Ange Postecoglou - Football - PlayersVoice
Ange Postecoglou - Football - PlayersVoice

Football

A mile in my shoes

- Contributor

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A mile in my shoes

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Every Socceroos camp I told the same story. When looking for a theme for our match day talk, I fell back on the same foundation. 

 

I would tell the story of a Socceroo. A player, who when faced with a choice in our sport’s rich landscape, decided he was not going to take the easy road. No guarantee of a career or even a clear road map as to how he was going to realise his dreams.

 

His choice had ramifications for those who loved him. First in the sacrifices they would need to make for him. Money was tight, so others would go without in order to buy boots. Second jobs were taken to ensure that no game or training session was missed because the car needed to be fully fuelled.

 

Then came rejection. There was a lack of recognition and opportunity. The solution was not easy. The young man had to make the hardest decision. He had to leave those who loved him and make those sacrifices so that he could follow his dreams.

 

Those around him questioned whether they had steered him in the right direction. Whether pushing him to another sport would have made life easier for everyone. They may have lost him inter-state at worst but instead they had to watch their young son travel to the other side of the world.

 

Of course, they couldn’t change his mind.

 

Arriving at his destination, he soon realised he had to grow up quickly. There was no warmth or easy acceptance. He was an Aussie and they were known for rugby or cricket.

 

It was easy for a European or South American to gain respect, but an Aussie? No chance. In the football world, being so far from home and away from family garnered little sympathy. He had to fight for his career. But he chose this fight when he chose this dream. 

 

In the end, he made it. He got to wear the Green and Gold and repay all those who had made the sacrifices. 

 

I never named that player because they all knew he was in that room. He was every one of them. Each player when listening to the story recognised himself. Each may have had a distinct difference but the body of the story remained true to all. 

 

Why did I keep retelling this story? Because, for me, it was the essence of being a Socceroo. It was about character – the choice of a difficult road and the fortitude to overcome every obstacle. 

 

As a team, we were about to embark on a similar journey. One where respect had to be earned, rejection and failure were always close by but, in the end, it was a fight that we needed to have for future Socceroos. 

 

To play without fear and in a manner that meant being an Aussie didn’t just mean we could scrap and fight.

 

 

 

NEVER TAKE A BACKWARD STEP

This became the cornerstone of our approach. With the ball or without it, we would make sure that, regardless of the opposition or situation, our approach would be to attack.

 

Our formation, tactics and selections reflected this in every way. With the ball, we wanted to become a team that dominated possession and played forward. Without it, we would always try and stop them as high up the field as possible. 

 

It was not always smooth and sometimes impossible to do, particularly when the weather or the pitch screamed for a different approach.

 

I wouldn’t let the players off the hook, however. We needed to try to do it in the hardest conditions because I knew the most difficult challenge still lay ahead. 

 

At no stage was there resistance. The players relished the challenge and would bear the consequences.

 

 

CHARACTER

The first seed was sown against the Netherlands in 2014. Let’s go at them.

 

Then during the Asian Cup. The first goal we scored in the final was who we wanted to be.

 

Then Germany away when World Champions played Asian Champions. Thomas Mueller was overheard at halftime screaming, ‘We can’t underestimate these guys!’

 

Why did I keep retelling this story? Because, for me, it was the essence of being a Socceroo. It was about character – the choice of a difficult road and the fortitude to overcome every obstacle. 

 

Then Chile at the Confederations Cup.

 

And finally against Honduras. 1-0 up, let’s go for a second, then a third and almost a fourth. No thought of consolidation. No backward steps.

 

 

 

THREE AT THE BACK

Failure was never far away. Scrutiny and criticism was part of every encounter. It was there from the start. ‘Don’t take a rookie team to a World Cup!’ We only won one game in the twelve months leading into the Asian Cup. A loss away to Jordan, struggles in Thailand, Iraq and Japan. Every friendly was an opportunity to try and sometimes fail so we got it right when it mattered.

 

I always told the players that any failure was my responsibility. And in many ways, I welcomed the discussion. It would only help us grow as a nation and it would also bring a measure of conviction to this journey. 

 

Then came the three at the back. 

 

To be honest, this was a side issue. The real issue was that in this final six months, qualification would be decided. This was the Holy Grail and we are still beholden to it above everything else. In our eyes, it validates us in this most competitive of sports. We had to be at the World Cup.

 

I have no doubt that whatever I did, in the end most people just wanted this to go smoothly. Don’t rock the boat, don’t get too radical. Consolidate and be pragmatic. Maybe take a couple of backward steps if required. 

 

Part of the process for me, however, was to show our players can be as tactically versatile as anyone.

 

When we played Germany, they changed formations at least three times during the game. They were prepared to play their way out of trouble but also claim territory by pushing players forward of the ball.

 

The argument was that they have better players. My philosophy is that this is not about ability. It is about mindset.

 

You need courage to play this way. Courage is a character trait. In my team, I had some of the most courageous people in sport. 

 

 

 

THE FINAL WHISTLE

When the whistle went against Honduras, I took a moment for myself. I thought of my Dad. I am the son of immigrants. We came here with nothing and my parents had the hardest of lives, working with very little joy but giving their children the opportunity for something better.

 

His son had now paid back this adopted land by taking them to a World Cup.

 

I have often spoken of his tough love, how he said after that Asian Cup that a better substitution by me would have meant we didn’t go into extra-time. Even when I called him after the game, he said the first half wasn’t great but we did better in the second! 

 

My philosophy is that this is not about ability. It is about mindset. You need courage to play this way. Courage is a character trait. In my team, I had some of the most courageous people in sport. 

 

I know he would have been proud though, as I was. I made a point of going to every staff member and player and telling them exactly that. This was my crusade in many ways but, in the end, they were the protagonists.

 

I knew this would come but it was those around me that needed to stand up and, in my eyes, they were all heroes. 

 

 

 

GOODBYE

After every home game, I made sure to look for my wife in the stands. She would always be there, in her Socceroo top amongst our dear friends, surrounded by other supporters.

 

She would not go to the corporate box. She was as much a fan as anyone. After the final game it was different, however. We both knew this could be the last time, so I wanted to share the moment with her and my eldest boy James who was at the game.

 

This journey was very much a family one. My two youngest were both born during this time, so every trip away had added significance.

 

It was not the way I expected it to finish. I didn’t speak to the players and staff after the game. It was the only time in my four years I had failed to do so.

 

To be honest, it would have been impossible for me to do so. These were people who believed in an idea and, by extension, me. I felt like I would be letting them down. 

 

The days after were a little bit of a blur. We tried to enjoy the moment, however there was a cloud of uncertainty that was constantly present. 

 

There were some nice moments, however. Acknowledgement from strangers who were very kind to me and people in the game I have known since my South Melbourne days.

 

Current and ex-players and coaches. Frank Farina and Pim Verbeek, two people who had walked a mile in my shoes, sent nice messages. Then I got a call from Adrian ‘Noddy’ Alston, a member of the ‘74 World Cup team but, more importantly, a hero of mine.

 

Along with the likes of Wilson, McKay, Warren and Buljevic, he was a part of a group that lit the flame for me, my Dad nudging me from my deep sleep in the middle of the night as a nine-year-old so we could watch the Socceroos take on the world.

 

He was now calling to congratulate me. To be honest, I don’t remember much of what he said because I was so overwhelmed by the call. 

 

I haven’t celebrated properly yet. It’s something I am not good at. I will spend time with family and friends who have been there through thick and thin. 

 

It was not the way I expected it to finish. I didn’t speak to the players and staff after the game. It was the only time in my four years I had failed to do so. To be honest it would have been impossible for me to do so. These were people who believed in an idea and, by extension, me. I felt like I would be letting them down. 

 

Since the announcement I have been touched by the messages I have received from the players. I tend to keep my distance from them because it makes it easier for me to work and I sometimes wonder if they know how much I care about them. It was nice to know they understood.

 

Those who don’t know me want a reason why I’m leaving. People can draw their own conclusions from what I’ve said already. I am hoping over time that there will be a clearer understanding of both my decision and what led to it.

 

But the future is bright. If nothing else, I wanted to show that the Aussie spirit we love should not be defined as just being scrappy and up for a fight.

 

We can be as sophisticated in our approach as anyone else. We have some of the brightest minds in every field and footballers whose courage knows no bounds. In time, I hope this era will be seen as the end of the beginning.

 

Ange Postecoglou  -  Contributor

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