Your Socceroos career lasted 10 years, culminating in the 2006 World Cup campaign. Tell us a bit about that period and what would be running through the minds of Australia’s current crop five months out from their date with destiny.
It was a very exciting period and was a bit of an unknown. It was the first time we had qualified in our era and I wanted to be part of it. I had just moved to Wigan, so it was difficult for me as I knew I had to play. Everyone wanted to play and have their opportunity to be part of the squad. In my situation I put country before club and went to all the camps, which probably cost me in my first season with Wigan because I was away at camp during the start of the season and the team went on a winning run, I couldn’t get in the team for at least half the season. It sort of cost me. But I said I would give the World Cup a crack and whatever happens, happens. I ended up going on loan to be fit and in good form so it is an exciting time, but for players it is about getting games and being healthy and ready for it.
In January 2006 you made a loan move to Stoke City from Wigan. How difficult was that decision? Do you believe the likes of Tom Rogic and Mitch Nichols have made the right decisions?
For some people it means making tough decisions because everyone wants to be playing. It’s a tough decision because what’s right for your country might not be for your club career. Tom Rogic is just looking to get games and it might not be good for his career going forward, or it might work out – because he has left a club that he can probably prosper more at. He wants to be involved and playing so he really wants to do what’s right by him and be involved with the national team. There is no right or wrong, everyone just wants to be fit enough to be in consideration for the World Cup. For me personally it wasn’t a difficult decision to go on loan because I didn’t move as I was travelling from Manchester to Wigan and that was travelling north for half an hour, to Stoke it was south for 40 minutes. It didn’t mean much as I didn’t have to relocate and the coach who called me at Stoke was a former coach of mine from Holland. For me it was a no brainer, I wasn’t playing at Wigan and my coach is actually the one who instigated it. It was a win-win all the way for me.
One of your teammates at the 2006 World Cup was Lucas Neill. He is currently clubless, do you think he should still be a legitimate candidate for a spot in Brazil?
These days I think a little bit more as a coach and my decision as a coach is that if I have a player that is really important to me, it doesn’t matter if he is 100 per cent fit or 70 per cent fit, I will use him. Even if he is not fit or hasn’t played, the team goes away for four or five weeks before the World Cup so that is plenty of time to get fit. Match practice is of course different to training but you play four or five games in that time so even the players that have played full seasons might be worse off than the guys who are fresh, because they have played a lot of games, are burnt out, have had no rest and are straight into camp and preparation so it can work out the wrong way. I am not necessarily someone who says if you’re not playing, you’re not in consideration, I don’t think that is the right way to think about it. The coaches have to think about who is important to the team and try to get them right, help them out as quality is of great importance. It’s up to Ange [Postecoglou] to see who are the players of great importance and if Lucas Neill is part of that vision, then me as a coach would make sure that he gets fit in that time before and I’ll accommodate.
Heading into the World Cup, there is no hiding away from the difficulty of Australia’s group. What are your hopes and predictions for the current Socceroos?
It’s a really tough group but there is no point thinking about it. Ange has to get the boys fit, get them as familiar with the game plan that he has for them and have a red hot go. I was really disappointed at the last World Cup when the boys didn’t have a go in the first two games. They showed when they did have a crack in the third game that anything is possible in World Cups. Obviously they won’t go all out attack, but have a go and really have a game plan and play to it, don’t just sit back and wait for things to happen. Have a real go and if you end up losing 3-0 then so be it, you’ve had a go and given it your best. It’s not going to be easy and I don’t think it matters which country in the world you are, let alone Australia, this group will be a tough one and difficult to get through. So I think the Aussies have nothing to lose, they can prove a big point by surprising some teams. We’ve done the same in the past in big tournaments like the Confederations Cup when we ended up beating France 1-0.
You were an inaugural marquee for the Melbourne Heart. How big do you feel the purchase of the club by the Manchester City-led consortium is and how big can they grow?
This is a huge step for them. One of the main things that has kept them back until now has been the facilities and their base. They haven’t really had one out at La Trobe, they have been training on shared pitches. From when I was there until now that is one of the factors that Heart haven’t been able to get right. With Manchester City on board, I’m sure they will analyse the situation and make it a priority that they get themselves a proper base. That is just one of the advantages. They have a network of 40 to 50 scouts worldwide, they have football people in positions and they know what’s necessary to run successful clubs. They can bring all that expertise to the Heart. It will be an interesting period for Melbourne Heart and I’m sure it will be a big positive.
Something on the mind of supporters is whether the club will change its colours and name. Should they?
I think the new owners will speak to the fans and won’t do something without consulting and making sure it’s the right thing. I think a club’s history shouldn’t really be tampered with. I think the Heart have a great name, a brand, a shirt that stands out. I think it’s up to them and the vision they have for the club to be put forward to the people and fans and decisions to be made from there.
Finally, I can’t help but ask what was going through your head when you hit that stunning volley against the reigning European Champions Greece at a packed Melbourne Cricket Ground in 2006?
(Laughing) Not much. It was just hit-it and hope for the best. Whenever you’re on the edge of the box you’re on your toes waiting for something to pop out and my eyes lit up when it did. I think Mile Sterjovski put it back towards me and my eyes lit up. Some of the best coaches say make sure you score or kick it out of the stadium, so there is no counter attack. So I went for it and it went in, it was a great feeling.