Lions continuing to thrive under the guidance of Lees
At the end of the 2013 season, Lees ended a five-year association with the Melbourne Football Club- where for the previous four years, he was the Demons’ Player Welfare and Development manager, and was the Football Operations Manager for affiliate side Casey Scorpions in the first season of the alignment between the two clubs.
With his future uncertain, an old mate of his pulled off what turned out to be a huge coup for the club. Senior Coach Peter German, who’s first VFL coaching gig was in 2009 at the Scorps, convinced Lees to come on board as General Manager.
“I worked with Leesy for 12 months at Casey and not only did I know him personally, but I also knew his capabilities footy wise, and the amount of qualities he has with regards to being a football person. Following the reconstruction of the management structure within Melbourne’s Football Department at the end of 2013 where he was left without a position, I knew he was capable of making the step up into a managerial position, different from his coaching/player development previously. I knew he’d be outstanding for the club with his knowledge and work ethic, and would be able to bring the club together,” German recalled.
The 2009 season for the Scorpions under the guidance of German and Lees saw them reach 6th place on the ladder. While they may have exited the finals series in the first week, German was named coach of the year having united a talented playing list put together by Lees, after most pundits had tipped Casey to struggle due to its new alignment with a rebuilding Melbourne. Casey, under German and Lees guidance also had Alex Silvangi drafted (to Fremantle), which is something that the club hadn’t done in 10 years when they were still known as and based in Springvale.
“He worked hard to bring the list together in the first year of the clubs alignment with Melbourne, and had the ability to connect with the players through his professional relationships which is outstanding. He knows footy- he knows what staff to have within a professional environment and is able to motivate the players who have the desire to make it to the next level. He has an eye for a player, prime examples of that are Evan Panozza, Tim Mohr and Ben McCredie who I coached in 2009 and has the ability to bring a group together united as a club.”
The end of the 2009 season saw them both go their separate ways- German would end up at the Western Bulldogs as development coach and was responsible for then VFL affiliate Williamstown, while Lees moved up the hierarchy with Melbourne.
While Lees was initially apprehensive to have taken on the position to begin with, he decided to in the end following numerous discussions with German and then Director of Football Kevin Breen who is now President.
Since Lees became General Manager, numerous milestones for the club were reached off field. “Coburg Football Club now stand for something- we’re a community club which has reached out to hundreds to thousands of school students through the area through its school clinics and we’ve also managed to begin the Junior Football Club in conjunction with our Auskick program. The fact that we’ve got hundreds of local residents playing football at Piranha Park is really exciting for the future of the Coburg Footy Club.”
According to Lees, he is pleased with how Coburg has become an attractive option for young players wanting to further their own football. “The fact that we’ve continued to become a strong branded football club means we’ve become a destination club for TAC Cup players through a strong development program and experienced coaching staff to best develop talent, having two players drafted, in Hartley and Saad the past two seasons and coming off a competitive 2015 season, has provided a great foundation that players can be exposed to play at the highest level possible at Coburg, and secondly, feel apart of a Football Club. I really feel our greatest strength as a football club, is that we are stand-alone.”
Lees is also very happy with the way the relationship with aligned TAC Cup side Calder has developed over the past two years. “Our relationship with the Calder Cannons has been better than ever with 20 players graduating from Rams Arena within the last two years to playing with our club and shows as a result that Ian Kyte is proud to promote Coburg as the best pathway possible for his TAC Cup players.”
Membership has also been a crucial aspect of developing the club off field. “Our overall strategy has been to build our membership yearly. We will continue to drive the values of community and engagement to ensure the Moreland area know the Coburg Lions are their football club!”
Another area of the club that has improved since his arrival at the club has been sponsorship. “Over the course of the last two years through Kevin Breen, the Board and myself, we’ve been able to increase our sponsorship which in turn enables our club to be well resourced to continue our player development and our competitiveness, as we strive to impact the competition.”
The long awaited re-development of Coburg City Oval (Piranha Park) has also been another major inroad being made under Lees’ tenure at the club. “The future at Coburg is exciting with the development of Piranha Park (City Oval), with Arden Joseph, head of city oval capital works is a great believer in the Coburg Football Club and the brand going forward, this in turn will see significant investment in the development of city oval, because it will give the club an opportunity to build the club a much needed second income stream.”
Club attendances are another improvement that has been made over recent years. “It’s evident by the fact that our brand is strong through the crowd figures coming through the gates on match day- it shows that we provide individuals and perhaps their own families with the opportunity to spend a quality day at Piranha Park watching quality local football with plenty of the best possible young talent out there running around, and can also enjoy themselves with the various activities that are also taking place at the same time.”
German had nothing but praise for Lees regarding the amount of effort and work put in since the beginning of 2014. “He’s done outstandingly well since stepping into this position. Compared to a financially viable club with a few full time staff, he’s had to do it all on his own with the support for him being through getting placement students to perform numerous roles, such as Marketing. He’s done well to have the club in these circumstances match it with the clubs who have pokies and are well-resourced in terms of its club and football department. His responsibilities have virtually given him doing six jobs into one, and while we may not be where we want to be right now, he doesn’t stray from the vision he has for the club, and is strong and united to the cause.”
While there is no question that the Coburg Football Club is heading in the right direction under the guidance of Craig Lees, there is still plenty of work to be done. However, if what’s been achieved over the past 24 months is anything to go by, then the Lions are in for making much further inroads off field over the next 24 months, as the resurgence of this club continues.