The World Game resumes its monthly feature on the Socceroos stars of yesteryear who played a key role in the progress of football down under. Goalkeeper Jeff Olver pays tribute to coach Frank Arok for changing the mentality of the national team.
Goalkeeper Jeff Olver has paid tribute to former Socceroos coach Frank Arok for changing the mentality of Australian football, ushering in an era that would spawn the 'Golden Generation'.
Olver, now 58, played 37 full internationals in the 1980s under Arok and formed a key part of the team that performed with high distinction at the Bicentenary Gold Cup and Seoul Olympics
'Mad dog' Arok had taken over the national team in 1983 and soon went about transforming the character and mindset of the Socceroos team with his managerial and motivational skills.
The players under his charge responded brilliantly to his bold approach and achieved a set of results that made the world sit up and take notice of Australia's fierce determination to earn universal respect.
Australian players began to catch the attention of European clubs in greater numbers, and by the time the turn of the century came about the national team was composed almost entirely of foreign-based stars.
Olver believes that the establishment of the Australian Institute of Sport's football program in the early 1980s - and more specifically Arok's contribution to the Socceroos' cause - played a big part in the Golden Generation's performances on the world stage, particularly at the 2006 FIFA World Cup where they reached the last 16 before falling controversially to eventual winners Italy.
"People judge Arok by his behaviour when he was carrying on like a two-bob watch. He never got the accolades he deserved," Olver said.
"In 1987 we played in the President's Cup in South Korea and we got beat by the Koreans on penalties in the final and I remember Arok saying that this was a prelude to our participation in the Olympics a year later.
"He was the type of guy who will give you an opportunity and if you take it he will remember that.
"The Socceroos would achieve some great results in the World Cup proper but it was mostly down to the contributions of Arok and the late Eddie Thomson because through his motivational skills he gave the team belief and made the world aware that Australia could produce footballers that were good enough to play at the highest level.
"Of course, the AIS played a key part in our development, too.
"And because many more Aussies started going abroad and doing well they subsequently raised the standard of the national team and led to the formation of the Golden Generation.
"He was a very smart man - tactically very shrewd - and his lasting legacy is he gave Australian football credibility."
Olver was happy to reminisce on a career spent almost entirely at one club: Heidelberg United.
What are you doing now?
"I am still involved in the game. I have been running my own coaching business called Football Zone Coaching for nine years. I also work for Heidelberg in various roles."
You're a Heidelberg man through and through, after playing there for 13 seasons. What made playing for the Bergers so special?
"I was playing Under-18s in Victoria's State League in 1978 when I was invited to go to Heidelberg, who had seven full Australian internationals at the time. I struck a deal and was given the opportunity to show my wares which I was lucky enough to take. Heidelberg are known as the people's club which is why I enjoyed playing for them so much."
You played in some formidable Heidelberg teams over the years but you never won the league. Why was that?
"We were on the cusp a number of times. In 1980 we had a very strong team but lost the league to Sydney City by one point and were beaten finalists to Marconi in the cup. We also won the top four that year but at that time the grand final winners were not considered the champions. It was the first live game covered by SBS.
"I don't know why we never won the league. It was not easy to win it because the quality of player floating around the country in the late 1970s and 1980s was unbelievable."
Were South Melbourne your biggest rivals?
"Without a doubt. The rivalry between the two clubs was long-standing. Both clubs were founded in the late 1950s and it was something modern football fans do not understand. We used to play them at Middle Park and draw crowds of 30,000. The fans would look forward to the game whether they had blue and while or yellow and black in their veins."
What is the fondest memory of your Heidelberg days?
"There was a cup game versus Sydney Olympic at St George Stadium when I was 21 or 22 and I had one of those days when I saved everything. Well, almost everything. We actually lost 1-0 but my saves prevented a seven-goal humiliation. Some days you see the ball like a beach ball and want people to shoot at you. It was one of those days.
"Winning the derby games was also very special. People would come up to you in the dressing-room and show their appreciation for what you did by putting money in your hand. I had a Scottish background and was playing for Albion Rovers a year or two earlier for $10 a week."
Did you have a goalkeeper you looked up to when you were coming through the ranks?
"I did not start in goal until I was 14. I always wanted to be a goalkeeper but initially nobody would play me there. Later on I was lucky enough to work under Socceroos hero Jack Reilly when he came to Heidelberg late in his career. The two years I had under Jack would prove to be my springboard to the Socceroos team because he took me to a different level. I loved watching England's Peter Shilton and Ray Clemence who were top goalkeepers back in the day."
In 1985 you made your Socceroos' competitive debut when you came on for Terry Greedy in a high-octane World Cup qualifier in Israel. Were you nervous?
"Terry got injured after 35 minutes and I was in. I sh** myself, to be brutally honest. Here I was playing in a World Cup qualifier in front of 45,000 passionate fans that created such noise that I could not make myself heard on the pitch. I had played two friendly matches for Australia before that game but nothing prepared me for the scenario I was facing.
"People do not realise how tense was the atmosphere leading up to and during the game in the Middle East. Secret service agents accompanied us wherever we went, army personnel with machine guns and tanks were all over the place and the team bus was continuously checked for bombs. It was an eye-opener, that's for sure.
"We got to half time without conceding, and I remember Kenny Murphy coming up to me as we were walking off. He tried to settle me down and told me to treat the match as if it were a derby back home. But the reality is my career could so easily have been over after three internationals if I did not perform up to standard.
The Socceroos won 2-1 thanks largely to your great save in the second half. Tell us about it.
"As I said before, the noise at the ground was so loud my defenders could not hear me. In a case of miscommunication, Alan Davidson headed the ball backwards and caught me on the wrong foot. I somehow managed to turn mid-air and dive to my left and keep the ball out. I really do not know how I did it but I was glad to repay Arok's faith in me. We survived a hostile atmosphere and emerged winners.
"We eventually won the group but lost the final playoff against Scotland. I was on the bench in both Glasgow and Melbourne but Arok said to me afterwards that I had his trust and from that moment onwards I became the regular No. 1 for four years."
Australia's stirring performances at the Gold Cup and Seoul Olympics in the space of a few months in 1988 must be the highlights of your career, right?
"The 4-1 defeat of Argentina in Sydney and the 1-0 win over Yugoslavia in Korea were the highest points, I think.
"The game against Argentina was special and the beauty about it is that the great Martin Tyler was calling it. It was one of those nights when everything fell for us and one you will never forget. We were staying in Camperdown and after the game there must have been 2000 people back at the hotel. It was unbelievable.
"At the Olympics we beat Yugoslavia 1-0 with a goal from Frank Farina and we even missed a penalty. It was the last Games before the football tournament was reduced to Under-23s so it was a remarkable achievement to beat them.
"We made the quarter-finals where we lost to a strong Soviet Union side. But as in the Gold Cup we punched far above our weight. It was the stuff dreams are made of, really."
You would have every reason to be proud of your career as a semi-professional yet you must envy today's pros who are better paid, play on better pitches and get higher recognition from the media.
"I'm happy with what I achieved. However, it would be great to have a time machine where you could take six months out of the careers of some of the exceptional players coming through in my time and put them in today's environment. I have no doubt that such guys as Oscar Crino, John Kosmina, Zarko Odzakov and others would have been better today than they were.
"By the same token the guys from the 1960s and 1970s probably would have looked at us and thought the same way so it's all relevant to your era. We used to get $100 a day for donning the green and gold. Today the Socceroos get from $6,000 to $8,000 a game. Those are the cards we were dealt with."
Many pundits feel that the A-League has stagnated after a few years of growth. What's your take?
"I probably agree. I just think the lack of opportunities for young players is damaging our game. 11 teams is not enough because with so many foreigners in the league we get only 66 Aussies in action per weekend. The second division cannot come soon enough.
"I also believe we have a goalkeeper problem simply because we are not producing as many reliable custodians as we used to. Today's coaches are not giving young keepers the chance to show what they can do. Graham Arnold and John Crawley took a punt on Mat Ryan at the Mariners seven years ago and look at him now: playing regularly in the Premier League and our best keeper by a country mile."
Finally, who are the best players you have played with and against?
"To single out any player I had the privilege to play with is very hard because there were so many genuine stars in my time.
"But I have no doubt about the finest player I played against: it's striker Romario of Brazil. I faced him three times in the 1980s and he beat me five times. I'm glad to say, however, that I saved a retaken penalty he took at the Olympics."
JEFF OLVER FACTFILE
1988-1989: Melbourne Croatia
1985-1989: Australia (37 matches)