• Christian Marchetti

From chaos in China to the NPL: Michael Marrone reveals all about his career

Adelaide United legend Michael Marrone has opened up on his time with the Reds, a chaotic spell in China, and life with new club Sturt Lions in an exclusive interview with FPF.


Marrone's departure from United was announced a month ago, with local NPL SA side Sturt Lions also announcing his arrival on the same day.


Marrone said that he would never entertain the idea of playing for another A-League side after leaving Adelaide.


“I was either going to stay at Adelaide United, or I was going to stay in Adelaide. I wasn’t going to move interstate; I said that from day one,” he said.


The fullback did stay in Adelaide, with Sturt winning the race for the 34-year-old.

The move was organised quickly, with Marrone deciding to join the Lions after chatting with their veteran centre-back and local SA football legend John Fusco.


"I know [him] well and got introduced to him a while ago,” he said.


“I was in limbo for a bit, whether I was going back to Adelaide United. I went on holiday; I was in Cairns. I had one or two chats with Johnny, and I was just telling him my situation.


“Then things didn’t work out with Adelaide. I wasn’t even sure whether I was going to kick on and play NPL. I decided to, and I really didn’t speak to any other clubs.


“It just made sense. I’m in the Adelaide Hills, so it actually ends up being my local club.”


The move was a perfect fit for Marrone, similar to when he joined Adelaide in 2013 after returning from China.


Following a brief but ultimately chaotic stint with the now-defunct Shanghai Shenxin, the Adelaide boy decided it was time to return home.


He did return with one or two timeless stories out of it, even if things didn't work out on the pitch.


“You go through a lot of coaches in China. Our coach in China got sacked, and they gave the interim role to the team manager,” he said.


“So you could imagine a team manager, the guy who books the hotels, that kind of thing, with no coaching experience. Our trainings were weird.


“Anyway, we went on this little run where I think we won the next two, so they put him in as the coach for the rest of the season.


“[At] our trainings every day [it] was the same, and it was a bit weird. Then I left, and they made him vice president.


“The year before, and I didn’t know, but he was the kit man. So he went from kit man, team manager, coach, vice president within a year.”


As bizarre as that story is, it incredibly isn't the only crazy story Marrone had from his time in China.


His translator also turned out to be a jack of all trades staff member.


“The translator that I had wasn’t actually a proper translator. He used to sneak into English classes. He learned English on the side and didn’t have any qualifications,” he added.


“So he was a translator on an ok wage at the club. I left, there were no English speakers anymore, and he was really worried about his job.”


As Marrone found out later, the club had re-assigned him to a new role, which he was even more unqualified for, and there's no surprise they were disbanded last year.


“Teams would send the DVD resume of all the highlights, and he’d go through the highlights packages and talk to the coaches about who we should sign,” he said.


“He signed a Nigerian striker after I left off a DVD. Shit like that you’re like ‘Nah that’s not right, that can’t be’, so he was like [the] head scout.”


That experience was a far cry to what greeted him when he returned to the A-League, with Marrone settling in straight away under then Adelaide United coach Josep Gombau.


“I probably enjoyed that year the most with Josep because I’d just been in China, and there was the language barrier, and the tactics were very different,” he said.


"I just came from China, I joined mid-season, so they already had a good time with Josep and [I] just enjoyed that it was all about playing football.”

Marrone enjoyed working under Spaniards Guillermo Amor and Josep Gombau the most. (Chris Kelly)


Marrone raved about how much he enjoyed the environment at the club throughout his entire second stint there as well.


“I think just being in the changing room environment for one (was enjoyable). It doesn’t matter, as long as you’ve got a good group of boys, having that as your job where you go to training every day, hanging out in the training environment and then you train, back in the change room, nothing beats that,” he said.


The most notable achievement in his Adelaide career is the 2016 championship, the club's maiden A-League title, with Marrone having fond memories of the level of camaraderie amongst the squad that year.


“When you say championship, my thing of the championship is the whole year because we just went on this run of winning, winning, winning,” he said.


“When you’re winning, everything else is so much more enjoyable.”


One player Marrone mentioned as arguably the most important and best he has played with during his time at the club was Spanish midfielder Isaias.


“If you think of winning mentality, as soon as Isaias was signed, you’re like ‘ok, Adelaide’s never going to finish bottom.' Isaias would never let that happen,” he said.


“That’s the kind of thing I think of when I think of Isa. I roomed with him for a couple of years as well; I know him in and out.


“Let’s say we played 5v5 games, there’s four or five teams, whatever team Isa’s on is 75% [likely] to win it.


“That’s the sort of player he is. That’s probably the biggest compliment I can give [him].”

Marrone and Isaias celebrate a goal against Brisbane in 2017. (AAP)


Isaias stood out as a true leader for Marrone.


But he always felt comfortable being a part of the rest of the playing group too.


However, he and the squad were not always at ease with some former managers, such as Marco Kurz and Gertjan Verbeek.


He admitted that there could be tough times for the team, with the Dutchman particularly unpopular amongst the playing group throughout his time at the club.


“It was interesting—everything from the first game. We had a cup game, he (Verbeek) hadn’t been with us for long, and we rocked up, and it was an away game, and then he didn’t say anything at the ground,” Marrone said.


“We just had the team talk at the hotel, and then we got to the ground, and nothing got said, and we played.


“We had Marco (Kurz) before, and he was [an] excellent motivator. As much as you loved him [or] hated him, it didn’t matter; he was a good motivator, made you feel wanted on the team.


“A really good speaker. Every game, he’d have a five-minute chat, and you’d be revved up, and he was that kind of coach.


“Then I went from that to someone who didn’t say anything at the game, and it was weird.”


As he mentioned, Marrone always found Kurz to be an excellent man-manager.


When it came to matches, he was able to get a positive reaction from his players more often than not.


However, as much as Marrone appreciated the tactics and man-management, he admitted that the training schedule under the German was gruelling and came as a real shock.


“There was a month where you got the schedule, and there wasn’t a day off, and you’re like ‘why isn’t there a day off, I don’t understand, there’s plenty of times where we could have had a day off here,' but there’s no days off,” he said.


“Double sessions. Pre-season was gruesome. I didn’t understand. Especially at Playford (where Adelaide trains), it was a tough time because you’d have training in the morning, and then you’d have lunch together. Then you’re down at Playford [with] a two-hour break.


“Then you’ve got gym or something in the afternoon, or you’ve got a pitch session as well at, let’s say, four o’clock, something like that. Then you finish, and the sun’s going down.


“You left at seven in the morning, and you’d get home at seven or eight at night, and you’re like, 'what am I doing? Why was it necessary to split those times up?' So there was definitely times when things could have been different.”

Marrone found that he was overworked under Kurz, but thought his man management was superb.


It's not like the squad regarded Kurz as lowly as they did Verbeek, with the German's tactical nous setting him apart and praised glowingly by Marrone.


“His defensive shape was superb, the way we set up defensively. It was just the other way; we probably didn’t have much going forward, but defensively he was top-notch,” he said.


Marrone will now aim to continue to use all of his experience and defensive capabilities to help Sturt - who were only promoted last season - make the finals.


“They wanted to be safe from relegation, and then I think the way that the team has performed so far, the next aim was to get into finals,” he said.


“I don’t think anyone needs to make any bold claims about anything further than that yet.”


“We’re a pretty new club. I think finals would be good, and then we’ll see what happens from there, really.”


“The league’s pretty tight. We played Blue Eagles the other day, who were bottom on the table, but they were a very good side, so it’s very tight.”


This NPL season in SA has been very tight, with Sturt in the middle in fifth, just six points off second but only five points above ninth.

The A-League was just as tight last season.


Still, Marrone believes that including promotion and relegation means the NPL has many more meaningful fixtures.


“There really is a lot on the line. I think, probably towards the last few games of the season, you’ll probably see [teams] play out with [the mentality] of the ones that are trying to finish top and the ones that are trying to avoid relegation,” he said.


“Whereas in the A-League, you probably don’t get something like that. The last few games of the season, if you’re bottom, you’re probably playing kids because it doesn’t matter.”


One obvious way to improve the competitive nature of the A-League is to bring in promotion and relegation.


But Marrone, a veteran of the league, knows all too well the financial problems that are plaguing it at the moment.


Unless the sport starts to pick up in that respect, he just doesn't understand how the powers that be can bring it in right now.


“Long-term, I think football in Australia needs promotion and relegation. I just can’t see it being viable short to medium term,” he said.


“There’s so many problematic things to do with money with a second division at the moment that I can’t see it being viable at the moment.”


He also cited the dangers if one of the more established sides were relegated, believing it would only compound the financial issues.


“Can you imagine if this year Melbourne Victory went down? You think the league can afford a club like Melbourne Victory to be in a second division and not be in the A-League?” Marrone continued.


“It’s a nice idea long-term; it just can’t be done yet. You can’t just pick and choose and be like, ‘oh, ok, well it’s alright if Central Coast or even a new team like Western United or Macarthur goes down.' They’ve just brought a license for how many millions of dollars, and they’re in the second division?”


If established clubs get relegated, they could still maintain their spending if those in charge removed the salary cap.


As Marrone confirmed, the salary cap doesn't seem to be serving its true purpose in the A-League at the moment anyway, as it means different things for different clubs.

Marrone believes that teams like Sydney FC are able to unfairly exploit the salary cap. (Dan Himbrechts)


“The salary cap is weird because it (teams spending as much as they want) happens anyway,” he said.


“We’ll use Sydney as an example. They try to exploit every dollar out of the cap, whereas you’ve got other teams who try to exploit it the other way where they put everything in the cap and just use the bare minimum to be legal.”


“They’ll spend an extra thirty, forty grand just to hit the bottom cap. Whereas other teams (like Sydney) are using marquees, loyalty bonuses, using everything [to exploit the entire cap].”


“We’re already in an uneven league as much as there is a salary cap. I feel like it’s just [time to] rip the band-aid off, let it be free (the spending).”


“Things around the salary cap also create other issues with players where they’re not offered long-term deals because they’re not sure about the salary cap.”


“I don’t know the exact percentage, but this season [there] was like a month left in the season, and 60% or something of players were coming off contract.”


“What other league in the world has that? It’s unbelievable. That’s why you have this turnover, and you’ll have people writing comments about you know ‘recycling A-League’, but it’s not like players choose to move states all the time.”


“It’s not because they want to move; it’s because they tend to have to because of the way the system is working, where they have to move to be able to keep the wage that they want.”


Whatever the case with the salary cap and other issues in the A-League, Marrone came across as someone who understands the need for solutions to those problems if the game is to grow in the country.


Off the pitch, matters need to be resolved at all levels of the game.


But on the pitch, the defender has noticed gaps in player knowledge during his time in the NPL.


It has led him to consider the prospect of coaching when he retires.


Still, it isn't something he has given significant consideration.


“My immediate thought was no. But then after playing local league, even just for a couple of games, you’d give instructions and then you’d realise, ‘oh, these players haven’t been told this stuff before, this is weird, this is like new to them.’ It’s given me a little itch for something like that but no immediate plans.”


Perhaps Marrone could return to Adelaide in a coaching capacity, following in the footsteps of current staff members such as Carl Veart and Ross Aloisi?


Whether he returns to the club or not, the right-back was a key cog for Adelaide United for several years.

Marrone celebrating Adelaide's maiden championship with Tarek Elrich in 2016. (Adelaide United)


Although much more understated in his role, their fans should hold him in high regard for years to come.