How West Adelaide rediscovered itself by leaning on grassroots football
After flirting with relegation in 2021, West Adelaide took the South Australian football world by storm to win the State League One championship in 2022. It was undoubtedly a successful first season for Hellas Head Coach Jim Tsekinis. He spoke to Front Page Football about the year and what the future holds for the sleeping giant of South Australian football.
West Adelaide fans were out in force celebrating their club's promotion back to the NPL three years after being relegated. (Adam Butler/80Kms)
They were three points away from relegation to the third division of South Australian football. That was the state the once mighty West Adelaide Soccer Club was in when former player Jim Tsekinis accepted the role as its Head Coach for season 2022.
Sitting in the hot seat, it was clear to Tsekinis that the problems extended further than what was occurring on the pitch.
"The first thing I noticed was the culture; I saw a lot of negativity around the place because we weren’t winning games," Tsekinis shared.
Tsekinis was involved with the club as a player and a junior coach. He understands what it means to represent West Adelaide and wasted no time conveying that message to his charges.
While bringing back former club legends, like his mentor Neil McGachey, Tsekinis drew a line in the sand early on with players that did not fit his vision.
"Normally, it takes me a while to set up my team the way I want them to play. But what we did do, for the few players that were not following the rules and the culture of this club, we released them early, and we brought boys back that had played for this club before," he added.
The changes Jim Tsekinis has made in his time as West Adelaide coach have led to greater unity within the squad. (Adam Butler/80Kms)
Bringing back players that have previously been involved with the club addressed the quality of the football on the field. It also ensured that the team's culture was enhanced by individuals who were well aware of expectations.
Formerly a junior coach at the club, Tsekinis was able to reverse the trajectory of West Adelaide's senior side. But he is even prouder that he has done it by utilising players the club has invested in over several years.
"In our side, we had nine of the 20 players that were juniors at this club. It made a difference. I know you can’t have every player from the juniors, but what it did do, it made sure that they bought into the culture and they respected the badge," Tsekinis said.
Despite being familiar with most of his players, Tsekinis understands the importance of being stern when that side of him is required.
Making finals was already an overachievement for West Adelaide's 2022 campaign. But beating the table-topping Modbury Jets to earn a Grand Final spot and a potential automatic promotion back to the NPL was a dream scenario that became a reality.
When Modbury exited the finals series in straight sets at the hands of Para Hills a week after, the possibility of automatic promotion went out the window. Tsekinis had to quickly ground his young charges in what he called the "most difficult week" of his time at the helm.
"The week leading into Para Hills was almost like some players thought, ‘Modbury will win, and we are in.’ I had to be more aggressive and ensure I fired them up because my aim was not to take it for granted," Tsekinis said.
West Adelaide survived a late Para Hills surge in the Grand Final to earn promotion back to the NPL SA after three years in the wilderness. After a season of massive overachievement, Hellas now focus on consolidating their gains.
Despite Hellas returning to the main stage of local South Australian football, Tsekinis understands that rebuilding the club's reputation is still a work in progress. There is no quick-fix solution of spending big to bring in an array of players.
"You’ve got to remember that we’ve done it tough for the last five years, it’s not the same selling point it used to be, and that’s part of what I’m trying to turn around. I think getting up means we need to consolidate until people remember we are a big club," he said.
One thing Tsekinis hopes for in 2023 is the completion of West Adelaide's stadium in Kilburn, something he expects to happen sooner rather than later.
"I think finishing the stadium is going to be massive. Once we do that I think more people will come. My understanding is the grants have been released, and it should be happening around halfway through next season," Tsekinis shared.
West Adelaide's Jim Tsekinis and captain Ricardo Da Silva brought silverware back to the storied club, but the coach knows it is only the first step of their rebuild. (Adam Butler/80Kms)
Having played for Hellas since the age of nine, Tsekinis has described leading the club back to the NPL as a "dream." He feels that the love for the badge is something he has sold well to his playing group, and along with the results on the field, he sees results in the stands.
"In the Grand Final, I saw people, Greek people in particular, that had not come out to games for years. All of a sudden, they heard I was coaching and that we were doing well, and it brought people back. That’s what my aim was!" Tsekinis said.
After a lean half decade, Tsekinis understands that it may take South Australia some time to grow into the idea of West Adelaide being back as a force. But he is fully backing his young charges to achieve results and show the state that Hellas belongs at the top level.
"I have been coaching through the juniors the last five years before I took the senior roles because my son was there, and I was helping the kids. I’ve now got nine of my 15 from the last five years playing State League, [in the] Reserves or first team. I know those nine won’t leave this club. They love the club; it’s not about money, [and] they would give everything for this club. This (loyalty) is of massive importance for me," Tsekinis added.
One can argue that West Adelaide lost its way, at least at the senior level, in the past few years. But Tsekinis and his team have been a breath of fresh air. They have revived the love for the badge and the community it represents, which once made Hellas one of the most well-renowned clubs in the land.
This journey is only in its infancy and will be far from easy, but West Adelaide is steering in the right direction. With a new stadium on the horizon, young players being backed to succeed, and clashes with Adelaide City hopefully becoming a permanent fixture, South Australian football is better for having Hellas in its premier competition.
Click here for more of the latest stories coming out of the NPL SA and the NPL across Australia.