Socceroos Greats - Where are they now: Peter Ollerton

South Melbourne captain Peter Ollerton, right, with St George's George Harris and referee Tony Boskovic in the late 1970s Source: Picture courtesy St George FC

The World Game pays its monthly tribute to the Socceroos stars of yesteryear who left their mark on Australian football. Striker Peter Ollerton reveals how he risked being sent home from the 1974 World Cup before the tournament had even started.

Australia's 1974 FIFA World Cup striker Peter Ollerton is convinced that a second division with promotion and relegation should be created as soon as possible so the A-League can derive maximum benefit from the country's rich multicultural heritage.

English-born Ollerton, who is now 67, forced himself into Rale Rasic's World Cup squad without having taken part in the qualifiers and he came on as a substitute in the group matches against West Germany and Chile.

He played for four National Soccer League clubs that had strong affiliations with migrant cultures such as South Melbourne (Greek), Marconi (Italian), Footscray (Yugoslav) and Preston (Macedonian). He also had stints with Ringwood Wilhelmina (Dutch) and APIA Leichhardt (Italian) in their respective state leagues.

Ollerton is adamant FFA made a big mistake to dismiss the clubs with 'ethnic' backgrounds when they formed the A-League in 2005 under a slogan of 'new football' and they should right the wrong immediately.

"Australian football's 'ethnicity' was definitely a plus because without the migrants we would have no game today and you and I would not be talking about football," Ollerton said.

"I reckon FFA are worried about the perceived 'baggage' of some clubs. I have a very good understanding of what football meant to the clubs l played for. They were run by very proud people and only on rare occasions did their fans become volatile and overstep the mark, like running on to the pitch after a contentious referee's decision, for example.

"But that was 30, 40 years ago and I doubt if the clubs and their fans are like that now? All I know is that without those pioneers who formed clubs more than half a century ago there would be no football in Australia. So such clubs with an 'ethnic' background should be given an opportunity to return to the big time, provided they have the right ground, facilities and backing.

"If you ask most people who have played the game they would agree with that.

"The A-League has become boring. Why watch a competition in which teams get beat every week and do not have to worry about getting relegated?"

Ollerton, who scored almost a 100 goals in eight NSL seasons, was happy to relive a football career he could only dream of when he was growing up in Preston in the north of England.

What are you doing now?

"I live in Carrum, in Melbourne's Bayside. I needed a change and moved down about eight years ago with my partner Christine after living for many years in the suburbs. I had a fruit drink business which I sold four years ago and I am now enjoying retirement. My house is a 100 metre walk from the beach."

You came to Australia as a 19-year-old in 1971. What was Australia and its football like those days?

"I had never been in a plane or travelled overseas and I did not know anything about Australian football when I was approached by Fred Hutchinson who was a scout for a number of Melbourne clubs, among them Wilhelmina.

"I was playing for Fleetwood Town at the time and he verbally offered me a good deal including a job with adidas. I did not think too much of it but to my surprise I actually received a proper offer a few days later and I decided to have a go.

"Ringwood was like a small American country town those days and my first game was at a ground called Wembley Park.

"The word 'Wembley' means a lot to the English and it was traditional for players to wear suits to a game at the country's biggest and most famous stadium. So I went to Ringwood for my first game with a shirt and tie and I was surprised to learn that Australia's 'Wembley' was basically nothing more than a flat park with no stands and a tin shed for dressing-rooms and the players turned up in tee-shirts and shorts.

"These are your teammates, I was told. I said to myself 'what have I done? Get me on the next plane home'.

"I stayed with Wilhelmina for two seasons and scored a lot of goals but I soon realised that if you wanted do well in football you needed to be playing in Sydney but the club would not let me go.

"Fortunately in 1972 I was picked by Victoria for a tour match against Pele's Santos and APIA coach Joe Marston was watching from the stands. I did reasonably well and he would later offer me a trial and before you knew it I moved to APIA for a then record fee of about $14,000."

Your biggest year was in 1974 because with only a few matches under your belt you got picked for the Socceroos who had just qualified for the World Cup.

"I was scoring every week for APIA and one day out of the blue I got a call inviting me to train with the Socceroos who were preparing for a two-match series against Uruguay. I was not naturalised then but I was told not to worry about it and in fact after a couple of days I learned I had become an Australian without going to any ceremony or anything like that. I just signed some forms.

"I made my international debut as a substitute when Rale brought me on for Gary Manuel in the last half an hour."

The goal you scored on your starting debut in the not-so-friendly second match against Uruguay in Sydney must have been very satisfactory.

"It was the best goal I would ever score, the one that stood out for me. We were leading 1-0 and late in the game Uruguay had a corner. To my surprise Uruguay's goalkeeper was standing on the halfway line not far from me and I knew that if the ball came to me quickly I could be one-on-one with the keeper at the half-way mark. It so happened that the ball came to me and I sent him the wrong way with a body feint, ran towards an empty goal and hit the ball home just before a defender came across for a tackle. I think that goal gave me the ticket for the World Cup."

That match would have been a bitter-sweet affair for you because it was the one in which Ray Baartz's dream of playing in a World Cup was shattered by a sickening karate blow.

"Indeed. I was standing a few metres away from him when the incident happened. At the time I did not realise the severity but when Baartz lay almost motionless on the ground I knew straight away it was serious because Baartz was not the type of player to go down and make a foul look bad.

"He was carried off but we did not know then that his career was effectively over. We won the game 2-0 and the result went worldwide but the talking point in Australia was Baartz. All that Australian fans wanted to know was whether he would be okay for the World Cup. Unfortunately it was not to be, although he did come to Germany as a non-playing squad member."

Tell us about the day you missed the bus at the World Cup.

"I arranged to meet my then fiancee at the airport in Munich upon the Socceroos' arrival in Germany. I wanted to spend some time with her over a coffee while the players were waiting for their bags and I told Jimmy Rooney to let me know when the bus was ready to go.

"Jimmy, being a Scot, forgot all about me and when I went to meet the guys at the carousel I discovered, to my horror, that they had already gone and I was stuck there by myself.

"World Cup squads comprised 22 players those days and Baartz was an extra man who met up with the squad at the airport. The soccer federation kept this a secret from everybody including us players.

"The team masseur did not know this either and gave the bus driver the okay to go once he counted 22 players on board the bus.

"When I eventually got to camp I was asked by Rasic if I had a good reason I should not be sent home. I sheepishly said I didn't have one. Thankfully Rasic saw the funny side of the episode but I reckon I would've played more minutes in the tournament if that incident had not taken place."

What is your best memory from the 1974 World Cup, apart from actually being there?

"I don't think I realised back in Australia how big the World Cup really was. Throughout our stay in Germany we had a designated coach with the team's name and colours and I remember thousands of fans lining the streets as we approached the training grounds or match venues. Just to see all that as a young man became a memory you'd treasure for the rest of your life.

"Even playing alongside Baartz, Rooney, Jim Mackay and Atti Abonyi was special because you learned something from these guys every day and they helped me become the player I wanted to be.

"That experience would serve me in good stead for my playing career and later on as a successful coach in Victoria."

In the campaign for the 1978 World Cup your goal in a 1-1 draw with New Zealand in the final match of the first qualifying round saved the Socceroos from an embarrassing early exit. Do you still remember that match in Auckland?

"I was a very important match we could not afford to lose because New Zealand had a better goal difference and they would have gone through to the next round. I opened the scoring with a left-foot shot ... which was not bad considering I am naturally right-footed. The Kiwis would draw level but a draw suited us.

"There were many changes in personnel from the 1974 side and we had a new coach too after Jimmy Shoulder replaced Rasic."

The final qualifiers for 1978 did not go well at all and a 1-0 home loss to Iran that was followed by another home 2-1 defeat to Kuwait sealed the Socceroos' fate. They finished fourth out of five teams in a round-robin.

"The game against Iran was a major setback. We even missed a penalty. I was prepared to take it but David Harding came up to me and said he would take it because he had converted the last penalty he took but he sent the ball over the crossbar. After that moment everything basically fell apart. Losing to Kuwait at home did not help our cause either."

Was that deflating performance in the campaign for 1978 a significant wake-up call for Australian football?

"Yes. Everything stayed the same in terms of training, preparation and structure. After qualifying for 1974 you would have thought a bigger effort would be put in to repeat the feat four years later but it was not to be. After that campaign I retired from international football."

Which were the highlights and lowlights of your career?

"Obviously playing in the World Cup was special. I also got a lot of satisfaction from playing against such touring teams like Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United, Celtic, Rangers, Santos and Torino. These were teams you would watch on television and the next thing you know you were playing against them.

"I am fortunate not to have had any lowlights in my playing or coaching career. I had a good career that kept me ticking over."

Would you have been as prolific a scorer today as you were in the NSL days?

"Goal scorers are a rare breed and they can score at any level. I scored goals in league matches, finals games, cup ties and internationals. So the answer is 'yes'."

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

"I was fortunate enough to play alongside Rooney, who was a thorough professional and a non-stop player I wanted to emulate. I also loved to play with Mackay.

"Franz Beckenbauer was the best. I was lucky to be on the same pitch as him at the World Cup when Rale sent me on in the second half. His words were 'Peter, try to close down Beckenbauer and stop him from making passes from the back'. I think the nearest I got to him was when we shook hands at the end of the game. He would not allow me to get anywhere near him. There were other players like Pele, Berti Vogts, Bobby Charlton and Gerd Muller."

PETER OLLERTON FACTFILE

Club career
1971-1973: Ringwood Wilhelmina
1974-1975: APIA Leichhardt
1976-1978: South Melbourne, Marconi
1979-1980: Footscray
1981-1984: Preston
1985-1986: Croydon City

International career:
1974-1977: Australia (31 matches)