By Patrick Galloway
Vedran Janjetovic’s Wanderers take on Brisbane Roar for a chance to face his old club Sydney FC. (AAP: Dean Lewins)
Approaching the six foot, seven inch Zeljko ‘Spider’ Kalac for comment is tough enough, let alone when he’s in between chugs of a cigarette in the car park of the Western Sydney Wanderers training complex.
The purpose of my approach was to get the goalkeeping coach’s view on the progress of the Wanderers’ new number one, Vedran Janjetovic, on and off the field.
Janjetovic made a highly unceremonious exit from Sydney FC late last year, after losing the number one spot to Danny Vukovic.
He was picked up by the Wanderers in January and the 44-year-old Kalac played the lead role in securing him.
Patrick Galloway tweets Good chat with #ALeague keeper @V_Janjetovic @wswanderersfc today. Says believing in yourself is the key to success
Kalac was standing below the grandstand, high-fiving players as they exited the training complex on their way to their cars after a gruelling two-hour session leading up to Friday’s elimination final against the Brisbane Roar.
“In bed before midnight tonight, OK!” Kalac cheekily remarks to Wanderers midfielder Liam Youlley as he makes his way out, bag strewn over shoulder, keys in hand.
“You got it, Spidey,” the midfielder fires back with a grin.
As I wait for their exchange to conclude, it dawns on me the spirit that exists at this club.
“Zeljko, Patrick from ABC News.”
Kalac turns, changes his cigarette between hands and reaches out to shake mine.
“I’m doing a story on Vedran. Any chance I could ask you a couple of quick questions on camera?”
I point up the concrete stairs, at the top of which ABC cameraman Greg Hatch is waiting, alongside him a highly visible camera and tripod.
Glancing quickly at the gear, Kalac turns back and smiles wryly. “Nah, sorry mate. I’ve got to get going soon.”
That’s code for no. I nod understandingly, then as I start to move away Kalac goes out of his way to make a point about his goalkeeping protege.
“Look Vedgy is going well. Really well. He’s ready.”
Sport’s cutthroat nature caught out Janjetovic in a big way this season.
The 29-year-old rose to become the go-to between the sticks at cross-town rival Sydney FC, but when the club recruited Vukovic last year, their loyalty shifted.
“It was really tough. It was the first time in my career where I had to deal with something like that, I reached out to a few people for guidance on how to get by,” says Janjetovic, who almost walked away from the sport.
Vedran Janjetovic says he faced a difficult time in his life ahead of his departure from Sydney FC. (AAP: David Moir)
He took personal leave from Sydney and sought the counsel of those who he could trust.
“Popa [Wanderers coach Tony Popovic] and Zeljko were some of the people that I looked to during that period. They told me to relax and just be myself and try not to worry about everything on the outside.”
Dealing with the anxiety and stress of the situation wasn’t easy for Janjetovic, especially with news of his displeasure at Sydney circling.
“Everyone I did reach out to, helped me,” he says.
Kalac coached Janjetovic at the Sky Blues before he himself moved to the Wanderers in 2015 to join his good friend and trusted former national team-mate Popovic at the club.
Not surprisingly it’s been Kalac, a former Socceroo goalkeeper who had reached acclaimed success across Europe, who’s been one of the key figures in Janjetovic’s resurgence.
“I have to thank Zeljko for just believing in me. There are times when I don’t believe in myself and he is always there to give me a kick up the backside and say ‘you can do it, we want you here’.”
Ironically, Janjetovic’s performance against his old club in February stamped his arrival at the Wanderers. It was a triumph of character that wasn’t lost on his team-mates.
“He’s a real leader from the back there. He has a lot of experience and a calm head. He has played with many great players at Sydney FC and that shows,” says 20-year-old defender Jonathan Aspropotamitis.
Old acquaintances could potentially be renewed in a grand-final qualifer against Vedran Janjetovic’s (R) former club. (AAP: Dean Lewins)
The Wanderers training grounds in Blacktown are sparse.
Sitting in the grandstand, talking to Janjetovic about his future and his fight, the keeper’s gaze often drifts out over the sunburnt grass of the training field below, circled by an ageing burgundy athletics track.
But when I ask him about the prospect of a grand final qualifier against his old club, his focus sharpens.
“To be honest, I really don’t know how I will feel about that. I don’t want to go there yet,” he says.
If Western Sydney beats Brisbane, the Wanderers will take on premiers Sydney FC in what stands to be a mouth-watering Sydney derby.