Lucy Zelic - 'In conversation with': Clint Bolton

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Over the years, I have heard scores of people talk about their irrepressible love affairs with football but no one has been able to articulate their connection to the game in a more raw, honest and relatable way than Clint Bolton.

A four-time national league championship winner with three different clubs, those who lived through the ‘old soccer’ era will tell you about his epic 300-game stint with the Brisbane Strikers while the ‘new soccer’ subscribers will recall his goalkeeping heroics for Sydney FC in the 2010 A-League grand final after he saved Marvin Angulo’s penalty.

When asked about the kind of man Bolton is, his former teammate and Sky Blues boss Steve Corica says, “Clint is a top guy. He’s a winner, a true professional, absolutely meticulous in his preparation and in everything that he does and believes in. We had a lot of good winning times together.”

Here, Bolton bravely opens up about his difficulties with depression, how football has changed over the years and why he “can’t stand” VAR.    

LZ: Can we dial the clock back to a young Clint Bolton and how you came to know and love football? 

CB: It wasn't my first sport of choice. My good mates were playing rugby league and that was what I wanted to do.

Growing up in Queensland, all you saw on TV was rugby league so State of Origin was the pinnacle of sport in Bundaberg.

But fortuitously, in hindsight, my mum said "I am not having my boy, play this rough and tumble sport." Then I looked for an alternative and my other mates were playing soccer at school so I signed up.  

Did you always start off as a goalkeeper?  

No. I was very athletic and played many different sports. I won all the athletic events at school - sprints as well as all the field events.

The thought of being a goalkeeper, which was just so isolated and so restrictive as a position - no way in the world, I wanted to be part of the action as much as possible.

So on the field I was a striker early on, scoring bag fulls of goals and I became a keeper largely accidentally.

It's a common story where, no one else is going in goals so players start to get their run in goals and you learn you're pretty good at it and you get stuck there and then careers develop from there.  

What do you remember about your playing days as a kid and the experiences you took out of that?  

There was always your structured football at the club where you had training two, possibly three nights a week for about an hour and then a game on the weekend.

But what I remember most is the informal environment and the unstructured learnings from just having a ball at my feet; from being at Martin's Oval for the whole weekend, just either playing a game or getting a couple of mates, finding an empty goal or just hitting the ball against the wall on my own.

They're my memories of football when I was younger so it was about finding time to develop that relationship with the ball and developing foot skills. 

Why do you think we've moved away from unstructured environments?  

Because we've got more options now. I grew up in an environment where there was no mobile phone, there was no internet and there were your basic TV channels that you watched that didn't have a hell of a lot on it for a kid to watch, so largely my childhood was spent outdoors.

Then I fell in love with the round ball and because I didn't have other distractions, it was easy.

That's the beauty of our sport, you can get a ball and you can practice on your own so all the spare time is just spent with that ball.

I think the family environment has become a lot tougher too. Your mum and dad are under a lot more stress.

In the past it was easy, "son, go do what you want, be home for dinner."

There wasn't that stress around my well-being, there was just this trust that I'll be back home when I needed to be.

These days, it's a lot harder to let your kid just go and do their own thing, and when they do, there's not as many kids in that same bracket that are on their own or want to go to the park and kick a ball around.

There are a lot more pressures around the actual football environment too with regards to getting into elite pathways early and the attitudes of coaches towards young players.

Now with structured learning, there's a certain way you should be doing things as opposed to when we grew up.

Coaches were very happy for us to learn on our own and develop through self-discovery.

That doesn't exist as much these days because I think coaches just want too much of an influence on a player's development where largely I learned most of my skills on my own.  

How do you reflect on your pathway, particularly when it came to the football program at the now-defunct Australian Institute of Sport?  

Before the AIS, I was naive to what was possible in the football world.

I saw the English Premier League on TV and a bit of the Italian league but I didn't understand that I, Clint Bolton from Bundaberg could have a professional career until I went to the AIS and was involved in a professional environment.

It was my first taste of living and breathing football all day, every day with other like-minded players my age so that opened my eyes to that possibility.

I had no dream of playing overseas, for the Socceroos or earning a living out of football before I went to the AIS.

The key to why I think the AIS helped develop a lot of that golden generation, is because you're in an environment with the best players of your age and that accelerated development.

My theory is that there are two phases to your development as a footballer: there are your formative years where coaches largely influence your development up until about your mid-teens and beyond that, you largely develop through the team you're involved with, so you're learning from other players.

At a professional level, you're learning more from the players around you than you do from coaches. When I was at the AIS, I was surrounded by good quality players and there were no limits on how much we wanted to practice football.  

So go back to that moment when you're plucked out of Bundaberg and selected to be a part of the AIS football scholarship program and it dawns on you that you could actually turn your passion into a career. How did that change your approach to the game and the way you thought about it?  

It didn't really impact me. Firstly, it excited me that that was possible because I hadn't really thought of a career in any other area.

I was doing school on the side but there was no thought about another career because once I understood that football was a possible career, it was just all about football.

Earning a living out of football, the money side and playing for the Socceroos - it wasn't the big motivator. At the heart of it, it was an opportunity for two years to just play football and do something I absolutely loved.  

You mentioned the Socceroos there. Did you ever have ambitions to represent Australia or even play in Europe?   

No. With the AIS, the intake was geared around an age group that would make the next Young Socceroos squad, so I understood that I was in the right age bracket to make the Young Socceroos.

The Under 20s World Cup in 1995 was at the back of my mind while I was there to make that team but beyond that, the Socceroos was never thought.

I am a bit different to most people I've come across in sport or people that follow sport that are really nationalistic - I'm not driven by that whatsoever.  

It sounds like you were just driven by the game and the very act of playing football.  

Yes, that's it. I've never been motivated by money. It grew down the track where making the Socceroos became a thing, but it was never a big motivator still.

It was just the opportunity to do football 24/7 and not having to go sit at a desk or do anything else.  

Nowadays when you see some players making these career moves to the Middle East or to China, for example, where there is a lot of money, it may not necessarily further their careers developmentally, but financially it's difficult to say no to given the different pressures surrounding professional football now.  

That's also social media and the globalization of sport in general, where you're exposed to Ronaldo, Messi and all these guys that are on mega millions and I think a lot more kids aspire to be that.

It's not just about football - they want everything that goes along with it. That wasn't the case for me.

I had heroes within football when I was growing up, like Maradonna and van Basten but it had nothing to do with their lifestyle, it was just about what they did on the field.

I think a lot of kids see beyond that when they idolize footballers these days.  

To hear you say that you were purely motivated by football is refreshing because like you said, there are so many different factors now that aren't genuine motivators. It's such an empty pursuit because where does it end? When do you ever reach a point where you're satisfied and you're happy? I don't know that that exists anymore.  

It's a deep question isn't it? I'm going through this at the moment where, I am just disillusioned with the game in this country and I've suddenly hit a tipping point where I would happily work outside the game now.

I never thought I would feel that way. I always wanted to be in the game, now I feel like if something came up outside the game, I think I'd be quite content to move on.  

You’re not the first person I've heard say that. When you say that you're disillusioned with the game, what do you think has caused that? 

It's a culmination of so many different things and it just reached a tipping point within this last A-League off-season.

Football in this country has been a sport of endurance for us fans and it's just hoping that we get it right one day but the more time goes on, we keep kicking ourselves in the asses.

You hit a tipping point where you're not sure if you'll see that day that some of our peers and idols like Johnny (Warren) and Les (Murray) talked about years and years ago.

The potential was there and we believed in it and we were along for the journey but the more it continues on in this fashion, and if it feels like things are getting worse to some extent, then maybe you have to re-evaluate and ask in my lifetime will it really reach a point where I'll be happy with it?

That thought sucks but your emotions are continually tested and you think, well, maybe I'm better off investing my emotions somewhere else.   

That's sad, isn't it?  

Badly. I hate articulate articulating it like that, but I think that's what it is.  

How did we get here?  

Leadership. The custodians of our game have just continually gotten it wrong in this country.

They do not put football's best interests at heart.

There's too much self-interest and ego that's been involved in this game at a professional level, at a governing level and they have tested the patience of us that love the game in this country and strained that relationship to breaking point, unfortunately.

Even now, we're not sure still whether they can get it right, even with the changes that are happening within the game. I'm certainly not convinced by it all or that we're on the right path just yet.  

How do we fix it?  

It's the eternal question. It's a big task. It's changing leadership, it's a change in attitude. It has to start there.

If you don't get the top end right with the decision-makers then what chance do we have?  

Having grown up through the system and seeing football at its peak in terms of what it could offer this country and the world when it came to the talent that we produced, how do you compare it to where we are now? 

Going through football and the NSL days in those days, particularly at the AIS, I didn't really understand multiculturalism.

I didn't understand the world beyond football so football was actually an education in the globe for me as well.

Being a youngster from Bundaberg, I lived a largely insular life and I didn't understand different ethnicities and this other world going on outside of Bundaberg.

So when I went to the AIS, my eyes were just opened not only to what was possible in football, but because I was mixing with all these different nationalities, I got to learn about the world.

It was the same with the progression to the NSL. I played at Sydney Olympic and I got to learn about Greek heritage and I loved it. I loved immersing myself in the different cultures within these different clubs.

Olympic Sharks goalkeeper Clint Bolton pushes aside Aurelio Vidmar for Adelaide City on March 21, 2003.
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With the disconnect between the A-League and the NSL, one of the great things about our sport in this country, is the multiculturalism aspect of it and a lot of that was lost.

It became very transactional and that was a good word that John Didulica used yesterday. The A-League became very transactional and not emotional. 

It feels like we went from one extreme to the other but this old soccer versus new soccer war seems very real and it's a conversation that keeps coming up. What's your take on it?  

I enjoy football not because it's perfect. When the A-League came on board, there was this new mentality of getting it right and getting rid of the problems of the past but I loved our NSL and the football as it was, warts and all.

We all enjoy football differently but I don't need football to be perfect. I don't need it to be black and white and this is why I hate VAR.

I can't stand it because it's looking for perfection but I don't need that out of the game.

I love it for the black and white in the results but I love it even more for all the grey in between and all the drama.

It's the best reality show there is. I've lost a lot of that joy and passion for the game because it is so commercialised now.

Players are driven by money a lot more than what they used to be. For all these reasons, it's just how I feel.  

What a lovely summation of the game. I'm with you on the VAR thing, by the way. I've seen it work well but does that mean that I am an advocate for it? No and I don't think I ever will be. Because like you, I am fine with the imperfections. 

Do you remember football before VAR? Nothing was wrong with it.  

So why did we feel the need to correct it?   

Good question. I know the officiating has gone downhill for quite a few years now, so maybe they were trying to cover those issues within the refereeing department.

When I call the games on radio now and when a goal is scored, I can't celebrate it anymore.

My initial thought is always, how is this goal going be ruled off or how is it going to be ruled out? I'm looking for ways that VAR are going to intervene all the time now.

I reckon players will start thinking twice about celebrating goals now, so maybe there's an aspect of the game that will not die off, but it'll be subdued. It does my head in even thinking about it.  

What would need to happen for you to fall in love with the game again?  

A good start would be leadership I can buy into. That's the starting point.  

Why don't you buy into this leadership?  

Under this new Board, I haven't seen enough yet to convince me that enough change has happened and that they're making decisions that will set us up. I'm still not sure.

With the A-League clubs going independent, I was actually for it a couple of years ago because I thought to myself, well, it can't get any worse so you might as well give the owners a chance.

That was my thought but now that it's here, I am scared!  

Isn't it funny? I think most of us are thinking the same thing. Back then we were all so enamored with the idea of change and the previous regime being removed from the dialogue that we forgot to ask what we were going to get.   

Well you look around the A-League club ownership, there's plenty of turmoil around there.

The ownership structure is hanging by a thread, where some are actually trying to get rid of their licenses.

Then if you think beyond the A-League, what happens to the W-League? Are they going to do that properly now? What about the National Youth League - what's going to happen there? We're treading into uncharted territory in this country and it's scary.

In the short term, maybe there is just a period of transition before they fully understand what is needed so you have to give him a little bit of time, but I am worried.  

How do you reflect on your incredible domestic career overall and where were you at your happiest? 

Sydney Olympic because I was in an environment with phenomenally gifted players and I just loved rocking up to training and training with those guys. Ante Milicic, Tommy Pondeljak, Ante Juric, Andrew Durante, Jade North, Wayne Srhoj, Greg Owens, Troy Halpin - my God, one of my favourite players of all time, Troy Halpin.

Troy Halpin of Olympic in action during Sydney United v Sydney Olympic on January 4, 2003.
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The list goes on. Training was an absolute joy and that's where I was at my happiest on the training pitch.

As for the reflections on the overall career - it feels like a career that someone else had right now.

A lifetime of hard knocks and concussions, most of them outside football from when I was younger riding my bike and a couple of fractured skulls when I was a toddler as well means my memory is shocking now.

Unless triggered by someone else that was there, a lot of those memories, I find hard to articulate now.

I firmly believe I have an issue physically definitely.  

Do you ever get down about not being able to remember key things from your career?  

Yeah because some of my mates and other people that have been in those environments are able to remember details so accurately and I'm like, how do you remember that stuff? I wish I could remember it like that.

I'm gutted I can't remember finer details of my career. If anything, I have overarching emotions around periods of my career.

For example, Sydney FC, it was like a five-year stint and it was largely tough that first year we won it.

I remember rocking up at Parklea and it was a really big toil - just traveling out there and there were a lot of hours spent on the pitch with Pierre Littbarski.

Clint Bolton makes a late save during the A-League Grand Final between Sydney FC and the Central Coast Mariners on March 5, 2006.
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It was a tough, tough year. And then the emotion of the last season I was there, where there were these whispers and rumours that I was getting cut early on in the season and that played out halfway through the season and actually happened.

So, I was in a state of flux mentally about my career and where I was headed and I went through periods of anger during that.

There were people around me to help me get through it but I look back on that year as the most satisfying of my career because I was able to get through it and actually perform at a high level regardless of what was going on around me.  

Being a goalkeeper, most of your training is done in isolation. How did that change the team dynamic for you?  

This might be really hard to articulate, but I've always suffered some level of social anxiety in my life.

I have never been one that's been comfortable within crowds so to some degree, going off and training on my own served me well because I was largely an independent person.

In saying all that, there were periods, and this is largely where your emotions come into it depending on your mood at certain times, where you would absolutely miss being a part of the group.

I had close friends at Sydney like Zdrila, Bimbi and Terry, so if I was away from that group, sometimes you'd miss out on information.

Clint Bolton and Steve Corica in 2009.
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The coach would be telling the group before their training session, while we're off doing our own thing, about what's happening tomorrow or what's going on the next day and you'd find out second hand.

There were moments where you felt so alienated from the team because of all this sort of stuff that you wish you were a part of it more.

It's just this balancing act you go through with regards to being isolated a lot as a keeper. Most of the time it was actually fine but then you get the other end of the spectrum.

For me personally, you could almost sum me up as acting within extremes to extremes. I found it hard to operate within that middle part and having real balance in moods, so I was very happy or annoyed and sad or whatever else.  

How did you cope with retirement then?  

Well, firstly I didn't retire. I always say to people, I didn't retire, I just I moved on. [Laughs] I was very fortunate that the club gave me a job.

I was given a role within the club, which was a four day a week role and that saved me.

If I had nothing to do each and every day and just went straight into retirement then I reckon mentally and psychologically, I would be one of those stories where I would have been on this downward spiral into some sort of depression.

I absolutely believe that because I'm suffering from some sort of depression now to be quite honest.

I have it in check but because I don't have that full-time work anymore and I'm not particularly active right now, I'm in this sort of funk and somewhere on the spectrum of depression.

But with the club, I just got on with working full time, I took up a Masters and I just got busy, so I just distracted my mind from that thought of retirement or not having football again so I didn't have to face it.  

The fact that you're willing to talk about this publicly is such a great thing because I think there are a lot of footballers like you, both former and current, who are feeling a lot of the emotions that you are.  

This is where I can actually rationalise it because I understand I'm not a rare case.

There are so many people, not just in football, but in life that are struggling.

I was lucky, Louise my ex, who I was with for nine years, was a psychologist and I actually got a lot of informal learnings from her about the state of mind and all these different things so I was actually able to process a lot of what I've been going through.

Not only now, but also through my career, so I've got a lot of learnings about how the mind works and because of that, I can rationalize it, understand it, and not get too emotional about it.  

Where do you think it's come from?  

Well, I love football. It was an emotional connection and I was one of those lucky ones that had the good fortune of doing it as a career.

I was able to enjoy it for most of that career and it was something that I could really invest in emotionally.

When that stops, you've got to place that somewhere else and I just haven't been able to put it anywhere.

I'm not enjoying anything anymore - I don't have that love, drive and that big motivator to push me everyday anymore, so I'm trying to find another place to put that.

To a big degree, media work does that for me. I love calling games, being in the moment, talking about the game and investing in the history of the game but I don't have enough of it to fully replace what I had as a player.

It's about finding what you enjoy doing regardless of money; it could be a hobby, it could be whatever but it's about finding a passion for something else and I just haven't been able to really do that.  

That's really heartbreaking to hear. The worst part is, it’s not uncommon for ex-professionals. I know you did some goalkeeper coaching while you were at City - did you get any enjoyment out of that and is it something you'd consider getting into again? 

I did, but it was situational. I had Joe Montemurro and it was great, it was a good environment and I was surrounded by people I enjoyed working with.

Beyond that, I've had other experiences where it was just an absolute chore so it's largely situational and you can't really bank on being in a good environment when you're trying to pursue something like that.

By the end of it, I was burnt by that experience at Melbourne City and I've given no real thought into going back into coaching.

Although, Zdrila and Bimbi keep on me about getting my licenses done so we can work together, which I'd like to do!

If I could work with those two or other people I respect, I reckon it wouldn't be an issue but that's going to be more rare than the norm.