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Mile Jedinak: Leadership, captaincy and harnessing training ground conflict

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Picture the moment: you’re stood in the tunnel at Wembley, Old Trafford or Anfield, ready to walk out for a cup final, play-off or an important league six-pointer. Who would you want to see alongside you? Joel Ward – who has done all of the above and more - answered before we could even finish the question: Mile Jedinak.

There is much debate about what makes a true leader, be it in the world of football or elsewhere. But what is clear is that Jedinak is regarded by his former teammates as the ultimate example of leading from the front.

Is he self-conscious when he hears such praise? “It doesn’t embarrass me,” he says, proudly. “It’s one of those where you have appreciation for what you’ve done to a group of players, to a group of individuals. They trust you.

“You’ve instilled something in them and so that’s what they want to do. It’s quite flattering, to be honest.

“It’s about leading by example. Anyone that knows me knows that if there is something that needs saying, then I’ll be saying it. I was fortunate enough to play with a lot of players who would do that anyway, which actually makes your job as captain or a leader that slight bit easier.

“During that time, you will really appreciate who those players are.”

Leadership is not a natural trait, however. It’s borne from one’s environment, and for a young Jedinak that meant copying those he looked up to as a developing player in Australia.

“So many different people that I played with throughout the journey helped in different moments,” he explains. “You’d always look and see where you could get that advice from.

“It wouldn’t necessarily be players, it could be coaching staff. It’s more about environments that were set up, and those people that were around those environments. It’s those people that made those environments a positive one for me.”

Growing up, Jedinak and his friends pushed each other along, looking up to those in the older age groups – his brother among them.

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It was about expressing your frustration - that's part of football growing up.

Mile Jedinak

“It was tough,” he remembers. “I was with my mates and people we grew up with, and we would feed off each other. Maybe if we weren’t doing our best, it would be: ‘Come on, let’s try and push each other through and get each other through it.’

“It was being respectful of everyone older than you, having that instilled in you from the way you were brought up. Having an older sibling and seeing the environment he was in. Being around that an awful lot and being the younger guy.

“It was observing and looking at that, and then when you’re put in that environment it’s about doing all of that and being able to express yourself comfortably on a football pitch.

“[My brother] played until he was about 18, but ended up getting a severe knee injury so didn’t quite make it into the professional game. He was there or there abouts – but during my journey he was someone who was there.”

Breaking into the first-team isn’t easy; demonstrating yourself as a leader is harder still. How does one tread the fine line between showing character and over-imposing?

“Fortunately we were at the same complex the first-team was at, so if you were there you were able to watch first-team training and see what messages were given there,” Jedinak remembers. “Watching how they trained and what that looked like.

“Then you could watch the games at the weekend and see how they learned the game. It is a balance. You’ve got to respect and understand that – be mindful of what the environment is telling you and go from there.

“It wasn’t an overstepping thing. It was more learning and understanding over heat of the moment things on the pitch. It was never done from the place of trying to hurt someone or a place of disrespect.

“It was more expressing your frustration. That’s part of football growing up.”

Scuffles and tough tackles were no sign of a rift between the squad. Indeed, ‘healthy conflict’ – as Patrick Vieira recently termed it – can drive a squad on to higher heights.

“That happens on the training pitch as much as it does in matches,” Jedinak reveals. “That’s kind of where you want it to happen, because that’s how you really get a sense of what people are about. Then if it does come to games, it’s not a characteristic you’ve never seen before, and it doesn’t throw you.

“You want an environment where everyone is going to feel good, but there’s a competitive edge to that. It’s got to be seen as a positive and not a negative, because ultimately everyone is trying to achieve the same thing of being successful, both on an individual level and as a collective.

“If you can replicate that in training, you’ve probably got a better understanding of what the team is about at the weekend.”

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You want an environment where everyone is going to feel good, but there’s a competitive edge to that. That’s how you really get a sense of what people are about.

Mile Jedinak

At Crystal Palace, it was Jedinak’s responsibility to create that environment for young players training with the first-team. But did he give Academy graduates special treatment when they first joined the senior squad?

“I would allow them to express themselves,” he says, thoughtfully. “I like to think I never made anyone uncomfortable. There’s obviously learning along the way, so if you can make a conscious effort at helping them learn, then that’s okay.

“Some of that is being proactive, and some of that is also if someone comes and approaches you, being available to them. That’s it.

“How you learn as a youngster is observing, seeing who you look to in the first-team and watching how they do things – and if you really want to know, go and ask questions.”

The answers to those questions could only come from Jedinak’s own experience. Before he arrived in south London, he was forced to gamble – he took the leap and moved to Europe to further his career. It wasn’t an easy decision.

“There’s always that thought of the unknown,” he admits. “But there’s also the idea that I’m going to make the most of it whatever the experience may be. I was fortunate coming here via Turkey, and then getting myself to south London and having a really good go of it.

“I loved [Turkey] at the time. It was the next step for me moving from Australia, and one that I had to make. I wanted to play in World Cups and tournaments, and I thought: ‘What is the best pathway?’

“England wasn’t available to me at that moment in time due to passport issues, but Turkey was a great learning experience. I was there with my wife, no kids. We lapped it up and got immersed in the culture. We tried to do it the best we could, while focusing on the football.

“Playing in front of so many people with so much passion and atmosphere. Some of the bigger stadiums where we used to go and play away in front of 60,000 people, at teams that would try and make it difficult for you.

“It was great. I thrived in that environment. It helped me when I came to this country as well.”

Nonetheless, arriving at a Palace side battling to stay in the Championship was no easy challenge, and it took time to adapt.

“The first year was hard,” Jedinak says. “The team was at the bottom end of the table, and it was difficult at times. But it was a clean slate the next year, and then you go and achieve something special.

“To carry that into the Premier League, where the club is still flourishing, is fantastic.”

All good things must come to an end, however, and in 2020 Jedinak confirmed his retirement from professional football. It had been some journey and his gamble had paid off, not only captaining a Premier League side, but captaining his country to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil – one of three he played in.

Now in another stage of his career, does he miss those playing days? Jedinak pauses in thought. “You miss what it’s about, what it means to you every single day,” he says philosophically. “You do miss that togetherness.

“When you’ve been part of really special teams and really special environments, you want to be around that for a while. You want to help influence and support that, but again you realise that there is that next part of the journey. For me, I’m doing that now.”

It’s telling that what Jedinak misses the most is not the limelight, nor the crowds; not the fame or fortune. What he misses is the community, being part of something bigger than the sum of its parts.

He is a leader, a captain who fights for his players on the field, and fights for his club off it. It’s a temperament he learned the old-fashioned way: watching, observing, learning.

You can bet that at Crystal Palace – much like everywhere Mile Jedinak plied his trade – there will be youngsters learning from him, too.