When the Foxtel National Youth League kicks off this weekend, there’ll be a number of rookie coaches who will take the reins for the first time.
In Newcastle, that man will be Labinot Haliti.
At just 33-years-old, footballers of his talent would be hoping to make the most of what remains of their playing days.
Y-LEAGUE: Getting the season underway in Adamstown
Those days came to end in April 2017 for Labi, who at just 31 years old was forced to retire after struggling to recover from an ACL injury he’d suffered two years prior.
It forced Labi into making a decision about where his future lay.
Taking the plunge
For Ernie Merrick, the Kosovan has always had the attributes as a player which the Scotsman regarded as valuable.
They’re attributes the Jets boss believes will hold Haliti in good stead as a head coach.
“I’ve always been impressed with Labi as a player, [he was] a smart player who could think and had good decision-making,” Merrick said.
“He wasn’t all brawn and bash-and-crash, he was more of a thinking type player and they’re the type of players I like.”
The coaching seed was planted in Labi’s mind well before Merrick’s arrival at the Club, however.
During Mark Jones’ stint at the Club back in the 2016/17 season the search was on for a new youth team coach to step in for assistant coach Clayton Zane, who was juggling the two roles.
After careful consideration, Jones had sounded out Haliti and confirmed he was interested. Jones then approached CEO, Lawrie McKinna and recommended Haliti for the role.
McKinna agreed with Jones’ recommendation, and in July last year both he and Haliti took charge of the youth team as something of a double act – Lawrie as head coach, Labi his assistant.
The end goal was always for Haliti to end up as McKinna’s successor once the former Newcastle Jets and Western Sydney Wanderers striker finished his coaching badges.
“The plan was put in place maybe a year and a half ago, when Mark Jones came to me, [in part] because of Labi’s personality,” McKinna said.
“He’s been at the club a long time, he knows the club, he knows Newcastle, and he knows the boys.
“When Labi gets his A-Licence, hopefully in November… I’ll step down as head coach and Labi will officially be head coach.”
It wasn’t an easy start for Labi though, announced alongside McKinna in July 2017, who was putting in ridiculous hours in order to make the transition from player to coach as smooth as possible.
Between juggling youth team coaching, helping out with the senior team, and scouting for Hyundai A-League boss, Ernie Merrick, the rookie coach was being worked hard.
What’s more is that Labi was fitting this in around regular commutes from Sydney, with trips up and down the M1 Motorway becoming the norm.
With an FFA A-Licence just days away for Labi, a promotion into the top youth team job will be a just reward for the former Jets striker’s hard work these past 18 months.
It was this winter just gone that Haliti really began to earn his stripes, though.
Handed increased control over pre-game and half-time addresses to the players in the NPL Northern NSW, the rookie coach began to get into his stride.
It looked to have paid off too, with one of the youngest Jets Youth teams in recent memory finishing 7th in an incredibly competitive NPL Northern NSW campaign.
Then, a trip to Asia for the Weifang Cup in August saw Lawrie McKinna name Haliti as the team’s head coach – without Haliti’s knowledge.
“He relished that, and took it on board,” McKinna said.
“Labi did a lot of media [in China], which was great for him to grow into the job, because it’s not just about coaching the team but it’s about doing everything else.”
The man in charge
And it’s doing everything else that Labi will soon have to juggle.
It’s a coaching journey which has taken place with the guidance of two of the most respected football men in the country in Ernie Merrick and Lawrie McKinna.
Despite this, McKinna hasn’t tried to mould Haliti in his image.
“I’ve said to him, you take stuff from all the coaches you’ve had and chuck it in the pot,” McKinna explained.
“You take little bits and pieces, put it in the pot, and that’s your style. I don’t want you to be like me, to be like Ernie, or [Tony] Popovic.
“You’re Labi Haliti, you stamp your message. He’s very thorough, his training drills… what he plans for training is great content, the players love it, high intensity, but delivering the message for the game that weekend. I can’t fault what he does.”
And McKinna won’t ride off into the sunset when Haliti takes over the top job – but says he’ll step into the role of assistant coach, and continue to offer his opinion and guide Haliti when he needs it.
Ernie Merrick believes his fellow Scotsman is already taking more of a back seat, acting as more of a mentor now than ever.
It’s a mentorship that’s paying off for the youngsters of Newcastle too, and Merrick believes Haliti is on the right path.
“He’s looking at how Clayton, Qiang, and I develop those players and the coaching sessions we do and trying to replicate those with the youth team,” Merrick said.
“He’s gone really well, and he and Lawrie have been able to provide me with around five youth team players who have been included in our sessions. I can tell how good he’s doing because they’re doing so well when they come and join us.
“The quality of players coming through thanks to Lawrie and Labi are very good. I think there’ll be several more players who earn scholarships, and I think that’s an indication of his coaching performance.”
While development is the name of the game for youth coaches, picking up three points in this Sunday’s opening NYL match against Sydney is something which Haliti will be targeting.
The boys get their season underway at Adamstown Oval, with Labi set to run the show from the technical area.
McKinna believes it’s just the first step of many for his graduating apprentice.
“In the last year and a half, he's come on in leaps and bounds,” McKinna said.
“Labi has the drive to go all the way to the top, no matter how long it takes. He’s got the enthusiasm, the love of the games, good knowledge, and he listens.
“I think he’ll be an A-League coach one day.”