Former Socceroo Luke Wilkshire has quickly cemented himself as one of Australia’s most promising coaches but it was a career transition that nearly never was.
The now 40-year-old, who began his playing career in the English Premier League with Middlesbrough, hung up the boots in 2018 after coming full circle with a final stint at his youth club Wollongong Wolves.
It has been on the New South Wales south coast that Wilkshire has shown the early glimpses of his coaching potential.
Just one year after retiring as a player, the former right-back guided the Wolves to two titles as they ended the 2019 season as NPL NSW premiers before also becoming NPL champions with a dramatic 4-3 win over Queensland club Lions FC.
Despite finding early success on the sidelines, Wilkshire concedes it was the last place he saw himself after calling it quits as a player.
“To be honest with my retirement, I thought it was going to be red wine and cigars on the balcony all day,” Wilkshire told Sporting News as part of an interview with BlueBet.
“I didn’t plan on doing much, but things happen in football, they happen quickly, doors open and it’s whether you walk through them.
“The opportunity came to take charge of Wollongong Wolves. I had done my first coaching course when I finished at Sydney FC and after that I walked away saying, ‘I don’t want to coach’. It turned me off it a little bit.
“But the opportunity came and when I go into something, I go in all guns blazing and that’s what I’ve done.
“I’ve found I’ve got a real passion for it. Really enjoy the man management side of it in semi-professional football. I’ve been around the game my whole life so it’s good to be involved and surprisingly I’m loving the coaching.”
While Wilkshire and Wollongong’s past two years have been interrupted by COVID-19, they made it to the FFA Cup round of 16 in 2021 before falling 2-1 to Central Coast Mariners.
Though still in his early stages as a coach, Wilkshire has no shortage of inspiration to draw on having played at the highest level in Europe for several seasons.
“As a former player you pick bits and pieces from former managers and even find things you don’t want to re-do,” he said.
“I had Guus Hiddink, Fred Rutten at Twente and Feyenoord, and even some of my coaches in Russia were really great.
“Ultimately you’ve got be yourself. You’ve got to have your ambitions. Your standards, goals, how you want to play and how you want your players to be seen.”
With expansion back on the A-League Men’s radar, Wollongong is seen by many as a suitable place for anoter club and Wilkshire will be doing his bit to ensure the Wolves are in the frame for a spot in the top-flight.
“We want to move forward. Since I’ve come here it’s all about moving forward. If you’re standing still, you’re going backwards for me,” Wilkshire said.
“If the club didn’t have ambitions to keep striving and improve I wouldn’t be here.
“This region deserves it. We’ve got everything here and I think there’s still potential there moving forward.”
The 80-time Socceroo has been keeping a close eye on the A-League Men this season and his main observation reflects the type of coach fans can expect to see in the years to come.
“You’ve got to play entertaining football. Especially when there’s no relegation at the moment, I just like to see teams set out to really entertain,” Wilkshire said.
“At the end of the day, it’s an entertainment business as much as anything.
“You want supporters to want to go to the stadium and as a supporter myself you want to see passion, you want to see goals and creativity – not a tactical masterclass of defending.”
While focused on lifting more silverware with Wolves this coming year, it’s likely only a matter of time before Wilkshire gets the chance to show off his coaching promise in front of a much larger audience.
And despite his own initial reluctance, it seems the sidelines are just where he’s supposed to be – for now, the wine and cigars must wait.