A decade or so ago, when Socceroos coach Frank Farina travelled to Europe to monitor his national team’s prospective players, he visited a litany of the top stadia in some of the game’s greatest leagues.
Farina could watch English Premier League-based Australians such as Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka, Brett Emerton, Tim Cahill, Hayden Foxe, Craig Moore, Lucas Neill and Mark Schwarzer in action at places such as Elland Road and Anfield, Ewood Park and Craven Cottage, Stamford Bridge, Old Trafford, Goodison and Upton Park.
He could hop across the channel on a cheap flight to Milan or Rome and watch Vince Grella or Mark Bresciano if they were in action at the San Siro or the Stadio Olimpico against either of the Milanese giants or Roma.
He might fancy a few days in Spain, checking out John Aloisi, especially if either of his clubs, Alaves or Osasuna, happened to be in action at the Bernabeu or the Camp Nou against Real Madrid or Barcelona.
And if Germany took his fancy, well, he could always see what Paul Agostino was up to, especially if his TSV 1860 Munich were involved in a local Bundesliga derby with European giants Bayern.
Ange Postecoglou, the first locally born and raised full-time coach since Farina (Graham Arnold was always in the job in a caretaker role) will have few similarly exciting trips.
Yes, he will get to Munich to keep an eye on Milos Degenek, and he could get to the great Spanish grounds if Mat Ryan is starting for Valencia in La Liga, which is not, these days, very often. And he might well get to see a bit of Germany keeping tabs on Mat Leckie, a regular starter for Ingoldstadt, and Robbie Kruse (an irregular starter for Bayer Leverkusen).
But his journeys will mostly be to the smaller grounds and to second-tier clubs as that is where the bulk of overseas Australians are based these days.
Twenty years ago it was easier for Australians, with their workrate, attitude and adaptability, to get a chance, particularly in England where their cultural familiarity and language skills gave them a head start.
But since then the vast steams of money that have flowed into the highest levels of the game have been channelled into improving the way all top-tier clubs operate, including in scouting.
Big European teams are much better at finding diamonds in the rough in Asia and Africa than they used to be: simply put, it’s a lot more competitive for the Australians, and if they are not top-grade players – which most are not – they will not get the opportunities that some of their predecessors did.
That doesn’t mean their forbears got it easy: players such as Kewell, Viduka, Emerton, Schwarzer, Cahill, Moore and Neill showed they were good enough to have made it through any system at any time.
Postecoglou went off to Europe on a scouting mission just before Christmas, and his itinerary over the next few weeks is likely to include Huddersfield’s Galpharm Stadium, Villa Park, Loftus Road, Deepdale and the 6900-capacity Pirelli Stadium, home of Burton Albion.
With the exception of Villa Park and Loftus Road, the average Australian fan might find it hard to pinpoint the other places on a map, but they are, respectively, home for Aaron Mooy (Huddersfield), Jordan Lyden and Mile Jedinak (Villa Park), Massimo Luongo (QPR), Bailey Wright (Preston) and Jackson Irvine (Burton Albion).
If you want to find large numbers of Australians who are playing – not merely training or being part of their club’s squads but rarely starting – then the Championship in England is the place you should be looking.
Mooy has probably made the biggest impact of all this season.
The quietly spoken, shaven-headed midfielder’s progress over the past couple of years has been dramatic. Two seasons with Melbourne City brought him regular football and as he grew and matured he became a first-team choice for Postecoglou.
There were plenty of cynical comments made when parent company Manchester City bought him at the end of last season, particularly when they sent him on loan to nearby Huddersfield (it’s just across the Pennines from Manchester).
But Mooy has been a stand-out player for the Terriers as they have made an unlikely challenge for a place in next season’s Premier League. Early season pacesetters, the club – coached by Jurgen Klopp’s former assistant at Borussia Dortmund, David Wagner – dropped off a little before picking up recently and lie fourth in the league, behind leaders Brighton, Newcastle and third-placed Reading.
Mooy has won rave reviews from fans and coaches during his spell in the Championship, where he has emerged as a key presence in central midfield for the Yorkshire club.
Andy Hughes, a former Crystal Palace club coach who is with Huddersfield, told a Fox Sports crew in a recent interview that Mooy had what it took to make it all the way to the top.
“I have worked with players who have played in the Premier League, and he has got more than them,” Hughes said. He also revealed that Socceroos captain Mile Jedinak – with whom he had worked at Palace – rang him up when news broke that Mooy was moving to Town, telling Hughes that his Socceroos midfield partner was “very good”.
Jedinak is himself these days in the second tier, where he is anchoring the Aston Villa midfield having moved to the club from Palace just after the season. He had led Palace into the Premier League and captained them to an FA Cup final in his years in South London.
Villa were relegated last season and began the new campaign poorly but have picked up considerably under new boss Steve Bruce, who replaced Roberto Di Matteo after their slow start. The former European champions are up to 10th place and are looking to build on that in the new year, with a play-off spot a minimum target for a quick return to the Premier League.
The irony would not be lost on the Socceroos captain if he and Villa managed to go up – passing by his former club, Palace, if they get relegated despite having sacked Alan Pardew and replaced him with Sam Allardyce.
The other Australians regularly starting in the Championship are not – on form – expected to be eyeing up Premier League places next season.
Luongo’s move to former EPL club Queens Park Rangers was hailed as a good one in which he could launch his career and take it to the next step, with the London club tipped to be among the promotion chasers.
But it’s been far from plain sailing at Loftus Road, and Rangers flattered to deceive last season before falling in a hole this campaign. One manager, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, has been fired, and Ian Holloway, a former boss, has been brought in but has failed to stop the rot. Rangers are hovering dangerously close to the relegation zone in 20th spot, just three points above the third-from-bottom Blackburn Rovers.
Luongo’s club is just one point ahead of Irvine’s Burton, who are fourth bottom, two points clear of Rovers. But no one expected much more from the smallest club in the top two divisions following their promotion, and Irvine has made quite an impression as a goalscoring midfielder who may well have done enough to earn a move, if not in the January window then in the northern summer.
Wright has become a permanent fixture at Deepdale since joining the Lancashire club that was once, like Mooy’s Huddersfield in the 1920s, one of the most powerful teams in the UK.
Those days are a long way off now as Preston yo-yo between the second and third tier, occasionally threatening to make a push for the Premiership. They are currently mid-table in the Championship.
Wright, who has become a regular face in Postecoglou’s Socceroos squads, is a stalwart for North End and in November chalked up his 200th appearance for the club.
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