In a little cafe in Newtown, in Sydney’s inner west, I sat in front of two of the most relaxed yet professional individuals you will meet. St George’s new manager David Perkovic, and new centre half Daniell Zeleny, have travelled through the depths of Asia to where they are now.
Journeys that have glaring similarities, but at the same time have contrasting circumstances as to how they arose. Both have learnt a lot from the roads they have travelled down to get to the St George Football Stadium.
Eventually their two separate paths crossed and since then the pair have formed one of the strongest bonds you will see between manager and player. This connection is evident to see, lauding each other throughout our time interacting with one another.
In 2004, Perkovic’s path to football management began when he quit the game as a player feeling jaded and burnt out. In fact, Perkovic took a break from football altogether and wasn’t sure if he would ever return to it.
However, having spent time managing several bands, including the one that created the Socceroos’ theme for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, it was a moment on the MCG before the Socceroos took on Greece in a friendly that completely turned Perkovic around.
“As I stood on the MCG before that game preparing the band for their performance, I looked around to see the 100,000 spectators and I instantly fell in love with the game once again, having not watched it for 18 months.
“It was either going to be management or an administration role at a football club, just to find a way back into the game.”
He chose management and he hasn’t looked back since.
Perkovic began his managerial career at Stanmore Hawks at the ripe old age of 24. From there he has progressed through a number clubs including Dulwich Hill, Granville Rage and Fraser Park, understanding his very own philosophy of the beautiful game.
It was leading into the 2013 season with Fraser Park’s first grade side that Perkovic fielded a call from Philippines outfit Kaya F.C after being recommended by one of his former Japanese imports.
Within two weeks of taking the call, Perkovic was on a plane to take on the role at arguably one of the biggest football clubs in the Philippines.
“It all happened so quickly. It was just about taking up an opportunity and not thinking about the ‘what if’s’.
“My wife actually played a huge role in making the decision and was actually pushing me out the door! Maybe it was her way of trying to get rid of me!” Perkovic jokes, however acknowledging the undoubted support that his wife, Cassandra, has played in getting him to where he is now.
It was at Kaya F.C that Perkovic matured as a manager and an individual.
“I’m not one to be really culture shocked. I had travelled to India before that move and that was a lot more eye opening. In terms of the biggest challenge, being away from my wife was the hardest thing and made me appreciate her support, and how great she has been for me.
“As a manager, I began to learn a lot more about my philosophy and the differing standards between the two countries. The talent pool in Australia is a lot more consistent. The Philippines has a far greater variance in talent.”
Eventually being apart from family brought Perkovic back to Australia, where he took a short break before signing as the manager of St George in December of last year.
You are probably wondering where Daniell Zeleny comes into this. Well, like Perkovic, Zeleny was a bright young talent, going through the ranks at Sutherland Sharks and Sydney Olympic before he was 17.
And also like Perkovic, Zeleny became disenchanted with the game. He was open to discovering other things and what they could offer him. Eventually, the football bug bit Zeleny on the butt like it did Perkovic, and he reopened the door to pursuing a football career. Something that Zeleny said he “dreamt of at a young age.”
Yet, the main motivation for his return came from not drinking, partying and the like that his age group were doing, but instead focussing on his fitness and doing the things that mattered most in his life.
“I never went out drinking or partying, my Saturday nights were at the gym or at home. I saw a far greater purpose in that than what the guys at my school were doing.”
A very mature approach from a teenager who was on the brink of graduating from high school. His return to football saw him spend a couple of years at Fraser Park and a season at Sydney Olympic, before the most unusual of destinations came calling.
“Like Dave, my first destination overseas was India. I was a little surprised when I got the call!
“However, after self-assessment, I was doing well in the State League, but I was spinning my wheels in mud. No one was really going through to the A-League and I felt this was a new challenge and something that would help me as an individual.”
A common theme was showing from the two men sitting in front of me. Both were self-assessors who were also prepared to take a risk and try something well beyond their comfort zones.
Zeleny would spend two years at Mohun Bagan – arguably the most prestigious and successful club in India’s football history. He was a cult hit in Kolkata, nicknamed “Mr. Derby” by the Mohun faithful for his impeccable performances against their archenemy, Kingfisher.
Eventually these two parallel stories would meet in 2013, when Perkovic signed Zeleny at Kaya FC in the Philippines. Perkovic immediately noticed his talent and maturity, moving heaven and earth to sign him.
The pair began to share their experiences from football and life, feeding off one another to become better in their respective roles.
Keeping in constant contact after Perkovic returned to Australia in the middle of last year, there was never a second thought of the pair reuniting at St George. Zeleny knocked back offers from clubs in the New South Wales National Premier League to play for Perkovic at the Saints, a division lower. That is how formidable the bond is between the pair.
Having shared so many experiences, however in indirect ways, their relationship seems almost unbreakable. They understand one another, what the other has been through, even though they have not shared any experience other than their time in the Philippines. It shows with the glaring respect and admiration they continue to show one another whilst enjoying the last remnants of their coffees.
The fact that the pair have never lost a football match in which they have both featured together in highlights their understanding and impermeable bond. And it comes as no surprise that they are on the same wavelength when it comes to expressing their ambitions and goals for the season ahead.
“Whilst we want to achieve success on the pitch, we want to do it with style and grace. It is a delicate balance.” Perkovic said.
“Our goal has to be to play attractive football but at the same time really push for promotion back to the National Premier League.”
“That is where the club belongs!” Zeleny adds with excitement and a sense of realism in his voice.
The start of a new season awaits the pair this weekend. A new challenge.
However, whilst both may be foreign to the respective situations that lie ahead of them, the bond they hold could be a vital cog in the Saints’ push for a return to a place where they belong – in New South Wales’ top tier of football.