Socceroos defender Steve O’Connor knew straight away that teenage prodigy Mark Viduka would forge a successful career abroad when he first come in contact with the striker at the Australian Institute of Sport.
As assistant head coach in Canberra in the early 1990s, O’Connor worked with the Melbourne-born teenager and played against him many times in practice games.
O’Connor, who played with distinction for the Socceroos and his two main clubs Sydney City and St George, had no doubt that Viduka was something special and would go on to achieve great things as a professional footballer.
“When I was in my 40s I used to play against and mark big Dukes many times in practice games,” O’Connor recalled.
“I would be in his ear to tell hm what to do and look for and things like that.
“He was always a terrific player with his feet who could score two or three goals a game regularly.
“Although he did not score many goals for Australia his record at Celtic and Leeds is amazing.
“He was so skilful for such a big lad as well. I didn’t realise how big he was until I had to mark him.
“He also had a fantastic attitude. We were worried when Josip Simunic went to play for Croatia but Viduka (who has a Croatian background) always said he wanted to play for Australia.
“I worked with several other outstanding players over the years. When I first saw Harry Kewell in the early 1990s I could tell he was an outstanding prospect. Brett Emerton was another. He was not as technical as Kewell but he had speed and endurance.”
O’Connor, who lives in Sydney, was happy to look back on his international and club career.
What has become of O’Connor the footballer and coach?
“I am still working in football: coaching at grassroots level in the Hills association, where I am also technical director. I also do some consultancy with various clubs around the place and help out some former AIS players with their clinics. I realised recently that when I was coaching at the AIS and various national teams which I did for 15 years, I coached in over 500 domestic games and maybe 150 international games at youth level.”
You had a long playing and coaching career that would have given you plenty of memorable moments. Which is the one you remember most fondly?
“Just playing the game was great because I enjoyed it very much. I was lucky to play for strong teams in the 1970s like Sydney City (formerly Hakoah) and later St George with whom I won NSL championships. As a coach I also enjoyed working with players and making them better.”
You played in 15 full international matches and many more against top touring club sides in the 1980s. Was that a period that raised the profile of the Socceroos?
“We unfortunately never really kicked on from the 1974 World Cup so it was good to have a team that was knocking on the door of qualifying for another World Cup and giving several club sides a run for their money, sometimes beating them. We also played a three-match series against Bobby Robson's England for two draws and a narrow loss. It was good for our confidence.”
You made your Socceroos debut in New Zealand in 1979 and alongside you in the middle of the defence was a certain guy called Peter Wilson. What was he like as a footballer?
“Peter was a good bloke, pretty quiet. He was a commanding figure - good in the air and strong at the back - and it was certainly an experience playing next to him.
“What I remember mostly about the game in Auckland is that it poured down all match and the field was covered in water. Several times we had chances to get to one on one with the goalkeeper but the ball got stuck in a puddle. We lost 1-0.”
You did not play again for Australia until 1983 even though you were starring in the National Soccer League. Is it fair to say the coach Rudi Gutendorf was not your biggest fan?
“I don’t really know what happened there. I went to camps and played in trials. I was playing in a very successful club team at the time so I’m not quite sure why I was not picked for the national side. But it did not really bother me. I kept plodding away for Sydney and eventually I got a look in. With Sydney we were always around the top. I don’t remember not playing in a finals series during the 1970s and 1980s. We always expected to win.”
The appointment of Frank Arok boosted your international career, didn’t it?
“I became a Socceroos regular in Arok’s era. We were about 12 or 13 of us who virtually played all the time. We had a strong side. It was a bit different then to what happens now when so many players get called up to play.”
Tell us about the World Cup qualifier against Israel in 1985 that became known as the ‘Battle of Tel Aviv’.
“Israel were a decent side with players who were playing in some of the top leagues in the world. We knew it was going to be a fight over there and so it was.
“Frank liked to use the line in the media about ‘we’re mad dogs and we’re going to kill you’ but sometimes these mind games worked against us. It was a tense match and what happened was one of their players made a poor challenge on one of our players right next to the Socceroos bench. Frank got up and complained to the referee and was sent off. In the end it was pleasing to come away with a 2-1 win. That was a big night in old Tel Aviv, I can tell you that.”
Many criticised Soccer Australia for bending over backwards to make Scotland feel at home in the second leg of the final playoff for a spot in the 1986 World Cup. Arok even wanted to play in hot and humid Darwin. What’s your take on this?
“We were naive, I guess. Today all countries try to maximise home advantage. Some play in altitude. Having to play Scotland in November, it made sense to play somewhere where it is very hot.
“We should have made it as difficult as possible for the Scots but we ended up playing in Melbourne on a very cool night. We draw 0-0 and were out after losing the first leg in Glasgow 2-0.”
You missed that second leg though suspension. Was that the biggest disappointment of your Socceroos career?
“Yes, absolutely. I was suspended because I got a yellow card in the first leg at Hampden.
“I knew I was one match away from suspension so I was very careful and it really was a soft yellow but unfortunately it was enough to put me out of the next game.
“I actually tried my best to get another yellow card in an earlier qualifier versus Chinese Taipei in Adelaide that would have ruled me out of the second leg and allowed me to go into the Scotland tie with a clean sheet.
"I remember catching the ball and doing all sorts of stuff to get booked but the referee just did not want to know.
“I kept saying to myself ‘what’s this referee doing? It was so ironic ... I was trying to get booked and I couldn't.”
Your career was spent mainly as a stopper but you also played as a sweeper on several occasions. Has the centre-back role changed much since your days?
“I don’t think it has changed that much. The principles of the game are still the same. You push up when your team has the ball and plug the spaces when the opposition are on the attack. My job was to dominate as much as possible the strikers I faced. We would drop and play offside at different times. With the Socceroos we sometimes played with three at the back, one of which was a sweeper. I see three at the back has come back in now but I doubt if we will go back to a libero set-up.
“A sweeper makes the field bigger and gives the opposition better opportunities to push players into open spaces from which to attack, not to mention that sometimes using a sweeper may cost you a man in midfield.
"I would never say never, however. Remember Greece won the 2004 Euros with a sweeper and the other teams couldn’t adjust.”
Many people believe that from a playing standard perspective the old National Soccer League may have been superior to that of the A-League. Is sentimentalism at play here?
“Look, today’s league is fully professional while we were part-timers. There were good players around in my days and we had some good games, no doubt about that, although the game was far more physical.
“Today’s game is faster. It’s really difficult to compare.”
How do you rate today’s Socceroos and how do they compare with the team you played in?
“They have done really well to qualify for the World Cup although they probably should have done so earlier not after a double play-off.
“The problems arose in that game against Thailand in Bangkok where we lacked concentration at the back and let them in twice (in a 2-2 draw). In other qualifying games were not quick enough to get back and we copped goals on the break.
“We had some great players in the mid-1980s and if we forget fitness we were not inferior in terms of attitude and determination. but again, it’s hard to compare.”
Who are the best players you have played with and against?
“Sydney City winger Joe Watson was a fantastic player as was striker John Kosmina who was very competitive and with a great attitude. I played many years alongside defender Alex Robinson. Kenny Murphy was a powerhouse in the national team who had unbelievable engines and covered for 'Jinky' (Watson) and Oscar Crino at times. The two flankers 'Davo' (Alan Davidson) and 'Flash' (Graham Jennings) did a fantastic job in our system. Oscar was great on the ball, it was a well balanced side. We also had Dave Mitchell and Frank Farina who supported up front. It was a strong side.
“Heidelberg’s Gary Cole was always hard to handle and he once scored a hat-trick against us (Sydney City) in the 1980 grand final in Canberra. I remember we were over-confident ... we were out playing head tennis the morning of the game for maybe two hours. It was ridiculous. We then got what we deserved and lost 4-0.
“Striker Trevor Francis was a handful when we played England three times in 1983, as were Juventus’s Zbigniew Boniek in 1984 and Scotland’s Kenny Dalglish in 1985.”
And finally, who are the Australian and foreign players you admire most at the moment?
“I like Germany-based winger Mathew Leckie who has pace and a lot of good qualities. Tom Rogic and Aaron Mooy are obviously skilful players and playing at the top level.
“I also admire guys I have worked with at the AIS like Matt McKay, Mark Milligan, Alex Brosque, Carl Valeri, Jade North, Nikolai Topor-Stanley, Luke Wilkshire, Robbie Kruse, Mathew Jurman, Adam Federici, Mitchell Langerak, Matthew Spiranovic, Rhyan Grant, Liam Reddy and Andrew Redmayne, who went on to achieve great things in football. There are a few good stories amongst that lot.
“Abroad I love watching Barcelona’s Lionel Messi for obvious reasons and Madrid captain Sergio Ramos. I don’t think a lot of players like playing against him. I also like Liverpool’s new striker Mohamed Salah. What a player he is! He just scores for fun.”
STEVE O'CONNOR FACTFILE
1977-1987 Sydney City
1987-1988: St George
1989: Apia Leichhardt
1979-1985: Australia (15 matches)
NSL championship 1977, 1980, 1981, 1982 (Sydney City), NSL Cup 1986 (Sydney City)