The Socceroos coach has announced his departure at the end of the 2018 World Cup campaign. Without doing any research at all, I can’t think of any previous Australia coach who has announced his departure in advance (maybe Terry Venables?). But, with Ange’s announcement comes the inevitable question: who should be next?
A number of people have asked me in recent times why I’ve got it in for Ange.
I don’t. I think he’s been (mostly) brilliant for the Socceroos and I hope that we will one day look back on his tenure as the turning point in the fortunes of the National team. (At the moment, taking the long term view, you’d probably give that guernsey to Guus Hiddinck.)
Probably Ange’s greatest contribution to our game (besides winning the Asian Cup) was to make Australians believe in the potential of Australian football, Australian players…and even Australian coaches.
I, for one, expect the next coach to be Australian, so who are the main contenders?
At the front of the queue, surely, is Graham Arnold.
Some very poor judges will try and tell you he failed when he had his chance in 2007.
Arnie was totally screwed in that Asian Cup tournament, coming swiftly on the heels of the 2006 World Cup, after he asked to play the 23s and was told no. That put him in an impossible position, having to pick and use players half of whom didn’t want to be there, and the other half plotting to stay forever. And it should be remembered we were knocked out on penalties by Japan who probably should have won the tournament.
Arnie also, at that time, was only just emerging from behind Hiddinck’s apron strings and was yet to earn the respect of the players (who all knew he’d wanted the 23s). It was, at best, a character building assignment.
As a Mariners fan, I was disgusted when I heard he was taking over in 2012. Graham Arnold? Seriously?
I’d been a big fan of what Lawrie McKinna had achieved during his five years in charge and saw Arnie as a washed up hack. It took him two games to win me over.
The defensive structure he put in place from Day One – with the players clearly buying in – set the Mariners up for another three years of over-achieving. One Premier’s Plate plus two Grand Finals and our first ever Championship. As a fan of the club with least resources and smallest catchment, you can’t complain about what Arnie achieved.
And neither can Sydney FC fans.
When Arnie was announced as their coach for the 2014/15 season, I was thoroughly amused by the horrified response on the SFCU forum. They couldn’t believe their club was so unambitious as to employ Graham Arnold, but as I kept telling them, Arnie will be the greatest thing that ever hits Sydney. He’s the best coach in Australia, and in fact, if it had been up to me when Holger was sacked I’d have given Arnie the job at that time.
The reason for that was that I believe Ange really only has one style – a suspicion he’s been trying to dispel with his latest three at the back system. Arnie, in my opinion, was much better at adapting his teams to suit the players he had AND the system used by the other team – even during games. Arnie teams are notable for their tight compact shape in defence, getting bodies between the ball and the goal, but he can change his shape and strategy depending on what the team needs in any given context.
Ange, less so, and some might say his inflexibility has cost some players opportunities as he stuck with players unrated by the fans who, nevertheless, suit the Ange system (I’m looking at you Matt McKay. To be fair, McKay has done well at times, but time’s up.) It can’t be denied though that Ange has hugely improved the depth of the available player pool and introduced Socceroos fans to some new faces we may otherwise never have heard of.
Probably next in line, after Arnie, is Kevin Muscat.
Some will be horrified to see the name Muscat in the same sentence as the words ‘Socceroos coach’, but let’s not forget one very salient point: Kevin Muscat, despite being voted the most hated man in Britain while captain of Wolves, was a bloody good player. A combative, even filthy player, yes, but a player with excellent vision, surprisingly good technique, and a real galvanising force in the dressing room. A natural leader, in fact, and such players are invaluable both in carrying their own weight and inspiring others to do better.
With the right sort of intelligence and man management skills, such players can make superb coaches. Muscat has done extremely well at Victory after serving as assistant under two others and has clearly made the club his own. That’s what he could bring to the Socceroos – a sense of togetherness, purpose and destiny and a desire to bleed for the National team. It’s a rare coach who can achieve that kind of camaraderie and commitment from overpaid professionals who move in elite circles and spend only a couple of weeks a year in each other’s company.
Love him or hate him, Muscat could genuinely turn us into a team.
Tony Popovic is the last of the Australians with a genuine chance at this point. He’s got runs on the board at Crystal Palace as an assistant, then won the ACL with the Wanderers at his first attempt – an unbelievable achievement (not to mention the small matter of a Premier’s Plate and three Grand Finals in five years (despite winning none of them).
He’s clearly very highly rated at FFA headquarters. A query remains over his constant need to rebuild teams every year – you can’t really do that with National Teams – but he certainly knows how to put a team together, as he had to do from scratch when the Wanderers began.
The last contender is not Australian but much beloved by Australian fans. Josep Gombau did amazing things at Adelaide United in just one season. The style his team played excited not just Adelaide fans but all Australian fans and we were all delighted when he was appointed coach of the Olyroos. It’s a crucial developmental role, and he is also an assistant for the senior team, leading many to suspect that he is being groomed for the head coach’s gig.
I doubt whether he’s done enough at first team level to be a realistic candidate at this time – but it’s not this time that counts. Ange (hopefully) has another year and a bit to go, culminating with a successful tournament in Russia 2018. If he does finish up at that time then circumstances may have changed enough for Gombau to be a more realistic contender. It would be interesting to see how he went working with Australia's best players.
But if (heaven forfend) we do not make the World Cup in 2018, the FFA will be looking for a safe pair of hands to take over. If that’s the case, at the top of their list will be just two names: Arnold and Muscat.
I’d be happy with either.
Adrian’s latest book Political Football: Lawrie McKinna’s Dangerous Truth is in the shops right now or available through Booktopia. Adrian also wrote Mr Cleansheets.