Special Feature - Anthony Crea

We will talk with one half of Australia's Qantas Socceroo staff that was based in England to look after the team if injuries arose.

When John Aloisi-s successful penalty kick ensured Australia a berth at the 2006 World Cup™ finals in Germany, it was the culmination of a perfectly executed logistical plan that gave the team every chance to qualify.

In 2003 when prominent businessman and passionate football supporter Mr Frank Lowy, decided to take on the role as then Australian Soccer Association Chairmanship, he has several visions for the game. One of those was to qualify for Germany and no stone would be left unturned in order to achieve that vision.

So many little things went into helping the Socceroos win on that glorious night at Telstra Stadium last November and just one of those was the decision to send the team Physiotherapist Les Gelis and team Strength and Conditioning Coach Anthony Crea to London, where they would base themselves for seven to eights months leading up to the Play-off game. It was a bold move, but given that the majority of players were based in Europe and that several were carrying injury problems, it was deemed necessary.

While Les is still in England, now based in Manchester, Anthony has returned to Australia for his recent wedding, before he will rejoin the boys for Australia-s World Cup campaign that starts in Melbourne in May. David Cooper chats with Anthony about his time in London and how it was significant in Australia-s qualification for the World Cup Finals.

What were the main reasons for the FFA basing Les and yourself in England?

The main reasons were basically to not leave any stone unturned, as the saying goes. We were there to make sure that if there were any injuries that they would get treated right and the rehab side and coming into qualification that the boys were at their fittest, which is difficult to try assess a year before.

In hindsight, come the qualifiers we only had Craig Moore who was missing out of 25 players, which is not too bad. Probably three or four months before that it was probably it was touch and go, because there was quite a number of players who were either injured or not playing. The last three or four months were crucial and it all worked out well. It was a big risk to send us over there, because we didn-t know how it was going to go and there were no guarantees, but here we are today.

What was your initial thoughts when the idea was first put to you?

When it was first muted they were going to do this, I thought there is no chance in the world. The cost in itself would be a lot, the costs of living in London; the travel we would have to do to get to all the players, which included all those in Europe. I just didn-t think it would get off the ground because of the cost.

But on the other side, I thought what a great opportunity if it did and obviously the High Performance Unit (HPU) made it happen.

What was the response of the players clubs to this move?

When we first approached a lot of clubs, they said that-s unbelievable. They couldn-t believe that the FFA was actually doing that. It was a terrific response from the clubs in terms of what the actual function of us was.

So it was a good PR exercise as well?

Great PR exercise from the FFA point of view, because a lot of clubs that we had a good repour with already were pleased and the physio-s and strength and conditioners we dealt with said that no other country would even think about doing that.

So there wasn-t too much opposition, because they could have rightly said ‘get lost-?

They would have right to, as they are their players. I think though our approach was very diplomatic and took a long time to develop the trust and we had a lot of meetings, meet and greets to smooth things over with the clubs, so if and when one of our players did break down or we needed to intervene that it all happened pretty smoothly. We made sure it was all above board and in front of them, so there so nothing that was going on behind closed doors, which they appreciated. I know Les did a hell of a lot of work with Liverpool and just chipped away at them that we could help Harry (Kewell) and eventually they sort of caved in at the right time for us.

What was the benefit for the clubs?

You look at the clubs schedules, most of the clubs are playing twice a week. It-s not easy for their staff, because while you think the Premier League clubs have lots of money, it doesn-t happen behind the scenes. There is probably only two physio-s and one masseur, some don-t even have a fitness trainer, so it-s not easy and there is no day off for them. They work hard for their money. With us going in there and saying to them we can take a long term injury off their hands, most basically breathed a sigh of relief. We would liaise with them about everything and they knew exactly what was happening and it worked our fine.

What was the players reaction when they found out that you two would be based out of London?

The players reaction was absolutely phenomenal. They were probably the same us when it was hinted to them that it might happen that it was no chance simply because of the costs involved. But when we actually got there, it was fantastic. The first port of call was if we saw one of players on TV get a knock and be taken off, they could expect a call within an hour or so to arrange for us to go up there and Les would assess them straight away. The players were great, although it did get a little difficult at times, because you could only be in one place at one time.

Was there any players that you had to keep a particular eye on, because when you first went over there were a few carrying injuries?

The one-s like Harry, Duke-s had a chronic hamstring injury and things didn-t go well for him for probably a period of about six months. Then we had guys that weren-t playing like Josip Skoko and Tony Popovic, while Tim Cahill had a period when he would play one week and then be out for two weeks. I didn-t even realise how logistically hard it would be in the UK, London is a big place and there is just so much driving and travel, some days were tougher than others, but it was enjoyable.

So it was a fantastic experience?

Yes you could say that. I don-t think you plan the experience from what we got out of it. It was incredible what we saw, what happens behind the scenes at these big clubs, small clubs and just to see what the Aussie players have to cope with from day-to-day in the English Premier League and it-s not that easy for them. You sort of appreciate it more when you are in the trenches with them, so to speak.

So overall was the exercise a beneficial one?

It-s a fine line isn-t it. We could have went down 1-0 to Uruguay in Sydney and the whole exercise would have been null and void from our perspective, but it obviously went the other way. It-s no coincidence, but there was no maybe we will qualify, everything was done to perfection from the FFA perspective. Everything was done to make sure the players were at their absolute best for those two games and I don-t think there is any coincidence in when you prepare yourself well, I don-t think luck even comes into it.

Professionally how has this whole experience helped you?

I suppose it made me step up another level, in terms of the responsibility that was thrown upon both of us. It-s now been seven and half years with the national team, but it was always, one week here, one month off, two weeks here. This time you actually had the players in your own hands and the program started from day one to day end and the players were fantastic to work with. My job in particular was made very easy because I get along with the boys quite well and apart from great athletes and great people they made my job a lot easier. From a professional point of view, seeing how the different countries work, what they have got and haven-t got in terms of the sports science point of view and how far ahead Australia is in sports science.

Am I right in saying there is actually a lot of Australians appointed to the big sports in Europe these days in the sports science field?

Yes there is, they are thought of very highly. Coming out of the university system here, they could basically walk into a job in the UK, whether it be in private practice or within football, because the training is a lot more intensive here and courses are a lot more informative. When you come out of it with a degree you pretty much come out of it as an expert on the game. There is a lot of Australians working over there, especially in the physiotherapy side of things.

A lot of people out there might not know what work is involved with a Strength and Conditioning Coach. Take us through your work with the team and players?

The role involves multiple roles in a sense. You need to obviously test and have a good knowledge of testing and results are good and bad. We get that from data over the years and then compare it and basically putting programs together that are specifically right for a footballer. It-s a lot easier for me, because I played the game, so I can incorporate my sports science with my footballing background. The players are not just running for nothing, it-s all specific to their position and to football obviously. Then there is the rehab side, which is coordinated with the physio, where there is a injury he is treated, then there is strengthening work to be done and then obviously from that you have to bring that strengthening work back onto the pitch and get them at a certain level to actually move onto training and playing with the team.

In way you also have to be a bit of a counsellor, because the players are itching to get back out there and yet you have to put them in their place?

Very much so. The level that the guys play at, they know there body very well and they are professionals and are all winners and if they feel one day that they feel really good and come up and say to you that they are ready to train with the team and you have to convince them and tell them that they are not ready. It-s difficult to do, because you can understand that they want to get back on the park as quickly, but once you sit and talk to them and rationally work out why this is the best way to go, you never have a problem with the Australian players, because they know in terms in what we do it-s beneficial to them and not us. Yes there are a few arguments here and there, but at the end of the day it all works out pretty well. It-s complicated at times and you can see their frustration, especially coming up to a World Cup qualifier where its every four years and all the players could sense that something good was going to happen, so obviously from a personal point of view they wanted to be involved. Harry worked effortlessly with Les and myself, Tony Popovic was another. I don-t usually feel sorry for the players because that-s there trade and if they have to work for an hour and a half then that-s what they had to do. But it was the first time I actually felt sorry for a player when I was I training Tony, where I had to work super, super hard to get him to level where he could get through 90 minutes, because he wasn-t playing and to see him get through that was, for me, personal satisfaction.

The World Cup will be obviously be a busy time and the boys could well be in camp for over a month, where injuries will no doubt occur and getting them treated and recovered for games will be important. Has the Confederations Cup help out with what to expect or is it taking it to a new level again?

Confed-s Cup yes, but the bar has risen again and the intensity of everyone will rise again.

So just like the players, this is a huge challenge for you and Les and everyone that-s involved really?

Everyone involved right through the whole team and staff, we are not going to go there and just be passengers and Guus (Hiddink) wants us to go there and actually do something. For us it-s a new experience and the planning and the research that will go into it before we actually get there will be second to none. So we-ll go there and know exactly what we are doing, when we should be training players, resting players, treatment of players. With the people that we have on the staff that shouldn-t be a problem at all.