Wollongong Wolves legend Luke Wilkshire will be coaching his final game for the club on Sunday when the side take on Sutherland Sharks at WIN Stadium in the final round of the NSW National Premier League.
After agreeing to take the job in 2018 to coach the team for the 2019 season, Wilkshire took the side to another level, guiding the club to a NSW NPL minor premiership and becoming NPL champions of Australia, all in his first year at the helm, following a dramatic 4-3 win over Queensland Lions at Albert Butler Memorial Park.
Along with titles, Wilkshire also guided the Wolves through to a round-of-16 spot in the Australia Cup (then FFA Cup) after beating Mt Druitt Rangers in the round-of-32 of the competition. The Wolves lost 2-1 to eventual finalists, A-League side Central Coast Mariners, the team where Wilkshire will be moving to as head of youth development.
The Wolves signing Wilkshire as coach made a lot of sense. The Albion Park product spent his youth career at the Wolves during the late-90s, before heading off to Europe to play professionally in England, the Netherlands and Russia. Wilkshire finished off his professional career in Australia, playing a single season for A-League champions at the time, Sydney FC, before signing with the Wolves as a player for the 2018 season.
Despite never imagining becoming a coach, Wilkshire was provided with an opportunity to take over the side and was given free rein to come in and adjust the squad as he saw fit.
Wilkshire is now preparing to work with former Wolves teammate and current coach of the Mariners, Nick Montgomery. The Wolves boss said he looks back on his time with very fond memories and said he will always cherish the club for giving him the opportunity to develop as a coach.
"It's been a fantastic time all-round. Being able to come back home to where it all started as a player and then being able to start my coaching career, it has been great," he said.
''I didn't really plan on becoming a coach but the opportunity arose at the end of my playing career which I will forever be grateful for. I'll look back fondly at the silverware we won and the achievements we completed but what was also special was the players and the staff that I was able to work with. It's important in good times that you have good people around you to enjoy those moments with. To be able to do what we did in my first season will be a memory that I will cherish forever."
Wilkshire will be stepping into the head of youth development role at the Mariners, who were last-season ranked number one in Australia and 17th in the world for minutes played by academy players in their respective firsts teams.
The move makes sense for Wilkshire, who prided himself on backing a number of youngsters in the first team during his time at the Wolves. Before the success the side had, it was a decision that was heavily questioned, at least from people outside the club, but it proved to be a masterstroke. He said his role as head of youth development at the Mariners is something that excites him and a position that he feels suits him well.
"I'm excited to be entering that full-time professional environment with young, talented and hungry players. It's another challenge for me and one I look forward to," Wilkshire said.
Turning full-circle, Wilkshire now has a great passion to go as far as he can as a professional coach. He has made it no secret of his main goal, to coach professionally, whether that is in the A-League or overseas.
"We'll see where the Mariners job takes me. It's like starting out as a player you just have to work and that's what I'm going to do is put my head down and work. I'm an ambitious person."
Wolves chief executive Strebre Delovksi said the club was proud of what Wilkshire had achieved at the club and wished him well for the future.
"From our point of view Luke has been amazing for the club,'' Delovski said.
''We wish Luke and family every success at the Mariners and I'm sure with his professional approach he'll go on to do great things in the future. The club aims to not only give players opportunities but also coaches. When he retired from his playing career the club gave him an opportunity as a coach and he immediately had success.
"We'd love to see Luke move into coaching in the A-League in the future and hopefully overseas. There's no doubt at that professional environment at the Mariners he will thrive because that's what he enjoys and loves. I'm sure he will be very successful."
Known for his hard style of coaching and extremely professional attitude, Wilkshire has left a lasting impression on the Wolves. Chairman Tory Lavalle said his attitude would have a lasting impact on everyone involved at the Wolves long after the former Socceroo had gone. He said Wilkshire's imprint on the club was felt massively straight away from day dot.
"He's taught a lot of people about how to be more professional and we're so proud of what he has achieved because he is such a great guy and has such a great family,'' Lavalle said. ''His dedication and professionalism brought so much to the club. It's a credit to him, he could've came in and told us he wanted to buy a premiership, but he stuck with a few younger guys with senior heads around them to help and he guided the club to success with silverware."
Former Wolves head coach Jacob Timpano said Wilkshire has left a lasting legacy at the club.
"Luke has had an extremely good tenure at the helm of the club the past few years which would've been tough navigating through a couple of COVID-interrupted seasons,'' he said.
''It hasn't been the best of seasons that Luke would have liked this year but draws turned into wins against high-quality opposition this year may have meant a different story.
''Overall his time has been incredibly successful with trophies. Hopefully the side can round out the season in style this weekend at WIN against the Sharks. It's nice for a coach to finish off on a high note because in football that doesn't always happen."
Sign up for breaking news emails below.