Australia’s rebound man Jade North has put his Socceroos renaissance down to the razor-sharp fitness needed to survive in Japan’s top flight.
Barely mentioned as a starting chance three games ago when Australia faced Denmark in a friendly in Copenhagen, the 30-year-old Consadole Sapporo defender left firm favourite Rhys Williams at the starting blocks as he grabbed the right-back spot for that match and the subsequent 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifiers against Oman and Japan.
Growing in stature with each performance, the often under-appreciated North repaid the faith of coach Holger Osieck whose appreciation of J.League based talent was also expressed in him starting Shimizu S-Pulse's Alex Brosque in all three games.
While the return to fitness of Brett Emerton will likely see Luke Wilkshire resume at right back as Australia’s World Cup qualification campaign unfolds, nothing can now be taken for granted when it comes to North, who has amassed 35 caps for his country without ever becoming a regular starter.
But the Osieck era is proving a golden one for North, who has now started Australia’s last four internationals and is buoyed by a new belief.
Speaking from Japan in the wake of 10-man Australia’s battling 1-1 draw with the Blue Samurai in Brisbane, North told The World Game: “Holger has shown a lot of faith in me and when you have a coach who believes in you it’s great for your confidence.
“I think that is beginning to show in the way I’ve been playing. I’ve been able to get forward a bit more in that role as right back and I haven’t enjoyed my football as much as I have this last season, so hopefully that will continue.
“Holger has given the boys who play in Japan like myself, Alex Brosque, Matt Spiranovic and Mark Milligan a chance and also in the K-League with Sasa Ognenovski getting a run too.
“There’s no doubt being in Japan has taken my game to another level.
”I have never been as fit in my career – and that’s down to the intensity of the training and preparation.
“When I go into camp for the Socceroos I feel I am one of the fittest in the squad now.”
It was a perceived lack of match fitness which told against Middlesbrough’s elegant utility Williams, who was expected to partner Wilkshire down the right when Osieck announced his squad for the three matches.
“The Japanese style rubs off on you, the pace of the game, the sharpness and the passing skills they all possess … it’s infectious,” added North, who struggled for game time during stints in the K-League with Incheon United, Norway’s Tromso and FC Tokyo.
A spell at Wellington Phoenix was sandwiched between his ill-fated Norwegian experience and switch to Japan last year.
“I feel I’ve been able to express myself at Sapporo and that’s flowed through to the national team,” he said.
”Being in Japan makes you look forward to training and to really want to play the game like never before.
“I am contracted to the end of the season and I can take it from there.”
The club, though, is struggling with just four points from 13 games and is 11 points adrift of safety at the halfway point of the season.
North can feel a heightened respect for the Socceroos in his adopted country after its tenacious 10-man show of defiance in Brisbane, adding: “All the Japanese boys were talking about it at training the other day and saying how impressed they were with Australia.
“It’s made me feel quite proud of what we achieved that night.
”The Japanese always knew that coming out to face us wasn’t going to be another easy task like they had in beating Jordan 6-0. They knew they were in for a fight and we gave them one.
“A draw was probably a fair result in the end. It felt like a win for us in the change room.
”The way the Japanese carried on after they took the lead fired us up.
”They were jumping around like they had won the game and that really spurred us on to keep going, even though we were down to 10 men after Mark Milligan’s red card.”
Socceroos coach Holger Osieck believes veteran goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer has a key role to play in their FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign.