Life after Arnie: Inside Sydney FC’s rebuild under Corica

It should feel like one of the most seismic chapters in Sydney FC’s history.

One of the most devastating attacking duos in Hyundai A-League history? Gone.

The seasoned defensive pairing of Jordy Buijs and Luke Wilkshire, who both helped Sydney FC set new Hyundai A-League defensive records? Gone.

What about David Carney, the man who was there for the club’s first Championship in 2005, and had a telling hand in back to back Premiership victories? Gone.

The club’s greatest ever manager Graham Arnold, who pioneered arguably one of the greatest Hyundai A-League teams of all time? Also gone.

An exodus of this scale has rarely been seen in the harbour city, and would furl the brow of even the most stoic Sydney FC fan. Have the Sky Blues, or any club in the competition’s history, ever been hit harder by off-season departures?

Yet it all feels like business as usual for Steve Corica. Perhaps no other man knows Sydney FC better than the Innisfail-born former playmaker, and the sight of the 45-year-old striding around the club’s Macquarie Park headquarters might offer some comfort for those still mourning the club’s losses.

As one of the club’s favourite sons, Corica is both a symbol of the old and new era at Sydney FC. He’s been present for every pre-season since their inception, and has just finished his first fortnight in the hot-seat. Growth in technology has made this pre-season, Corica’s fourteenth with the club, unrecognisable from that of Pierre Littbarski in 2005. But there are some things at the club that never change.

Read on as we take you inside the first three weeks of Steve Corica’s era at Sydney FC.

Steve Corica

 

FIRST DAY OF THE CORICA ERA

“At Sydney FC we pride ourselves on family, team spirit and culture,” says Corica.

“The players drive themselves each day at training, we want to be better, we want to become better as a team.

“We’ve had a fantastic couple of years under Graham Arnold and it’s my job to drive these players to be better as well as winning trophies and developing as people.”

Sydney FC’s Macquarie University base certainly has a family feel to it as the club’s pre-season campaign slowly moves through the gears, and almost every field is occupied.

The sight of Josh Brillante moving through an early morning stretching routine stops a pack of kids from the club's school holiday camps outside the gym. They stare wide-eyed at the Sky Blues' midfielder before running off, passing members of the NPL youth team who have finished their morning training session and stand chatting on the hill that overlooks the main field.

The new pre-season has brought new additions to the family too. Robbie Stanton and Ufuk Talay are Corica’s new Assistant Coaches, while Chris Pappas has been appointed new Head of High Performance following the departure of Andrew Clark.

One role that isn’t changing is that of Head Physiotherapist Elias Boukarim, who plays an unseen role in igniting Sydney FC's Premiership defence, and is charged with helping implement the holistic approach to preparing players for the new Hyundai A-League season.

Boukarim is in his fourth pre-season with Sydney and works closely with Corica to slowly build players back up to a typical week of training. He says it's important to overexpose players in some cases to ensure they can contend with the more gruesome weeks of pre-season training to come, but player safety remains at the forefront.

“We have to be mindful that players are coming from not doing very much in the off-season and you’re just monitoring the amount that they’re doing," he says.

“One of the best tools to help with that is just chatting to the players and asking them how they feel.

"We just have to modify the total amount they’re doing and try to progressively increase that amount in the safest way possible.”

Sydney FC’s players were greeted with an array of medical tests on their first day back on July 2. As part of the medical register with Football Federation Australia, players are required to undergo electrocardiogram and echocardiogram tests to assess the heart, baseline concussion testing, ACL screening, agility and speed tests, while the hamstring and pelvis are also closely monitored.

Players were soon back onto the pitch for a series of aerobic tests that required them to complete thirteen 50 metre sprints as fast as they could.

“A few of them blew a gasket and were struggling," says Boukarim.

"But it’s a good indication of where they’re at and our sports science team, our strength and conditioning coach use those values to then prescribe the type of work they should be doing going forward.”

The ball is not touched by some Hyundai A-League coaches in pre-season's early stages. But for Corica, players were back on the ball immediately. Corica eventually took the reins and oversaw a light session targeted at recovering technique and passing. The first day now over for Corica, and its considered a success.

Sydney FC
Image: Jaime Castaneda

A WELCOME BREAK

Sydney FC were entitled six weeks leave following the conclusion of the 2017/18 campaign, and after a long domestic and continental season a break was sorely required. But like most players, Brandon O'Neill missed the routine and purpose that daily training provides.

“It’s always good to get away for a bit at the end of a long season and just clear the mind, relax and see family and friends,” he said.

“But you get to the end of three or four weeks and you’re like, ‘right, I need to start getting back into it’."

Most players undergo optional training courses in the off-season to help ease back into full-time training, but it doesn't guarantee an easy transition. To ensure the smoothest period of adaption possible no stone is left unturned in pre-seasons fledgling weeks.

“A lot of these players, because they’ve been in the system for a while have a lot of muscle memory,” says Boukarim.

“Some players like decondition really quickly but then they recondition really quickly, others just have an amazing baseline and just don’t lose that much.”

The pre-season operation is meticulously detailed and focused, right down to sleep patterns and nutrition. A personal chef comes in to every training session to prepare lunch and works closely with the medical team to ensure food is structured around games and specific training sessions.

Redmayne Pappas Talay
Image: Jaime Castaneda

Often players will prepare their own meals in the morning, but they are provided with a range of nutritious breakfast options including eggs, high protein breads and healthy, non-artificial muesli. A team nutritionist will soon arrive at Sydney headquarters, adding another valuable resource to the players.

“This is just an outlet if they need an extra bit of advice or if players feel they’re carrying a little bit extra," says Boukarim.

“We get an understanding of all our players and if we feel as though they need a little bit of assistance to drop some more weight or if we think they’re lean muscled then they actually have the option to chat to our nutritionists.

This comprehensive approach to health has likely been the undercurrent of Sydney FC's Hyundai A-League dominance in the past two seasons.

Josh Brillante
Image: Jaime Castaneda

DON’T CHANGE A WINNING FORMULA

The Sky Blues set a total of eight new Hyundai A-League records in the past two years and have won both the 2016/17 and 2017/18 Premierships by a combined margin of 31 points. How on earth does Corica improve Sydney from here?

According to Brandon O'Neill, every Sydney player cannot afford to rest on their laurels and must first look to improve on an individual level. 

“Steve’s probably been one of the major factors in our success over the last seasons,” says O’Neill.

“If you look back on years in football in this country and the biggest thing is if people win it once it’s good, if people win it twice it’s even better.

“So if you can continually keep winning things you raise the bar in terms of reputation, in terms of significance as a player and significance as a club.

“The biggest aspect for me this year is to make sure not only are we winning things for me as a player to go higher and to get better, and if all of that happens and if we go back to back to back and win the championship and have another run in the Asian Champions League, each individual player has to do better.”

In order to take Sydney FC forward successfully, Corica admits it would be imprudent to divert from the formula that has seen them become the Hyundai A-League benchmark.

Corica spent three years under the wing of Graham Arnold and says fans cannot expect too much of a shake up from the ruthless system established by the current Caltex Socceroos' boss.

“The key principles are much the same, and we will continue in that way,” he says.

“Tactically I learned a lot from Arnie, but I have a little bit of a different style. It’s not necessarily completely different to Graham, we agreed on a lot of things, and we’ll keep that continuing with my own little touches.”

Early signs have indicated the future of Sydney FC is in safe hands. The club defeated Dunbar Rovers 5-0 in their first-pre season friendly on Wednesday night and now begin the gradual process of building up to the first game of the season - an FFA Cup tie against Rockdale on August 1.

Despite key departures, expectations for the upcoming season are high once again for the Sky Blues. It's a feeling all too familiar for Corica, who will be drawing on all 14 years of his Sydney FC experience to keep them at the summit of Australian football.

“We go into each season wanting to win every trophy, so that’s not going to be any different now.

"We pride ourselves on the recruitment as well, and I think we’ve done well in the last couple of seasons in recruiting very good players.

“Unfortunately, a couple of those quality players have left but that’s my job then to replace them with quality. It takes time, not going to be in a rush to replace them, it's about getting it right and making sure that we’ve got the right blend."

Steve Corica; Graham Arnold
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This article was originally published on the Hyundai A-League website.
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