John Aloisi is very good looking. It’s hard to tell where to start, but the opalescent eyes might be a good place, or his cheekbones, as sharp as a Ronaldo turn. The only tax on his winnings in the genetic lottery comes in the form of his stance; as he surveys the Melbourne Heart first team on a sunny winter’s day in Bundoora, it is easy to spot that he is ever so slightly bow-legged.
This may have been a useful trait in Aloisi’s career, which has seen him score goals in Spain, England and Italy – the three biggest footballing leagues in Europe, if not the world. Better to be a little bit ungainly, and blessed with pace. Better to be a little bit short, and blessed with a leap. Better to be underestimated.
As an Australian trying to make the grade in Europe and, at 36, the youngest-ever head coach in the A-League, Aloisi is no stranger to swimming uphill. But this helped him develop a certain strength; Aloisi had been the Melbourne Heart’s head coach for about 10 minutes when he declared that his aim wasn’t just to compete in the A-League this year,
but to win it.
He smiles when reminded of this, and settles back on a bench in the sun to deliver his reply.
“Last year we weren’t far off, we beat every team in the competition; we didn’t lose to Brisbane, we beat them once and drew with them twice,” he says, referencing the all-conquering Roar team that has won the past two grand finals. “We can compete with anyone. The players just have to believe it. And it’s my job to make sure they do believe it.”
Self-belief, in case the point has not yet been made, is not something missing from the Aloisi locker.
This is, after all, the player who moved between would-be capitals, from Sydney FC to the fledgling Melbourne Heart side, and then scored the first goal in the first local derby against cross-town rival Melbourne Victory.
And, of course, it was Aloisi’s nerveless penalty against Uruguay, the last kick of the match, that sent Australia to the 2006 World Cup.
The contributions of an entire team won that game, but Aloisi’s gleams brightest – so bright, in fact, that it may have banished doubts over his coaching credentials.
Aloisi acknowledges that he has had a quick turnaround from player to coach – he hung up his boots at the end of the 2011 season, and has been in charge of the Heart’s youth side since 2010 – but says the challenge is to build upon existing foundations, not to completely change tack.
“It’s an easier place to step into than any other club. If someone had turned around and asked me, ‘Would you like to go and coach Melbourne Victory?’, I wouldn’t. I think I’m ready here, whereas a place like that you have to do a complete turnaround, to try and create a philosophy. I don’t think I’d have been able to do that just yet,” he says.
Before pre-season training started, Aloisi was in London doing the courses necessary for a UEFA “A” licence, sharing a class with other English Premier League alumni, such as David James and Phil Neville. He will earn course credits for the youth coaching he has already done – and this, according to Heart chief executive Scott Munn, was a major part of his selection.
“He has an incredible playing history and he has trained under some of the best coaches in the world,” says Munn. “And, working with the younger guys on our list, he has demonstrated the ability to harness their talent and make them grow as players.”
Aloisi points out that part of Melbourne Heart’s philosophy is promotion from within, and name-checks the usual suspects of FC Barcelona and Ajax Amsterdam as clubs with similar visions.
Then he goes deep into AFL territory, noting that Essendon’s James Hird and Collingwood’s Nathan Buckley took similar routes to the top post.
As a boy, Aloisi was a keen Essendon fan, before switching to the Crows when they set up in his home town of Adelaide. “But I’ve still got a soft spot for the Bombers,” he says.
Affection, however, gets thrown out of the window when the transition from playing to coaching is made. Aloisi says it wasn’t easy to go from being one of the blokes on the squad to their boss, but he will benefit from the relationships he has formed.
“I had Terry Venables with the national team and I found that he was a really good man manager – and then we had Guus Hiddink who would keep his distance at all costs,” he says. “I’m not trying to copy anyone, just trying to be my own person. I can’t be mates with the players, but I know them and I can lend an ear.”
Aloisi says he is looking to emulate the ethos of flowing football that he picked up while playing in Spain, and pays tribute to the methods of his predecessor, John van’t Schip.
He says van’t Schip was not just possessed of technical skill but also had the ability on to pass his knowledge – even if he kept a lid on his feelings.
“After a game van’t Schip was pretty level – he’s not really over the top if we win and he doesn’t yell at the players if we lose. That’s very good because some coaches can go either way and it’s not good for a player,” Aloisi says.
“It’s something he did on purpose. I asked him about it once, and he said, ‘Look, I get so angry that I’ll probably take it out on the wrong person’.”
The Heart’s commitment to grassroots football will continue; Aloisi says incoming players are made aware of their responsibilities, which include working with communities and in regional areas.
And, while the club is breaking even this year, Aloisi grins and dismisses the suggestion that more money will be available for transfers. “That’s why we’re breaking even,” he says. “We’re here to make sure the club is stable and ends up lasting for hundreds of years – our game, our competition, is only young.”
John Aloisi was a callow 16 years of age when he left home, first for the Australian Institute of Sport and then for Belgian club Standard Liège.
“It was hard. People think of playing in Europe as money and cars, but it’s a lot of tough times,” he says. “The first three years were very tough. I’m not ashamed to say it but I was homesick a lot … but you become strong from it.”
Not helping matters was that Aloisi came from a country not exactly renowned as a footballing powerhouse.
“I remember when I was playing in Spain and Italy, and they’d go, ‘Canguro? What a kangaroo do?’,” he recalls. “But I loved every minute of it, and now that I look back I realise how lucky I was to see the world playing a game I loved.”
“I’m not trying to copy anyone, just trying to be my own person. I can’t be mates with the players, but I know them and I can lend an ear.”
His itinerant ways behind him for now, Aloisi says he has settled well into Melbourne and is loving it; he has also been impressed by the attitudes of Melburnians towards sport, including the Victory fans he meets on the streets. His family has settled in too; all three of his daughters were born in Spain, and Aloisi and his wife will chat in Spanish when they don’t want the kids to understand.
Aloisi’s father coached him and his elder brother Ross, is also a former Socceroo. Now, all three Aloisi men are coaches, so it has to be asked – do they talk tactics every time they get together?
“We do; we don’t get together as often as we like because, even though I’m in Australia, they live in Adelaide. I get back two or three times a year and it’s always good to see my brothers and sisters,” he says.
“But I often speak on the phone to my brother and my dad and it’s always about football. That’s our life.”
Aloisi says his father is still learning, and this openness is something he is also trying to cultivate; he equates this with the standard of the A-League, which he has seen improve in the 4½ years since he joined it.
“Each year it’s getting better and better. Especially the last two seasons, you’ve seen it jump ahead. A lot of that has to do with Brisbane Roar lifting the game – they are the best team I have seen in Australia and now everyone else is slowly catching up and that creates a better league,” Aloisi says.
To win while playing sexy football – it’s the Heart’s philosophy as well, and Aloisi thinks it’s an approach that will benefit the league.
“I think it’s the obligation of all the clubs in Australia to try and play attractive football,” Aloisi says.
“We’re trying to grow the game here; we’re trying to get supporters through the gates. And it’s not always possible, but good football wins games and titles.”
Fixture \ Melbourne Heart kicks off the season against Melbourne Victory on October 5. www.footballaustralia.com.au/melbourneheart/