Socceroos Greats - Where are they now: Col Curran

Old friends Ray Baartz and Col Curran, right Source: Supplied

The World Game resumes its monthly tribute to the Socceroos stars of yesteryear who left their mark on football down under. Australia's 1974 FIFA World Cup defender Col Curran said he still rues the day he was forced to say no to Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby.

Australia's World Cup defender Col 'Bunny' Curran admits he might have made the biggest mistake of his career by trading iconic Old Trafford for the modest surrounds of Adamstown Oval in Newcastle when he was a teenage tyro.

Curran was given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity - most young players can only dream of - when he was offered a contract by Manchester United but had to turn it down in order to look after his sick mother back home in Australia.

It was a decision that was forced upon him by circumstance but it has gnawed at him ever since.

The 22-time Socceroo has no hesitation in describing it as the "biggest regret" of his football life.

"I was supposed to go to England on a scholarship from my club Adamstown in the mid-1960s but it fell through. I was determined to have a go so I paid my own way to Britain for a one-year trial at Manchester United that was organised through my friend Ray Baartz," recalls Curran, who played in the Socceroos' three matches at the 1974 World Cup in West Germany.

"Adamstown had links with United in those days.

"Ray was already in Manchester with his mother. Ray and I grew up in the Hunter region. The return airfare to Britain was 3,500 pounds. It was too expensive so I went by boat and it took me six weeks to get there. I was so bored I nearly jumped overboard halfway.

"I was to live with him so he picked me up at Liverpool station. The next day he took me to Old Trafford and I could not believe how big the ground was.

"The whole experience in Manchester was wonderful. I was welcomed by manager Sir Matt Busby and before I knew it I was training with the likes of Bobby Charlton, George Best, Denis Law and Pat Crerand. I ended up training and playing regularly with the youth team alongside Brian Kidd and I made a bit of a name for myself. One day the manager called me into his office and told me the club was happy with my progress and he offered me a one-year contract. I was over the moon.

"But when I told Ray about this he surprised me by saying he was returning to Australia. As I did not really want to live by myself, or in digs with someone I did not know, I decided to come home with Ray and resume playing for Adamstown - who had a lot of British imports at the time - which helped.

"I was 16 and my mother was not well. I could not hack the weather and I was feeling very homesick so I reluctantly knocked back the offer.

"I regard that decision as my biggest regret. I have kicked myself for all these years for not staying because I could have had a proper football life in England but on the other hand I did not do too badly here either."

Curran, who is now 71, has shared some of his memories of a career that took him all the way to the 1974 World Cup.

What are you doing now?

"I live in Newcastle with my wife Catherine. I'm not doing too much except for a fair bit of walking. I have two grandchildren with whom I spend a lot of time."

You were brought up in the Hunter which is a recognised football region. What was it like playing for Maitland and Adamstown in the 1960s?

"The game was very strong in Newcastle those days and as a boy you wanted to be like the men and play football. I grew up with Baartz and all we wanted to do was play. We were in the juniors together and went on to play first grade ... hoping to end up with a bigger and better club."

You reached your career peak when you moved to Western Suburbs in Sydney in 1973. Who played the biggest role in making you a top fullback?

"It all started at Adamstown. We had a Scottish player/coach called Bobby Cameron, who had played with the great Don Revie at Leeds United. He was a top coach and an even better man and I spent a couple of years with him. He levelled my head after I came back from Manchester and I owe him a lot."

You must have some lasting memories of the Socceroos' world tour of 1970 which many say laid the foundations for the successful 1974 World Cup campaign.

"The tour was designed to build a strong squad for the 1974 qualifiers. It was very tough and demanding. We played 15 matches in six weeks in four continents. We had only 19 players on tour and some of us played while nursing injuries but we didn't mind it because when you're young you do not want to miss out.

"We generally did well. We beat Israel and Greece in full internationals. The Israelis had just had a great World Cup in Mexico 1970 and we won 1-0 in Tel Aviv. When we played the Greeks in Athens, I remember their goalkeeper saying if they lost to Australia he would go and live in a cave for three weeks. Well, we beat them 3-1.

"After that we played two matches in England and one in Ireland before ending the tour with an international against Mexico at the Aztec stadium. We did not know about the altitude factor in Mexico City. We could not breathe freely and the ball travelled fast and played funny tricks in the thin air. Unsurprisingly, we lost 3-0.

"The tour however was a success because it created a strong bond between the players that would serve us well during the qualifying campaign for 1974."

Rasic and Australian Soccer Federation chief Sir Arthur George never got on. Tell us about their big fight before the Socceroos qualified for the World Cup.

"In the days before our crucial qualifiers with Iran in 1973, we were in camp at a hotel in Wahroonga in Sydney. There were 22 of us. At one stage Sir Arthur came up to the hotel in his Rolls Royce to tell Rale that four of us had to be cut from the travelling party. Most of us had made many family and work sacrifices to get to where we were but four had to go, Sir Arthur ordered.

"Rale always stood by us and of course he stuck to his guns on this occasion. Rale did not want to break up the family and after a big argument Sir Arthur went away in a huff and later was forced to let Rale have his way."

The three matches you played in the World Cup in West Germany would have to be the pinnacle of your career.

"Of course. We were the underdogs and the German fans liked us. I can still remember the three games very well. The East Germans were so fit they could have played three games that day. We held on for a long time but in the end we succumbed 2-0 to their unbelievable physical power. Remember, we were part-timers but we had an amazing team spirit. We were like a family.

"In the second game, we faced host country West Germany. I had never played against a team that were so good. They had an outlet for every situation. You close down a player and he would effortlessly release the ball to another player. Losing 3-0 to a team comprising Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller and Paul Breitner was no disgrace.

"The third match was against Chile in the wet and we drew 0-0 but with a bit of luck we could have won that game. We had scoring chances and Jimmy Mackay hit the bar with a header."

The return leg of Australia's second last qualifier against Iran in Tehran would have been the hardest of your 22 full internationals in terms of tension and pressure, right?

"Very much so. I remember us being caught in a traffic jam on the way to the stadium. It seemed like Sydney's Parramatta Road in the rush hour. The local fans in their cars recognised us and gave it to us all along.

"We went there with a 3-0 lead from the first leg in Sydney but we were two down after half an hour in this big, new stadium with a massive and parochial crowd.

"We could not hear each other talk and as you would expect we struggled. But Rasic brought on striker Max Tolson in the second half to stem the Iranian waves of attack and we somehow survived. I tell you, I was never more pleased to hear the referee's final whistle."

Australia then beat South Korea 1-0 in a play-off to make it to the finals yet an injury nearly crushed your World Cup dream.

"In the lead-up to Germany we spent some time in Indonesia and played their national team. I was the regular fullback but Rasic wanted to have a look at me in a midfield role for that game. We won 2-1 and I scored the winner with a header. It was my only goal in the green and gold. But my joy was short-lived because soon afterwards I hurt my knee and later learned I had serious ligament damage. I was on crutches as we headed to our next stop in Israel and at that stage it was not looking good for me.

"But I was determined to make the World Cup. At one stage the team doctor was thinking of surgery but thankfully he opted against it and gave me the chance to recover on my own.

"Time was against me but in the two weeks leading to our first game I worked tirelessly in the gym and the pool to get myself fit.

"Six days before the East Germany game my knee had improved so much that I was declared fit and I was picked for our final trial match against Neuchatel Xamax in Switzerland. I played the whole match and came through the test successfully. I therefore could realise my dream. It was a miracle, really."

What went wrong in the campaign for the 1978 World Cup?

"Rasic was gone and the team changed a fair bit after 1974 but the new players either did not realise how big the World Cup was or else did not give their all to qualify. We lost home matches which we should not have lost and in the end we never stood a chance."

Of the many stadiums around the world you have played in, which were the best and worst?

"Berlin's Olympic Stadium which Adolf Hitler built was simply magnificent. It rained all day for our 1974 clash with Chile but the surface was better than any carpet or bowling green. I was a greenkeeper and I could not believe how well the grass stood up to the conditions. Mexico City's massive Aztec stadium was also an awesome sporting arena.

"The worst ground I played in was in Tehran with the national team in 1970. It had no grass and was very dusty. It was like playing on a sandy beach. It's probably a block of flats now."

Who is the contemporary Aussie defender you admire most?

"I like Sydney FC fullback Rhyan Grant, the guy with the mullet. He is always overlapping. I was always a big fan of attacking fullback Terry Cooper of Leeds and England and I like that style of fullback play. In my day, I was not allowed to cross the halfway mark."

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

"Baartz was an amazing player and, with his freakish shooting ability with both feet, if he had played in the World Cup in Germany we would have scored a goal or two. Jimmy Rooney was a fantastic midfielder who would give you the ball and be ready to back up for you. He was the perfect team player.

"The best players I've played against were West Germany in 1974 ... all of them. They were some team."


Club career

1963: Maitland
1964-1970: Adamstown
1971: Marconi
1972: Adamstown
1973-1975: Western Suburbs
1976: Adamstown
1977: Western Suburbs
1978-1982: Newcastle United

International career

1970-1979: Australia (22 matches)