Meet the NPLW coach looking to bring Glory to the West

Full story published for SBS’ The World Game:

When the Perth Glory W-League job first became available, few would have considered NPLW NSW coach Alex Epakis as a candidate. But having been tapped as Bobby Despotovski’s unlikely replacement, he’s keen to not let his chance go waste.

Epakis was named as Glory’s new W-League boss on November 20, surprising observers that had predicted that would be filled with a candidate from either the local ranks or, more likely, from within Glory’s existing staffing base.

But though his appointment has attracted a positive response, he wasn’t exactly a high-profile ringer.

While he had previously served as a coach with Sydney FC’s academy and as an assistant with Canberra United, his selection was largely driven by the sustained excellence he had fostered at NPLW NSW side Sydney University.

Landing at the club after his one-season apprenticeship under Matildas’ legend Heather Garriock during the 2017-18 W-League season, Epakis mentored University to 2018, 2019 and 2020 premierships, as well as the 2019 Championship.

During this period, the NPLW club fostered an environment of professionalism that not only stood out in NPL circles – but compared favourably to those in W-League ranks.

“I was very fortunate at Sydney University because we had a lot of exceptional players at the time I was there,” Epakis told The World Game. “And being in a university-based environment, we had some fairly good resources. 

“So what I did there was simple, I utilised as much as what I could. Utilised the player network, the sports science network, the environment. And I think ultimately the number one principle for me was making sure that the environment is as open and focused as it can be.”

University’s defeat against Manly United in the 2020 NPLW NSW Grand Final was initially set to mark Epakis’ final game coaching before he took a step away from the game for a break, but when Despotovski departed Glory in early November, a new, previously unplanned door opened.

Negotiations opening and concluding within days, he was announced as Glory’s boss on November 20, before flying out West on Monday to begin two week’s quarantine. 

Having been brought in without any previous coaching connections to Glory, sans a background as a professional player – Epakis pursued a Master’s Degree in Sports Coaching when it became apparent to him in his early 20s that his professional dreams were not to be – and as an NPLW coach, the new Glory boss knows that the chance ahead of him was an unlikely one but with a foot in the door, he’s determined to throw it open behind him. 

“To be honest, once it all got confirmed, the amount of support from the NPL world, especially in NSW, was quite overwhelming,” he said. 

“There were a lot of people reaching out, opposition coaches and players, saying they were fully supporting me even though I’m going to work in another state.

“They send their absolute best wishes because it doesn’t happen every day; someone who is not an ex-pro, and someone that has come from NPL as well, overcoming those barriers, or hurdles or whatever you want to call it, it’s a really satisfying moment. 

“It’s opened a door now, and now I’ve got to keep it open.”

Epakis has spent much of his first week in Perth quarantine on his phone and laptop: seeking to rebuild a squad that finished the 2019-20 season in seventh position and that, for several months, had had a number of clouds surrounding it.

With the COVID-19 pandemic shutting borders around Australia, questions had been raised over the viability of a Glory W-League side in 2020-21; club Tony Pignata retroactively confirming to ESPN in early November that the club had held discussions with the league over the possibility of relocating the club East for a season or even withdrawing from the coming campaign. 

On top of that uncertainty, players such as Kim Carroll, Morgan Aquino and Leticia McKenna (Brisbane Roar), Shannon May (break), Isabella Foletta (Canberra United) and Celia Jiménez Delgado (Olympique Lyon) all departed the club. 

Nonetheless, with a new coach now secured, the club has begun to make moves ahead of the season, announcing the re-signing of captain Natasha Rigby, Sarah Carroll, Caitlin Doeglas and Jamie-Lee Gale as well as the return of Patricia Charalambous.

Having been featured in images from the club’s kit launch, Young Matildas prospect Hana Lowry also appears set to pull on the purple again. 

“We are all eager to see what Alex can bring to the team,” Carroll said. “He has a great deal of experience in women’s football and I think he will bring an injection of passion and professionalism into the team.”

With the economic and border situation making international signings a difficult proposition, Epakis told The World Game that he was looking forward to filling his ranks with promising West Australian talent, as well as players from NPLW competitions around the country that had slipped through the cracks. 

From there, he’s hoping to begin the process of recreating the spirit that took University to so much success out West. 

“I’ve been watching videos of players, lots of videos, and speaking to a lot of agents,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve had more than half an hour since I’ve been here. 

“Even before I took the role, I knew that there were some really talented players over here in Perth. That was a big part of me wanting to take the project on, because I feel like I can have a positive impact on these players. 

“I think I’ve [also] got to dig deep and look for some players that have potentially fallen through the cracks that the other clubs haven’t picked up yet.

“If I can have a small impact on a player that gets to a World Cup, then that’s a big win.

“I don’t often push players to a point where they can’t do what I’m asking them to do. I think, from a principle point of view, I’m a big believer in just doing the simple things well and I think with the young team we’re going to have, I think we’re just going to further emphasise the small details and nailing those before we think about nailing.

“Coaching’s an interesting one because you can have your ideal philosophy, what you want your team to look like and your playing style. But my playing style is to win. I’m very competitive as a person. 

“But I’m also a realist and pragmatist in terms of if I want to play a certain style but the players aren’t ready for it, and in a short season of 12 weeks with a limited run in, you need to find that middle ground. 

“The style of play is we’re going to have a specific game plan each week that will hopefully allow us to compete and win. We want to dominate and dominate with the ball. Sometimes that means building up from the back and sometimes that means needing to release someone into space early. 

“I think it’s about the players having a structure that’s fluid and allowing them to make the best decisions in those moments.”

Epakis and the Glory are set to open their 2020/21 campaign on December 29, when they host Canberra United at Dorrien Gardens. 

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