In a wide-ranging interview, Lucas Neill talks about his move to the Hyundai A-League and his belief that Australia can qualify for the FIFA World Cup.
In a wide-ranging interview, Qantas Socceroos captain Lucas Neill speaks with Michael Cockerill, associate editor of footballaustralia.com.au, about his move to the Hyundai A-League his plans for next season, and his optimism that the national team can qualify for the FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
Q. Thanks for joining us Lucas. First, an update on your (calf) injury? A. I trained today, so things are positive, but with a calf injury we're just going to take it stage by stage. So I'm probably at the second-last stage, where I need three or four days training to make sure I don't repeat it, and then I'm out for another month.
So we've gone with the decision to make sure I'm fully fit on Monday, and not take the risk (against Melbourne Victory) this weekend. I'm confident the boys can do it with or without me, so I won't be in the squad this weekend.
Q. That puts you in the frame for the game against Western Sydney Wanderers next week. That would be the sort of game you'd have wanted to be involved in when you decided to come back to Australia? A. Yeah, but the way the team's playing I don't just have a right to turn up and be in the team. Depending on how the performance goes this weekend - and everyone's hoping for another win and a clean sheet - that will give Frank Farina a nice selection headache for next week.
Q. When did playing in the A-League become a serious option? A. It was something I thought about in January because I'd questioned how the rest of the season was going to go at (UAE club) Al Wasl. Then lo and behold, when we spoke to the board, they were going to use the next three or four months to change things over with a view to looking forward to 2013/14.
For a player my age, I didn't want to be in a transition, so we agreed if I could find a more competitive option I'd be allowed to leave, but only if they could find a substitute for me.
They managed to find that substitute before I could finalise my side of things, so they got to announce their deal before I could announce mine. In the end I'm really happy with the way it's worked out, and really proud to be part of the A-League.
Q. There's been a lot of debate about whether returning Socceroos get enough respect when they play in the A-League. Where do you sit with that? A. It's an interesting one. Anyone who can sacrifice and take the gamble, the big leap into the unknown, and carve out a career in Europe, it's not easy.
It's easy to be in Australia, and live and play in Australia. But to actually change the language, change in country, where the style is completely different, it takes some getting used to. You've got to perservere with it, and you've got to have a little bit of luck.
You've also got to make sure when you go over there you give it your best. Australia's always here - not that we want it to be second prize - but to know you can come back. But to really call yourself a complete footballer, you need to experience different leagues.
Anyone's who done that should be very proud, and Australia should be proud of what they're doing. When we're over there, we're flying the flag for Australia. You'll find a lot of people who are playing in Europe are not proud of their heritage, they just care about playing for themselves, but we're always flying the flag.
Q. We're here at the Sydney FC training ground (Macquarie University); what are your impressions of the club, the facilities, the professionalism? A. As history suggests, and the reputation it has, it's a big club. Macquarie University have given us fantastic facilities, we're blessed to have a couple of training pitches, a state-of-the-art gym, pools. Everything we need we've got, so there's no excuses as far as preparation goes.
We always turn out what seems to be a really good crowd, and the likes of (Alessandro) del Piero helps that. No doubt this weekend we'll see over 20,000, which is fantastic. The expectation as a club is not only do you win, but you win trophies, and that's something the club has struggled with in the first half of the season.
But there's a real determination now, if we can put three or four performances together we'll be right in the mix.
Q. Frank Farina is someone you know very well. How has he changed since the Socceroos days? A. He's not changed too much. He did have a big influence on me signing here. He's a manager who's been around a long time, and knows how handle pressure situations, when things are going well, and when they aren't.
The manner in which he coaches is all about committment and 100 per cent; he certainly demands it on the pitch, and I'm a big fan of that. I suppose he's become less of a friendly manager from the time with the Socceroos.
It's a different environment, but here he's very cut-throat, very demanding, but that's exactly what Sydney FC needs. He's done a fantastic job since he's been here, six wins in a row at home, and the way the team's performing now we've got a lot of confidence.
Q. Alessandro del Piero; you've played with and against some big names, how does he stack up? A. He's certainly up there. I've been fortunate enough to play against the very best - your Messis, your Ronaldos, Thierry Henrys, Alan Shearers. He's definitely in that category.
Obviously he's a bit older now, probably past what people would call his prime, but just to be able to train with him, it's a privilege, an honour, to see some of the sublime touches he shows, the vision he still has, and more importantly the passion he still has to want to win. That's infectious, it's something I still have, I'm still hungry, still driven.
I'm used to being the one people look up to, but even for me, to look up to him, to see the way he still looks after all those small percentages. The young guys here, they're only going to learn and improve from that.
Q. Obvious question: the quality of the Hyundai A-League? A. Overall I think the A-League's fantastic, it's exciting, it's a kind of junior version of the (English) Premier League, and I don't want people jumping on and saying don't try and compare it. What I mean is there's passion, there's committment, it's fast, it's exciting.
Obviously it doesn't have the amazing stars and the financial clout of the EPL, but it's going in that direction. The excitement off the field is generating some really good support.
On the field, the technique of players is definitely improving, but what we've still got is that Australian never-say-die and roll your sleeves up and have a go. It's just about time now. Growing it, continuing to improve.
The only way to do that is if everybody keeps trying to raise the bar. I've come back and I'm not surprised. I'm happy. I know every game is a hard game, you know people are going to give it their all right until the end. That's all you can ask. The quality we're starting to see, and some of the young guys, if they keep going the way they're going, they're going to be stars of the future.
Q. Holger Osieck has just picked a 23-man squad for the World Cup qualifier against Oman, and 16 of those players are either in the A-League, or have come through it. Is that a sign of the progress you're talking about? A. It's a great compliment to the league. Let's hope it shows players from the A-League are getting enough football to not only play at the international level, but to compete and do well.
This Oman game is a massive game. If it's a win it puts one foot to Brazil, and sends a message to the rest of the group they've got to come and get us.
Everything's in our hands, and with the squad we have I'm confident there's enough talent to get past Oman, who will be difficult. If we start fast, get an intimidating crowd, and get them to concede early, we should have an interesting night.
Q. Three of the last four qualifiers are at home. It's a decent position to be in, despite the struggles early in the group stage. A. It has been a struggle, due to the way we've had to travel, the conditions we've had, without making excuses. It's kind of little bit unjust that we've had virtually all our away games, and we're sitting where people think we've struggled.
If we'd play a few more games at home, we might have more points on the board. So we have to do it in the latter stages, which we're focused on, and we're determined to do. The Oman game is the only focus now, and three points will put us in an amazing position to seal the deal.
Q. Comparatively, this squad compared to past squads? Holger has made the point repeatedly that we no longer have players playing at what he describes as big (European) clubs. Is that a problem? A. It could be. I would love it if the ambition of every footballer was to play at the very top. Players need to try and push themselves, and test themselves, in a few leagues.
I've certainly benefitted a lot from 14 years in England, two years in Turkey, and I've also learned a lot being in the Middle East. For any footballer you should keep moving. Not saying you can't be loyal, but you have to keep testing yourself and make sure you don't get too comfortable.
It might not always be what you want to see and what you want to hear but you've got to try it. It's a short career, and you've got to try and be the best you can be.
Q. Your old Socceroos roommate Harry Kewell, has he got a comeback in him? A. I hope so. He's still a great talent. You don't want to listen to everything you read and hear, but he stopped football to look after a family matter. Now I hear things are good on that front, and he wants to play again. He's got plenty in him.
I don't want it to be the end of Harry. If he's out there listening, I'd love him to secure a club as soon as possible and get going. I'm always checking up on how he's doing. We need players like Harry Kewell, and he's still got a lot to offer.
Q. There's always a discussion about a lack of players coming through. I'll throw two names at you - Robbie Kruse and Tom Rogic? A. We always have players coming through. I've watched five or six grassroots games now, under-11s, under-12s, under-14s, there's so much talent in Australia. It's just the way we harness it, we steer it, and get them to make the right choices.
The two guys you've said, they've done their apprenticeship in Australia, and they've taken the plunge and gone to Europe, and they're reaping the rewards.
Robbie is probably the most improved player we have over the last year-and-a-half, he's one of our go-to guys now, he's exciting, he's playing in a really strong league. I'm sure he's catching the eyes of other managers, and I'm sure it (Fortuna Dusseldorf) won't be the last big club he goes to. He's got a lot more in him.
As for Tommy, he's at a big club (Celtic), but it's a big club which plays young guys, and I'm sure when he gets that chance he'll take it.
Q. Last question, the A-League season could potentially end for Sydney FC in three weeks. What are your plans to keep the motor ticking over, and perhaps for next season, which is a huge one going into the World Cup in Brazil? A. My short-term focus is on Sydney and making sure we don't finish up at the end of March. I want to try and stay with Sydney as long as I can, and let's hope that's until the 21st of April (grand final day).
Beyond that, I have the option of training with a few clubs in the Middle East, or even going back to England to train, potentially with a Premier League club, which is something I'll definitely do. My focus after the A-League is obviously the Socceroos, and making sure we get the job done.
From then I'll look at next year, whether it be back in Australia, or in Europe possibly, and give it everything I've got to make sure I'm willing and able. A nice consistent season to make sure I'm ready for Brazil 2014.
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