Jim Patikas: The Born Socceroo

From when Jim Patikas first laced a pair of football boots for Leichhardt Police Boy’s Club Under 7’s , he was bound for stardom.

Subsequently, when the Phillips Soccer League heralded football as the first code in Australia to go national in 1977, Jim Patikas was signed by Western Suburbs at the tender age of fourteen.

It was the start of a lifelong involvement in professional football for Patikas as he rubbed shoulders at the club with Socceroo greats Peter Wilson, Col Curran and David Harding.

At the age of fifteen, Patikas was playing first grade with Sydney City under the astute watch of Eddie Thomson and achieved a natural progression to Australia’s WYC squad when the country hosted the 1981 series.

In 1983, he was still young enough to participate in the WYC final series in Mexico City,  and despite the team’s disappointing exit in the first round, Patikas left his mark on the tournament.

It was after the 1986 World Cup qualifying matches against Scotland when he was signed for Greek super club, AEK of Athens, which marked the start of Patikas’s nine year professional playing career in Europe.

This was the message: he was ready to match it with the best in the Greek Super League and in European competition.

In this interview with Roger Sleeman, Jim Patikas discusses his playing career in Australia, his exploits in the World Youth Championships and with the Socceroos, his football life in Greece and Europe and current involvement in the game

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When did you know you were destined to commit to a life in football?

My father encouraged me from an early age and I quickly realized all I wanted to do was play football so when I left school at the age of fifteen, I  knew that was going to be my life.

When I was signed by Western Suburbs, I knew the decision was right for me to play the game on a full-time basis.

How different was football when you were growing up as a fifteen-year-old compared to today?

In my day there weren’t all the academies, not as many clubs and coaches, you would go from club to representative football and the competent players would naturally graduate to higher levels.

Now you have a large number of representative sides and the best players aren’t necessarily playing together.

Players are choosing different pathways and if you don’t want to play NPL, you can go to an academy to get the chance to play overseas, whereas in my time, youth league representative football was the main pathway to senior football.

You played with star performers at Sydney City. How did that influence your development?

The players imparted their experience to me and my learning curve was accelerated as I absorbed varying facets of the game from different players.

Goalkeeper, Todd Clarke, was a great analyst of the game, Ian Souness had a remarkable shooting technique, Hilton Silva and Ernie Campbell were the master dribblers and Kevin Mullen was the master of the overlap.

In 1981, Eddie Thomson, the Sydney City head coach arranged for you to go to Aberdeen under Alex Ferguson. Can you relate that experience?

I went to Aberdeen and signed apprentice forms alongside future greats of Scottish footbal, Eric Black, Willie Miller and Alex McCleish.

However, I broke my contract when I became homesick.  Also, going from the middle of summer in Sydney to the freezing cold conditions in Scotland was very hard to adjust to.

Ironically, I faced Eric Black two years later in the first round of the WYC in Mexico.

The WYC in Australia during October, 1981 was a massive event. What are your memories?

The biggest highlight was the defeat of Argentina by 2-1 at the Sydney Sports Ground.

They were the reigning world champions and when Ian Hunter finished in style to capitalize on a great run and final pass by David Mitchell, the crowd went wild.

At the end of the match the crowd ran onto the field to celebrate our victory.

In the quarter finals in Canberra , we were trailing West Germany 1-0 and I was brought down in the box which resulted in a  penalty being awarded to us.

Unfortunately, the penalty wasn’t converted and we were eliminated by the eventual winners, West Germany.

Your name was in the headlines again during the WYC of 1983 in Mexico. Was this a turning point in your career?

I think it was because I was playing in the company of brilliant young footballers like Frank Farina, Rod Brown, David Lowe, Tom McCulloch, Rene Licata and Danny Wright.

Against all the odds, we drew 1-1 in the first game against the hosts, Mexico, in front of 110,000 at the Aztec Stadium.

This was remarkable because, half the squad contracted food poisoning before the match and due to our route being blocked on the way to the stadium for two hours, we had to change on the bus.

We finally arrived fifteen minutes before kick-off at the Azteca to the most deafening horn sounds. We were also breathing heavily due to the high altitude but still managed this amazing result.

In the second match we were pitted against the European champions, Scotland, who were led by the brilliant Paul McStay, and as well as a few of the Aberdeen players I had met two years earlier, the team also boasted future household names in Scottish football, Pat Nevin, Dave McPherson, Steve Clarke and Brian McClair

The game was a personal triumph for me as I scored the winning goal from a Joe  Rizotto through ball after I’d made a run from the halfway mark in the 87th minute and rounded  the Scottish keeper, Bryan Gunn, to put the ball in the back of the net.  

However, we failed at the final hurdle in the third match when South Korea beat us 2-1.

I can’t remember how many times we hit the post that day after we conceded an early goal and bombarded their defences constantly

It's a loss I always look back on with regret because we had a top squad and should’ve progressed to the second round, particularly after the win against Scotland.

After the World Cup qualifiers against Scotland in 1985 you were signed by AEK of Athens. What was the background to this?

On the way to Scotland for that first leg ,we travelled via Greece and by coincidence, the CEO of AEK was on the plane. He asked if there were any Greeks on board and I put my hand up.

He asked me who I followed and I said AEK so he told me he was going to come and see me play in Melbourne on the return leg.

After the match, my Dad received a call saying AEK wanted to sign me with no trial and they said name your price.

We agreed on the contract terms and a few weeks later my ticket came and I  was off to Greece.

Tell us about your Greek experience.

Strangely, I was a bit nervous, even though I’d won the Golden Boot and the Rothmans Medal with Sydney Croatia.

However, since I was a fifteen year old , I had that dream to make it overseas, even after my disappointment at Aberdeen.

It was very hard for the first six months and the standard of competition was very high but I knew I was ready to make an impact.

My first game was in front of 80,000 spectators playing with the famous Greek international, Thomas Mavros, against Aris and I was lucky that my first touch was a nutmeg through an opposing defender’s leg.

There were international class footballers in the Greek League from Hungary, Brazil and Argentina and in European competition, I played against Francescoli, Romario, Altobelli, Passarella, Lentini and Rumennige.

After my nine seasons in Greece, I realized how lucky I was .

Yet it’s not all paradise because even though you’re paid well, you have to deliver.

One week when you lose, you’re cornered by the same fans who lift you on their shoulders when you win the following week.

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You played 27 times for the Socceroos but only in 10 full A internationals. Why was that?

Although, I had played in the second half against Scotland at Hampden Park in the first leg of the 1986 qualifiers  and in the full match in the return leg in Melbourne, I had questioned Frank Arok for only playing me for half the match in Scotland.

Certainly, when I returned to Australia in 1988  for the Olympic qualifying matches and was used rather sparingly, despite some good performances when I did play, I wasn’t exactly enamoured with  Arok.

I had put my future on the line with AEK when I did return to Australia and not to play much was very disappointing.

When I returned to Greece, I had to really fight hard to win my place back in the first team.

Also, I’d always had a great relationship with Eddie Thomson when I played for him at Sydney City and expected this to continue when he replaced Arok as national coach in 1990.

However, when I was recalled to play for Australia against A. C. Milan in 1992, I was carrying a knee injury and had to withdraw from the squad.

Obviously, Thomson took it the wrong way and that was the last time I was selected for the national team.

What is your future in football and would you go overseas to coach?

I’m still very happy being involved with coaching SAP players from 8-11 years and I believe more former Socceroos should be employed in the game at this level to influence youth development at these crucial ages.

I’ve always had offers to go overseas to coach, particularly Greece, but I’m more than content to continue working with youth footballers in Australia.