Aloisi defied critics – and betting odds – to transform Western United

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<span>Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP</span>
Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP

“Not even tonight were they tipping us – $5 [the betting agencies] were giving us,” said John Aloisi. “If I could bet – I’m not a betting man, but if I could bet – I would’ve put so much money on that. They must have lost a shitload of money on that.”

Had Aloisi had a bet, he may well have been one of the only souls to wager that Western United would win the A-League Men’s grand final. Most did not think it feasible they would make it there in the first place. And, after seeing off defending champions Melbourne City 2-0, the figure with the biggest right to feel vindicated is the club’s head coach.

Less than a year ago, Aloisi could not get a job. In the domestic league he was effectively persona non grata, having applied for basically every available role in the three years since he left Brisbane Roar and been overlooked every time.

Related: Western United stun Melbourne City 2-0 to win first A-League Men’s title

“Did I think I was going to get another job in Australia? I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t,” he said last week. “On a personal level I’m just grateful the club gave me this opportunity, because it was three years that I hadn’t coached. I knew that if I did get the opportunity again I would make something of it.”

Overall reviews of Aloisi’s managerial career has been mixed, but the general theme of this season’s exploits has been explicit: redemption. Sacked by Melbourne Heart. Strike one. A not-so-nice departure from the Roar. Strike two. A title with Western United. Clean hit.

Reality is rarely that simplistic, and Aloisi’s trajectory – with its highs and lows and near-misses – appears from the outside as one more resembling development and learnings along the way.

The Heart was a tough place to start an education in the dugout, with little support and even less resources during the days before the City Football Group took over. Brisbane two years later almost bore fruit, with two semi-final losses, only to resign after a poor start to the 2018-19 season amid the club’s off-field problems.

Now, after being given another chance, the 46-year-old has reversed the ailing fortunes of a Victorian club which had lost the last eight games of its previous campaign to finish 10th. When Aloisi replaced foundation coach Mark Rudan in the off-season, the expectation was another middling campaign at best.

Western United still had no home. That stadium promised by the expansion club’s owners back in 2018 when they were granted a licence has still not materialised. They played at makeshift home grounds and trained at an AFL facility, and were maligned league wide for God knows why.

Then they welcomed Aloisi, who, despite being one of Australia’s greatest players, was now seemingly viewed by clubs and supporters as almost an entirely different person. He was the one who had already had his shot, another face on Australia’s coaching merry-go-round.

Until he wasn’t. That transition did not occur at an identifiable point in the season – with more A-League journeymen than high-profile signings, United began 2021-22 under the radar. The change was gradual, ground out via every marginal win, until suddenly they had finished the regular season in third.

Then, against the odds set by those bookmakers, they went and beat second-placed Melbourne Victory and first-placed City in the semi-finals and grand final respectively.

“Where the club has come from … a lot of people were talking about last year how it wasn’t a great year for the club,” Aloisi said after Sunday night’s triumph. “It’s only three seasons old, and to be able to do what we did – and from the beginning of the season – it’s amazing.

“I was sitting in my hospital bed nearly three years ago [after heart surgery] and it was … I need to coach because I know I’ve got a lot more left in me and a lot more to achieve. I believe that and I was just waiting for the right opportunity and for someone to give me that opportunity to coach.

“And then once you’re in a job it’s not about you, it’s about the team, the club and what we’re trying to achieve as a club. So yes, it’s satisfying on a personal basis, but it’s more satisfying because I see all the hard work that goes into a new club.”

Joe Marston medallist Aleksandar Prijović and fellow import Léo Lacroix were standouts throughout the season, but Aloisi said the culture among the entire squad had been key to the achievement, and hoped it would help grow the club.

“It definitely helps attract players, it definitely helps attract fans,” he said. “We know that we’re on this journey and we’re going to have a training facility, we’re going to have a stadium.

“But what I loved about the players that we signed this year, it wasn’t because they didn’t have anywhere else to go, it was because they wanted to create history. I’m sure now it might be even easier because people will see that we mean business. We’re not here to make numbers up. We’re here to win. And that’s the mentality we had all season.”

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