Despite having to settle for NPL NSW football in recent years, Sydney United 58 are a historic club in a catchment area full of talent.
The club based in Sydney’s west has a glittering alumni of academy graduates includes the likes of Premier League stalwart Mark Bosnich and Zeljko Kalac, formerly of AC Milan.
The production line of talented ‘keepers is continuing, lead by first team goalkeeper coach and academy director for goalkeeping, Vitas Males. The 41-year-old oversees every goalkeeper at the club, right from the U10s to the first team. He has one goal in mind for each player he looks after: to get them ready to pass a trial and earn a professional contract overseas.
“When young Australian players go overseas, most come back,” Males tells Kick360.
“Why? Because they cannot physically and mentally handle the workload. Often, they’re good enough, but never trained professionally and can’t handle the workload and they struggle to adapt to the six or seven days a week schedule.
“What I do with the young ones is bring them in to train at least three times with myself, then another two or three times with the team, and I’ll move them up an age group. They also have a program three times a week in the morning. The body gets used to the professional environment, so when they go overseas, they’re able to be prepared. If you’re constantly in the deep end, under the pump, you’ll be ready to do a job overseas.”
“I try to give kids what I didn’t get.”
Males has been at Sydney United for seven years now, after being invited to join the club following a meeting with the club’s hierarchy, including then-manager Mark Rudan, at a seminar he delivered in Sydney.
“[Football Australia] have the goalkeeper curriculum here where you get your coaching licenses. That model is completely different, and I did those courses and I’m horrible in that environment. I’m not good at what they want. It’s still very good – on par with the UEFA GK licenses – but it’s very different to what I do. I think you can implement my methods anywhere in the world.
“The most important thing with young goalkeepers is creating a bond with them, having empathy, and creating a bond with them. A lot of goalkeepers come into train and play, and then pick up their paycheque at the end of the month. They might get a little bit of help but then they’re sent on their way. If you want them to succeed, you need to be there for them 24/7.
“You need to have a coach that you look up to; a mentor and a friend that has an interest in getting you to the next level. My methodology is a bit unorthodox but it’s working at NPL level because it changes the mindset of the players. These ‘keepers have been overlooked by the A-League clubs, but now they’re making it overseas, across several generations.”
His methods, although intense, have proved successful. At the most recent Olyroos camp in Holland, two of the three ‘keepers in the squad had worked with Males since they were 14 years old.
“Nicholas Bilokapic was a central defender when I first met him! He was 14 when his dad was assistant coach for the first grade and told me, ‘Nick wants to become a goalkeeper,’ so I told him to bring him to training.
“Jacob Chapman was a year older, and he also joined the club when he was 14, so he started with me too. The first question I asked was why they wanted to be here, why they wanted to train? They both said, ‘we want to be professional goalkeepers!’”
And so, Males took the pair on, and importantly they both got on board with the high demands and expectations he had of them. They graduated from the academy and had trials in England before both by coincidence ending up at Huddersfield Town.
“Chapman’s dad is originally from Sheffield, so he was eligible to go to the UK and he had contacts over there. He had a trial at Huddersfield and passed successfully.
“Nick went to the UK with the Australian under-17s and played against England very well. He got noticed by some scouts and Huddersfield invited him back over to the UK. He played a friendly against Hibernian, and it was pissing it down, poor conditions. He played an excellent game and that was enough for him to earn his contract. He’s recently signed his third professional contract, until 2026.”
Bilokapic and Chapman have both gone from strength to strength, and so it was only a matter of time before they turned the heads of the Olyroos selectors.
“I was happy and proud for them, but not surprised after what these kids have been through, mentally and physically, and what they have sacrificed in the four or five years that they spent with me.
“Even at 14 years old, these kids were like little navy seals, training on concrete pitches in 34-40°C heat. I put them through hell, and they went along with it, so these kids can’t be broken. They’re so determined and with such high work ethic and professionalism, they make sure they’ll be part of best in their position.”
“At the same time – and I told them this too – being selected for the U23s means nothing. How many of these young goalkeepers get selected but then actually go on and play 100+ matches and get a senior international cap?
“It’s just the start, it doesn’t mean anything if you aren’t able to make that next step. It’s a nice reward but it’s just beginning of something potentially big.”
Bilokapic and Chapman aren’t the only graduates of Males’ program, with 17-year-old Josip Orlovic set to join Croatian first division club HNK Sibenik in the next FIFA transfer window. Orlovic would have joined Bilokapic and Chapman in the UK but for VISA complications following Brexit, after impressing a number of clubs whilst on trial.
“How do you know someone isn’t good enough if they never play?”
The setup at Sydney United, who themselves are not a fully professional club, is unmatched across Australia, and indeed Asia. They’ve produced more goalkeepers that have gone on to play in Europe than any other club in the Asia-Pacific region. The set up cuts out the middleman of lingering in the reserves of an A-League or NPL club, stuck behind older goalkeepers, as Males explains.
“Goalkeepers in the A-League are very old, 35+, and you see the same thing in the NPL. What you need to understand is that there are 12 A-League clubs, so 12 head coaching jobs. If you are an A-League head coach and you play an older goalkeeper and he stuffs up, then you’re unlucky, but if you play a younger goalkeeper and he stuffs up, then he’s too young, not ready for that level, et cetera.
“If a head coach uses an older goalkeeper, then he has two or three more games of ‘credit’ before getting sacked, but if you use a younger goalkeeper, you have less credit. The objective of the A-League is not to develop, it’s for a coach to keep his job. If you’re at lower A-League club and lose your job, where do you go from there?”
In 2019, the A-League clubs were asked by the (then) FFA to avoid signing foreign goalkeepers, a plea that for the large part fell on deaf ears. Posed with the question of whether a rule similar to China’s that bans foreign goalkeepers from their professional leagues in order to develop their own talent, Males concluded that in time, the A-League would see success from a similar system.
“Yes, it will help develop better young goalkeepers because they’ll get the opportunity to play. Look at how Mathew Ryan came through, he played because of injuries and now look at him. Look at [Gianluigi] Donnarumma with Milan. Sinisa Mihaljovic was the coach then, he let him make mistakes but still let him play. You need to give ‘keepers a chance to make mistakes because they all will make them, but that’s how they learn and get better. Good point, I’m all for it.”
You can probably guess his sentiments on a national second division too…
“Any exposure at a higher level is good. What can I add to it? If they bring in the second professional league, the keepers play to a higher standard in front of bigger crowds and they themselves will improve.”
Males himself is a very ambitious and motivated individual, with aspirations of his own. He’s spent his career rubbing shoulders with and learning from some of the best, including former Netherlands and Swansea City goalkeeper Michel Vorm, and PSG goalkeeper coach Toni Jiminez Sistachs. He’s learned from his own experiences to develop is methods and philosophies, but he’s hungry for new challenges.
“When you’re somewhere for seven years, for seven seasons, it’s a long time. If I want to improve as a coach and challenge myself, sooner or later I will have to look at other opportunities. Hopefully by continuing to my best at what I do, those opportunities will come. Whether that’s in Australia or abroad I don’t mind.
“If you’re at somewhere for too long, I don’t know if that’s good. If you’re at the highest level it makes sense – Arsene Wenger was at Arsenal for 20 years – but if you want to reach the highest level, you have to challenge yourself.”
However, he is thankful for the opportunity Sydney United have given him, and for the project he’s currently in charge of.
“Obviously, I’m very happy with what I have at Sydney United, and I’m in very good hands at the club, I have full freedom to work the way I want. I get to do whatever I want without the need to explain myself and I’m very grateful to the club for that.
“I would not leave in an instant; it would have to be something considerably better and something challenging. If not’s really challenging, what’s the point in leaving a good thing?”