AFTER a career which yielded more than 250 goals, Australia’s greatest marksman talks us through his glittering playing days from NSL starlet to EPL legend...
Remember, remember the fifth of November. While the English made a nursery rhyme to remind them of the infamous Gunpowder Plot, Australian football fans prefer to commemorate the day before, as it was the date an Aussie blew English football apart with one of the Premier League’s greatest individual performances.
“A display of almost flawless marksmanship” roared the BBC. “One of the most lethal displays of finishing ever seen in the Premiership,” concurred an English regional paper.
When Mark Viduka single-handedly dismantled Liverpool while at Leeds in 2000, it was the high point of a great career. The unlikely 4-3 victory came through four Viduka goals after Liverpool had raced into an early 2-0 lead.
The ‘Dukes Show’ which followed was a moment of Australian footballing magic, which matches anything our countrymen have achieved overseas. What makes Viduka’s incredible haul even more amazing, aside from the situation and opposition, is the quality of every one of his four finishes.
Most hat-tricks include a penalty, set-piece or slice of fortune. Not Viduka’s. Every one of his goals on that November afternoon was a top-draw piece of finishing, including two deft chips, a header and tight-angle finish.
His stunning goals were front of mind when FourFourTwo were granted an audience with the elusive legend for this ‘EPL Legends’ special issue of the magazine.
Through the PFA we arranged a meeting with Viduka in their Melbourne office the day after Dukes received the Alex Tobin Medal at a gala dinner event to honour his quite remarkable career.
The previous evening the whole of Melbourne Crown’s Palladium Ballroom, which was filled with football’s most respected figureheads, rose to its feet to applaud Viduka’s walk to the stage to receive his honour. If you love your football, you can have nothing but respect for this Australian’s achievements.
The morning after the event, FourFourTwo is probably more anxious about this face-to-face interview than normal for three reasons.
Firstly, we’re hoping a deserving and now-retired Mark Viduka isn’t so hungover he struggles to answer our questions. Secondly, we are not sure if Viduka will hold any prolonged resentment toward his 2007 omission from our top 25 Aussie Players Ever List – an exclusion which made national news! Finally, Viduka has never had a reputation for being open with the media in a way other Socceroos have from his generation. Indeed Dukes has been a tough man for this magazine to nail down for an interview during the five-and-a-half years since we launched the title.
We arrive at the PFA offices 20 minutes early, take a seat in reception and fire up the laptop. With our questions prepared, we decide the best way to burn our excess time is by revisiting November 4, 2000 again. As we’re watching Dukes wheel away in joy after his game-winning fourth, the man himself enters our peripheral vision.
While Viduka later claims to be the “size of a tree trunk these days”, he is looking well and relaxed in shorts, a t-shirt and sunnies. Friendly, welcoming and probably the major footballer most devoid of any manner of arrogance that FourFourTwo has ever met, our time – which ran well over an hour in the end – was an absolute pleasure.
We sit down with a coffee to discuss a career which spanned 16 years, six clubs and over 250 goals at a rate of just over a goal every other game. The plan is to talk through every stage of that time, from teenage phenomenon in the old NSL and captaining Australia at their first World Cup in 32 years, through to making the decision to hang up his boots ahead of the World Cup in South Africa last year.
There is a lot to discuss with Dukes, so lets flashback to the early 1990s where a young Mark Viduka took the NSL by storm…
“I was playing at the AIS and after my scholarship finished I got a call to play down at the Knights,” says Viduka. “It was my first club – I’ve supported them through the good times and the bad. When it came to actually playing for the first team, I was over the moon. Also, to do so well for them was unbelievable. Nobody really expected too much of me when I was a young lad, everything was so new to me.”
Viduka recalls his early Knights days with the enthusiasm that, for example, Gary Neville has for Manchester United or Jamie Carragher feels for Liverpool. Considering the clubs Viduka went on to represent, it may seem surprising he would have such a high regard for the former NSL side.
“It was unbelievable. That period was a product of many years of training and dreaming of things. It all happened so quickly. It wasn’t necessarily the best time of my career but it was the most fun. I was naive, I was a young boy and I had stars in my eyes. I dreamed about playing like that. Everything just went well.”
Which is a bit of an understatement. In his time with Melbourne Knights, the young Viduka scored 40 goals in 48 appearances, was top scorer in the NSL, twice won the Johnny Warren Medal for Player of the Year and claimed the NSL title in 1995. All this as a teenager still finding his feet in the game.
“It was massive when we won the championship in 1995,” says Viduka. “We had such a good team and we went to Japan after we won the title to play a tour. At the time, Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillachi was finishing his career for Jubilo Iwata. I played really well in the tour and scored a couple of nice goals.
“I got an offer to stay in Japan, while I also had an offer from Dortmund to play with Ned Zelic. They were very keen because I was over there with the young Socceroos as well. Dortmund sent me a contract to look through and sign.”
As tempting as an offer to join the Bundesliga giants was, Viduka, proud of his Croatian heritage, received some other interest that was impossible to ignore.
“At that time the Croatian president Franjo Tudjman was visiting Australia. He asked someone: ‘Who is the best footballer in Australia?’, and someone told him it was me! A family friend called me up and said Tudjman wanted to have lunch with me and my parents.
“He was in Melbourne, so we met up at a place in Richmond. He said: ‘You are a great player, I want you to come play for Dinamo Zagreb. We’re building a team to play in the Champions League and we want you to come and promote our club and our country.’
“It was totally out of the blue. I never really thought about playing there before. He actually wanted me
to come back with him there and then on his private jet.
“But I needed some time. I was a young boy, just 19. I told him to give me some time to think about it. I took a few weeks and realised it was a good opportunity to see my heritage, and see where my family comes from.”
A career in Europe had started, but just a month after Viduka’s arrival in Croatia, civil
war broke out.
“At first it was a bit of a culture shock. I came from a western culture in Australia. Croatia is an old communist country and it was different making the move to a place like that, which was at war at the time. Also the football was different. In Australia we were just semi-professionals. To jump into that sort of environment was a real learning curve for me.”
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