Whatever you want to call it: soccer, football ... Australia goes pretty damn okay at it. And a man who probably doesn’t get enough credit for Australia’s tough, no-nonsense approach to the game today is former Socceroos captain Paul Wade. One of the true legends of the round-ball game in this country, Wade was an inspirational midfielder – especially in defence – across 118 appearances for the green and golds throughout the 1980s and ‘90s. Born in Cheshire in the UK in 1962, he represented Australia at the 1988 Olympics and was involved in two World Cup qualification campaigns. He played 345 games in the old National Soccer League, including a nine-year stretch for South Melbourne. He was named NSL Player of the Year in 1988 and won a title with his beloved club in ’91, a moment which he still cherishes. Other roles he cherishes, apart from his A-League commentating duties for the ABC, are his charity commitments. Wadey, an epilepsy sufferer himself, is currently ratified as an active supporter of Epilepsy Action Australia and is also Patron of the Cerebral Palsy Sporting and Recreation Association (CPSARA) of NSW. He’s also one of the only blokes in Australia who could start a story with when I played on Maradona ... With the latest instalment of the A-League well and truly underway, we caught up with one of soccer’s most brutally honest, opinionated and colourful characters to gauge the state of the World Game in our neck of the woods.

first Wadey finds space against Argentina at the MCG in 1993. (Photo by Getty Images)

A tough question to kick-off with. Which is the bigger and better Derby – Sydney’s or Melbourne’s?

The Sydney Derby without a doubt. They got more people into the ground than the Melbourne Derby, and the crowd was split 50/50 between the two teams. Over time, Melbourne City will develop their following and produce a good screaming match amongst the crowd, but right now you can’t beat the Sydney Derby. Just the fact that the Wanderers own western Sydney and Sydney FC thinks it owns everything else. That’s the rivalry. You haven’t got that in Melbourne ... and I’m a Melburnian. I’m probably going to upset a lot of people down there.

With your playing career long behind you, what keeps you busy these days?

I never do anything boring. I have my finger in a number of pies, including one for Football NSW. They have a Skills Acquisition program where they’ll get the best eight, nine and ten-year-olds in the state, coach them at an elite level and hopefully, if they continue to develop, they can go on to rep teams and state teams; Joeys, youth teams, etc. It starts very, very early. What I do in it all is I coach the coaches, who coach the kids. So I walk around with my sunglasses, big plastic nose and fake moustache and sneak up and ask people what are you doing? I assess them. So that’s one part of it all. I also work in prisons. I have a program called GOALS – Gaining Opportunities And Life Skills. I spend five weeks with anywhere up to 15 kids. I have them for two hours a week; the first hour I’ll talk to them using my football and health experiences, about all sorts of topics starting with “success”. The second hour ... we go outside and we play football. We’ll do activities that relate to the topics that we’ve just covered. At the start you can’t get through; these kids are in trouble. Some of them are in gaol, some of them are totally disengaged at school, some of them are refugees lacking confidence. We try and bring them out of their shells. It must be daunting. You turn up at school, you don’t know the language, you don’t know the kids ... kids in middle and upper high school, they can be cruel. We are there just to give these kids a little bit of motivation to realise they can do it, whatever it might be. Football can be such a great connector. And then there’s the media; ABC TV and radio, and if they want something stupid said on other channels like Nine, then I’ll say it! The thing with me is, I’ve got no allegiance to anybody, or any club, so I can say whatever I like ... as long as I believe it.

What’s your earliest footballing memory; your first vision of this funny round thing in your life?

The street that I lived in, if you didn’t play football, you had no mates. And if you didn’t support Liverpool, you got your head kicked in. So I was a big Liverpool fan and I played football! In the late ‘60s, early ‘70s and ‘80s, Liverpool was the flagship; it was easy to support Liverpool. It’s a lot more difficult now, obviously. Yeah look, everybody was playing in the street. There were no training sessions; you played for your school. Which is probably why I was no good, but I had the passion. Then I came here at the age of 11 and I wasn’t going to play football. I was happy to just play with all my new mates in this warm rain. Because I came from the north of England, where it’s freezing. But all of a sudden the rain’s warm. And there are big spiders and coloured birds not in cages; this was an exciting place. Then my mum said “you are playing football” and grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and dragged me down to a junior club, Dandenong City, in the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne. My parents were ten-pound Poms. And what a challenge that would have been, in 1973, to go all the way around to the other side of the world. How scary is that today, never mind 40 years ago? When we were told we were coming out to Australia, I was also into swimming at that stage. I looked at the map when they told us we’d be living in Melbourne and I thought I’m going to swim to that little island below. That was an example of my lack of understanding about how big this country was.

What’s your fondest memory from your South Melbourne FC days, with whom you played nine years?

We won the league in 1991. We finished top of the league a couple of times, but we won the grand final in ’91 and Ferenc Puskas, who is considered one of the greatest players ever to play the game, was our coach! And we didn’t know who he was. How ignorant was that? He could walk anywhere in Melbourne and nobody would’ve bothered him. Anywhere else in the world, he would’ve been swamped with photographers and autograph hunters. He was nothing special as far as a coach was, but as it settled in for us, he was just somebody who made you think wow. We all played for him as much as each other. And to win the grand final, we are going absolutely nuts, and he’s sitting there going, “Yeah, who cares? I’ve won European Cups, I’ve played for Hungary.” But it was just a pleasure to win it.

Middle Paul Trimboli, who Wade reckons was an "absolute genius" as a player. (Photo by Getty Images)

How different do you imagine playing in today’s A-League is to the old National Soccer League of your era … looking past the obvious differences created by professionalism?

I don’t think today’s players are any more intelligent. They are certainly tactically more aware, but that doesn’t make you an intelligent footballer. So many players are programmed today: you will play in this position and you will do this. We didn’t have a lot of great players, but we did have some geniuses who could have played today ... but they would’ve had to have been quicker. We used to eat McDonald’s. Our warm-down was done in the bar. It wasn’t unprofessional by our standards, but it was by today’s. But we were no less committed. We all had jobs. Paul Trimboli was an accountant, I was a draftsman, Graham Arnold was a carpenter. We’d ask our bosses on Wednesday, “Would you mind if we had Friday off, because we’re playing Brazil on Saturday?” That’s just the way it was. A lot of us wouldn’t make it today, but there were a handful who would show this lot today how the game is really played. I played with Paul Trimboli, who was an absolute genius. His first touch was gorgeous. He could change his mind within two seconds of making it up. Another one was Oscar Crino, who played for South Melbourne when I played for Brunswick. He was Argentinean and again, an absolute genius. Goal-a-game Arnie, Frank Farina ... Robbie Slater, who would never shut up. He’d wear a track up and down the touchline. You could guarantee he’d be there and you could guarantee he’d get a cross in. John Kosmina would kick his mum under the table ... Charlie Yankos. I tell ya, I got hit by a Yankos free kick once and to this day my head still spins. Jeff Olver in goal ... Brazil, I played them three times. We lost 1-0 in Melbourne, 2-0 in Sydney and 3-0 at the Olympics in 1988. There were a couple of stages in that 3-0 loss where I was going to shout out to the boys, “If they don’t give us a touch of this ball, we’re not playing anymore! We’ll put our hands on our heads and refuse to play!” We were very physically aggressive, but we couldn’t get close to the ball at all.

Is there a sense of pride knowing that you’re a true product of the local game, having played all your club football in the country which you captained?

Absolutely. And this might sound a bit self-centred, because I never faced the decision while playing for a foreign club, but if you didn’t turn up for your national team, even if it was against the Solomon Islands, geez I got cheesed-off. I was livid. The other thing I realised was very important was singing the national anthem. I was watching the Wallabies singing it at the World Cup; just sensational. That’s all we had, that and the flag. I didn’t have the pressure of leaving Liverpool to play against the Solomon Islands, but I couldn’t understand why you wouldn’t. I think if you ask all the players now, because there’s a chance of progressing to the World Cup, blokes would jump on the plane back here straight away. But for many back then, it wasn’t the end of the world if you didn’t turn up against the Solomon Islands.

What sort of captain were you?

Well, I inspired people to not be downtrodden by their looks. I was voted the ugliest player in the national team four years in a row. Not once or twice, four years! I was the captain of the “Ugly 11”! We used to pick an Ugly 11 in the National Soccer League and I was always the captain of that, too. Nah, you know what? Mine was the only name they could pronounce ... so there was that. All I did was ... training was important to me, as much as a game. And that’s why Eddie Thomson picked me as captain, because I was just so passionate and every training session was important. I couldn’t play to save my life. I couldn’t trap a wet bag of cement, but I tell ya what, I would give you everything else. If you were having a shocker, I just had that enthusiasm to make you feel better about the game we’re in. I gave the ball away more times than anyone else, but I got it back more times than anyone else. You need to be able to play now ... It was all about your attitude back in the day.

end Wade was Socceroos skipper between 1990-96. (Photo by Getty Images)

So it’s your first day as the new CEO of the FFA: what are the main areas you’re focusing on in your new role?

I wouldn’t go to any more teams in the National Soccer League, or the A-League, I should say. That shows you how old I am, doesn’t it? You’d think after 11 years I would’ve known that ... Expansion is not an option for me. As much as we’re saying “yeah, but the game is growing”, it’s not as passionate in the general community as it needs to be. You look at the number of teams who are not doing well, and hardly anyone’s turning up to games, by Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC and Western Sydney Wanderers’ standards. And DON’T get rid of the Wellington Phoenix. We have a responsibility in this area. And I don’t think throwing in teams from outside Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth is going to make it any different. Wellington has really given some of the Australian teams a footballing lesson, which is all good for Australian football. As well, they give ordinary players who can’t play for Western Sydney Wanderers a chance to go over there. No, no, that was tongue in cheek ...

How are clubs like the Roar getting themselves into such catastrophic financial situations? What needs to change for clubs' money pressures to ease?

In a way, it’s the sad way the world is heading, not just here. You think of Portsmouth in the Premier League, they went bust as well. I don’t think anything different is happening here compared to anywhere else in the world. The unfortunate thing is we haven’t got five sponsors who can afford to pay the bills, we’ve got one; and if they pull out, then the whole place seems to collapse a little bit. So I don’t know. We need to be full-time to stay up with the rest of the world. We can’t go back to part-time footballers or else our national team will suffer. Our A-League players are the ones who learn their stuff here to go overseas. If you’re part-time you’ll never get overseas.

Are there issues in the game which leave you shaking your head while wondering why it even has to be this way?

On the park? Players don’t know how to tackle today. Even though it’s such a possession-based game, they forget you have to get it back with a really strong 50-50 tackle. So I hate it when they go in studs-up. Or don’t tackle at all. Oh ... I tell you what – that was the only thing I could do! I couldn’t play, but I could tackle and I could head a ball. And I’ve just noticed something coming in where there’s a free kick and there’s a wall set up, as they do, but one or two players stand in an off-side position, with no intention of getting the ball. But what they are doing is blocking the runs of the defenders getting back. It’s gamesmanship of the highest order. It’s not rife throughout the league, but I’ve seen it a couple of times. I’d put it up there with diving. There aren’t many times where that happens either, but it is happening. I saw one on the weekend. It is embarrassing. People should get sent off for that, for being un-Australian. In fact, they should be deported. Even if they were born here, they should be deported. It’s an absolute disgrace! Off the park? We’re getting a lot more media, but we need more again. A big topic lately has been a couple of flares; somebody got thrown out of one of the derbies. There were over 40,000 people there – that’s .000-whatever per cent, you know what I mean? But that was the lead story. I noticed a couple of our commentators went off. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but then I look back at it all and think ... we do still need more coverage. Maybe we’ll never get it. We still need to find out why Graham Arnold tripped over at training. You know, something stupid like that, because that seems to be what makes the headlines in the Melbourne and Sydney papers. Whereas we have to come up with something that’s extraordinary to grab the back page. We’re getting there. Look out to the AFL and the rugby league. Because. We. Are. Coming. To. Get. You. And you know what? All our really bad players can always go and play AFL. And if they’re really really bad, they can go and play rugby league!