Long read: Catch up with Carl Robinson

From pre-season preparations in the midst of a state-wide lockdown, new recruits landing in Western Sydney, and all the expectations for the A-League season ahead. Wanderers A-League head coach Carl Robinson reveals all.

It has been a busy off-season and pre-season at the Wanderers Centre of Football in Blacktown with the shifting of the guards in the A-League side.

With some familiar faces moving on and new faces being brought in, head coach Carl Robinson has pressed the reset button ahead of the club’s tenth season in the A-League competition.

“It’s been a busy off-season with lots of positive changes. I wanted to remodel the roster, there were a lot of players out of contract which allowed me to review it, analyse it and reset it to build on the positives that were there last year,” said Robinson.

“But it was also making sure that we had the right understanding of what we wanted when we brought players in, to make sure we had the right profiles that could not just fit tactically and technically, but also have the right personalities.

“To be a successful team you need good people. To be a successful team you need talented players and to be a successful team you need to all be going in the right direction.

“So there has been a lot of work done in the off-season in relation to finding those identified individuals that can help the club moving forward.”

Robinson’s recruitment of players for the upcoming A-League season has seen a two-fold approach.

The first being players that identify with or have had a relationship with the Western Sydney region. The second being players that have extensive football experience in the domestic competition.

“Being at the club for almost a year now, you understand what this club means to people,” explained Robinson.

“Finding out what the values of this football club are was very important to me because now I understand how to tap into players’ minds, peoples’ minds, and make sure we’re all on the same page.

“I did look at whether players were from this area (when recruiting them).

“The people from the Western Sydney region have a certain characteristic in them. It’s a fight until the end and I need to find players that are willing to do that.

“They are people that are not given anything, and they have to earn things.

“You see that with the number of players that are from this area that understand or have been at the club before, they understand what Western Sydney and what this club is about.”

Out of the Wanderers newest recruits, Terry Antonis, Ramy Najjarine, Dimi Petratos, and Steven Ugarkovic (Jan 2021) all have a link to the Western Sydney region having grown up and played their junior football in the area.

“When you’re new and you walk into the doors at the club, you feel the warmth of the club,” said Robinson.

“The club have got really good people working here and we’re all here to win.

“But to win takes time and it’s important that you put building blocks and foundations in the right way, and the right way is to understand the values and characteristics of what Western Sydney is all about.

“People like Dimi, Stevie, Terry, and Ramy have all lived here and understand what it is all about.

“When I first took the job at Newcastle, there was Stevie and the first thing he said to me was that he’s a Western Sydney boy and he’s proud to be a Western Sydney boy.”

Steven Ugarkovic
Stevie Ugarkovic in action with the Wanderers last season.

Looking outside of the Western Sydney lens, Robinson has also brought in two senior talents at both ends of the pitch that are set to shake up the Wanderers squad this season.

At one end is towering central defender Rhys Williams.

“I’ve known Rhys for a number of years. I was actually in one of the Welsh squads when he was an under-21 player many, many years ago when I was a national team player and he sat on the bench,” reflected Robinson.

“So I remember him from there before he changed allegiance and went to Australia.

“I tried to sign Rhys in Vancouver when he was playing in the A-League with Melbourne Victory. So I did my recruitment on him three years ago.

“I knew he was recently playing in Saudi Arabia and he was very successful there. He played every minute of every game being the captain.

“I looked at it and thought, what we lacked last year was voices. What we lacked a little bit was understanding in certain scenarios.

“Rhys has had a great career, but he’s still got the hunger and desire to want to win as well.

“My first conversation with Rhys was pretty simple. I decided to move one or two things around and I was looking for a profile of a player that could fit in well to how I want to play, and he fit that well.

“He liked what we are trying to build here and he wanted to be part of it.”

Rhys Williams
Rhys Williams of Australia battles with Kyle Bekker of Canada during the International Friendly between Canada and Australia.

At the other end is prolific international striker Tomer Hemed.

“Well, he’s got a track record of scoring goals. Everyone in the A-League knows that and he scored goals for Wellington last season,” said Robinson.

“I was aware of Tomer about 18 months ago. He was in Brighton and then went on loan to Charlton (Athletic) in League One. I knew all about him and I knew he was looking for something different.

“So when he signed for Wellington, I wasn’t surprised. Obviously, it took him a bit of time to get up to speed but he did exceptionally well for them and scored a number of goals.

“We had a reset in the front areas of the pitch, so we were light on the front areas of the pitch. So what we had decided to do was look at all our European targets, South American targets, and internal targets.

“When I say internal, I mean league players so league players that are here in the country. After a quick conversation with Tomer, he made it pretty clear that he wanted to be based in Sydney and he wanted to play another season in the A-League.

“His goals last season spoke for itself.

“Tomer is a very charismatic man, very articulate, very smart, and has a desire to win. Numerous times in the conversation I had with him it was all about being a professional, winning, setting standards, and all the fundamentals of a player that a manager wants to bring in.

“He was one that I straight away knew would be a perfect addition for us as we have some fantastic young players in this football club, and more coming through, and they need to be set the standards and targets. Who better than a group of senior players that are as good as anyone.”

Tomer Hemed
Tomer Hemed celebrates scoring the opening goal during the Sky Bet Championship match between Brighton & Hove Albion and Burton Albion.

With so many young players pushing through the Academy ranks and the Wanderers first team squad, it was fantastic to recently see midfielder Keanu Baccus on the world stage at the Tokyo Olympics.

Baccus returned to the club’s Centre of Football late last week after hotel quarantine to link up with his teammates and is set to play in his sixth A-League season.

For Robinson, the return of Baccus signifies more than just depth in the Wanderers squad but rather the return of an individual that represents exactly what Western Sydney is about.

“First of all, I love Keanu. He’s a fantastic boy and he’s got great experience in this league, he went and represented the Olyroos in the Olympics and did well when he played,” said Robinson.

“Keanu played more games than any other midfield player in our squad last season. I left him out for three games and he came on as a substitute in all of those games.

“Towards the end of the season, I saw him play some of the best football he’s ever played. He’s a fantastic boy and he’s a fantastic player.

“I can still improve him and he can still improve himself.

“He is a huge part of this club moving forward and he epitomizes what this club is all about. Hard work, determination, fire, and desire.

“He’s got a mindset of improvement and he wants to be better every day and that takes you to a certain level.

“As a manager, you want players that want to learn and he certainly wants to learn.”

Keanu Baccus
Keanu Baccus in action with the Wanderers last season.

The Wanderers pre-season preparations commenced at the start of this month under strict government rules and regulations to prepare for a season kick-off date of 30 October 2021.

Preparations have been as smooth as they can be with the majority of the Wanderers squad training together daily with the exception of players that are in locked-down LGA’s or yet to arrive in the country.

“The most important thing is that people are safe and everyone follows the rules and does what they need to do so we can get back to normal as quickly as possible,” said Robinson.

“Obviously we’re training which is great and we’re very fortunate and lucky to do.

“At the moment it’s about getting basic levels of fitness and integrating in the players we have brought in so that they understand the way that we work.

“We understand that we’re all as important as each other. Whether you’re the goalkeeper or whether you’re player 21 or 22, or you’re an Academy player as we’ve got a lot more Academy players in the group at the moment.

“It’s drip-feeding the players on what is required on a daily basis and what is required each week. Tactically drip-feeding them as well as we don’t have a point of reference yet for a game so what we can do is get them in the right frame of mind.

“Key to it is not to become monotonous. So trying to keep our ideas and their minds fresh so they don’t know what’s coming.

“But we’ll be prepared and ready for when we do come out the other end as we know we will.”

Carl Robinson
Head coach Carl Robinson with Wanderers Academy Technical Director Ian Crook at training.

The Wanderers had a mixed first season under Robinson with plenty of positives and negatives to grow from ahead of what is set to be the club’s historic tenth season in the A-League.

“There were a lot of positives last season but there were a lot of things we need to improve on,” said Robinson.

“We conceded far too many goals, especially from set-pieces, so we need to own that, accept that and we will. That needs to improve.

“We scored a lot of goals but I still think we missed a lot of chances. I still want us to be more aggressive in certain areas of the field.

“We got into a rhythm of the way we wanted to play and I won’t go away from the way that we want to play. The style on my methodology is very clear and that’s what I need to do now with our new personnel.

“That’s the reason why I reset and brought in different profiles because I think the different profile of player might understand the way I want to play a little bit more.

“We want to play front-foot football, we want to add more aggression to our game and we actually want to try to dominate more than what we did last season in games with the attacking intent that we had at times but not clear enough.

“We want to win more games, that was clear and we were close in so many games but ultimately that was our shortfall.

“But we’ve analysed that, we weren’t too far away but we weren’t good enough. We’ll be better this season, we’ll be good enough this season and we’re here to win.

“There’s no bones about it. People can talk about finishing fourth or fifth, but that’s not what it’s about. We want to try and win, but we know there’s a lot of hard work and need a little bit of luck along the way.”

With just over two months to go until the Wanderers kick-off Season 10, Robinson is confident that his new personnel combined with the support of the club’s members and fans can make all the difference this season.

“We’re fully focused, we’re fully committed and we’ve got a group of players that understand the values of what the Western Sydney Wanderers are all about,” stated Robinson.

“We’ll get our members and fans behind us as they’re really important for us as well, we’ve seen how important they were last season and we have to continue to fight, grow and get better.

“Then there’s no reason why we can’t go on and win.”