Former FIFA accredited agent and board member of South Melbourne FC Hellas, Peter Kokotis, recently caught up with his old friend, Michael Valkanis, to delve into his remarkable ascent as the coach of Ajax. Engaging in a candid conversation, Kokotis and Valkanis reflected on his journey from the roots of South Melbourne Hellas to the illustrious helm of the European giant. They explored Valkanis’ experiences, challenges, and his significant role in shaping the future of one of football’s most iconic clubs.
Peter Kokotis: Michael, we spoke only a month ago, and you were gearing up for your role in Israel at Hapoel Tel Aviv; given the terrible events there, we are thankful you got out safely and now have landed a prestigious position in Holland coaching Ajax, an iconic club. That is a huge responsibility; the club has a football DNA spawned from the great Johan Cruyff. So, what direction do you guys want to take with Ajax, and how much of the historic legacy dictates your football plan?
Michael Valkanis: Ajax is a unique challenge. As you say, it’s an iconic club with tremendous responsibility. The club’s DNA comes from great coaches such as Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff, and Louis Van Gaal; it has a vast historical legacy.
Ajax is defined by its identity and how it wants to play football. The Ajax philosophy has remained the same over the years – to dominate games and play brave, courageous, attacking football. We have a big challenge ahead of us, but that’s what I like about coaching. Even better, we are at a club where our philosophy and the way we want to see the game played are aligned totally with the Ajax idea.
Kokotis: What is your specific role?
Valkanis: I am the Head Coach of the Senior Staff – planning and prescribing the sessions, tactics, and more. I am honoured to take on this role, as it is only given to Ajax people.
Kokotis: You are back with your old partner, John Vant Schip. Tell us about this partnership and how it will work at Ajax. Will your role differ from the PEC Zwolle and Greek National team days?
Valkanis: I have worked with John since 2016 at Melbourne City, 2018 at PEC Zwolle, and later in 2019 with the Greek National Team. Our partnership from the beginning grew and evolved from our shared idea of football. We both see football played the same way. Our football philosophy is the glue, but our values have brought us closer together. We are now more than just colleagues but also good friends. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, allowing us to work well in tandem to get the best out of a team. Over the years, I have enjoyed working with him.
Kokotis: You are the second South Melbourne Hellas alumnus to lead a major European club this season. We have seen the incredible success of Ange Postecoglou. Does the “Hellas” DNA play any role in both of your triumphs?
Valkanis: My childhood was spent at Middle Park, the home of Hellas. From the age of six I played the game. I loved wearing the blue and white colours of South Melbourne, and that beautiful big badge stitched on my jumper symbolising the Greek flag, ‘Hellas’. SMFC represents thousands of Greeks who fearlessly migrated from Greece to Australia to find a better life.
Playing for South and representing the Greek community influenced my football career, as a young player forging through what was one of the biggest clubs in Australia at the time. South Melbourne Hellas was, and is, the Greek community. Every Sunday, thousands would gather in Middle Park to watch their beloved Hellas, which was more than just a team, as it represented where everyone’s migration journey. Its success gave joy to the many who tirelessly worked all week to try to make ends meet, and came to unite and express themselves through a team. It was more than just football to them. Playing as a Greek boy also meant I had more responsibility to win.
I remember as a junior, that we were expected to win. We wore the Greek ethnos on our chest with pride.
South taught me the importance players and coaches play in other people’s lives. We are not only role models, but we are blessed with the opportunity to put a smile on people’s faces. Football is about entertainment; for me, this is about attacking and scoring; there is no better feeling than when the ball hits the back of the net, and the supporters leap to the sky from happiness. That emotion you feel when you win, you can’t buy. But you can replicate it again and again through hard work. Sometimes, the result is out of your control, but you go again. Never give up, and work hard!
Kokotis: Have you spoken to Ange Postecoglou lately?
Valkanis: We stayed in touch the last time I spoke to him while working in Belgium last season. It’s incredible what he has achieved. It inspired me to work harder.
Kokotis: You have been in Holland at a smaller club, PEC Zwolle. Now you are with a European giant in Ajax; tell us about the difference in the coaching experience? You have worked hard for many years to get to this point; how are you feeling taking on this massive role at Ajax?
Valkanis: I loved my experience at PEC Zwolle. It was my first encounter in Europe as a coach after my stint at Melb City. I love living in Holland and enjoy the football culture. I made an impact during my time at Pec Zwolle, in particular with the academy and the work I did with the coaches at the time, including the implementation of a training process. Now, my experience, although I have just started, is different. I am at a considerable club renowned worldwide, in particular for its philosophy and its success.
This season could have been an excellent start for the club, and now John and I have inherited the responsibility to put the club back on track. It is a huge challenge but one that we are both relishing. In 2010, I travelled to Holland and visited Ajax as part of my FFA coaching scholarship. I never, in my wildest dreams, thought that 13 years later, I would be part of this football institution, coaching the first team. When you consider the legacy of great players and coaches that have gone through this club, I am honoured and very proud to be here. I feel at home – speaking from a football philosophy point of view.
I love De Toekomst (training centre), you can feel the tradition, the past. The walls are full of photos of the past greats- pictures of Johan Cruyff is an inspiration every day. He changed how people saw football and influenced so many modern coaches today. We started with two from two wins against Volendam on Thursday 2-0 and Herenveen 4-1 on Sunday. We played well in both games, attacking dominant displays. The players needed this. They required more confidence in performances and results.
To turn things around, we need to bring back the Ajax identity. To play creative, brave and courageous attacking football. Now we prepare for the Europa League game versus Brighton. There is no secret: we need to work hard at training, train the way we want to play. We have quality young players. I am sure we will turn it around.
Kokotis: Michael we all will be following you with great interest as we have for most of your career and we at Neos Kosmos wish you great continued success.
Valkanis: Thank you Peter.