Age, Sport, Monday 3 December 2007, p. 12.
No, I haven’t played the game at professional level, so I don’t know first hand the situations you face every week in the A-League or the top leagues in England and Scotland, but I have watched your career since you were an Under-9 at Green Gully and later at Sunshine George Cross. You have marvellous talents and you can play a bit, but when you were young I thought you were a thug and a very bad influence on a youngster from Geelong who also could play the game, when you were in under-age representative sides in Victoria. Your skill and commitment and strength of mind led good coaches to select you for the Young Socceroos and the Olyroos when you were younger than all the other players. They could see in you something they needed for their teams, for they were not romantics but hard-headed winners like yourself.
It was a similar story at Milwall, Glasgow Rangers and for the Socceroos. Talent and refusal to accept defeat was written on your face and your body in every game you played. Yet when you try to explain and excuse your conduct in your column in the sports section of the Sunday Age, you show that you have never been able to distinguish commitment and sacrifice on behalf of the team from violent conduct as defined by the Laws of the Game.
Soccer has always had its hard men who could play, like Roy Keane, Denis Wise, Billy Bremner, Tommy Smith, Norman Hunter and Dave Mackay. Coaches and managers have always been delighted to have these players in their sides and at the end of their careers their exploits have been glossed over or romanticised. But they did awful damage to other players along the way, sometimes they would claim, as you do, accidentally but on other occasions with malice or at least recklessness of the consequences.
Some of the work you have done for the Melbourne Victory under Ernie Merrick deserves the highest praise. You have been the very public face of the game in Victoria, have put in countless hours in promotion of the game at all levels and are now engaged in training yourself as a coach. In games, other A-League teams know that they are never safely in control of a match while you are on the field. Yet like many of those who follow this code in Australia and want desperately for it to succeed, not in toppling Australian Rules or anything like that, but just to become a normal part of the sporting scene in this country, I fear that your behaviour is dangerously counter-productive in one key respect.
It is not only your propensity to launch the most violent tackles on opponents, often from behind, but the snarling refusal to accept decisions which go against you and the browbeating of officials and opponents which sets an appalling example. Others believe if Muscat can get away with it, so can I. If that conduct is allowed to persist the skilful players will be driven out of the game. Juninho, the little Brazilian magician playing for Sydney FC, has already made clear his fears about the way the game is played in this country by a few players like yourself.
I am not in the slightest concerned about your kicking an advertising hoarding. It is fascinating, and symptomatic of the modern game, that your immediate apology was to the sponsor for the off-field incident and not to the thousands of others you have let down for the on-field behaviour.
Nor am I convinced by you and your coach pointing to the disciplinary record of other clubs as if it was their propensity to commit fouls which determined their places on the A-League ladder. I found your attempt on television to defend some of the crude tackling by some of Juninho’s team-mates in the exhibition match against LA Galaxy hard to take as well. I know this is a contact sport and if it becomes basketball we will all be the poorer. But the kind of tackling which injures others in the name of winning matches is something we can do without, particularly if we want to succeed in Asian competition. I want to see Australian teams which match others for skill, not physicality, and I just wish you could curb your occasional but violent assaults on your fellow players for the greater good of the game.
Yours in sorrow more than anger