Michael Valkanis: An exclusive interview with Australia's new overseas manager
Michael Valkanis and his burgeoning coaching career have flown under the radar since he left Melbourne City and the Australian football landscape in 2017. After spending time as an assistant in Holland, Greece, and Belgium, Valkanis has finally got his chance in the hot seat at a European club.
Valkanis was initially appointed as an assistant coach of Belgian Pro League side KAS Eupen in mid-January. But following the departure of manager Stefan Kramer, he was sworn into the leading role and tasked with keeping the club afloat in the top tier.
Eupen is currently eight points clear of the relegation play-offs in Belgium, with four games remaining.
They have slowly moved away from the drop zone since Valkanis took over as interim manager until the end of the season.
The point away from home to USG was particularly crucial, with Les Unionistes currently seven points clear and seemingly on their way to a shock title win.
“USG (Royale Union Saint-Gilloise) are a really good outfit, really good team. They’re on top of the ladder, [but it’s] no surprise with the way they play,” Valkanis told Front Page Football recently in an exclusive interview.
“They’re very good going forwards, very direct and aggressive going forwards. They play a very high press and are defensively organised as well.
“So to go away from home, have a really good strong team performance, and perform well and get a result is very important for the team and surviving in the Pro League.”
Eupen will be entirely focused on survival heading into the final month or so of the campaign. But all eyes in Belgium are currently on USG.
The club’s phenomenal form in 2021/22 leads them closer to a 12th Belgian top-flight title by the week.
However, they only came up from the second tier last season. USG hasn’t been crowned Belgian champions since the 1934/35 season.
Therefore, USG’s current title run could be similar to Leicester City’s shock Premier League success in 2015/16, but Valkanis is not surprised.
He believes that the strong foundations the club has put in place in recent years are paying off.
“They’ve come up from the second division. But to me and a lot of football people, there’s no surprise when a team has a vision and a coach who’s allowed to implement a style, a philosophy, and work with a team over a long period,” he said.
“He’s (the manager) brought this club up from the second division to the first division; he’s built this team, worked on it now for the last two years.
USG's title run has been one of the biggest underdog stories in European football this season. (IMAGO)
“You can see [it in] the way they play. It’s clear what they do, whether with the ball or without the ball, but it’s not that easy to break down, not that easy to stop because they’re good at what they do.
“It’s a nice story going forward for a lot of clubs that don’t have much time for coaches and time for a process.
“We know we’re in a results-driven industry, and at a lot of clubs, there is no patience at all.”
During his time overseas, Valkanis has learnt all about the result-driven nature of European football, particularly during his time as an assistant with the Greece national team.
Valkanis served on the coaching staff from July 2019 to December 2021. He was let go after the country failed to qualify for the FIFA World Cup in Qatar later this year.
Being of Greek descent, leaving the national set-up was tough to take. But Valkanis believes the future is bright for the Galanolefki.
“It was difficult because you’re also working in a country [where] their philosophy is [to] win, and results, and I think they’re a little behind in seeing a style of play. They don’t care, as long as you win,” Valkanis said.
“It was always going to be a difficult task, but I think we had done a really good job implementing a way of play. The Greek national team showed that it could play good football, and it doesn’t have to defend deep and play on the counter.
“It’s got a lot of young players that can play a certain type of football, that are very skilful. They’re quick, intelligent, and can play a modern type of game that is about being proactive and creating opportunities for goals.
“I think the one thing we lacked is scoring for the amount of opportunities we created. The stats show the type of football we played. We created many opportunities, but we probably lacked the experienced striker Greece had ten years ago, like Gekas, Samaras, Salpigidis, Mitroglou.
“We have younger strikers with less international experience that I think in two or three years will take the Greek national team to another level. They’re plying their trade in countries like Holland, even in Scotland with Ange, Giakoumakis, or Pavlidis in AZ, Douvikas at Utrecht, Masouras at Olympiakos, or whether it’s Tzolis who’s at Norwich. I’m probably forgetting some other strikers of ours.”
Valkanis was a part of a coaching team tasked with rebuilding the side after it had a disastrous period following the relative success of their 2014 World Cup performance.
Greece’s lowest point came in their attempts to qualify for Euro 2016. They finished bottom of the qualifying group and suffered two embarrassing defeats to minnows Faroe Islands.
They fared better in the 2018 World Cup qualifying. But a slow start to qualification for Euro 2020 led to another change in the backroom staff.
Valkanis was then appointed by a close colleague and incoming manager, John Van’t Schip. Greece rallied to finish just outside of the play-offs in third.
Former Melbourne City manager Van’t Schip played a crucial role in bringing Valkanis onto the Greece coaching staff. It was also Van't Schip who paved the way for Valkanis to move abroad in the first place.
Former City boss Van't Schip holds a press conference as Greece manager. (gazzetta.gr)
The pair has built a close friendship since they met at City. Valkanis was appointed as senior assistant to Van’t Schip ahead of the 2016-17 A-League season.
The Dutchman departed midway through that season, but Valkanis says they didn’t need much time to see eye to eye on things.
“We clicked in the short period [in Australia]. We have very similar philosophies in the way we want to play football and the way I like to implement that style of play,” he said.
He then explained his initial move to link up with Van’t Schip in Holland with PEC Zwolle before he moved to Greece.
“The opportunity (to join Zwolle) came up after he (John) left. I took over the reins at Melbourne City and got the opportunity to be the head coach, and then Warren Joyce came. Our philosophies didn’t quite align, and to me, not only [a] football philosophy but also a life philosophy. With John, we have very similar values and the way we would like an environment to operate,” he added.
“With Warren, it was a little bit difficult for me. I had to part ways with City which was hard because [I spent] 14 years in Adelaide and [lived] away from home because I [was] originally born in Melbourne.
“A lot of people tend to think that [because] I spent that long in Adelaide I was an Adelaide boy. I went back home (to City), and it wasn’t to last forever. I should’ve known better because, in football, nothing is forever.
“The opportunity (to join Zwolle) came once I was out of a job. I was out of work for about four or five months, and John’s assistant in Zwolle moved onto the Dutch national team to become assistant to Ronald Koeman.
Van't Schip (centre) and Valkanis (right) on the bench during their time at Zwolle. (Getty Images)
“He (John) spoke to me, and I was able to move to Zwolle, which was a great opportunity. At the time, I was thinking of going into a head coaches role, where I was speaking to two clubs, and the opportunity for one of them seemed great.
“But at the time, the lure to move to Holland, working in Europe and the Eredivisie was greater [in] leading to be a head coach than the A-League.
“After, John left PEC Zwolle and I stayed on; they kept me on. Funnily enough, John said that if he does get a job somewhere, he would still like me to work with him.
“I had signed a new deal with PEC. Within three or four months that I had signed a new deal, he called me and surprised me, ‘there’s an opportunity to coach the Greek national team’.
“That’s a difficult one because I was really enjoying my time in Zwolle and enjoyed Holland and made some really good friends there.
“The club as well, great coaches and I enjoyed my time there, but [it was] the Greek national team and [I have] Greek blood in me, a Greek background. I never really thought I would coach the Greek national team, so that opportunity was like, ‘I’ve got to go, I’ve got to do it'.”
It is rare for Australian coaches to get an opportunity to work in a national team environment that isn’t the Socceroos, or overseas at all for that matter.
Yet Valkanis has been able to, and he believes others can follow him into Europe if they have the courage and belief to do so.
“I think Australian coaches have got talent. I’ve said it before to media as well, we work very hard at becoming better, and we look to improve. We want to educate ourselves because we feel inferior that we’re on the other side of the world, and [you’ve got] the mecca of football in Europe,” he said.
“We’ve got this idea that we have to really work on it. We take time to educate ourselves further, watch more games to learn from teams and coaches and we are able to get to the level to compete against European coaches.
Valkanis believes Australian coaches have talent and a genuine drive to succeed abroad. (Getty Images)
“I think [because] the European coaches are living in the mecca, the opportunities are greater than ours are on the other side of the world. They’re here, and the effort we put in to improve and develop ourselves, I think, is huge.
“It just comes down to believing in yourself, having that passion in what you do, and working damn hard at it. That means putting in the hours to improve, to be better.
“I’m not saying it can just happen; you can just put up your hand and say, ‘yeah, I’m going to go and coach in Europe’. You’ve got to do the hard yards. You’ve got to actually coach and work hard, make mistakes and improve as a coach, and at the same time educate yourself through developing yourself, evolving, learning.
“It’s a constant cycle of working, developing, learning, giving yourself feedback to be better. Then it comes back to that belief and passion, and then to say, ‘I’m going to take that chance and go across and give it a go’.
“When I did it, a lot of people think, ‘he went across with John, John gave him the opportunity', but at the same time, I have four boys, a wife, I took the whole family. Like that wasn’t a risk in itself?
“You’ve got to have that belief in yourself to go ‘I’m leaving everything behind, and [I’m] going to move my family'. They’re going to leave a lot of things behind that make them very comfortable as well.
“A lot of the time, is it a risk? Or are you afraid to take that risk? I believe it’s a risk not to take a risk, [and] that’s how I like to play my football.
“As a coach, I’ve realised that my philosophy in terms of the way I want to play football is the same as my philosophy in life. If [I] want to go and get something, I’m going to attack; I’m going to go and get it. I’m not going to sit back and wait for it.
“So for me, it’s not a risk that I said to my whole family, ‘come on, we’re going over there’. I didn’t think about failing; I thought about going over there and making it happen and starting a career, and look at the opportunities that have come up through it.”
Valkanis is not wrong about the experiences and opportunities he has been a part of since leaving Australia.
He coached in tournaments such as the Nations League and European and World Cup qualifiers in Greece's set-up. Recently, Valkanis took charge of arguably the biggest match of his football career.
Despite being a small club and struggling in the league, Eupen had been on a fairy tale cup run and made it to the semi-finals against Anderlecht.
After drawing the first leg 2-2, the Pandas were defeated 5-3 on aggregate after a 3-1 second-leg defeat. But the experience ranks high on Valkanis’ list of career highlights so far.
“In terms of being in charge and being head coach, 100%, 100% (it was his biggest game). Since I’ve stepped into the hot seat, it’s been fantastic. I’ve got Brugge one week, USG the next, and Anderlecht, Gent, and the list keeps going on and on,” he said.
The chance to take on such opposition from a managerial role has come earlier than expected for Valkanis.
Socceroos legend Tim Cahill, one of the directors on the board at KAS Eupen, was pivotal in convincing him to take the interim role.
“There was a situation here (Kramer’s departure), and Tim Cahill spoke to me and said, ‘look, you could go there, lend a hand, help secure the team in the league’. There was a nice opportunity because we [were] in the Semi-Final of the cup,” he added.
“I came here with no intent to manage other than assist and soak up another great experience. In another great football country. In a short period, the opportunity has come now that I’ve taken over. It’s probably been a good move in terms of my experience and where I want to be, and the opportunity I’m having.”
Eupen is Qatari-backed and owned by the Aspire Zone Foundation. The organisation is affiliated with Qatar Sports Investments, which owns European giants Paris Saint-Germain.
Valkanis knows of the links to such a group, but it is not something he is thinking about right now.
“I know who they’re owned by and the opportunities that come with working with a group of such. But at the moment, my mind is on every day, every training session, and focusing game by game. We’ll see what the future holds and what opportunities come out of this,” he said.
Valkanis reflected on his time with Adelaide United, the club he spent 14 years with as both a coach and player, to close our chat.
At United, Valkanis made a start to his professional coaching career. The first time he stepped into a managerial role was with the Reds back in 2013 as a caretaker following the departure of John Kosmina.
A younger Valkanis during his brief stint as Adelaide's caretaker in 2013. (AAP)
He believes that it is unlikely he would be where he is today without Adelaide's influence.
“I was 14 years at Adelaide, so I had a lot of good times, I had a lot of turbulent times, I saw everything. I did nearly every job in Adelaide,” he said.
“I love the club. I support them from over here; I follow every weekend, every game, what they’re doing.
“[I] really enjoyed my time in Adelaide, and I’m grateful for Adelaide United, and I should say Adelaide City [as well].
“I always tell the story that I was supposed to go to Adelaide City, I had a two-year contract [offer]. I said to my wife, ‘it’s only two years, and we’re going to be back home’, and I ended up staying 14 years and having four boys.
“I got to be involved in the early years of the A-League and the inaugural squad. For Adelaide United, that was a fantastic year, the inaugural [season] in the old NSL. That team was formed very late; it was one month to go, I think we started the season late, and everyone thought we didn’t stand a chance. It was built around a team of South Australians. I was probably the only player outside of South Australia.
"I think John Kosmina did a tremendous job that season putting that team together and galvanising that team to play all the way to the preliminary finals.
“In those first two seasons of the A-League, [we were very] competitive. Premiers one season, making a Final, losing the Preliminary Final, making the Asian Champions League.
“The experiences playing, I’ll never forget. We had a really strong team, and it was great to reach the Asian Champions League, playing year in, year out because we were so competitive in the A-League.
“Then to get the opportunity to captain and coach, it’s a place I’ll never forget. Especially now, Adelaide’s got a lot to do with where I am.
“Hopefully, one day, if I ever do come back to Australia, it will be to maybe finish off my coaching career at Adelaide United, who knows.”
A return to Adelaide would be a nice eventual homecoming for Valkanis. But he is determined to continue his development in Europe.
There’s no doubt that football fans down under would like to see more Australian managers forge successful careers overseas. Valkanis is ideally placed to keep building on his promising start to life in Belgium.
If you would like to read more about Australian players and coaches plying their trade overseas, click here.