The World Game resumes its series on Socceroos greats who left their mark on football down under. Goalkeeper Allan Maher tells of the shock he got when told he was going to the 1974 World Cup and gives an insight into what drove a set of semi-professionals to became the first Australians to play in the big event.
Goalkeeper Allan Maher, who was a member of the Socceroos' FIFA World Cup squad in 1974, says he was overawed by the team spirit and fierce determination of the first Australian team to play in football's biggest tournament.
Maher was picked in the 22-member squad for the football-fest in West Germany without having played in an international match.
He never got the chance to play in the finals but he savoured every minute of an adventure that seemed highly unlikely a year earlier.
Maher was in an ideal place to see for himself what drove a bunch of semi-professionals to the pinnacle of their sport where they performed with distinction against East Germany, West Germany and Chile.
"That team had an amazing self belief, all the players were prepared to fight for each other and they never gave up," Maher, who is now 70, says.
"We had a lot to prove, as a group of semi-professionals facing the best teams and players and we did our country proud ... and to this day many of us remain good friends and still catch up.
"The team had a fighting mentality and competitive attitude that were second to none. Their incredible drive to succeed is what got them through the tough matches on the way to the finals and in the tournament itself.
"Even training sessions were something else. You couldn't really take your foot off the pedal because training was always full-on. Every session was a challenge and a contest.
"You soon got into the swing of things knowing fully well that if you did not put in 110 per cent the players would let you know in no uncertain terms. And you did not want to let anybody down, not least yourself.
"The whole event was a tremendous experience for me.
"I had a little taste of team camps and touring with the under-23s but to be at such a big event and in the same room with some of the true legends of the Australian game like Johnny Warren, Jimmy Mackay, Jimmy Rooney, Atti Abonyi, Max Tolson, Johnny Watkiss, Col Curran and Doug Utjesenovic and the others was very humbling and intimidating."
Maher, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007, also relived the circumstances leading up to his surprise selection in Rale Rasic's World Cup squad.
He was playing for Sutherland, who were near the bottom of the state league of NSW, when he got the call that would change his career.
"In the three years I spent with Sutherland I don't think we finished above the bottom four," he recalls.
"I was in good form and playing for the NSW under-23s at the time but it still was a bit of a shock to learn I got picked to go to Germany. Especially since I thought there were several players in front of me ... like Jim Fraser, for example, who could not go to the World Cup.
"I also did not perform too well in a trial for Sydney-based players just before the squad was selected and I was resigned to missing out. So when I got the nod I was gobsmacked.
"I had never played in a full international for Australia and here I was, a 23-year-old, getting ready for the World Cup in Germany. I did not make my debut for the Socceroos until 1975 when we played the Soviet Union."
On his return from the World Cup Maher left Sutherland for Marconi and went on to forge a brilliant career.
He played more than 500 matches for both clubs and donned the green and gold jersey 40 times, 22 of which were full internationals.
Maher was happy to share some of the key moments of his career with The World Game.
What are you doing now?
"I live in Sydney and I work in community care. For the last five years I have been a team leader of a transport operation involving elderly people."
You played in the first National Soccer League in 1977 when Marconi lost the title on goal difference.
"It was quite a unique experience because it was the first time we got to travel the day before away fixtures and fly back after the game, same as they do in the A-League today. The travel bit was not new of course for those players lucky enough to be selected in the national teams."
You won your only Australian league title in 1979 with Marconi. Tell us about that season.
"We were lucky to have Roberto Vieri. He was an exceptional playmaker and made an immense difference because he changed the way we played football. I compare him to Western United's Alessandro Diamanti and I have no hesitation to say that they are the best two Italians to play in this country. We had a quality side with seven internationals. We had a potent attack comprising Eddie Krncevic, Mark Jankovics and Peter Sharne in front of strong midfielders Gary Byrne and Rooney plus Vieri. We were always challenging for the honours but in that particular year everything fell into place."
How good were Krncevic, Jankovics and Sharne as a strike force?
"I don't think we have ever seen a front three like them. They were all lightning fast and good finishers. Krncevic and Jankovics were always competing against each other for the top-scorer award and feeding off Sharne who would be called an 'assist king' today. The three attackers were very difficult to control. The nearest any trio has come to them is Melbourne City's current attack featuring Andrew Nabbout, Jamie Maclaren and Craig Noone."
You also were lucky to have Les Scheinflug as a coach. What was his strength?
"Les was an honest sort of bloke. He never minced his words and was always forthright in what he wanted. He was determined to make you produce the standard of play that met his expectations. It is no surprise that he produced so many top players because he had a good eye for talent. He also was a ruthless coach you would not get close to. He kept everybody at arm's length. Nowadays we socialise a fair bit and we often talk about the good old days."
A year later you guys won the NSL Cup when you beat fierce rivals Heidelberg in a final replay.
"I remember the first game in Melbourne that ended 0-0 because I was named man of the match after making some good saves. In the replay in Sydney we won 3-0."
Who were the forwards that worried you most in the league?
"Among the Sydney City blokes I had lots of respect for, John Kosmina and Kenny Boden are the two that come to mind while from Melbourne you could not go past Heidelberg's Gary Cole. All of them were difficult opponents and I would not have liked to face them too often."
By the time the 1978 World Cup qualifiers came around you had become an established goalkeeper and were heavily involved in the campaign. But the Socceroos stuffed it up, didn't they?
"There was a big transition from 1974 and I don't think we had the talent to emulate the feats of Rasic's amazing team. The problem was we learned nothing from 1974 and did not develop as a country."
Was Jimmy Shoulder the wrong choice as coach?
"Jimmy was not a renowned or experienced coach at the time. He basically was a good administrator. He was a lovely fellow and part of director of coaching Eric Worthington's team and came here from England as part of the technical group. Everybody loved him as a person but he struggled with the man-management side of things, such as dealing with the different personalities in the national squad."
The campaign for 1982, in which you were involved too, did not bring much joy, either.
"I had retired from international football after the 1978 campaign and was asked to come back in 1981. Rudi Gutendorf was Socceroos coach but it was a poor decision to appoint him. He was the most arrogant and self-centred person I've ever met. He had no respect for anybody and he used to abuse players.
"After the 3-3 draw with New Zealand in Auckland he basically blamed me publicly and in the dressing room for conceded a soft first goal, which effectively was an own goal. There was a bad feeling among the players during and after the game and this must have affected the way we played.
"I tried to explain to Rudi that I was thrown by a deflection but the coach would not have a bar of it. I was dropped for the game in Sydney which we lost 2-0 and the Kiwis went on to win the group and eventually reach the finals in Spain."
Do you feel that the goalkeeper's role has changed a lot since your days? I mean, you need to be strong with your feet today, right?
"It helps if you are. But I think a lot of people place too much emphasis on that aspect of the role. You should never get away from the essential skills needed to be a good goalkeeper. But it is something that is being worked on a lot these days. I have a 16-year-old grandson who is a goalkeeper and at training, it is not unusual for him to spend at least 20 minutes kicking the ball. In my days this never happened."
Who is the greatest Australian goalkeeper of all time?
"The best goalkeepers I remember are two of my best friends: Ron Corry and Fraser. They were the incumbent Australia goalkeepers when I started taking an interest in football and I'm so glad they are still involved in the game. Ron Lord also has a fine reputation but I have never seen him play. Mark Bosnich was probably one of the best keepers this country has ever produced. Mark Schwarzer wasn't too bad either. And Maty Ryan is doing very well abroad, too."
How do you rate the A-League?
"I am enjoying this season because some games have been fantastic to watch. I don't think the competition is as technical as in past seasons because some of the top class players are not with us any more. But it is competitive and very even ... the fact that Central Coast are top of the league illustrates this. I'm also glad to see that many clubs are giving young players a go. There are a lot of opportunities for young kids these days if they work hard."
And finally, which were the highs and lows of your playing career?
"There were three highlights that stick in my mind. One was obviously being called up for the World Cup after playing exceptionally well for Sutherland. Another highlight would have been winning the league with Marconi in 1979 as was my induction into Australian football's Hall of Fame.
"The biggest disappointment, I think, came in 1974 when I was keeping goal for Sutherland. At the end-of-year awards I tied with Western Suburbs striker Mike Trebilcock for the Rothmans Medal (best player). He got the medal on a countback but what was hugely disappointing was that I had to give up seven matches to go to the World Cup. It was decided that clubs that provided three or more players for Germany could postpone their league matches. Sutherland and Wests had one selected player each so their matches went on and the Englishman kept playing. I can assume I would have earned at least one point from the seven matches had I played in them. I would have been the first goalkeeper to win the medal but it was not to be."
ALLAN MAHER FACTFILE
1975-1981: Australia (22 matches)
Marconi: NSL championship 1979, NSL Cup 1980.