• Graham Jennings played 44 times for Australia (Supplied)
The World Game's monthly feature pays tribute to the heroes of yesteryear who left their mark on football down under. Tearaway fullback Graham Jennings revealed how a career that was going nowhere was transformed by a switch from striker to defender.
By
Philip Micallef

26 Jul 2017 - 11:58 AM  UPDATED 26 Jul 2017 - 11:58 AM

Eighties hero Graham Jennings will always be remembered as one of the finest fullbacks who ever played for the Socceroos. 

His nickname was ‘Flash’ due to the speed with which he tore down the wing with one sole aim: to cause havoc among opposing defences. 

He was a cross between Scott Chipperfield and Stan Lazaridis: yes, he was that good even though he never played abroad. 

Yet Jennings, who is now 57, owes his place in Australian football folklore to a spectacular transformation from left winger to left back. 

"During the 1982 season, my career as a left winger was going nowhere," Jennings said.

"Team formations were changing with a preference for two strikers. Having a winger did not provide balance and was an unwanted luxury for a team. I even contemplated moving back to Newcastle from Sydney Olympic. 

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"The last home game of the season against St George ushered in another coach at Olympic (as was the practice) - Ljubo Gojkovic - who said he always saw me a defender not a winger.

"I can remember lining up for that match with stoppers Kenny Wilson and Ian Rowden laughing and saying 'what the hell are you doing, Flash?' I looked forward and suddenly felt very comfortable and ‘at home’ in my new position. We flogged St George and I had a really good game. 

"Fast forward to the 1983 season and with Tommy Docherty as coach, I was re-instated on the wing but I knew my days in the forward line were numbered.

"Tommy had heard of my game at fullback. He had a good left back in Martyn Rogers but was not completely happy with our right fullback. So Tommy shifted Martyn to right back and selected me at left back. 

"An interesting side note is we played St George in pre-season and then in the first competition match. St George coach Frank Arok was put in charge of the national squad for the series against England after he had seen me play in that position several times.

"I eventually became one of his shock selections for the Socceroos."

So what are you doing these days? 

"After the 1988 Olympics in Seoul and towards the end of my career, I moved back to Newcastle with my wife and children and travelled to Sydney up to four times a week for training and games.

"I joined an exodus of Newcastle players who were in a similar situation playing with Sydney clubs. Car pooling lent itself for some interesting conversations! 

"When my football career finished I had no training or skills behind me. At first I went to TAFE to work in pre-schools and early education centres. Later i completed a double degree in education and early childhood studies at Uni and was awarded the University Medal in Education. 

"For the last 17 years I have been a primary school teacher in Newcastle and prior to that I worked in pre-schools and early education centres. Skills from those two jobs come in handy as I am definitely one of those hovercraft grandparents!"

You are a Newcastle boy. How come your first club was Sydney Olympic?

"At the time, in 1979, I was playing first grade for one of Newcastle’s strongest clubs Adamstown Rosebud but was also in the first Young Socceroos squad under Rudi Gutendorf.  

"He wanted all his players playing in the National Soccer League. John Constantine, who was the president of Sydney Olympic, asked Rudi for any players he could recommend. He mentioned me. Not long afterwards I received a phone call from John that changed my life forever.  

"Joe Marston was the coach at the time but he hadn’t had a say in my recruitment. Needless to say, I had to serve a stint in the reserves before being called up to Olympic’s first team."

You made your name at Olympic. What memories do you have of playing for them?

"As soon as the National League started I was a fan. I knew of the clubs in it but was not prepared for the ethnic division of the league. Not exactly what I had grown up with in Newcastle! 

"When I first arrived at Sydney Olympic, it was certainly a culture shock. I had never known supporters like them. I had never seen so many supporters turn up just for training. We had maybe close to a thousand turn up to welcome coaches Tommy Docherty and Manfred Schaefer.

"You would be pressed to walk down any street in Sydney and not run into an Olympic supporter. Other clubs loved playing Olympic because it provided most of that club’s revenue for the season! 

"Sydney Olympic were like my family. The supporters were knowledgable, always up for a conversation and wildly passionate. For home games they were like a 12th player. Many times Olympic would be down at half time and would claw back a victory with the fanaticism of the crowd and their O-lym-pic! O-lym-pic! chants. 

"There was nothing better than celebrating a victory at the Olympic Club with the supporters."

You played with distinction for Australia in 44 full internationals. What was it like to play for Oz in those days?  

"Prior to my time as a Socceroos player, when I watched old Australian football matches, for example, from the 1974 World Cup, we always looked as though we had fewer players on the field.  

"The system we played when I was first selected had five defenders, three midfielders and two strikers. However, the two outside backs, Alan Davidson and myself, were apart from defensive duties and we were given the latitude to join the midfield and also serve as a link to the forwards.

"So our three midfielders became five and at times our strikers could be four.

"The support given to the Socceroos in those days was much different from today. The Socceroos brand was still recovering from our failure to make the 1982 World Cup. Supporters came to watch our opposition rather than us.

"They wanted to see England, Manchester United, Juventus, Iraklis, Red Star Belgrade, Scotland, Brazil and Argentina. We played more club sides because we were not held in high regards by other countries.  

“"n saying that, there was a change happening, based on our results against some of the best club sides in Europe as well as the success of tournaments such as the 1988 Bicentennial Gold Cup and the 1988 Olympic Games. 

"Playing for the Socceroos meant full-time commitment with part-time pay. Training camps were more regular which meant more time away from work. It was impossible to have a full-time job.

"In saying that, I’m sure there wouldn’t be one player who would not have made the same commitment. All of my 81 (total) appearances for the Socceroos were a privilege.  

"It almost felt surreal as I had always been a Socceroos supporter, even when playing National League, but I became one of those players I had looked up to."

WhIch was the highlight of your Socceroos career … and the biggest disappointment? 

"I was fortunate to have many highlights throughout my Socceroos career. My first cap was against England in 1983 at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

"Firstly, because playing for Australia was something I had always dreamt about as a boy. Secondly, because I was playing against England whose players I had seen many times on TV and finally because I was playing at such a historic ground as the SCG. 

"I was fortunate to play in a team that gradually changed supporters’ perspective towards the national team. The support we had during the Bicentennial Gold Cup and during the Olympic Games laid the groundwork for the Socceroos of today.  

"My biggest disappointment as a footballer was not getting to the ultimate stage, the World Cup. We were close in 1985 but were pipped by Scotland.

"The 1989 campaign was probably more disheartening because as a team we had matured and been together for many years but we missed precious points against Israel and New Zealand."

Who are the coaches that influenced your career?

"Three coaches have made a huge impact on my career. Firstly, my father was my junior coach. He taught me the importance of teamwork.

"Tommy Docherty taught me the value of enjoying the game and believing in myself. Frank Arok took a gamble by selecting me to play for the Socceroos. I loved his passion for football and the analytical way he prepared for matches."

What do you think of the A-League and the current Socceroos?

"I love watching the A-League and enjoy every game. Club football has definitely come a long way from when I played. It is so marketable and such a whole experience as a fan.

"The television coverage is world class, as is the commentary and the press. 

"I do believe it is now time for an expanded competition. I played in an era with too many teams, meaning two divisions: north and south.

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"The league became disjointed and financially unviable. However, I believe the competition is ready to be freshened up and could cope with an extra two teams. 

"It is no surprise Ange Postecoglou is national coach. Watching him develop his style over the years has to be riveting.

"With Ange, you know what to expect: discipline, structure and a constant willingness to attack. He doesn’t want us to play like the Dutch or Brazilians, he wants us to play to our strengths as Australians. The Asian Cup victory was so well deserved. 

“The current Socceroos have just as much chance as Japan and Saudi Arabia of filling the first two positions in World Cup qualifying.

"It will be tight but we have our own destiny in our hands. We have a variety of young and experienced players. However, there is still a bit of tweaking to be done in the backline and in midfield."

Who are the best players you have played with and against?

"My favourite and best players have always been all the players from my early Socceroos squads. 

"Terry Greedy or Jeff Olver in goal, Alan Davidson, David Ratcliffe, Steve O’Connor, Charlie Yankos and myself in the backline, Joe Watson, Oscar Crino and Ken Murphy in the midfield with John Kosmina and David Mitchell up front. 

"Of that lot, Davidson and Kosmina stand out. Davidson was the complete footballer: good touch, both feet, uncompromising and competitive. He would have played longer overseas except for injury.

"Kosmina had similar characteristics to Davidson and was a natural leader. Of later squads, the real exception would be Graham Arnold. He was the best example of what the Dutch refer to as a total footballer.  

"One of the best players I played against would have to be Romario from Brazil. I came up against him at the Bicentennial Cup and Olympic Games in 1988. Truly world class."

Finally, who are the players you admire most abroad and at home?

"I didn’t have the luxury of tuning into SBS when I was growing up so most of my favourite players came from watching movies of the 1966, 1970 and 1974 World Cups. I admired Pele, Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbaur.

"Nowadays, I enjoy watching the Spanish League. Of course Cristiano Ronaldo is a standout. He is a goalscoring machine. For individual brilliance you can’t go past Lionel Messi. I also love watching the craftsmanship of Andres Iniesta in midfield and for shear tenacity, I admire Sergio Ramos in defence! 

"Locally, there are a lot of quality players from the A-League … such as Besart Berisha, Alex Brosque, Milos Ninkovic and Eugene Galekovic. In particular, someone of the pedigree of Tim Cahill playing in our national competition is a real coup and inspiration for many young players."

GRAHAM JENNINGS FACTFILE

Club career:
1979 -1985: Sydney Olympic
1986 - 1989 Sydney Croatia
1989 -1992: APIA Leichhardt
1993 -1994: Newcastle Breakers

International career:
1983-1989: Australia (44 matches) 

Honours:
Sydney Olympic: NSL Cup 1983, 1985; Sydney Croatia: NSL Cup 1987