Adelaide Croatia Raiders coach Vlado Blažeka won the State League One Championship and promotion to the NPL in his first season as the club's senior coach (Image: Adam Butler/80Kms; Design: Maddie Irwin)

In just his first year in charge of Adelaide Croatia, Vlado Blažeka won silverware and got the club promoted, but it is a reality that had never crossed his mind as recently as a year ago.

Adelaide Croatia Raiders had a 2023 season to remember, with the club not only promoted back to the NPL for the first time since 2021 but also ending the campaign as Premiers and Champions.

Vlado Blažeka’s first season in charge could not have gone any better, and the senior coach spoke to The Inner Sanctum about his involvement with the club since arriving from Melbourne in 1984.

“Being here since 1984 when I first arrived, playing in the Under 13s and coming all the way through,” he said.

“I’ve been a committee member, I’ve been the treasurer, I’ve been a juniors coach, one year I coached two junior teams and marked four pitches every week.

“My parents work at the club, my mum is the kitchen manager, my mother-in-law is in there working, my father-in-law is doing all the ground maintenance, the olive picking, and anything else that needs to be done.

“Basically, it is our second home, it has been our second home all our life.”

Despite being deeply embedded in the club’s community, Blažeka took up an opportunity that arose years ago to go full-time with his role in Football South Australia, working alongside Richie Alagich, Elvis Markov, and Airton Andrioli in the National Talent Center, and later Adelaide United’s NPL set-up to develop the next generation of South Australian footballers.

During that period, Blažeka shared that it was a challenge seeing his boyhood club struggle and the community suffer as a result.

The coach admits that other than a couple of strong seasons under Nik Kuzman, which saw the club soar up to third in the NPL, it has been a tough 15-year period highlighted by stretches in the State League One competition.

“It was hard to take, obviously I’ve been coaching as a Juniors coach, I was coaching at Raiders for eight years and then had to let that go because I had to go full time with the FSA and after our games, I used to go down to the Raiders games if I could catch them,” he said.

“Just seeing everyone dejected, no consistency, the glory years of the 80s and 90s weren’t there.”

Despite his considerable experience and affinity for the club making him the perfect candidate on paper to resurrect the once great club, Blažeka admitted that it was never a role he thought too deeply about.

The coach shared that throughout his coaching career, he has been interested in youth development, and his role with Adelaide United’s side was of a similar nature, despite the club competing in the senior NPL competition.

“In my 17 years of coaching, everyone asked me if I would take Seniors and I swear that every time I would say no,” Blažeka laughed.

“I enjoy coaching kids, I enjoy developing them, helping them, seeing them improve because they are like sponges.

“I was really enjoying the developmental side, and going into Adelaide United Youth with Airton (Andrioli) and Elvis (Markov), it was Senior football, but they were still kids, and I had worked with those kids since they were nine or 10 years old, so I’ve known them most of their life. I still treated them as those kids, and they still treated me the same as if they were 10 years old.”

Current Adelaide Croatia Raiders coach Vlado Blažeka during his last year with Adelaide United’s NPL setup in 2022 (Image: Adam Butler/80Kms.)

At the end of 2022, Blažeka called time on his involvement with Adelaide United and planned on taking a well-deserved break until Adelaide Croatia President Ian Krivicic began trying to recruit his friend. The coach was obviously hesitant, having never taken the reigns of a senior team head coaching job, but one night put it all in perspective and made the offer impossible to refuse.

“Ian came along and gave me a call, I am close with him like all Croatians are close with each other. He called and said ‘We want you back’ and ‘You’re the perfect fit with the development of the young kids we’ve got here.’

“Then, there was one night, the 70th Year Gala Night last year which was at the Conventions Centre. Just seeing all the history and what that night was about, ex-players, and players that I supported when I was a kid, that came out that night, speaking to them and the night in general it really hit a heartstring there.

“I thought that if anyone is going to try and bring the club back up it has got to be one of our own and with the experience I have gained over the years it felt like it was the right time to do it.”

Adelaide Croatia Raiders Head Coach Vlado Blažeka decided to take over the job during the club’s 70th Year Gala Night (Image: Adelaide Croatia Raiders)

In his first year in charge of Raiders, Blažeka stayed true to his roots when it comes to developing young players, with former Croatia juniors such as Calum Campbell, Jaxson Bullen, Donatien Niyonkuru, just a few of the multitude of young players the coach has backed to support senior players Ricardo Da Silva, Joey Costa, and Paul Blefari.

The coach shared that Adelaide Croatia, which was the club Adelaide United star Nestor Irankunda played his junior football in, has been producing young players for years.

“The year we got relegated (2021) our reserves lost the penalty shootout to MetroStars in the Grand Final, they were a great bunch of kids so the basis was there, and I take my hat off to Phil Stubbins last year, he did exactly what the club wanted which was to play as much of those youngsters as possible,” he said.

“The changing room is unbelievable, the young ones look after the old ones, and the old ones look after the young ones, I can’t fault the changeroom at the moment that’s for sure.”

While praising former coach Phil Stubbins on fulfilling the club’s request to develop young players last season, Blažeka also paid tribute to the club’s committee and his matchday support team, along with his players that made the 2023 season possible.

Adelaide Croatia secured the premiership and automatic promotion with a week to go to passionate scenes at the Croatian Sports Center, before defeating Para Hills Knights in the Grand Final to win the championship.

“It is very special, but I am not going to say that it is me. There are people on the committee, Ian (Krivicic), Rob (Soda), Stanko (Zilic), Ivan Jovanovic, who has been around for years, Justin (Bralic), and Dave (Carosi) this year, our Strength and Conditioning Coach Maria (Podnar), Zac Belanic, the Goalkeeping Coach, Natasha (Hoang), and Rob (Majetic),” he said.

“Everyone plays their part, it isn’t just about me, this wouldn’t have happened without us, all of us are in this with our hearts and souls, and then, of course, the players.

“They believed in what we were trying to do, they worked hard every training session and every game, there were a few there where the games looked gone but we never surrendered and there were a few results there where we won games in the last 15 minutes. Without everyone’s input, this wouldn’t have happened.”

While admitting he has learned a lot in his first year of coaching a senior team, and the internal expectation simply being to build on last year’s performances, Blažeka shared that the expectation he placed on himself was far greater.

“That game after promotion the emotion got to me and I say that there was the weight of a double-decker bus that was lifted off my shoulders that game and it wasn’t because anyone had put that pressure on me, it was me putting it on myself,” he said.

“When I first spoke to Ian I said, ‘Listen, we are not sitting in the State League for the next 2-3 years, we need to get back up as soon as possible.’”

Returning the the NPL in Season 2023, Blažeka admits that despite rekindling the derby against FK Beograd being an obvious highlight, what he is looking forward to the most is competing against the State’s top sides week in and week out. He understands his side is in for a challenge, but it is one he is embracing.

“Now when we get into the NPL it is not just about avoiding relegation, it is about giving it a shake and even trying to make Finals. What Modbury has done has inspired us to think, ‘Wait a minute, why can’t we do that? Why can’t we, in our first year back, give it a shake?’

“We did play against MetroStars in a trial game, where we lost 4-0, and against Comets in a Cup game, where we lost 3-0, but up until around the 70th minute in both matches, we were in the game and we had created a few chances which we didn’t put away but against good teams, you get punished.

“No disrespect to the teams we played in the State League this year because they were good too, but it is just about the challenge and knowing that every game you have to be up for it to be able to compete and get a result, I am looking forward to the challenge of playing these great teams every week.”

Blažeka concluded by stating that he no longer wants Adelaide Croatia to be looking for “bandaid” fixes, but permanent solutions that will see the club retain its status in the top flight while competing with the best teams in the state for years to come. He shared that one of his priorities was to bring fun back to Raiders.

The coach’s objective was to bring fun back on the pitch, by playing exciting football, and fun back off the pitch by getting the community involved with the team and returning traditions like Croatian music when the team walks out or scores. He has been clear with his players that they also play a vital role in giving their community an exciting football team to attach themselves to once again.

“People need to realise that clubs are built on supporters and volunteers, if you don’t have supporters and volunteers you can lock the key up and it’s gone,” he said.

“They’ve got to enjoy their time when they come to watch and that is what I told the players, they are entertainers, they’ve got to entertain, people will come and watch because they want to be entertained and that was a big thing.”

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While earning great reviews from his re-engaged community, Blažeka shared that an honest friend’s feedback is what sticks with him the most.

“I have a friend that I’ve had all my life and he is a critic, a big critic of everything and everyone. He said to me a couple of months ago, ‘Vlado, I actually enjoy my Saturday afternoons again coming to soccer, having a beer with my mates, watching the team I love win and play well,’ and that meant a lot”

The Adelaide Croatia transformation has been a sudden one, but this time the community is banking on it being a permanent one. Raiders return to the NPL with a squad, which is set to be reinforced by further signings, that is fully bought in, and a coach that understands what the community he has been a part of for 39 years requires of him and his players.

Raiders will not only be a great venue with delicious food and a spicy rivalry in 2023, but an ambitious, historical club looking to begin making its mark on South Australian football once again.

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