New York, Barcelona, Milan, Southern France - it sounds more like a Contiki tour than a football trip. However, for new Wellington Phoenix FC boss Mark Rudan, it was an experience that provided something far more fulfilling.
It’s where he not only learned more about football, but also gave him the opportunity to reflect on the person he was and who he aspired to be.
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It was late 2016 and, by his own admission, Rudan felt exhausted and disengaged after years of juggling coaching and media commitments, in addition to running his own business after he retired from playing.
A tough, no-nonsense and inspirational defender in his playing days, it was a challenging time for the then-41-year-old, who admits he was neither satisfied nor comfortable with the direction his career was heading.
“Life became complicated and I found I lost myself within that complication. I had become someone that I wasn’t,” he revealed to www.a-league.com.au
“In the last couple of years many things changed, leaving me feeling incomplete. I didn’t take the time to really breathe. I needed to take a step back from a lot of things.”
Without giving it much thought, Rudan packed a suitcase and headed abroad on a 'football learning experience' of a lifetime.
He spent his time with recently appointed Arsenal coach Unai Emery French powerhouse Paris Saint Germain and visited FC Barcelona, absorbing valuable information on how they create their football philosophy.
To gain further understanding, trips to La Liga side Girona, French outfit Nantes and Serie A giants AC Milan, provided Rudan a unique insight on the fundamental essence of football philosophy in Europe.
It was an eye-opening, redefining adventure for the skipper of Sydney FC’s title-winning side of 2005/06.
Not only did it give Rudan a holistic insight into the current trends of football managers and clubs, it also provided opportunity to reflect on where he was and where he wanted to go.
“It was good to step back and a real search for the answers I needed and how I can improve,” Rudan explained.
“Having that time away to really re-focus, self-analyse and self-reflect where and who I am, where I want to go and what the future holds, was very important for me.”
Ready for a new challenge
Rudan returned to Australia having rediscovered balance in his professional life, with a clear mind and armed with additional football knowledge.
Almost by coincidence, Wellington Phoenix came calling and, just like that, he was across the ditch and appointed as their new boss.
Long considered a Hyundai A-League coach due to consecutive NPL NSW triumphs in charge at Sydney United 58, this felt like the right job at the right time for Rudan.
“Had I not have taken that trip last year, perhaps this job wouldn’t have come up,” he admits.
“But having a good eight to ten months off to evaluate, and the unbelievable football experience I had abroad, I knew exactly what I wanted to do when this opportunity had come up.”
“It’s quite comical how life works sometimes but opportunities are presented when you’re ready for them.”
“You can take on things you know are going to help you improve, that are going to challenge you both personally as well as professionally. I’m certainly in a great space and ready for it right now.”
Making his mark on the Phoenix
With those experiences now behind him, Rudan’s next challenge is trying to turn Phoenix from Hyundai A-League strugglers to finals contenders.
It’s been a lean few years for the Kiwi club who have missed the Finals Series in each of the last three seasons and finished second-last in two of those campaigns.
But it’s not only results Rudan wants to improve. He is also keen to rejuvenate the culture and implement a clear vision to hold the club in good stead for years to come.
“I expect the players to behave a certain way. It’s not easy to change habits, it takes time, but the players have certainly bought into it and there has been significant transformation in behaviours and habits already,” Rudan said.
“I’m happy with how it’s going but we still have a way to go to improve. There are certain exercises, on and off the park, that you can implement to help that process come along quicker.
“The players certainly understand what it takes to win, what winning is all about. It’s about instilling that belief and confidence both individually and collectively.
“Ability is important obviously but it’s the player’s character that fuels and drives high performance.
“As the old saying goes ‘you’re only as strong as your weakest link’. When you’re trying to create a successful, unified environment, it takes only one player to dismantle it and bring it all down.
“There’s a real synergy about our football club this year. The players are really enjoying coming to training every day and being around each other.
“It’s a real family atmosphere in our dressing room. You can feel it, you can see it!”
Proving the doubters wrong
The perception of the Phoenix over the last few years is they have the talent, on their day, to beat some of the best teams in the competition.
But producing their best form consistently has proved difficult.
It’s for that reason Rudan knows Wellington will head into the Hyundai A-League 2018/19 season as rank outsiders.
There won’t be many experts tipping the club to break their finals drought. And that’s just the way Rudan likes it.
“It’s the same every year and that’s not a problem. It certainly does drive us. I don’t need to say it to the players too often,” he laughed.
“What is imperative is we focus on ourselves to work really hard to improve individually as well as a team.
“From day one I’ve been extremely proud of the players with their work ethic, attitude and buying into what we’re trying to do here.
“It’s about creating a strong, engaged environment which helps my players, my entire team, to improve every day both on and off the field.
“One thing that can be assured, expect to see a team that takes the meaning of the word ‘competitiveness’ to the next level. Our team will sustain a heightened level of play and intensity over the entire 90 minutes.
“We’re capable of taking this football club to where it’s never been, we’re here to create history. Our fans deserve it, our players deserve it, our club deserves it.”
Kick It For Brain Cancer
Away from the field, Rudan faced a different challenge all together in September 2017 when his mother was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer. Since then, his family have rallied to raise funds and awareness for the Cure Brain Cancer Foundation.
For the first time, Round 26 of the Hyundai A-League 2018/19 season will be dedicated to furthering the cause.
"My sister and I were passionate about raising awareness and much-needed funding for a disease that kills more people under the age of 40 than any other, so we decided to do something about it," he said.
"We formed a relationship with Cure Brain Cancer Foundation and the FFA to create the first ever Kick It For Brain Cancer Round in the A-League at the back end of the season. It's an event that will begin this coming season and continue every other season moving forward."