By hook or by Crook, Sky Blues will improve

Two months out from the start of the season, even before the first trial, is not the most advisable time to be making bold predictions. But here goes. Sydney FC will go close to winning the championship this season. Very close. And at last, they’ll go about it the right way.
Nanjing Night Net

It’s easy, on a bright winter’s day watching the Sky Blues train on freshly cut grass at Macquarie University, to be seduced into a hasty, lazy, impression. But, no, it’s definitely there. You can smell it. You can see it. After three seasons of parade ground monotony under Vitezslav Lavicka, new coach Ian Crook – who’s been around the club on and off since formation – has put the spring back in the step of the A-League’s serial under-achievers. Two championships in seven seasons may suggest otherwise, but Sydney FC have never to lived up to the benchmark which matters. Rightly or otherwise, they not only have to win, but they have to win in style. Crook gets it, and is going to do something about it. It’ll be worth hanging on for the ride.

Crook is English, but he’s Tottenham English, not Stoke City English. Don’t make the mistake of judging him by his passport. Tutored in the youth ranks at White Hart Lane, where keeping possession was a non-negotiable, he went on to have a decorated career at Norwich City, where the passing game was equally revered. By the time he finished his playing career in the old NSL with Northern Spirit, his philosophy was as rounded as it was ever going to be.

That was 12 years ago, and since then he’s had plenty of opportunities to practise what he preaches during 11 coaching posts, including spells in Japan, back at Carrow Road, and perhaps most interestingly, as coach of the world’s worst national team, American Samoa. But in that milieu, only a three-year stint with Newcastle Jets in the old NSL could count as genuine head coaching experience. Until now.

A backroom coach by resume, and by nature, Crook was Sydney FC’s second choice behind Graham Arnold to replace Lavicka, but he may well turn out to be a wise choice. The fact the club came to him rather than the other way around gives him a rare sense of job security, and the luxury of being relatively relaxed. Not a bad thing given the A-League is likely to be the most evenly contested it’s ever been, and the Sky Blues will have newcomers Western Sydney Wanderers breathing down their necks.

Chilled or otherwise, Crook will still be stepping out of the shadows, and he readily admits this will be the biggest test of his coaching career. At the age of 49, he should be as as prepared as he’ll ever be, but don’t expect any bold declarations. “We haven’t lost a game yet,” he jokes.

When the Sky Blues do lose a game – and the pre-season kicks off with a trial against NSW second-tier side Macarthur Rams next week – the impression is Crook will be able to take it in his stride. But if there won’t be a hair-dryer in the Sydney FC dressing room, there will be a culture of expectation. “We’re a big club, we expect results, and the players need to know that,” he says. At training, every drill comes with a carrot and a stick. Do well, meet the benchmark, and you get a rest. Fail, or slacken off, and expect a few laps. “There’s got to be a difference between winning and losing,” says assistant coach Steve Corica as Crook nods his head.

Fate has delivered this opportunity for Crook at arguably the best possible time. Perhaps you make your own luck in life. Either way, few know the structural flaws which have beset the club better than Crook, who therefore is in a unique position to understand just how much things have improved.

Sydney FC go into the season with a clear chain of command – from the boardroom (David Traktovenko) to the chief executive (Tony Pignata) to the football director (Gary Cole) – for the first time in their history. That has allowed Crook to reshape the squad with clarity, and purpose. And that’s why there is such optimism that the Sky Blues can rise to the occasion.

Pace has been missing, so in come Yairo Yao and Fabio. Craft has been missing, so in comes Kruno Lovrek to take the burden off Nicky Carle. Lovrek and Yao can also be expected to get among the goals. Character has been in short supply, so in come Adam Griffiths and Ali Abbas. Throw in the fact that Brett Emerton will be playing without pain, Jason Culina could end up as a prized mid-season recruit, and Crook – last season’s youth team coach – will have no fear in giving young players like Mitchell Mallia, Joel Chianese, Gligor Hagi, Daniel Petkovski and Blake Powell their head, and there’s no doubt the Sky Blues are far more balanced in every respect. Turning that potential into reality will be Crook’s challenge, but the good news is he won’t be compromising his principles in the process.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.