The World Game continues its monthly series on Socceroos stars who left their mark on football in Australia. Defender Wally Savor, who was one of the mainstays of the National Soccer League in the 1980s, believes the A-League needs a facelift as it's beginning to look "tired".
Dependable defender Wally Savor, who starred for Sydney Croatia and Australia in the 1980s, said the A-League needs a major overhaul because it is looking tired and struggling to recapture its former glory.
Savor is regarded as one of Australia's finest fullbacks of his generation and his contribution to the game earned him a richly deserved induction into the Socceroos' Hall of Fame.
National coach Graham Arnold - a former teammate at club and country level - regards him as "a consistent team player who loved to attack and would easily play in any team today".
However, Savor believes the progress of the modern professional game leaves a lot to be desired.
"I follow the A-League and I feel it is starting to look a bit tired," Savor said.
"At one point a few years ago I felt it was on the up but it has been dropping off recently.
"We need better imports who can do more for our game and we have to stop the practice of recycling players from one club to another. Some players will have four clubs by the time they are 24. You're seeing the same faces all the time.
"There also are too many teams that get away with mediocrity because there is no relegation at the end of the season.
"But above all we have to find a solution to the early kickoffs that affect the game's quality. You can't do that in summer and expect a good product. No player should be asked to play before six o'clock if you're expecting a decent game. It's a terrible environment to play in.
"Maybe they should look at half the comp in winter and the other half in summer."
Savor, who is now 60, took time out to speak about his club and international career.
What are you doing now?
"I live in Oatley in Sydney and I am still involved with my timber stairs and hand rails business. In terms of football this year, I am coaching Bankstown Berries' first grade side which I am enjoying. The club has been great. They have a vision for the future which I am happy to be involved with. I have just completed the first phase of the A-licence coaching course which is very demanding but also a great learning experience."
You spent your entire club career with Sydney Croatia except for a brief spell with Riverwood. What kept you there for so long?
"I was born in Italy but I'm of Croatian heritage and playing for Sydney Croatia was the thing to do. We all grew up wanting to play for the club that represented an identity for that generation. Having said that, going on to play for Australia gave me great pride as it was the country I had grown up in.
"Players like Zeljko Kalac Ante Milicic and Tony Popovic who come later went to our games as kids with their dads to watch me, Arnold and Robbie Slater play ... same as my dad used to take me to games."
You were an attacker in your early career. How come you ended up as right back?
"I was always an attacking midfielder or a winger. I was fast and rather aggressive but one day we were playing in Melbourne and our right back got injured so I slotted into the role. It was an easy transition actually and I eventually stayed there. Word got out that I was quite handy in the position of overlapping fullback and by the time I was invited to Frank Arok's train-on Socceroos squad in the early 1980s I had become an established 'No 2'."
The 1988 grand final that Croatia lost to Marconi at Parramatta Stadium must have been a huge disappointment. It would be your one and only grand final appearance.
"Everything was going really well and at half-time the match was still goalless but in the second half, I had to come off because my knee went and we ended up drawing 2-2 and losing on penalties. It was a huge disappointment no doubt and a double whammy for me because apart from the defeat the injury would also keep me out of the Olympics that same month.
"I had strained some ligaments on my right knee in the last rounds of the home-and-away series but I managed to pass a fitness test for the grand final but by then I was already omitted from the preliminary squad for the Games. When I tweaked my knee I knew then there would be no Games for me, anyway."
Would it be fair to say that some of the Croatia teams you were part of in the NSL under-achieved?
"We had lots of good players and several quality squads but our problem was that sometimes we did not have enough depth. We were always up there or thereabouts but you also should understand that we were up against some very strong teams like Sydney Olympic, Marconi, South Melbourne and Adelaide City who all had great players."
After making your national team debut against China in 1984, you missed out on the qualifying rounds of the 1986 World Cup. Was Alan Davidson too good?
"My transition to fullback was rather late and since Alan could not make it for the world tour in 1984 I went away. But Alan was always Arok's first choice and he got to play against Scotland in our final World Cup qualifier in 1985 although for a while the coach was thinking of pushing him into midfield."
You did get a chance to play in a qualifying series four years later but your dream of playing in a World Cup was shattered when Australia lost out to Israel in the qualifiers for Italia 90. What happened there?
"We missed out by failing to beat Israel at home in our final match but the real damage was done when we lost in New Zealand.
"We started the group well by drawing 1-1 with Israel in a very tough away match. I got sent off for a professional foul on Ronny Rosenthal, who was flying for Liverpool at the time. Things were looking good for us but after crashing to a 2-0 defeat in New Zealand we had to beat the Israelis in Sydney but we only drew 1-1. I remember we were all surprised that no injury time was allowed even though there were several stoppages. Arok was livid.
"It was a huge body blow because we had put a lot of work into the campaign and as some us were getting on we knew that it was the end of the road and we would not get another opportunity to play in a World Cup."
You must have mixed feelings about 1988. You were in the team that humbled Argentina 4-1 in the Gold Cup in July but missed out on the Olympics in September due to the knee injury you suffered in the league.
"It was such a privilege to be in the Socceroos team that humbled Argentina, who were then world champions. We got stuck into them and everything clicked on the night. They got frustrated because they could not accept that they were getting comprehensively beaten by Australia. They were upset and refused to swap jerseys with us but they must have had second thoughts because later in the dressing rooms someone came in with a bag full of Argentine jerseys."
Football has changed a lot since your days. It is stronger all-round but is it more appealing as a spectacle?
"It is stronger only because today's players are full-timers. There are some good kids coming through but overall there is little passion for the A-League. We are a young competition so perhaps the football culture can grow in the next few decades to a level you see in England, for example."
Coaching has changed too. Has man management become more important than before?
"Coaches today have to deal with a new type of player: one who feels entitled and who has more power but who is softer and can't take a coach's criticism, which is a big part of the game. You always have to be careful what to say to players these days because you could lose your job before you know it.
"Man management is of paramount importance because you could lose the dressing room in one moment. Players would throw a coach under the bus very quickly so you need to be a bit of a psychologist to be able to coach successfully.
"And then there is the issue with agents, who can be challenging to deal with."
You played alongside Arnold many times. Did you ever think that one day he would become Socceroos coach?
"I could see that Arnie had definite leadership qualities. One of his strengths was his ability to encourage players around him to do better. If a match situation needed the players to roll up their sleeves and work hard he always would be the first to do so and that, to me, is a good sign of a true leader.
"Coaching is not for everybody but it seems to suit Arnie and he kept going as soon as he got a taste of it.
"Sometimes you need the right doors to open for you but Arnie is the sort of bloke who will go through it if he sees just a little opening. Same as he did as a player, as soon as he saw a chance of a shot at goal he would go for it and not say ' should I or shouldn't I' or anything like that. I am not surprised one bit by his success and I am pleased for him."
How do you rate the current Socceroos?
"There are a few new players coming in and we have to give them time. When you go from club football to the national level it's a new ball game. You think you are a good club player but at international level you will get found out if you do not lift. I'm not necessarily talking about skill ... you have to be well prepared mentally and be able to stay focussed at all times."
What was the highlight of your career?
"Too many. I think of the players you meet and the friendships you make. A career has its ups and downs but when you look back you have nothing but fond memories."
Any regrets, apart from missing the 1988 Olympics due to injury?
"That is one. My other big regret is that my age did not allow me to go overseas when some of my contemporary players in the NSL had a shot at the big time. I was a bit older than them - probably three years - and I missed the chance."
Who were the best players you played with and against?
"Midfielder Zarko Odzakov was brilliant and I played alongside him many times in the league. Arnold, Slater and Manis Lamond were also exceptional footballers.
"On the international front Romario was a handful when I faced him twice in the Gold Cup. He's incredibly quick and if you give him just a yard you lose him. Udinese's Zico was brilliant too when I played against him on the world tour and so was Rosenthal during the World Cup campaign."
WALLY SAVOR FACTFILE
1978-1980 Sydney Croatia
1982-1991: Sydney Croatia
1984-1989: Australia (23 matches)
NSL Cup 1987