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Rebuilding burnt bridges: Bruce Djite on United's need to reconnect

Manton St Tales

In part two of our interview with Bruce Djite, the new director of football at Adelaide United discusses the importance of reconnecting with local clubs and growing the women’s football program and offers a passionate rallying call to fans.

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SKM: Is there any intention to scour the local NPL, SL1 and SL2 leagues for any diamonds that may be playing in those divisions?

BD: Certainly and that’s going to be a part of my role: reconnecting the A-League team with the grassroots clubs in the NPL and state leagues and right across the community.

This is an important area for the club: just last week prior to the Adelaide City versus West Adelaide game I attended a lunch after being kindly invited by Adelaide City. (CEO) Nathan Kosmina and myself also attended a coaches’ forum with the South Australian Junior Soccer Association at West Beach ‪on Sunday night, and I went to see our youth team train last week and spoke to the team briefly after they finished training.

It’s important for us to reconnect, especially with our youth team playing in the NPL because they need to see a clear pathway through to the first team.

If the youth can see myself and the senior coaches at their games on a regular basis, taking a keen interest in what they’re doing and how they’re developing, it’s only going to motivate them to continue to aspire and improve their development.

On the flip-side, it’s important that we also get out to the NPL clubs and the other divisions to see what talent is there too. We have to use our extensive local networks to cast as wide a net when it comes to finding any talent that may have slipped through the cracks or perhaps developed their footballing ability a little later.

It’s not necessarily that the absolute best talent is in our youth team because there are players that develop at different stages and at different ages.

Just because a player might not be in our set-up right now, there’s nothing to say they won’t be in the future.

I’m very interested in speaking to the local club presidents about what Adelaide United can do for them and I think one of the benefits I have in this role is that I didn’t play my junior football in Adelaide.

I’m not aligned to any South Australian NPL club and I just want what’s best for South Australian football, especially for the young players coming through and the kids starting to develop their love for the game.

If a kid has the dream to play in Europe, how can we help with that?

I can’t remember the last player that went directly from an NPL club straight to a club overseas in Europe and had any significant impact, but I can roll off a number of players that have gone from Adelaide United to Europe.

We’re the natural stepping stone for any child with those aspirations, but it’s also about not just pillaging clubs of their talent that they’ve helped develop.

That’s another conversation that I need to have and definitely will have with the local clubs, their technical directors and coaches.

I’m thinking of organising a few round-table discussions with these people and really flesh-out a way forward so that we’re all aligned and moving in the same direction because there’s no other way to being successful. If we are to spend time squabbling over junior talent the only ones who will really suffer ultimately is the young players.

What are the goals on the park for Adelaide – this season and into the future? And, what do you see as the biggest challenge facing the club?

The goals on the park are obviously making the top four and the finals as an absolute minimum.

I think if you can get that first home final, history has shown us that the home team generally wins that game and it gives the fans the opportunity to see a finals game at home.

Like we saw last year, you can then be one kick away from a Grand Final in the subsequent game.

If you finish fifth or sixth it’s a very difficult mountain to climb, which history has also shown and, considering we have been able to keep the core of the squad, you’d like to think we will be there or thereabouts again next season.

So, making the home final is the goal, but the ultimate goal is to repeat what we did in 2016 – win the Premiership and the Championship, having a home final here in Adelaide with the entire South Australian population behind us.

Even though that’s happened once in a decade-and-a-half and we know how difficult it can be to achieve that, we’re looking to do as well as we possibly can.

In terms of the challenges, there are challenges on and off the park – there always is, and for an organisation constantly trying to improve, there always will be.

On the park, the biggest challenges are replacing Isaías, as well as finding a prolific goal-scoring number nine.

Off the field, it’s about not just being Adelaide United in name, but in reality.

We have to be united across the state again and bring that family atmosphere back, not just in the change room because it’s an incredibly tight group, which is full of good people.

But also in terms of the connection with the A-League, the W-League, the youth teams, and the wider community.

Whether that’s partners in business, the FFSA, NPL clubs, or other junior clubs and associations, there’s a lot of work to be done and I’m happy to get out there and help connect with all stakeholders.

We have to get back to averaging 11 or 12,000 supporters every game.

South Australians need to feel a genuine connection with the club, people need to feel the players are accessible, I’m accessible, the CEO’s accessible, the Chairman’s accessible, and no one should hesitate to come and have a chat or ask the hard questions.

In the week that I’ve been here officially in this capacity, the feedback I have received is that a lot of bridges have been burnt in the past and we’re now in the process of rebuilding them.

After all, Adelaide United is a club for all South Australians.

How will the club continue to promote and expand its women’s football program?

There’s no doubt that we need to continue making big steps in the development of our women’s football.

I’m having a meeting with Ivan Karlovic, our W-League Head Coach, this week and from all accounts he is absolutely fantastic.

I’m coming into this role with an open mind. I have my ideas on what should be done to improve all areas of the football department, however, firstly and more importantly, I want to get feedback from those who have been here living and breathing it for the past year or so.

This will start with a meeting with Ivan. I’ll get feedback from him about where the club falls down, what it does well, where we need to improve, and what the biggest priorities are moving forward.

From that, we can build a framework and a strategy to execute in order to take the required steps.

The new CBA, which was signed off last week, has demonstrated how important the women’s game has become and how rapidly it is growing towards full professionalism. This has been recognised in part with the principle of “same base pay, for same base work.”

It’s important that, as a club, we are also improving the program on offer for our players because at the end of the day there’s competition to attract talent.

Ultimately we want the top female players to be coming to Adelaide United and not other W-League clubs.

There’s a lot of work to be done in this space, and it is certainly a massive area of growth for the club and the sport in general that I and all those within the club are very keen to develop.

It is fair to say the A-League men’s team is the crown jewel and main revenue generator, but, if you’re talking about growth trajectory, there’s exponential growth in women’s football going forward.

The W-League team came so close to making its maiden finals appearance last season – is the aim to develop local talent or bring in players to achieve that goal?

The goal is to do both, but local talent will be our focus, especially for the long-term.

For the men and the women, it’s the same.

We’re never going to be a juggernaut of world football – no club in Australia will – and we’ll all essentially be selling clubs, like many established European clubs are.

This means that you have to produce your own talent and you have to invest heavily in your youth set-up, invest heavily in your coaches, and invest heavily in your facilities and infrastructure to be able to create a hub that can produce top-class players because, at the end of the day, the reality of football, which operates in a very global environment, is that creating a successful production line of talent opens the door to a lucrative revenue stream for the club.

I mean, it is this very club that received two significant transfer fees from selling me to clubs in Turkey and South Korea as well as receiving a loan fee for my time with Chinese club, Jiangsu, so I know about generating income for the club and how important such a revenue stream is.

If we can develop our young, talented players to a high level on a consistent basis, so not just a diamond in the rough that gets polished once every five or six years, but if you can really produce one or two every year, then you have that conveyor belt of talent coming through.

This is crucial for the women and the men and a key component for the club moving forward.

Finally, Bruce, what is the rallying call to United fans?

I really see my role as a gatekeeper for the club.

I would implore fans to always support the club.

Players will come and go, coaches will come and go.

Hopefully they end up coming back full-circle, like myself and Eugene Galekovic have done and hopefully, Isaías will one day too.

I know Isaías waited a few weeks before leaving so that his wife could get her Australian citizenship because they love Adelaide so much and envisage returning one day.

I have no doubt that he will be back at Adelaide United in some capacity in the future.

But for the fans, it’s about supporting the club.

It shouldn’t be about: ‘I support this player, or that coach, or this owner, or that CEO but I don’t really support Adelaide United as a whole, as a club.’

Anyone who supports the club through thick and thin, they would have been the most excited and satisfied when we won the double in 2016 because they were there and together with the club they rode the peaks and troughs.

There’s no good reason not to support this fantastic club.

It’s not about supporting me, or supporting Eugene because we came back; it’s not about supporting Craig Goodwin because he’s a top talent.

Everyone’s going to have their favourite players, of course, but, first and foremost, it’s about supporting the club because everything else is transient.

In 100 years the club is still going to be here, but we won’t be.

In 10 years, Barcelona will still be there but Messi won’t be playing anymore.

Does that make Barcelona a less attractive club to support? I would argue no, because that club has gone through a million iterations.

We’re only 15 or 16 years old and we’ve got thousands of different iterations to go through ourselves as a club.

It’s about supporting the badge, supporting Adelaide United.

The club has come off a fantastic year, winning the FFA Cup, and were one kick away from making the Grand Final.

There are exciting times ahead and we’ve got a fantastic vision for the club that I’m sure we’re going to execute.

Now it’s our job to bring it all together for the fans because it’s all well and good to talk, but people want to see and feel a tangible difference.

At the end of the day, we need our fans because this club exists for them, the fans have always been willing to back us and pay money to watch our boys play.

My plea to the fans is to not let your support waver because I wouldn’t have come back to the club if I didn’t think it was heading in the right direction.

I love the club and this state so much that I was willing and able to come back. I can see where the club is heading and I understand the vision of the owners and I want to be a part of that.

I’ve been willing to put my skin in the game because that’s how much belief I have in the club going forward.

Ultimately at the end of the day, when all is said and done, it is the fans who are the club – without them, the club does not exist.

Spiro Karanikos-Mimis is InDaily’s soccer columnist.

READ part one of our interview with Djite here.

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