Mike Ticher looks at Australians playing professionally in the UK
It took a long time for Australian players to be taken seriously in England, despite the success of some early pioneers. Joe Marston left Sydney to play 185 games for Preston in the early 1950s, and won a loser’s medal in the 1954 Cup Final. It was another twenty years before Craig Johnston followed in his footsteps. Tony Dorigo completed the meagre roll-call of Australians who made it in what might be called the freelance period. Dorigo had to write personally to every club in the First Division for a trial before finally coming over to join Aston Villa in 1983.
Those days are long gone. Agents and scouts have marked out Australia as a fertile new source of young, cheap, well-trained and English-speaking talent, to the extent that there are now 23 Australians under contract to English clubs, plus one in Scotland – the accomplished 20-year-old defender Craig Moore at Rangers.
The first seeds of later mass migrations were sown with the establishment in 1981 of the football programme at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra. The AIS was set up largely in response to Australia’s failure to win a single gold medal at the 1976 Olympics, with the aim of offering dedicated training and schooling in a wide variety of sports. Of the 141 footballers who had gone through the AIS by the start of this year, 69 went on to play for the national youth side, and 15 for the full national side, the Socceroos.
The rise in standards at youth level in Australia coincided happily with a similar emphasis by FIFA in the 1980s. By 1988 Australia were good enough to qualify for the Olympics. But it was in 1991, when they finished fourth in the World Youth Championships in Portugal, that European clubs really sat up and took notice.
Barry Silkman, once of Crystal Palace, Orient and Man City (among others), is the agent responsible for bringing many of the Australians to England. “I just think it’s been an untapped area,” he said. “The players that are coming out of there now are playing at a good level in England, and they have improved so much in the last few years. They are much better than what people thought.”
But at first it was French, Dutch and above all Belgian clubs which showed an interest. By the end of the 1980s a few Australians, including Frank Farina (an early AIS graduate), Eddie Krncevic, Robbie Slater and Graham Arnold were making names for themselves. It took Mark Bosnich’s breakthrough with Villa for English clubs to follow suit.
Of those now here, eleven came through the AIS. Most are currently on the fringe of Premier League teams, or playing regularly in the First or Second Division. A few, such as Moore, West Ham’s Stan Lazaridis and Steve Corica at Wolves, are certainly young enough and good enough to establish themselves at the highest level.
But the transition from footballing backwater to respected source of steady pros has been a bumpy ride. The first problems arose because of the inexperience of Australian players in the international transfer market, and the inability or unwillingness of their club officials and the national federation to protect them. In January 1995 a report commissioned by the Australian Soccer Federation, conducted by former judge Donald Stewart, found that several transfers in the late 1980s and early 90s were not all they seemed.
Most of the cases cited involved Club Brugge, who had bought Farina and Vlado Bozinoski (later of Ipswich) from Australian clubs in 1988, and Paul Okon (now at Lazio) and Lorenz Kindtner in 1991. In all four cases, the money received by their Australian clubs was substantially less than that recorded as being paid by Brugge. Stewart’s report called for the banning of several club officials, the sacking of national coach Eddie Thomson, and for matters relating to two other former national coaches to be referred to the police. Thomson’s conduct was called into question over his role in the transfer of Ned Zelic from Sydney Olympic to Borussia Dortmund in 1992, and his alleged willingness to give agents access to the players in Australia's 1992 Olympic squad.
Stewart’s findings and recommendations were largely rejected after a subsequent inquiry by a committee of Australia’s Senate. No-one was sacked or banned. But the missing sums of money, and much else besides, remain unexplained. Even before the Stewart Report, Aston Villa and Notts County had been fined by the FA for payments to an agent, Graham Smith, who arranged transfers for Mark Bosnich, Shaun Murphy and goalkeeper Bob Catlin in 1992. Murphy’s club Perth Italia received only £4,500 for the defender.
Both affairs alerted clubs, players and the Australian soccer public generally to the implications of overseas transfers. The derisory prices received by Australian clubs in many cases led to calls for the ASF to regulate overseas transfers more closely. The haemorrhage of talent was particularly galling since so many of the players had been groomed at taxpayers’ expense at the AIS. Things have improved now, both for Australian players and clubs, largely thanks to the light shed on the transfer market by media attention.
Crystal Palace’s 23-year-old defender Kevin Muscat is a veteran of the Australian system, having attended the AIS and featured in two World Youth Cup sides, as well as the 1996 Olympic team. Muscat believes Australian players can make favourable deals these days with the right advice. “So many players are making themselves available to come to England now. It just depends which way you go about it. You can’t do these things on your own, and if you don’t have that defence [of a good agent] you can get taken advantage of.” The clubs, too, have learnt to appreciate the value of their players. Yet thanks to this new awareness – and Bosman – the signs are that the boom in Australian players may have peaked. National team sweeper Tony Popovic recently had trials here but returned home because no club would meet the demands of his club, Sydney United, for a fee in the region of £350,000.
“What they are doing is pricing themselves out of the market,” Silkman said. “Why would a club here take a gamble for half a million, when you can now get a world-class player from Holland or France for nothing? Say you can afford to pay the player £10,000 a week for a year, that’s the same as the transfer fee an Australian player is going to cost you – without knowing if they are any good.”
Even if they are any good – which Popovic is – there is still the work permit problem. The largest fee yet paid by an English club for an Australian was the £750,000 Leicester invested in Zeljko Kalac, the national team understudy to Bosnich. Kalac had a couple of nightmare games for Leicester and was dropped, then signed again by Mark McGhee after his move to Wolves. But Kalac was denied a new work permit because he had played insufficient games and was forced to return to Australia, leaving Leicester and Wolves to squabble over who should pick up the tab.
Pride in the exploits of Australians playing professionally in Europe has always been mixed with regret at their loss to the struggling national league. Recently concern has focused on the age at which players are leaving the country. The growing trend now is for players to be snapped up directly from the AIS before they ever play for an Australian club.
Two of the most recent arrivals, teenagers Andrew McDermott at QPR and Lucas Neill at Millwall, are barely known in Australia because they have never played either for Australian clubs or for national teams. Both came through the AIS. “Clubs don’t go to the institute,” Silkman insists. “If they’re not run on a professional level, then boys escape because when they get to 17 they have no club. If you can offer them pro football in Europe, they’re not going to say no.”
Players will continue to leave Australia in significant numbers, and probably at ever-younger ages, while the national league there remains so weak. Kids now in training at the AIS know that their predecessors have made it in the big time in Europe – or at least at Reading or Millwall.
It doesn’t take much to persuade them that they can do better than the low-key and often quarrelsome world of the Australian league. As Kevin Muscat points out, it’s not just the money. “Obviously in the Premier League and even in the First Division there’s more on offer financially than back home, but it’s a dream for a lot of the boys, too, wanting to become a pro, having grown up watching the Cup Final and all that. I don’t think you can put an age on when you should come. If something comes up that’s too good to refuse, you have got to take that opportunity.”
From WSC 117 November 1996. What was happening this month