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  • Writer's pictureJack Twohill

"A student of the game" - Damir Prodanovic's fascinating journey to the Newcastle Jets

Australia's professional pathways are changing as the A-League Men continues its seeming evolution into a developmental football league. This evolution not only affects players but pathways for ambitious coaches looking to leave their mark. Newcastle Jets assistant Damir Prodanovic finds himself apart of this monumental transition. Prodanovic recently spoke to Front Page Football about his journey to A-League Men's assistant management at the Jets, as a new breed of professional coach begins to reveal itself.

Newcastle Jets manager Rob Stanton alongside his assistant Damir Prodanovic at training. (Image: Tom Logan)

Most current A-League Men coaches have had an eerily similar rise to becoming apart of the professional ensemble of their respective teams. Most head coaches have played at a top domestic level, with some having playing experience in Europe amongst a handful of international caps. The managerial picture is led by figures with big personalities or stature, such as Tony Popovic, Marko Rudan, and Mile Sterjovski, to name a few.

In recent years, with the strengthening of the state NPL competitions on the back of improving performances in the Australia Cup, a pathway has emerged for coaching talent to become established in the A-League Men without having been former players. Wellington Phoenix boss Giancarlo Italiano is the most high-profile of these coaching talents. Ben Cahn was also given the reigns of Brisbane Roar before an abrupt departure due to health concerns.

Damir Prodanovic is another coaching talent who has had a similar rise to prominence. His work in the youth academies at both Macarthur and the Western Sydney Wanderers, and his promising stint at NPL NSW side Sutherland Sharks, alongside the expert mentorship he has received, culminated in Rob Stanton making Prodanovic his assistant ahead of guiding the Newcastle Jets through an uncertain 2023/24 season. Speaking to Front Page Football, Prodanovic reflected on his upbringing and journey to Australia and the Jets.

"We (he and his family) arrived in Australia in 1996 as immigrants from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Being raised in a Balkan family, we tried to integrate with the local community, and at a very young age, having small-sided, fun, recreational football games at the local park with family is where I found and discovered my passion for the game," the Jets assistant revealed.

As a player, Prodanovic had the opportunity to represent both Blacktown City and Manly United, eventually playing first-grade NPL football for both clubs. However, even from an early age, he saw coaching as a natural progression within the game.

"Professional football was going to be a difficult road for many reasons; as honest as I could be with myself, my deep passion from an early age was coaching, teaching, and influencing others," he said.

The road to a senior assistant position with the Jets has been defined by an education that any coach in Australia would envy. His playing career, whilst somewhat interrupted by injury, allowed him to receive an education and network with some of the biggest names in football management domestically. Prodanovic spoke openly about his desire to engage as much as possible with the best footballing minds in Australia, which began early on at Blacktown City, citing former Socceroo Milan Blagojević as an essential influence early on.

"I was optimistic and realistic about beginning my coaching journey in my 20s. While playing at Blacktown City, Milan Blagojević influenced my thought process and provoked my thoughts on coaching, tactics, leadership, and football philosophies," Prodanovic explained.

"I reached out to Milan about potential opportunities to start coaching. I wanted to observe Milan's sessions, but soon enough, I became his assistant and enjoyed a fantastic 4-year journey at NSWIS (NSW Institute of Sport)."

Prodanovic in his playing days in the NPL NSW for Manly United. (Image: Flickr)

However, when state institute programs closed and the A-League academies launched with a $50 million investment by the then Football Federation Australia, the route into senior management had changed. Amid this change, Prodanovic had already built a reputation in the youth coaching space.

After briefly travelling overseas, he returned to Australia to take up an opportunity with the Western Sydney Wanderers' newly established academy team, competing in NSW's NPL 2. Prodanovic's time with the Wanderers, in their inaugural academy setup, was a success, as he worked with some of the best young talent across various age groups at a football club esteemed with big names in the coaching game at the time.

"Western Sydney will always be a home club where I shared fantastic memories and unforgettable experiences. I was fortunate to be involved with some great football people at WSW," Prodanovic said.

"Ian Crook and Trevor Morgan set very high standards across the academy and senior space, where Tony Popovic oversaw the entire club. Throughout my four years at WSW, I was privileged enough to work closely with Tony Popovic, who engaged closely in the academy and senior space.

"Overseeing many training sessions and games, Tony's work feedback was priceless in my development as a person and coach. Tony was a significant influence on my coaching journey. I had the privilege to engage in regular chats about football, watch many of his A-League training sessions, ask questions, and understand specific processes. I have tremendous respect and admiration for him as a person and coach."

The A-League expanded in 2019 with the addition of Macarthur, and the Australian footballing landscape increased its boundaries in New South Wales, the spiritual heartland of football. At this time, Prodanovic was offered an opportunity to head the new Macarthur Bulls academy side. It was an opportunity he could not pass up, as the prospect of working under another long-term mentor had presented itself. Prodanovic discussed working with former Macarthur and Matildas boss Ante Milicic.

"Ante Milicic is a good friend and has mentored me for many years. I had the privilege of getting to know Ante during my time at WSW. Teza (Milicic) has inspired me to insist on a professional coaching career, believed in me, and has been there for me throughout the good and bad times," Prodanovic said.

"The biggest learning for me as a person and coach occurred at Macarthur. I coached the U20s and worked in the NPL space alongside Mile Sterjovski. Then, I had the opportunity to observe how Ante led his A-League team.

"Every day was a massive learning curve. Observing his (Milicic's) training, pre-game, and video sessions were on another level—the best I have personally seen. I didn’t quite know much about football until I met Tez. I thank Ante for everything he has done."

Prodanovic in training at the Newcastle Jets. (Image: Damir Prodanovic LinkedIn)

Prodanovic's work ethic and drive are evident to all who have looked. Whilst completing all his badges and coaching A-League Men youth sides, he found time to travel overseas, establish his private academy alongside former teammate and friend Panny Nikas, and complete a Graduate Diploma in Education to go along with a Bachelor of Sports Coaching and a Bachelor Degree in Exercise Science.

"I have spent more than five years as a PDHPE high school teacher, which has helped establish my life outside of football with my wife, Marija," Prodanovic explained.

His overseas adventures gave him valuable experience, visiting some European academies to understand how and why specific processes are done.

"It was a different dynamic of learning. You get to see various philosophies and training methods, some of which you can analyse and implement. However, the critical ingredient is understanding the whys and the hows and establishing this link to your principles and what you believe in,"  Prodanovic said.

"The more knowledge you accumulate, the more your vision and philosophy forms. There are no hours in football, no rush, and learning is an ongoing process that never stops. Coaching is teaching, and you must keep an open mind."

After his stint at Macarthur ended, it was only natural for Prodanovic to transition into a senior coaching position. At the time of his appointment in the pre-season of the 2023 campaign, the Sutherland Sharks had fallen on harsh times. Like all state-based clubs, they had to carefully navigate a pandemic that cancelled the 2021 season.

Unfortunately, their return to the pitch in 2022 was followed by a last-place finish, with the club accruing a disappointing 13 points from 22 matches and only being saved from relegation due to Football NSW pausing the long tradition to restructure the competition to 16 teams.

Damir Prodanovic (right) and Panny Nikas (left) together ahead of taking the reigns at the Sutherland Sharks. (Image: NPL New South Wales X)

The following season saw Prodanovic steady the ship at Sutherland, helping the club remain in the top eight for most of the 19 games he was in charge. Prodanovic oversaw some beautiful, free-flowing football and positive results after a rocky start that saw just one win and two draws in the first six games. Sutherland then lost twice in their next 10, winning seven matches. The 2023 season culminated in a 14th place finish for the Sharks, though they ended eight points clear of 15th-placed Mount Druitt in the relegation play-off spot.

“I was allowed by Rob Seaur (Sutherland President) to interview for the job. Rob wanted to see change; he enjoyed a particular brand of football, certain principles being evident and implemented week in, week out, and a professional environment created in the NPL space. He is a fantastic football person, constantly attempting to improve the environment at the Sharks. It was a privilege to share a short but sweet time with him," Prodanovic explained.

"It was an experience I really enjoyed. It was an opportunity to rebuild a first-grade team and integrate the U18s and U20s into our senior space.

"I was also fortunate to have Panny Nikas as my assistant, who did a fabulous job with the U20s, integrating the principles we wanted for all our talented youngsters. We knew we had to get the structure right; we had to find the best U16 and U17 local Shire players and help build the club's identity. I had to install a straightforward way of playing, with all staff and players understanding their roles and responsibilities.

"We wanted to play an attacking brand of football, starving opponents of the ball for long periods whilst staying proactive to win the ball back as aggressively and quickly as possible. This was our formula to win football matches. However, this way of playing requires a straightforward process: training and behaving in a certain way to bring it to life."

Whilst Prodanovic was in no rush to depart Sutherland, an old friend and former coach in Rob Stanton made an offer he could not refuse. Although he had settled in the Sutherland area with his family and wife Marija, the prospect of A-League Men's coaching experience as Stanton's assistant two hours north in the Steel City was something he could not say no to.



Prodanovic (left) and Stanton (right) ahead of a Newcastle Jets match day earlier this season. (Image: Damir Prodanovic Instagram)

"Having played for Rob Stanton for two seasons at Sutherland Sharks, I always admired the processes he took for our first team. Rob was way ahead of his time. He's got a very strong work ethic, talent, and a very strong tactical understanding of the game. He was massively understaffed, so he had to do many things himself," Prodanovic said.

"Throughout my time playing for Stanton and well after, we always stayed in touch. He was a mentor from far away and always showed an interest in what I was up to. It was sometimes a little bit difficult to communicate with him whilst I was at Macarthur and the Wanderers, as he was at Sydney FC. But we would catch up regularly and talk about football.

"Rob has been key to my development. He would attend many of my games and provide feedback on the team's development and my journey. Our philosophies have always aligned, along with our views on life. I knew you could not say no if there were ever an opportunity to work with such an intelligent football guy."

Prodanovic represents a new pathway opening up for talented football minds in Australia. It is a rarity that coaches, even at the assistant level, have next to zero professional playing experience. While he had played at a respectable level in the NPL NSW competitions, his lack of A-League experience sets him apart from many coaches within the league. Prodanovic clarifies that playing at a high level is essential for future coaches, but he is proof that it isn't necessary to find success.

He prioritises a willingness to learn and absorb information from different people within football, along with a commitment to education and study as a way forward for young coaches dreaming of a professional role. Prodanovic's admiration for his mentors and the respect shown to those who had taken a chance on him as a coach presents a humble character. His journey into professional coaching defines his continual development.

"I'm a student of the game. You need to keep learning, have an open mindset, and work twice as hard to build knowledge, as football is a game that keeps evolving, and you must keep up,” Prodanovic said.

Football's continual and inevitable evolution ensures new pathways for those who are ambitious and passionate enough to make a professional career a reality. Individuals who remain open to the possibilities will inevitably find success. Prodanovic's rise to prominence is a signal of a new type of coach, one who found success at the grassroots level rather than the professional arena.

1 Comment

Seka Mrkonja
Seka Mrkonja
Feb 27

What amazing journey. We wish you all the best in your family life, a lot of health and for sure with support from family you will achieve a lot more in your profession, very soon as a head coach.

Seka & Momo

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