By Brad Gray
Football and horse racing. For the head coach of the Australian women’s national football team, Alen Stajcic, one is business and the other pleasure. It’s even noticeable in Stajcic’s tone when talking about one or the other.
Stajcic, who was appointed to lead the Matildas in 2014, while prior to that coached Sydney FC in the first season of the W-League, has been around football his entire life, moving into management after a career as a semi-professional in the NSW Premier League while he was also an Australian Youth representative.
The success and popularity of the Matildas has soared recently due to a string of positive results, which included winning the 2017 Tournament of Nations in the US.
“I have spent my whole life in football and I was looking for a little bit of a diversion. A lot of my mates were into racing and they made a syndicate so I just joined in,” Stajcic explained.
“It’s an outlet, a bit of fun and a diversion from my everyday job. I’m a rookie and a novice but I like it. It’s a great side interest. My wife even heads out to the races with me now when I can get there.
“There are nine of us in the syndicate. We tend to like the stayers. Most of them have been Zabeel mares or Savabeels.”
Stajcic is a family friend of the Widdups, with their children having grown up playing football together, and he races a couple with the Hawkesbury-based trainer while he has also raced horses with Marc Conners and John Thompson. It’s Thompson who currently trains Stajcic’s first city winner, handy stayer Thewayweare.
“I haven’t had any great ones yet but we’ve had quite a few country wins. I’ve only had one that’s won at a city meeting.”
Stajcic says he is “still waiting for a really good one” before reflecting on the deeds of Buffering who in his early career, was owned by Socceroos Craig Moore, Scott Chipperfield and Zeljko Kalac.
An increasingly busy schedule globetrotting with the Matildas and the women’s youth team makes it hard to stay across everything on the racing front though, especially with the time differences.
“If it was in a big race I’d be getting up at any time. If it’s the Golden Slipper, I’m getting up!” exclaimed Stajcic.
“All of the trainers are very good and give us a weekly update of how the horses are all going. It’s good to have the Racing NSW app where you can watch the replays too.”
It’s been a big few months for the Matildas, and star striker Sam Kerr, having defeated Brazil, historically the benchmark of women’s football, three times in a little over a month. The team have become household names with Australian sport fans and that’s something Stajcic is particularly proud of.
“We have had good cut through in the media recently and for the first time ever the team has been acknowledged by the general sporting public which is great. With that comes more respect and reward for our team,” said Stajcic.
“To get over 30,000 coming to watch two matches of women’s football is a feather in our caps and it’s something we want to grow even further going forward.”
“We’ve all worked hard as a team over the past few years to build this momentum and we want to have a culture where we grow the game and make the sport the biggest it can be in our country. A lot of people have been out to our games now and have been astonished at the skill level, power, toughness and competitiveness of the matches. It’s a real turning point.”
That prompted the conversation to turn to the parallels between the football and racing landscapes, with females continuing to achieve at the highest level.
“We are very similar in that respect being in two male dominated areas for a long time now and trying to breakdown old cultures is certainly a challenge. Being the juggernauts that they are, trying to break new ground is tough going but for the first time ever we have had good cut through in the mainstream and that has helped us getting access to more resources and facilities. Everything we need to be an even better team.”
*Article appeared in the November edition of the Racing NSW magazine