The World Game pays its monthly tribute to the Socceroos stars of yesteryear who left their mark on football down under. Defender David Ratcliffe played with distinction for his adopted country but regrets he did not collect more international caps.
David Ratcliffe is regarded as one of the toughest and most uncompromising central defenders to play for Australia but he so easily could have been lost to the Socceroos but for a special set of circumstances and a quirk of fate.
Ratcliffe was one of the pillars of the St George side that won the 1983 National Soccer League and he played with distinction for Australia in 21 internationals.
Yet English-born Ratcliffe could have missed the chance to represent his adopted country if the 1983 FIFA World Youth Cup in Mexico did not clash with a three-match tour down under of Bobby Robson’s England.
Socceroos coach Les Scheinflug was asked by the Australian Soccer Federation to take charge of the youth team and his assistant Frank Arok was given the reins of the senior team for the high-profile series against England.
“I guess I was fortunate that the World Youth Cup in June coincided with the England series and Les took the boys to Mexico, leaving Frank in charge of the Socceroos,” Ratcliffe said.
“Arok was my club coach at St George at the time and I had been playing for him for a while so he knew my game well.
“Other players could so easily have been selected to face England so I had an advantage. Frank picked his own players and I was one of them.
“We had a reasonable series against England, losing once and drawing twice.
“It was not great football. We defended a lot but the team was in transition after the loss to New Zealand in the 1982 World Cup qualifiers. Eventually Arok got the job for the 1986 campaign.”
Ratcliffe was happy to talk about his battles against some of the world’s finest forwards in a career he himself admits could have been longer.
What are you doing these days?
“I’m 61 now and I still work on building sites in Sydney as a formwork carpenter. I enjoy my work because it keeps me fit and healthy.
“I also still play soccer with Cronulla RSL and I have been doing so for the last 20 years through the age groups.
"But this might be my last season, to be honest. I have a few injuries.”
Your first club was Bradford City. What brought you to Australia in 1978?
“At 21 I was young and restless. Things were not going as well as I had hoped at Bradford and a new manager came in with his own players so when I heard that former Socceroos coach Brian Green was recruiting players for Australia I decided to join Brisbane City in the National Soccer League.”
You made your name as a dour defender with City and after three years St George came calling. Tell us about the championship you won in 1983.
“I was doing well in Brisbane and we won the Phillips Cup for two years. After my third year Saints coach Arok wanted new players for the club which had just come up from the NSW State League and I signed up along with a few others.
“The NSL had a first-past-the-post system back then and Sydney won the league.
"But we did beat them 3-1 in the grand final thanks to a hat-trick from striker Dez Marton. The following season we finished a point ahead of Sydney to become champions for the first time.”
You made your debut for Australia in the first match of the 1982 Merlion Cup against Thailand in Singapore. What do you remember of that tournament which the Socceroos won?
“Les was national coach. I played in the first game but was overlooked for the rest of the tournament. Les obviously had his regular players and I was still new.”
Israel were a very tough nut to crack in the qualifiers for the 1986 World Cup. What do you remember of those two matches?
“We won 2-1 in the first match in Tel Aviv but it was a very, very difficult. The Israelis had some good players like Ronny Rosenthal and Eli Ohana.
“It was 0-0 at halftime and both teams were reasonably equal. We lost goalkeeper Terry Greedy through injury after half an hour but John Kosmina and David Mitchell scored two goals in three minutes straight after half time.
"The home team pulled one back and five minutes from time Kenny Murphy was sent off but we hung on for a crucial victory that set us up to win the group that also included New Zealand.
“We were probably fortunate to get a 1-1 draw in the ‘return’ in Melbourne. I got my only goal in an A international but Israel made it all square from a corner just after halftime and they had Ohana sent off midway through the half.
“We then went on to beat the Kiwis 2-0 with goals from Kosmina and Mitchell.”
How strong were Kossie and Mitch as a striker partnership?
“They were really, really good. They complemented each other beautifully. Mitch was playing overseas with Rangers at the time and Kossie had had a stint with Arsenal.
"They were a handful for any defence. We also had good back-up coming through like Graham Arnold, Jimmy Patikas and Frank Farina. We sere very fortunate striker wise.”
What about the tie with Scotland which the Socceroos lost 2-0 on aggregate?
“You could not hear yourself at Hampden because of the constant roar. The Scots did most of the attacking and the 2-0 result probably flattered us.
"But by the same token we should have won at home because we were by far the better side. Kossie had a big chance with a header in the first half.
"Had that gone in we would have probably got through because we had the momentum and we were on top. But it’s easy talking afterwards …”
The last time you played for Australia was in an international against Czechoslovakia in Melbourne in 1986. On your right side young fullback Ange Postecoglou made his Socceroos debut. What was he like back then?
“I guess I did not know Ange that well. It was his first time in the squad and I remember him being quite nervous. I suppose I dropped out of the international scene after that game and Ange went on to bigger and better things.
“I was self-employed at the time and could not afford to spend too much time away from work. Not being able to play more for Australia is one of my footballing regrets, actually, apart from failing to reach the World Cup finals. I might have been too hasty in my devision to quit the Socceroos.”
How do you rate the current national team?
“I think we lack a quality striker. Tim Cahill would be the first to admit that he is past his best and we should not keep relying on him for goals. We have no Mark Viduka, who admittedly was a one-off.
"I like Trent Sainsbury at the back and Mathew Leckie up front. Obviously I also like Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic while Mat Ryan of course is a good goalkeeper.
“It will be very difficult at the World Cup. People are kidding themselves if they think we can survive a very hard group (France, Denmark and Peru).”
Do you follow the A-League?
“Yes, I watch some of it. It is a little bit up and down. The problem we have is there are so many avenues abroad for our best players today that did not exist in my days, like Japan, Korea, China and the Gulf.
“Many of our players are going away and in so doing diluting the level of the competition while the foreign stars that come here, with the exception of Melbourne City’s Bruno Fornaroli and Sydney FC’s Milos Ninkovic and Adrian Mierzejewski, are probably not as good as some of the imports we used to have in our days like Zarko Odzakov and Milan Ivanovic, for example, who came here when they were on top of their game.”
Finally, who are the best players you have played with and against?
“I played against Brazilian striker Zico when the Socceroos played Udinese in Italy. He was unbelievably good and he just flew past you.
"I also was challenged by another small guy Paolo Rossi when Juve came touring here in 1983. I faced some strong challenges from Kenny Dalglish and Trevor Francis too.
“The best I played with would have to be Kosmina, Tony Henderson and Frank Pimblett, who was a brilliant footballer and played in the old English first division with Aston Villa when he was 17.
"But unfortunately those days you never got the due recognition when you’re based in Brisbane."
DAVID RATCLIFFE FACTFILE
1974-1978: Bradford City
1978-1981: Brisbane City
1982-1986: St George
1987: Sydney Olympic
1988-1991: Wollongong Wolves
1983-1986: Australia (21 matches)
Merlion Cup (Australia) 1982; NSL (St George) 1983; Phillips Cup (Brisbane City) 1977, 1978