Around the grounds: Babalj feeling 'like a kid again' in gruelling Jets pre-season

IT'S been years since former Socceroo Eli Babalj has enjoyed football as much as he is under Arthur Papas in a brutal Newcastle Jets pre-season.

The workload is large, and the sessions are intense. But through it all Babalj is thriving, buoyed by the prospect of hitting the ground running at the start of the 2021/22 Isuzu UTE A-League campaign.

"I don’t like to look back… but the last five clubs I’ve signed for I’ve signed in-season or toward the end of the season," Babalj told reporters on Tuesday after signing a one-year deal with the club. "You come in underdone… going into a group that’s already into a season, it’s hard to catch up.

"That’s why this has been really good, to come first day of pre-season and do three months of proper training, and build up my body. That’s what I’ve missed the last few years, having a proper pre-season. 

"(I'll) build up another six weeks and then have a full season, getting consistency. That’s what I haven’t had in the last few years.

I’m actually enjoying it, I don’t think anyone has enjoyed pre-season as much as me. I feel like a kid again.

It’s hard but it’s fun, it’s great, the body is feeling good - touch wood - and we’ve still got another six weeks to build on it. I’m ready for the start of the season."

Babalj signs on with Newcastle having trained as part of Papas' squad since day one of pre-season.

The towering striker says the Jets boss - who coached him as a teen - was the major drawcard when it came to making his Isuzu UTE A-League return, ahead of what he hopes will be a fruitful campaign for a squad brimming with belief and energy.

"I’m a winner, I want to win, I’m bringing experience as well (to) hopefully help the young boys as well," he said.

"I know what the manager wants, and I believe in what he’s trying to build here. I just want to bring that to the playing group as well, and push everyone in the same direction and achieve something special.

"The most important thing is he knows me as a person, and that’s very important. Then secondly as a player. That gives me a lot of confidence; it makes me want to work even harder for him, and try achieve something special together.

"I know him as a manager, and what he’s trying to implement here. It’s exciting, and it’s football that everyone wants to play.

"Everyone has been enjoying pre-season. It’s pre-season, it’s hard, it’s a grind but it’s all football, it’s all ball and we’re all enjoying it. You don’t think about how hard it is because it’s all football, it’s all specific and working on the way we want to play

"An opportunity to work with him has been great, and I’m really enjoying it."

Babalj and the Jets get their Isuzu UTE A-League campaign underway with an F3 Derby against Central Coast Mariners on Sunday, November 21. 

Aloisi: Lacroix brings experience and size to Western United defence

More than five weeks on from signing a one-year deal with Western United, Swiss defender Léo Lacroix has emerged from quarantine to quickly set about impressing head coach John Aloisi in his first days of pre-season training ahead of the 2021/22 Isuzu UTE A-League season.

Lacroix trained with his United teammates for the first time on Monday, October 11.

His qualities were already known to Aloisi before his arrival: his imposing height of 197cm, his fluency in six languages, and his extensive footballing experience accrued at clubs scattered around Europe, including Swiss outfits FC Sion and FC Basel, French Ligue 1 side AS Saint-Étienne and German outfit Hamburger SV.

But after seeing the accomplished defender in the flesh, and watching him go through his paces in pre-season training, Aloisi doubled down on his praise for Lacroix expressing confidence in his ability to have a profound impact on United's fortunes in 2021/22.

"Really excited to have him here," Aloisi said. "We obviously watched him play quite a bit when he was at Sion and also in France. We liked what we saw, and it’s great to have him here finally.

"He’s certainly impressed so far, and I’m sure he’ll quickly get to know what we’re trying to do as a team.

"His height, it’s going to be great defending in the box but also attacking free kicks. It’s good to have someone so tall.

"He’ll bring a lot of presence, obviously, but also he’s very good with the ball and playing out with the ball.

"That’s important for us, especially the players at the back, they’re the ones that start the play. His experience - he’s played Champions League football - that added experience and having a leader out there coaching from the back is important for us as well."

Buoyed by his emergence from quarantine, Lacroix expressed his delight in finally taking his place in a team he believes can achieve great things in the Isuzu UTE A-League this season. 

“I’m happy to be here to start training with the team. It was long between the transfer and the travel too, but now I am happy to be here,” he said.

“The first day [of travel] was long for my daughter and my kids, but in the end we are happy to be here and begin this new adventure.

“The club is a very good organisation and all the people welcomed me with a great heart and smile. All people are positive.

“It’s a good team with qualities and a mix of experienced and young players so I think really, we can do something very good this year. I will give my best to help the team this year.”