"He doesn't know his own possibilities because he is a modest player, too modest. But when you see him playing [against Italy], he wasn't a star player but doing a very good job.
"This guy should play in a proper league, Belgium or Holland. He's a very good team player who can help players more in the picture do their job.
"If he asks me and I have contacts, then I will draw attention to him.”
And with that, Luke Wilkshire seemed to legitimately became one of Australian football’s brightest prospects – yet it was only four years ago that the now-veteran Socceroo was exposed for being out of his depth on the international arena.
The De Kuip Stadium in Rotterdam was the setting as the Bristol City man managed get himself sent off in a 1-1 draw with the Netherlands in a warm up match for the 2006 World Cup, producing a challenge that was perhaps reflective of the fact that he was playing his club football with the relatively modest Bristol City at the time.
Giovanni van Bronckhorst was on the receiving end of a nasty tackle from the utility man that day; arguably the biggest surprise in the infallible Guus Hiddink’s World Cup squad, Wilkshire was doing nothing to convince a largely bemused public of his credibility as a Socceroo.
Indeed, even the above quotes from Hiddink – which carry some weight given the high regard in which he is held by Australian fans – were not enough at the time to truly cement the League One player alongside the likes of Grella and Emerton as a vital part of the national team set up.
Wilkshire admitted as much at the time, when he was plucked from the obscurity of third-tier football in England.
"I have no doubt he [Hiddink] didn't have a clue who I was when he first took the job,” Wilkshire said. “I was left wondering whether I was going to be noticed or left wandering down there [in League One].”
Speak to the current Dinamo Moscow man today and the answer about his role within the Australian national team is a sharp contrast to his pre-Germany uncertainty; catching up with the 28 year-old after the Asian Cup Qualifier against Indonesia, he cut an battle-hardened figure.
Understandable given the maturing process he has had to undergo in the four years since he burst back onto the international scene after representing his country at youth level. In that time Wilkshire has experienced vastly differing lifestyles and football cultures in theEx Netherlands and then Russia, with FC Twente and Moscow respectively.
“[Russia] is interesting – it’s interesting on the field and interesting off the field. It’s a real eye-opener,” Wilkshire told Goal.com.
“It stands you in good stead on the pitch, off the pitch and in life itself. I’m seeing a lot of things that other people haven’t and it opens your eyes.
“Some of the away trips that we have are challenging and I’ve always been up for a challenge, which is why I’m there. There’s a few stories to be told – but not right now!”
With Hiddink’s calls for the versatile Wilkshire to take up a post in a “proper league” answered, the Dutch tactician’s predictions about his development have been realized – he has established himself as a vital clog within Pim Verbeek’s Socceroo machine. Yet modesty that Hiddink alluded to in his early comments about the player remains, reflected in the manner in which Wilkshire relishes the less glamorous aspects of a defensive midfield role which he is looking increasingly capable of fulfilling.
Indeed, that Tommy Oar spent the aftermath of the match at Suncorp Stadium with his face lit up by cameras while Wilkshire went relatively unnoticed, casually making his way around the media mix zone and drawing virtually no attention to himself is an indicator that the Russia-based Aussie will never make an immediately noticeable contribution to the national team.
Yet on Wednesday evening it was his willingness to take added responsibility on top of his defensive duties from the base of midfield that drove the Socceroos forward during the second half; the way in which he often pulled into slightly wider areas to provide attacking momentum for his side and service into the box for Josh Kennedy was reminiscent of Demy de Zeeuw and Stijn Schaars’ controlling performance for the Netherlands when they visited Sydney last October.
“When you’ve got someone like Josh Kennedy playing up front you’ve got to do that,” Wilkshire said. “You don’t score from outside the box, you’ve got to get the ball in there and someone like that needs service to be effective.”
He is a long way from the battling wide man who went about his business quietly in the opening match of Germany 2006 against Japan; it was then that Wilkshire simply added balance, where is now required to help hold together an entire midfield. It represents a quite incredible transformation for the former Middlesbrough player.
He continued, “That’s what happens as you grow and as you improve; hopefully there will be a few more of the younger boys doing the same thing and making the step into the first team.
“A lot of things have changed – I’m four years older (though I feel ten years older!). Everybody comes in at one stage as an unknown and you’ve got to make your name and earn respect.
“There’s a lot of different factors [for my change]: the experience, the coaches you play under, the players you’re playing with. You’ve got to have the desire to improve and go forward in your football career – that’s what I’ve done and that’s what a lot of the young players here need to start doing.”
Crucial to his development into one of Australia’s most modern players has been his exposure to varying styles and interpretations of the game; there aren’t many players in the world who can boast stints in England, the Netherlands and Russia in their resume and Wilkshire says his style of play has stemmed from those experiences.
“That’s part of me. A lot of people wouldn’t have taken up the opportunities to go into the unknown but I enjoy that.
“A lot of people have different opinions on me as a player and a person but to each their own.”
At the same time four years ago, fans would have been unsure of the role Wilkshire was to have as Australia graced football’s showpiece event for only the second time. He now travels to South Africa as an indispensible figure, though he stops short of suggesting he’ll be adding headed goals to his already impressive repertoire, typically satisfied with playing the more modest role of provider rather than scorer.
“There’s many things I can do but heading the ball is not one of my strong points!”
Don’t be surprised though if he answers the call in the penalty area at a crucial moment in June – cometh the hour, cometh the man appears to be the motto for this most unheralded of Socceroos and long may it remain so.
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