By Joey Lynch
It’s going to be loud, sustained and, above all, hostile; but Western United Head Coach Mark Rudan isn’t fussed about the frosty reception he’s in for during United’s first-ever A-League game against Wellington Phoenix this Sunday.
Rudan broke out as one of Australia’s best Head Coaches in 2018/19; turning around a ‘Nix side many had tipped to prop up the bottom of the A-League table into a highly entertaining, counter-attacking side that finished sixth and played finals football for the first time since 2014/15.
Despite the success the 44-year-old was experiencing, however, rumours soon began to circulate that Western Melbourne Group – fresh from acquiring their A-League licence – had targeted the then-Phoenix boss as their inaugural Head Coach.
He announced that he would be leaving the ‘Nix and returning to Australia for family reasons prior to the conclusion of the 18/19 home and away season, and was unveiled as the first Head Coach in Western United history in May.
Bringing goalkeeper Filip Kurto and outfielders Max Burgess and Andrew Durante with him to Melbourne’s West, Rudan’s departure – and the subsequent departure of a number of their players – has left a bitter taste in the mouths of Phoenix fans and officials.
He has denied he was recruiting for Western United whilst on the books at Wellington.
‘Nix General Manager David Dome requested that Western United visit Wellington in the season’s first-round during the drawing up of the fixture and told AAP that his former Head Coach should not expect a warm welcome in his return to New Zealand.
Rudan, for his part, wouldn’t be drawn into the controversy surrounding his return to Westpac Stadium when he addressed media on Wednesday afternoon; flatly denying allegations circulating on social media and declaring his focus was solely on his own team.
“There’s no issue,” he said.
“The focus for me is my team, my club, Western United. That is the most important thing.
“Everything else is a distant second as far as I’m concerned; whatever happens, happens and it doesn’t effect me. The external things I can never control – and I don’t worry about the things I can’t control. It’s about my players and my team being best prepared for this game.
“I’ve [served as a lightning rod] in the past, been able to shift focus away from my players and protect my players. It happened last year and I’m big and ugly enough to take all the punches.
“I’m more than happy to take away any pressure that might be on them. I’m here for my players, my club and to make sure that they’re best protected and they’re in a really good place for round one, which they are.
“As a new club we’ve been working tirelessly behind the scenes to build this club but now we start to rock and roll.
“Three points are up for grabs, it doesn’t matter what you did in the offseason – this is where it matters the most.
“We’re all excited. I think the full focus is on us and making sure we go out there and play to our game style. We’ve worked ever so hard to have a clear playing style both with and without the ball so everyone is really excited and looking forward to it.
“We’ve got a couple of players that we’re just waiting on to see whether they’ll pass a fitness test but everyone is ok.”
Beyond the Phoenix players that followed him to Tarneit, Rudan has brought in a number of veteran hands with significant international experience in both club and international football for his first season Melbourne’s West.
There are, though, questions around just how effective a line-up that could potentially run out 36-year-old Scott McDonald, 34-year-old Besart Berisha, 32-year-old Panagiotis Kone, 36-year-old Alessandro Diamanti, 37-year-old Durante and 32-year-old Ersan Gülüm along its spine will function.
Should that core start against Wellington on Sunday, significant workload call fall upon the shoulders of likely wing-backs Josh Risdon and Connor Pain to provide much energy and speed.
“I look at it quite clearly that you either have pace in your legs or pace in your mind,” said Rudan.
“These guys have quickness upstairs, that’s where they’re quick. They make the right decisions, they’re fantastic footballers and good in tight areas as well.
“The speed of thought, for me, is sometimes more important than the speed of foot and that’s what these experienced players give you.
“It’s been a really long preseason and some of the more experienced players who have been around the traps have kind of been waiting for the last couple of weeks to turn it on.
“That’s quite new for me, having so many experienced, quality players – they know when to turn it on and when the season is about to start.
“You start to get frustrated between weeks one and six of pre-season but it’s a good learning curve; understanding every individual in the playing group; their behaviour and their habits.
“Like I said, the experienced ones have flicked a switch in recent weeks because they know the season proper has started.”