Last week Lucas Neill, the former Blackburn, West Ham and Everton defender secured a move to English Championship team, and my home town, Watford. With the World Cup on the horizon Neill is desperate to secure regular football to gain a spot on the flight to Brazil. His career has taken him to England, across Europe, back to Australia, Asia and now back to England. It prompted me to think about the history of Australians in the English game and celebrate those that made an impact in the motherland and some that went Walkabout.
As I explained in a past feature on Australian football titled Australian State Football: New South Wales, the round-ball game did not gain substantial traction and popularity until the post-World War Two years, aided by the mass influx of European migration.
As football-fever gripped Australia the amateur but extremely well organised clubs of New South Wales and Victoria, namely Sydney and Melbourne, even embarked on overseas tours to Europe. National teams such as South Africa and South China began to tour Australia to play club teams.
Meanwhile as a former English player Vivian Chalwin took the reigns of the Australian national team, history was being created in the illustrious FA Cup competition in England. Joining Preston North End in 1950, the midfielder-cum-defender gained regular first-team football a year later and in 1954 became the first Australian to play in an FA Cup Final, albeit a defeat at the hands of West Bromwich Albion.
Marston played 154 games and was courted by Arsenal but returned Down Under in 1956 as a result of homesickness. When he retired he coached the national team for a short period as well as a handful of NSW State League club teams. Shortly after Marston’s first arrival in England, outside-right Eric Hulme was snapped up by Portsmouth FC on an 18-month contract in 1952. With the game still amateur the English club were surprised when a £625 fee was demanded. Eventually it was paid but it can be assumed he made limited impact with little information available about his career.
Just as Marston was returning to Australia the game was embarking on a new era. As recognition of football’s popularity in the most populous state of New South Wales, ‘Division One’ was formed to formalise a new competition for club teams.
As players had more opportunity to showcase their talents, Australian football’s ability was nurtured and grew to the culmination of the national team’s first World Cup appearance in 1974. Key to this achievement was the efforts of prolific striker Ray Baartz. Impressing for his local team Adamstown Rosebuds, Baartz was plucked from obscurity and signed by Manchester United at 17 years-old.
Despite not making a first-team appearance he returned to Sydney Hakoah in Division One and scored goals for fun; 211 in 236 games. Tragically his career was ended in a friendly game for Australia and he never got to play at the World Cup. His national teammate and centre-back Peter Wilson however would captain Australia at the tournament and his physical presence was legendary. Although born in England, at 22 he migrated to Australia and quickly became a star, in stark contrast to his solitary appearance in two years for Middlesbrough and two games for English minnows Gateshead FC.
A player that did make it at Middlesbrough a decade later was South-African born Australian Craig Johnston. Moving to England as a 16 year-old, the Jack Charlton-managed club invited him to trial after he penned letters to four top English clubs. His 16 goals in 64 games from midfield earned a move to the best English team of that era.
At Liverpool he was used sparingly but was prized for his ability to play as a forward as well. The Anfield fans quickly began calling him ‘Skippy’, the kangaroo of TV fame, and after 40 goals in 271 games for Liverpool he retired prematurely in 1988 due to his sister’s serious illness.
His total trophy haul at Liverpool included five First Division titles, one FA Cup, two League Cups, a Charity Shield and the pinnacle, a European Cup. Whilst turning down calls to play for Australia during his career, he did turn out for the England Under-21’s and later became a successful businessman, designing the Adidas Predator football boot.
As Johnston was making a name for himself at Middleborough in 1979, an Australian striker scoring goals for fun in Adelaide was signed up by Arsenal. John Kosmina made just a handful of appearances for the Gunners, mainly as a substitute, and soon returned to Australia.
He would go on to hit the net regularly for Sydney-based teams and for his country as well as manage the A-League’s Sydney FC and Adelaide United. When Kosmina’s career approached its final seasons a fellow Australian striker hit the heights of his.
Frank Farina became the first Australian to play in Italy’s Serie A for Bari, earning the move after 43 gals in 75 games for Belgium’s Club Brugge. After a dismal short spell in Italy Farina was loaned out to England’s Notts County but managed just three appearances with no goal return in 1992.
The year would see the emergence of one of the less fashionable Australian footballers by the name of Richard Johnson. He would become a key part of Watford’s team until 2003 when injury finally took its toll, but went on to appear for Northampton Town, Colchester United, Stoke City, Queens Park Rangers and MK Dons before returning to Australia. That same year as Johnson first made his name a tidal wave in English football was about to occur with the extinction of the old First Division and the birth of the Premier League.
At this time football would be changed forever and television money and worldwide media attention flooded into the English game. Finishing fourth in 1992/93 and runners-up in 1993/94 Blackburn Rovers were investing in players heavily to ensure a Premiership title. One of these players was Australian Robbie Slater, a midfielder that had spent four solid years at French team Lens.
His one season Rovers saw the Aussie win the 1994/95 title in dramatic fashion and Slater became the first Australian to win the Premier League. His contribution was significant, despite many fans being dismissive of his playing style. Short spells with West Ham United, Southampton and Wolverhampton Wanderers followed before his return to Australia in 1998.
As Slater celebrated, an Australian that barely registered on the radar in 1995 was journeyman Ned Zelic; notching up 11 games for Queens Park Rangers in an otherwise successful career that spanned Germany’s Borussia Dortmund and France’s Auxerre.
A similar ‘love-him-or-hate-him’ Slater-type of player of the same period was left-back Stan Lazaridis. The lanky but pacey Lazaridis would spend four injury-hit years at West Ham United terrorising the left-wing and a further seven years at Birmingham City doing the same, playing a huge role in their promotion to the Premier League in 2002.
Australian goalkeeper Mark Bosnich would be well on his way to obscurity by 2002. Having started his career at Manchester United he would become an integral part of Aston Villa’s foray into Europe in the early 1990s spending seven fruitful seasons before a return to Manchester United. By this point his personal issues and addictions caused controversy and it was no surprise he only played 23 games for the Reds and even turned out three times for Chelsea before retirement in 2003.
The 1990s were a rich time for Australian talent at England’s highest level and Leeds United harvested this in abundance. It has caused much debate that Harry Kewell is regarded by many as Australia’s greatest export abroad and his early career did little to dissuade that.
Signed as a teenager in 1996 he spent seven seasons taking the club on a dizzy ride to the Champions League semi-finals. The attractive, attacking football that Leeds played under David O’Leary suited Kewell and a fellow Australian teammate benefitted more than any.
Mark Viduka bagged 59 goals in 130 games in a four-year period before the club’s heavily documented financial woes forced a move to Middlesbrough. Ending his career at Newcastle United, Viduka still holds the record for most goals by an Australian in the Champions League during his unforgettable time at Leeds.
Kewell’s demise gathered speed after a 2003 move to Liverpool where he struggled to stay out of the physio’s room. Eventually he ended up back in the A-League for a second time via Turkey and Qatar, but both Kewell and Viduka had successfully stamped their mark on the English game.
There were other Australians that played alongside the famed pair at Leeds but their impression was not as memorable. A former Socceroos captain, dual defender-midfielder Paul Okon came via Club Brugge, Lazio and Fiorentina to play three seasons in England for Middlesbrough, Watford and Leeds. Although his English adventure was fractured he is recognised as one of the unsung heroes of Australian football. Striker John Aloisi scored a generous amount of goals for second-tier Portsmouth and then Coventry but failed to shine regularly at Premier League level.
A player that did, however, make the Premiership his home was right defender-midfielder Brett Emerton. Lauded by his fellow players and coaches alike at Blackburn Rovers he played 247 games from 2003 to 2011 and is the third most capped player for his country, earning his place as one of Australia’s most revered footballers.
His fellow Socceroo Tim Cahill followed a similar career trajectory and spent a whopping 14 years playing in England, eight of those spent at the highest level with Everton, becoming a Goodison Park legend in the process. Known for his powerful headers and unwavering stamina and energy, he would score over 50 goals from midfield and currently has 29 goals in 66 games for the national team.
Finally the player that has made more English Premier League appearances than any other overseas born player in history. Goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer has graced England with his steady hands for 18 years, starting at Bradford City before becoming, literally, the first name on the team sheet for Middlesbrough and Fulham.
Just when everyone thought he would hang up the gloves heavyweights Chelsea signed him up at 41 years of age as a more than capable back up. With just two appearances in the FA Cup but a World Cup in Brazil to look forward to, his career will be closing in but his contribution to English football is immeasurable. His mantle may well eventually be taken by another former Middlesbrough goalkeeper, Liverpool’s Australian Brad Jones, who despite playing just 100 games in ten years is an understudy for his club and country.
As I write this in early 2014 there are a decreasing number of Australians making an impact in English football. Strictly speaking there is not a shortage of the nationality, it is just that the vast majority are playing for youth, reserve and lower league teams across England with few having the profile of Lucas Neill.
In 2013 it was calculated that the amount of Australians in the Premier League would be the lowest since the 1994/95 season. Just five players featured in the 2012/13 campaign with 2005/06 being the peak although there are hopes the likes of impressive Crystal Palace midfielder Mile Jedinak will flourish for some time to come.
One key factor in the decline might not just be attributed to ability but by the fact that Asia and the Middle East are becoming favoured destinations for Australians that prefer a steadier ascent to potential stardom. What is clear is that as world superstars flock to England, the Premier League becomes a less realistic destination for those from the Great Southern land and that can only be a good thing for the rest of the world.