. In fact, the average age of the squad has gotten lower year-on-year for premiership-deciding matches. 2021’s 2-1 victory against Victory saw a starting XI averaging 22.3 years, and 2022’s side who beat Adelaide 1-0 at Hindmarsh at a similarly impressive 21.8 years. 

The infamous Alan Hansen quote of “you can’t win anything with kids” has been well and truly put to bed by Juric, who is all but assured legendary status at Sydney FC, and surely a favorite to take over the national team one day. His legacy at Sydney will be the unearthing of gem players, all while dominating the league and setting the standard.

Jamie Dunkin is a long-time Sydney FC fan, and runs the Twitter account @asothdotcom

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