Piet Van Der Pol alongside coach Marco Kurz and 2017/2018 Club Champion Isaias (Photo: Adelaide United)

With Adelaide United reportedly being purchased by the Pelligra Group, The Inner Sanctum takes a look at the tenure and legacy of the ownership group represented by Piet Van der Pol which has owned the Reds since mid-2018.

With Adelaide United reportedly being purchased by the Pelligra Group, The Inner Sanctum takes a look at the tenure and legacy of the ownership group represented by Piet Van der Pol which has owned the Reds since mid-2018.

In March 2018, Adelaide United fans were overjoyed to hear the news that an overseas-based consortium had purchased the Club. Even though the Reds had won the two FFA Cups (2014 and 2018) and the Premiership and Championship double (2015-2016) things were not always rosy between previous owner Greg Griffin and the Adelaide United supporters.

Reds fans were often left frustrated with the abrasive ownership style of Greg Griffin. The frustration extending to the fact that United seemingly rebuilt a squad and a new identity under a new manager every couple of years.

Despite United’s new ownership group remaining anonymous, the point of contact for Adelaide United stakeholders was Chairman and representative of the consortium Piet Van der Pol. Van der Pol introduced himself to United fans by stating his desire to focus on the development of young South Australian footballers and his ambition to have Adelaide United consistently finishing in the top three of the A League Men ladder.

Four years down the line, and with a new era dawning in Adelaide, it has certainly been a rollercoaster ride that has included highs and lows in the ever-challenging world of a COVID-19 impacted Australian football landscape.

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The Good

Repairing relationships

Despite the fact that United had experienced success on the field, things were far from perfect off the park before the Van der Pol led consortium took over. Notably, players like Eugene Galecovic, Cassio, Tarek Elrich, and Travis Dodd exited the Club in a less than desirable fashion. With former players rarely returning to the Club when deciding to return to Australia, Bruce Djite being a rare exception.

When Greg King, United’s fitness coach during the Championship season, exited the club to join Ange Postecoglou’s Yokohoma F. Marinos, former owner Greg Griffin stated, “He (King) spoke to me of his intentions a couple of weeks back and we have had no hesitation in releasing him because we know when he does come back he will come back to Adelaide. That’s our philosophy.”

A statement like that was frustrating for fans at the time because the Club did not have a track record to support it, but with United’s new ownership group came a blank slate for that idea to become a reality. Over the past few years, Reds’ fans have been overjoyed to see former players like Bruce Djite, Carl Veart, Ross Aloisi and Eugene Galecovic returning to coaching and administration jobs in the Club.

Alongside that, the Reds have also welcomed back former players such as Isaias, Craig Goodwin, Riley McGree, Stefan Mauk and George Blackwood who have all returned to the Club and the recently departed Ben Halloran and Stefan Mauk making it clear they would like to return to Adelaide one day.

Current and former players have obviously felt respected and willing to contribute to a Club they are familiar with since Van der Pol took over the Reds. Bringing back names like the ones stated above does not only add quality to the organization, but also ensures the Club has a strong, sustainable culture that is passed down through the years.

Outside the organisation. Van der Pol has admitted that not all was perfect when he took over. “My first day in town, I had two people contacting me. One was Sam Ciccarello, the chairman of the FFSA, the other one was Anthony Kirchner of Adelaide Venue Management. The Club had had a disturbed relationship with both key organisations,” Van der Pol remarked in his first Adelaide United member’s forum.

Both of these relationships are currently at a much healthier level than they were four years ago and the partnerships remain a work in progress.

Carl Veart, Bruce Djite and Ross Aloisi, all former Adelaide United players, have held senior positions at the Club in the last 4 years (Image: Adelaide United)

Taking the plunge on McGree

Despite not having the deepest pockets, the ownership group saw former Adelaide United player Riley McGree as an opportunity to continue developing a local talent and as a potential for profit.

The change in ownership once again helped mend bad blood between Adelaide United and McGree’s Belgian-based side, Club Brugge, who the former ownership group reported to FIFA for giving McGree a medical without the Club’s permission.

This became an issue for the Reds in following seasons, with McGree being loaned to Melbourne City and the Newcastle Jets and Adelaide United not having its bids considered because of the earlier disagreement. Not only did the new ownership group manage to get McGree back to the Reds, but they signed him permanently, spending AUD $150,000, an unprecedented move for an A Leagues Club, let alone a traditionally conservative Adelaide United.

The investment turned out to be a huge success, with McGree being directly involved in 15 goals for the Reds in his 23 games in season 2019/2020 and earning himself another move overseas. Since then, McGree has joined new parent club Charlotte FC before being loaned out to Birmingham FC and finally permanently moving to Middlesbrough FC, earning United a cool AUD 1.4 million return.

The Reds made a huge profit through one of their home grown products. With the A Leagues being positioned fairly low on the world football food chain, moves like this are extremely important in ensuring Clubs remain profitable and can continue offering youth the stage to succeed and the promise of a career at the top level of the game.

Riley McGree announced as a Middlesbrough FC player (Image: Middlesbrough FC)

Embracing South Australia and shaping a sustainable football operation structure

Despite South Australia being a goldmine of football talent, it is not always an easy process for talented players to find their way to the top. One of the issues present until recently was the disjointed structure of Adelaide United’s football department.

The problem was explained by Bruce Djite, at the time the Club’s Director of Football, who soon after manager Gertjan Verbeek departed, shared a story about why talented youngster Lachlan Brook, who had been setting the NPL SA alight, was not getting a shot in Verbeek’s A League Men’s side.

Djite mentioned that Verbeek was frustrated because when he subbed Brook on from the bench, he did not press in the way he wanted his team pressing, instead Brook was pressing in the pattern preferred by NPL SA team coach Paul Pezos, where he played most of his football, that limited how much Verbeek felt comfortable playing him.

In the past 12 months, the Club has restructured coaching roles to ensure a seamless transition for young players through Adelaide United’s system. Elvis Markov, the NPL SA Reserves coach, now also serves as the assistant to Airton Andreoli on the NPL SA bench. In turn, Andreoli serves as one of Carl Veart’s assistants in the A League Men’s competition.

It is a subtle move, but one that ensures everyone is on the same page and working towards the same styles and objectives and can inform the next manager up the rank about their players and their capabilities. This makes a transition from NPL Reserves, to Seniors, to A Leagues more logical, comfortable and achievable for young players learning their craft.

Verbeek’s stint at the United produced mixed results, including an FFA Cup triumph with first year player Alhassan Toure starring, but it ultimately led to a catastrophic demise which was mercifully cut short by COVID-19. The Club was forced back to the drawing board to ensure the right choice was made on the next manager.

The Reds decided to take a different, long-term approach by coming up with a set of non-negotiable criteria, reflecting the Club’s values, that the coaches interviewed would have to prove they can meet before being hired. Once again, a subtle move but one that can make a world of difference.

Over the years, United fans know a new manager will bring in their own style of play and players suiting it, with the Club slowly becoming a mirror image of its manager. That can be a positive when you have an influential figure like Josep Gombau or an uncompromising character like Marco Kurz.

The question is, what happens when someone that important to your operation leaves? The answer varies and depends on many factors including the attributes of the replacement and recruiting; it does mean that the Club is soul searching every few years which can have a negative effect on and off the pitch.

Creating an identity for the Club and clear expectations for the managerial role makes it easier for the right manager to seamlessly transition into the job with the best opportunity to succeed. It is a much easier transition than the incoming manager remaking the Club in their image only to have it disintegrate after their departure and the cycle restarting.

The Club is currently coached by two former players and South Australians in Carl Veart and until recently Ross Aloisi, who has now departed and replaced with another South Australian in Damian Mori. Veart knows the landscape of South Australian junior football having coached the FFSA NTC which aligns with United’s priorities of youth development.

Some of the young South Australians that have received playing time under Carl Veart during his time at United as head and assistant coach include: Taras Gomulka, Lachlan Brook, Kusini Yengi, Louis D’Arrigo, Alhassan Toure, Mohamed Toure, Yaya Dukuly, Joe Gauci, Jonny Yull, Bernardo, Steven Hall, Asad Kasumovic, Ethan Alagich, Arbi Mollas, Alex Popovic and Nestor Irankunda.

Adelaide United’s coaching recruitment priorities when interviewing for Gertjan Verbeek’s replacement, as presented to members (Image: Antonis Pagonis)

The Bad

The investment when compared to the promise

Adelaide United fans would have been forgiven for dreaming when new Chairman Piet Van der Pol made the bold proclamation of his ambition to establish the Club as a regular top three fixture in the A League Men ladder.

In Van der Pol’s three full seasons as the Chairman of the Reds, the Club has finished fourth, seventh and fifth, progressing to the semi finals twice along with winning an FFA Cup. A mixed bag of results but ultimately short of the lofty standards originally set.

Adelaide United has always been a Club that has punched above its weight, but consistency is something fans are still craving. A consistent top three finish requires consistent investment.

Unfortunately, despite the off field positives and a beneficial focus on youth development, consistent, top level investment has not been present which has left Adelaide United lagging behind rivals when it comes to compiling a deep, high quality playing group that can win a battle of attrition in a grueling A League Men season.

When asked about the possibility of the Pelligra Group acquiring the Club from Van der Pol’s consortium, former Adelaide United Director of Football Bruce Djite opened a window into his frustrations at his time at the Club.

“With very tight purse strings, it is very difficult to sometimes achieve everything you want to achieve. New owners bring a new lease of life, maybe a new path, new ambitions, new goals and new directions,” Djite commented on the report a sale was agreed.

The headscratchers

Despite the fact that the consortium has kept the Club steady during turbulent times, it has not been smooth sailing. Supporters have been left scratching their heads with signings such as Jordy Thomassen, Yongbin Chen and the anonymity of the Club’s investors.

With forward Baba Diawara injured and Ken Ilsø suspended during the second half of the 2018/2019 season, Marco Kurz made his feelings clear about the importance of adding a striker during the January transfer window.

United ended up settling for Dutch striker Jordy Thomassen, a recommendation made by Chairman Van der Pol. Unfortunately for the Reds, the signing was extremely underwhelming, with Thomassen playing nine games and failing to link up positively to United’s attacking play, not contributing any goals or assists, with not much standing out about the striker during a forgettable spell.

The frustration from the stands was obviously shared on United’s bench, with Marco Kurz eventually deciding to play winger Ben Halloran as a make shift center forward instead of persisting with Thomassen. With Diawara returning shortly before finals, Thomassen did not feature again.

The signing of Yongbin Chen a few months later was the one that raised eyebrows across the country. At the time, Chen was a young player for the Qingdao Red Lions, the consortium’s Chinese third division club.

Fans were left confused with the club signing a player who was nowhere close to A League Men level to occupy the last of its five foreign spots. Chen only featured for the Club in the Y-League and in the Bushfire Appeal match against an NPL SA All-Stars team, he quietly returned to Qingdao when the A Leagues were postponed because of COVID-19 in 2020.

Signings like that left fans frustrated and despite Van der Pol being the target of fan displeasure, the fact remains that he is representing a consortium of investors. Members and media have often lamented the fact that despite the Club’s continued efforts to be transparent about the football operation, the investors remain a secret.

This is obviously the business strategy that consortium has chosen and despite the fact that there have been positives during the last few years, the fact that the ownership group is being shielded by one individual makes many supporters and media feel disconnected and skeptical of the operations of the Club, especially when questionable decision like the ones mentioned above occur.

Jordy Thomassen was largely ineffective in his short stint for the Reds (Image: Adelaide United)

Coaching headaches

The coaching situation at Adelaide United has recently found some sort of stability, but that was not the case for a while under Piet Van der Pol’s consortium.

Piet Van der Pol inherited coach Marco Kurz from previous owner Greg Griffin. Coming out of contract at the end of the 2018/2019 A League Men’s season, Kurz pushed Van der Pol about his future publicly and when he was informed he would not be renewed, Pandora’s box was opened.

After Kurz was informed his services were no longer required past the current 2018/2019 Seaon, United turned the fortunes of its lackluster season in the second half of the year, with the Reds reaching finals and ultimately falling a penalty shootout away from a grand final berth. A strong number of fans were upset that Kurz was allowed to leave the Club and incense when he joined arch-rivals Melbourne Victory.

Despite former players like Taylor Regan stating on Twitter and on an interview on Purebred Reds that there was more than meets the eye, and a new ownership group wanting to install their own manager being an understandable request, it took a lot of fans a while to get over losing Kurz.

On paper, Kurz’s replacement, Gertjan Verbeek, was an impressive pickup, but along with him he brought a reputation of ugly break ups. Despite fan skepticism, life under Verbeek got off to an encouraging start.

With the help of assistant Carl Veart, Verbeek blooded South Australian talent into his side to go along with the team’s experienced core. Fans were upbeat about United’s positive football and even celebrated winning another FFA Cup, despite the side’s cavalier attitude to defending.

Unfortunately for Verbeek, once the losses started pilling he could not win back a demoralised dressing room, with United succumbing to huge back to back losses at home to Western United and the Newcastle Jets as the league paused because of COVID-19.

This gave the opportunity for the Club to amicably cut ties with the Dutchman and after an impressive performance as the interim manager, Carl Veart was rewarded with the full time role. He has held the role since.

Kurz’s awkward exit and the state of the squad in the last days of the Verbeek era are both situations Van der Pol would have hoped could have been dealt with in a better way. In hindsight though, the negative experiences could have shaped the process of hiring managers for United going forward.

Veart is still a rookie manager, but he has proven his knowledge of the Club and South Australian football is an asset. Veart’s man management of a squad with a mix of young and senior players and the ability to keep them upbeat during the highs and lows of a season is an asset, one that has not always been shared by previous United coaches, who as brilliant as they were tactically, had glaring man management shortcomings.

Gertjan Verbeek’s abrasive personality led to his downfall (Image: Adelaide United)

The Verdict

It is difficult to sum up a jam packed four years, but overall, despite some evident shortcomings, the Van der Pol era receives a pass mark. It is clear that the ownership cares about Adelaide United, South Australian and Australian football

Highlights for United have been FFA Cup glory, making two semi finals and being able to pay a large transfer fee to bring back Riley McGree and seeing the investment multiply tenfold. A clear focus on youth development and structure has been set which the Club would be wise to continue into the future.

Overall, the Club is starting to lay the foundation of a sustainable identity and culture.

Unfortunately, the lofty goals set early on have not been met and a big reason behind that is a lack of consistent, high level investment and the turbulence in the managerial position in the first couple of seasons.

Having anonymous investors amplified fears and frustrations but concerns of United ending up in a horrible situation as seen previously in the league have been unfounded, with the Club steady throughout a period of global economic turbulence.

It is important to remember that when the consortium bought into Adelaide, they hoped to invest into a relationship with China. This has become impossible between COVID-19 and diplomatic hostility between Australia and China. They certainty did not sign up to keep a Club afloat in a league with an uncertain future during a global pandemic and their commitment to steering the Club through that difficult period should be appreciated.

The new ownership can continue building on the structural and cultural progress that has began the last four years, but United fans expect more on the field.

There will be a clear expectation of a more liberal use of the cheque book to ensure the Reds can compete with their Victorian and New South Wales based counterparts.

As often seen in world football, throwing money at a problem does not always solve it, a balance must be found if sustainable, top level success is the goal. United must ensure youth development remains of paramount importance, as the reality remains that Australia is at the bottom of the football food chain, the next player must always be ready to go.

Players imported must compliment what United already has, they should not block pathways and hamper development of the next crop of top young talent. Getting the right balance between spending and developing will be a newfound existential crisis the Club must get right to solidify its culture.

At the end of the day, the fans want a successful side on the pitch, and Adelaide United, a Club that has always punched above its weight, will be hoping it is its time to move up weight class under new ownership.

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