Mark Williams was senior development coach at Richmond last year.
By LAURENCE ROSEN
Mark Williams admits he did not know much about the Ajax Football Club or its Jewish roots before agreeing to become coach.
The 2004 Port Adelaide premiership coach – who this year became the first AFL premiership coach to coach at VAFA level – had just left his role at Richmond as development coach and was open to all offers at AFL level or below.
And that is when an old contact got involved.
“I have a friend who worked at GWS with me, who’s now in charge of football at Xavier and he had a contact with Andrew Shenker, who is the football director and also vice-president,” Williams said.
“I asked (Ajax) what they were offering and then I wanted to investigate what the football standard was. I was sent some video to watch and I also came down to look at the facilities. I didn’t want to come to a play that was destitute and had no idea what they were doing.”
Coaching an amateur football team in the VAFA Premier B competition is a far cry from leading an AFL team to a flag. But Williams says he has loved every minute of his new role, even if it has seen him do more work than he bargained for around the club.
“Quite often I’m pumping up the balls and having to do little, odd jobs,” he said.
“Sometimes I even need to vacuum the floor just to make sure it’s in good condition but apart from that, there’s a lot of things that are the same as at AFL but just not at the same standard.”
As for the way he has coached at VAFA level, Williams has made slight adjustments but largely stayed true to his methods.
“You can’t be so demanding and your expectations aren’t as high,” the 2004 Jock McHale medallist said.
“It’s my first year so it’s taking a bit of adjustment from them to me and me to them. After the first year at every club, it’s easier for the players because they have a relationship and understand each other better.”
Williams has been embraced by the tight-knit Jewish community as coach of Ajax – Victoria’s only fully Jewish Australian Rules football club – and has immersed himself in the cultural side of his new role.
“Right from the start, joining the Jewish community has been a real highlight,” he said.
“I’ve been to the Holocaust Museum and met a lady there who survived the Holocaust. I’ve learned what Shabbat (weekly Jewish day of rest) is and now know what happens over Passover so I’ve learnt some cultural things.
“The support from Ronny Lewis, Andrew Shenker and the whole committee has been outstanding.”
The Maccabiah Games – an event held every four years in Israel that brings together Jewish athletes from around the world, often dubbed the Jewish Olympics – robbed the side of most of its best players for six weeks. While disappointed that the team lost matches while its best players weren’t there, Williams said the overall year has “been outstanding”.
“In that time (we didn’t have our best team on the field), we played three games and lost them all,” he said.
“When the players came back, they hadn’t played football for five weeks and some of them have gone overseas as well so their fitness and football touch is poor. Even though their names are back in the side, they haven’t performed very well. The lack of continuity has really cost us.
“This year we’ve beat a top two side (St Bernards), we ran the top side to a 14-point loss and we were in the top four for most of the season, which was really pleasing.”
Away from his coaching responsibilities at Ajax, Williams is the director of coaching and development at Maccabi Victoria, the controlling body for all 23 Jewish sporting clubs situated around the state.
He has taken a whole-community approach to working at Maccabi and has ensured constant communication with the various clubs.
“In football, we have 24 teams and around 45 coaches, so we get them all together three or four times a year,” he said.
“I also talk to the director of coaching at soccer, netball and all the other (Maccabi) clubs about what they might do and how they might get better results and how they could give better instruction, which has been quite well received.
“I’ve tried to work with the community to make sure that everyone understands that we are trying to get a seamless flow from school all the way through the Maccabi teams so the kids know there is a pathway that can last a lifetime.”
Speaking with Williams, you get the sense there is a real disappointment at missing the 2017 finals. The top four in VAFA Premier B square off for the premiership and Ajax finished fifth, just a game and percentage off an elusive finals berth.
“Ajax senior haven’t played finals for around 30 years and I was convinced that year was the one (where we could make finals),” Williams said.
“It’s a missed opportunity, because so many in the community enjoy the Maccabiah Games but they really want Ajax to play finals so they were a bit counterproductive against each other.
“Given the unique circumstances (this year), we kept away from relegation (to VAFA Premier C) and never had to worry about it was pretty cool.”