The morning after his A-Leagues All Stars team had narrowly lost to Barcelona in May, a tired Dwight Yorke drove to Fairfield in Sydney’s south-west with a plan to rebuild a football club.
Yorke had only been appointed by Macarthur FC a matter of days before, to his first senior head coaching role, and had been focused purely on the All-Stars until that point. But as he drove from a hotel near Accor Stadium, the former Manchester United star began to plan the quickest way to have maximum shock value on day one with his new squad.
“The first thing that I needed to do was, when the players arrived for the first day of (pre-season) training, they felt they were coming into something new and exciting rather than the old image of what they had before,” Yorke tells KEEPUP now. “So that was my first plan – that their first impression was of change around the place.”
With serendipitous timing, dressing rooms and facilities under the grandstand at Fairfield Showground, where the club has trained since its inception two years before, had been renovated as part of a $7m upgrade negotiated with Fairfield Council, 100m from the club’s base last year.
Immediately Yorke saw the chance to have his players walk into a new set-up on the first day of pre-season: new ice baths were installed in the dressing room, while the smell of breakfast would be in the air, thanks to the appointment of a new club chef. Lunch would also be provided, and the players would be expected to attend both meals every day.
The psychology was fairly rudimentary; the more the players felt a change in surroundings, the more receptive they would be to implementing Yorke’s brand of football. They would also be engaged for longer in their place of work, and better able to deal with the physical demands he was going to make of them in preparation for the new season.
“Triple sessions some days!” says defender Tomi Uzkok with perhaps a little too much relish – “two on the pitch and one in the gym.
“But we knew it was going to be different from day one. It was kind of like a whole new fresh start altogether. New training facility, new change rooms, full time chef, new gym. So lots changed in terms of off the field. And on the field, I guess.”
It’s hardly unusual for new coaches at a club to paint a bleak picture of how much needed fixing (in their eyes), but Yorke is fairly candid about his first impressions – even before a ball was kicked.
“We’ve done some changes to the club in terms of the approach, our mentality and our professionalism, our eating habits, all those little things,” he says. “I feel like there was a kind of semi-professional approach; they’re a professional club, but they think with a semi-pro mentality.”
As an example, he adds, “You can’t have meals Monday and (then) not have one until Wednesday. I was lucky that I had the owners that bought into what I’m trying to explain. I think having the experience being abroad does help. Then the players come in and see the changes immediately and take that on board.
“It feels like longer but I’ve only been here two months and you can see everybody’s bought in to what we’re trying to do here. And we’re in the final (of the Australia Cup against Sydney United).”
Lachie Rose’s description of his reaction to hearing that Dwight Yorke would become the club’s new coach is endearingly honest. Still at his first professional club, Rose had never been through the process of the head coach changing. “A few of the boys were like, You’re always unsure how it will go, and he is such a big name. So we didn’t know what to expect.”
To Rose’s surprise, “he’s always giving advice, when needed. If you ever need anything, you can always go to his office and talk to him. Whether it’s football related or anything else, just as a person, like he’s got that experience where he wants to share it with other people not just keep it to himself.
“He’s always hands on at training, talking to players, giving advice and that’s very comforting for a player because you feel like you’re learning something new every day.”
Uzkok uses the same word several times – Yorke has “simplified” the game plan, even though the emphasis remains on proactive football.
The reason for that becomes obvious when you ask Yorke about the football they have played in the Australia Cup, scoring 17 goals on the way to the final.
“It’s funny because I saw them play when I first came here, I was like, this is the first game, let them play. We don’t really want to say too much because we’ve only been 10 days training.
“We played Newcastle and they beat us, we were all over the place and I’m thinking, we got our work cut out. So from there, we thought, right, we need to start all over again. We walk through things, we talk them through, we guide them, we literally hold their hands, this is how you have to do things.
“These kids had not been taught properly. They know the game of football, but don’t know how to play the game in a structured way. A bunch of good individuals, looks good but it breaks down and they have lots of individual errors. There’s no support and no backing, no covering, so we had to walk through those processes in the last two months.
“And although we made it very basic to this point, now we have a solid structure, the foundation. Now we can start to add the flair bits and the attacking workflow. When the team’s in possession, especially when we’re in possession, we need to be switched on.”
Ahead of Saturday’s Australia Cup final, Yorke is fielding daily calls from friends overseas keen to hear how his managerial debut is unfolding. He’s well aware there are other observers just as keen, but perhaps expecting the outcome not to be positive.
“There’s a lot of interest there, because, you know, there’s always the doubters, and some people from an interesting point of view want to see if you really can become a manager,” Yorke says, getting to his feet to lead the morning’s training session.
“But I wouldn’t come into it if I had a second of doubt myself. I was living a great life, I have a great life. I still do have a great life, but I probably have a better life now because I’m doing something that I truly believe that I’ll be very good at.
“It was just (getting) the opportunity to do it. And here I am now and I know it’s early days yet, but at least the intentions are good and clear for everyone to see… that I want to be one of the best managers.”