On eve of the Sydney derby, new Sky Blues boss reveals how ‘understanding talent’ is at the heart of his coaching style
Deep inside Coopers Stadium a fortnight ago, Ufuk Talay had a final word with the Sydney FC players who were about to take on Adelaide in his first game at the Sky Blues’ helm.
The message was simple: play forward, play with intensity, and if it comes off then you’ll get all the plaudits, Talay told them. If it falls flat then I’ll take the blame – but if we do lose, why not lose trying to play on the front foot?
Within 13 minutes the Sky Blues were two goals ahead, and five up just past halftime. To what extent his players were inspired and to what extent it was just their day is something we might get some understanding of in the derby on Saturday night.
But already we’re getting clues as to what the Talay era might look like at Sydney, still only a matter of days since he succeeded his close friend Steve Corica, and as he locks horns in the derby on Saturday with another very close mate in Wanderers boss Mark Rudan.
The evidence isn’t just that one game at Adelaide, incandescent though that was as a way to kick start a season – it’s in his four years at Wellington too and the stories from there of man management and tactical progression.
Talay has never been fond of analysing himself publically, but he’s stepped into the biggest spotlight of his managerial career and seems to be relishing the challenge.
“I think the biggest thing is that you bring your own character to the way that you want to deliver things,” Talay tells KEEPUP at Sydney’s Sky Park HQ.
“You can’t cover all bases, that’s why you have staff. But (thinking) tactically is one part, I enjoy the analysis – trying to find solutions and how to exploit opponents.
“My biggest strength is understanding talent and the attributes of players, trying to put them in areas on the park where they can be most effective, and the managing of people.”
This is a recurring theme from conversations about Talay, with people who have worked for him. At Wellington Phoenix, Louis Fenton tells the story of dislocating his shoulder very early in Talay’s tenure at the club, and preparing to have an injection and play on as he’d done several times before.
Talay told him to have an operation, fix the problem, and focus on his body, not what he thought the team needed. That was at the point where Talay’s first four games at Wellington had delivered four losses, the worst start in the club’s history, other senior players were out injured and a certain pressure was mounting on the new coach.
Similarly Talay helped to oversee the rehabilitation of Tim Payne and Ollie Sail from their drunken escapade with a golf buggy during COVID quarantine in 2020, including the program of community work both had to undergo.
This is what you hear about Talay’s management style – the understanding of players.
“Players are human at the end of the day, they’re not robots,” Talay says. “We see them as players but they’re people as well and there is a different side to them.
“People just see them with their kit on and they look at them as footballers over the weekend. But the reality is these guys have families, they have kids, they have stuff outside of work as well and there’s a human element to it.
“We’re trying to get the best out of people… to me it’s about keeping people happy and at the same time, making people feel uncomfortable, but they need to be good by feeling uncomfortable if that makes sense.
“You need to keep players on their toes and every case is different. We all have five different shapes of fingers on your hands and each one plays a different role. So you have to treat them all differently.”
The energy in Talay’s voice is clear as he riffs on the challenges of motivating a senior player compared with a youth team graduate who might have grown up as a fan of the club.
The common theme is unlocking potential, even in a player like Joe Lolley who is approaching veteran status, and whose broad range of interests, including a progressive view of politics, makes him such an entertaining interviewee.
“These are different challenges,” Talay says. “For me, as a coach, I’ve got to find ways to get the best out of people. If Joe likes to talk about politics, then we’ll have a chat about politics – I’ve got no idea about politics!
“But if that’s what he likes, we’ll have a chat about it. What do players enjoy, what they do outside, it’s a conversation we have when players come in the morning – how’s things at home?
“Like Rhyno (Rhyan Grant) now having a baby, is he sleeping well? Do we need to modify his training during the week because maybe he’s got up in the middle of the night a couple of times to help out with the baby?
“These are the things that if we have knowledge of, we’re able to manage these guys a lot better. We’re actually not just caring that we want them on the park to train, but we show that we care outside of the game as well.”
In the months since he left Wellington at the end of last season, Talay has been busy broadening his focus away from just A-League tactics. Working with the Socceroos in that time allowed him to analyse how teams like Mexico and Argentina play, as well as work on setpiece delivery.
Likewise he feasted on trends in European club football, and there’s another broad clue to what his methodology will be at the Sky Blues and the plans he presumably must have laid out at interview.
“It’s a tough one in the sense that it’s a bit of a transition at the moment where we’re trying to obviously give more opportunities to younger players,” he says.
“But in saying that it doesn’t mean that we still can’t go to try to win the competition because we still have enough quality in the sense that we have some very good senior players.
“You look at what’s happening in world football, with teams in Europe – Arsenal’s average age is what, 23, 24, 25? And they’re doing very well. The game is for young people these days because you need to work, you need to run, you need to fight and young players give you that energy.”
His team will need all of that and more in the derby – while Sydney knocked Western Sydney out of the finals last year, they also suffered a humiliating 4-0 loss at home against their crosstown rivals.
Those games saw escalating heat between Corica and his old teammate Mark Rudan, Western Sydney’s head coach – whose own friendship with Talay could be tested with so much on the line in Saturday night’s derby.
When KEEPUP points out that Rudan seemed to know how to rile Corica, and arguably knows Talay even better, the new Sydney FC coach grins.
“But the thing is I know him very well too, so it works both ways! I don’t get that wound up that easy.
“The funny thing is I played Young Socceroos with Rudes, he was my roommate whilst we were at Sydney FC as well for a long time and then my last year of playing was at Sydney United with him as well, we made the grand final in the NPL.
“I’ve known Rudes a long time as family friends. Our sons both started preschool together in Japan when we both went over there to play. So, yeah, we’re really good mates.
“Obviously, we don’t get in touch as much as we used to, he’s doing his role and I’m doing my role and we’re competitive in that sense.”
With a crowd of more than 30,000 expected at the derby, Talay is more concerned with the positive challenges of setting up his team for such an occasion and then developing that team over the coming season.
“What a fantastic environment to be in,” he says. “I enjoy wearing my suit on the sideline and seeing the boys going out there and working hard for each other and for the team.
“If I could still run I’d still be playing but I can’t run anymore so I make the boys run instead.
“That’s what I enjoy. I think I gave 22 debuts to players at Wellington and that’s what Frank (Arok) gave me when I was 16 at Marconi.
“That’s something that I do enjoy, giving opportunities to young talented players and then they do well with us and they go off to bigger and better things.
“I’m in that role where I can do that.”
Sydney FC v Western Sydney Wanderers
Isuzu UTE A-League Round Five
Saturday 25th November 2023
Allianz Stadium, Sydney, NSW
Kick Off: 7:45pm AEDT
Gates Open: 6:15pm AEDT
Broadcast Live: Paramount+ & 10Bold
Tickets: Click Here