The World Game resumes its series on Socceroos stars who left their mark on football in Australia. Defender Steve Blair relives the shock loss to New Zealand in the 1982 World Cup qualifiers and admits he should not have played in the two matches because he was young and too inexperienced.
Socceroos defender Steve Blair, who played in Australia's campaign to reach the 1982 FIFA World Cup, has lamented the lack of loyalty shown by many modern players towards their clubs.
Scottish-born Blair is the quintessential one-club man, having spent his entire senior career with South Melbourne.
Blair said he never contemplated leaving the Greek-based club because they gave him his break, looked after him and provided him with the grounding to become an international player.
"South Melbourne were one of the best clubs not only in Victoria but also in Australia," Blair, 59, said.
"They were very well supported and the fans were like family to me and this triggered me very well. I was very happy there and they treated me really well. We had very good players, some of them were Australian internationals and others were stars from the United Kingdom like Alun Evans. We were never relegation battlers and always fighting for the championship, which we won twice.
"A couple of Sydney clubs showed interest during my time in Melbourne but I ended up staying because to be honest I had no reason to leave and it was just interest and nothing more, anyway. We had a fantastic culture at South Melbourne with some top coaches like Tommy Docherty, Ferenc Puskas, John Margaritis and Len McKendry ... so why on earth would I Ieave?
"I am a very loyal person so there was no need to go anywhere else when you were being looked after and paid well. Loyalty was a big thing for me and still is.
"However times have changed and it is very rare these days. I won championships at South Melbourne and took out their best and fairest award. I also represented Australia as a South Melbourne player so I could not possibly look to go anywhere else.
"It saddens me to see some players change clubs for an extra dollar. It's a sad indictment on the world and on football. It is more about money today, more so than it ever was."
Blair shared some of his experiences in a career that was dramatically cut short by injury when he was in his prime.
What are you doing now?
"I live in Melbourne's east where I run a soccer and trophy business. I am also doing a law degree. Basically, I am enjoying life."
You spent 14 years at South Melbourne yet your career would have lasted longer were it not for the serious injury you suffered in late 1993 at the age of 31. Tell us about it.
"I was lucky not to have any major injuries throughout my career but when I tore my hamstring very badly I did not handle the injury too well. I was always too eager to come back when I should have spent more time recovering. I needed somebody to say to me 'no, you're not going to play for eight weeks' or something like that. It was a bit of immaturity on my part, really."
You won two league titles in 1984 and 1991. Which was the better of the two teams?
"It's like asking me which child you love better. The title in 1984 was special because it was something I had not done before. We had a fantastic team with some great players like Doug Brown, Charlie Egan, Oscar Crino and Kenny Murphy. In 1981 we had another wonderful team with guys like Ange Postecoglou, Paul Trimboli, Micky Petersen and Mehmet Durakovic ... they were all stars. I am still in contact with these guys ... that's the bond that a championship provides."
Who was the forward that gave you most trouble in the NSL?
"There were lots of them. I always expected a tough battle when I faced prolific goal scorers Gary Cole, Marshall Soper, Kenny Boden, Peter Ollerton and John Kosmina. I suppose Soper was the hardest to handle because he was strong, hard and very athletic. If you kicked him he'd kick you back twice as hard."
You formed part of a strong Socceroos squad that attempted to reach the 1982 World Cup in Spain. What went wrong against New Zealand?
"My goodness, we need half an hour to explain that 0-2 defeat. We had the team to qualify but we failed due to many factors. I really should not have played in either game against the New Zealanders. At 19 years of age I was too young and thrown in at the deep end. More experienced players than me should have taken the field but they didn't."
Do you reckon the fighting Kiwis were not given enough credit?
"You could say that, yes, but on paper - and I know football is not played on paper - we had the far stronger team. But they wanted it more than us. That's the beauty of football, isn't it?"
Would it be fair to say that Australia should have settled the issue in Auckland when they surrendered the lead three times in a 3-3 draw?
"You're probably right. Yet even after that draw we were still confident of beating New Zealand in Sydney. The defeat still haunts me to this day. It was a feeling of missed opportunity, regret and disappointment."
Did you feel privileged to have played alongside Tony Henderson in the heart of the Socceroos' defence ... you as stopper and Hendo as sweeper?
"As a youngster coming into the national team you could not ask for a better 'minder'. He was experienced and at the top of his game for Marconi. He was elegant, commanding and read the game beautifully. He 'looked after me' well, covering my mistakes and spoke to me a lot, telling me when and not to tackle, showing me how to be in the best position and things like that. I have a lot of respect for Hendo for what he achieved and for what he did for me. That's the type of player he was."
As a Paisley-born defender you would have enjoyed the four matches you played against Rangers when the Scots toured Australia in 1984.
"Absolutely. I am a Glasgow boy but a Celtic supporter so Rangers are the 'enemy'. I had lots of enjoyment from those matches. It was a dream for any Scottish boy to play against Rangers ... and I did it four times. They brought over a strong squad including Ally McCoist and John McDonald so it was a wonderful experience for me."
You must still cherish the goal you scored against them for Australia B in Newcastle.
"Of course. It's a little pleasure that I've got. If somebody had told me as a boy that one day I would score against Rangers ... "
Do you expect the independent A-League to take Australia's club game to the next level?
"Hopefully it will. It was a change that was needed. The previous arrangement did not work so this independence should be the resolution we needed to take the game forward."
What about the Socceroos ... did you like what you saw before they went into enforced hibernation?
"Players and coaches change by time. Sometimes you have good squads like that of 2006 with the Vidukas and the Kewells and on other times you don't. Australia has good talent though so the key is to find a way to turn the youngsters into international players "
Which was the highlight of your career?
"Winning the two NSL championships and being selected first in the Australian youth team then in the senior World Cup qualifying squad were the obvious highlights."
And the low point?
"The hamstring injury that ended my career was sad. Serious injuries are every player's nightmare and it was for me too because you want to play for ever, don't you?"
Finally, who are the best players you have played with at international level?
"Durakovic was a fantastic defender but Alan Davidson was in a different class altogether. He would have to be the best I have played with."
STEVE BLAIR FACTFILE
1980-93: South Melbourne
1981-83: Australia (13 matches)
NSL championship 1984, 1991.