Adrian Alston might have an English accent but he is one of the most proud Australians you are ever likely to meet.
From the moment he first put on a Socceroos jersey on his debut against Greece in 1969, the Preston-born Alston claims that he “was no longer English”.
He would go on to be part of the first ever Australia side to qualify for a World Cup under pioneering manager Rale Rasic in 1974, conquering Asia and helping his country to win their first ever international tournament in the process.
Hailing from an era where even Australia’s best footballers were part-timers who also had to work virtually 40 hours a week to support their lifestyle and families, the lens through which the former Luton Town striker views the football world is a unique one.
He is perhaps the only Australian to have ever managed to dribble around the legendary Franz Beckenbauer – a nostalgic image for a generation of fans that saw the Socceroos compete in West Germany – a moment that has earned him the respect of 'der Kaiser' ever since.
His international career has taken him through some of the most hostile environments on the planet, where the unbreakable bond that characterised that famous ’74 squad was forged.
Like so many others players of his generation though, his is a contribution that is sometimes forgotten as Australian football moves into a new era, where a reflection upon history is not often a priority.
Goal: Adrian, you were part of Rale Rasic’s national team that conquered Asia on their way to qualifying for the 1974 World Cup. What are your memories of Asian football as a player?
AA: Obviously the different weather, culture, kinds of food; the preparation for us wasn’t the best those days. Back then, only one team qualified from Asia for the World Cup and now the region has 4, 5 places. With the way football is now and with professionalism, the preparation is fantastic and organisation is completely different from our day. I would love to go through it today and be a full-time footballer, though I was lucky enough to get transferred after the World Cup and lived the life of a professional for a number of years – you realise what a difference it makes when you don’t have to work another job.
Goal: How has the region’s football changed since your playing days?
AA: The Asians play completely differently now. There are quite a number of Asians who are putting their countries on the map – [Shunsuke] Nakamura is quite a big name. In those days though, you just didn’t think of leaving Australia, especially to go to Asia. Atti Abonyi and I were offered contracts after we won an Asian tournament with St. George. We played the Japanese B team and national team, as well as two teams from Denmark. Going to Europe was a different story though.
The [Asians] were looking to improve things even at such an early stage and look at their support base now, it’s absolutely wonderful! We played in Iran and there were 130,000 people and that’s still the case, it’s just unbelievable. We talk about Manchester United attracting 70,000 people but we were playing in front another 50,000 [sic] on top of that.
I think - and I’m not saying it in a derogatory sense - the pathway through Asia is now much easier because of those four places at the World Cup, whereas we had to top our group three times in a row. We are much better prepared; the quality of European and Dutch coaches is important, though [Rale] Rasic was light-years ahead of his time. In terms of systems, he was smart enough to play one man up-front against two or three forwards. He played a 4-5-1 system back then and now you see it every day.
Goal: You mentioned European coaches at the helm of the national team in recent times and Rasic’s own leadership qualities. How important is it to have a strong figure in charge of the Socceroos?
AA: To get respect from highly paid and professional players, the figure needs to be stunning, not just a mate and an ex-player.
Goal: Was former national team manager Graham Arnold one of those?
AA: He had a shocking job on his hands really. It’s OK to give him all these players and tell him to go and win [the Asia Cup] but it’s bloody hard; he and [former national team manager] Frank Farina had very hard jobs on their hands. I wouldn’t knock any coach because I’ve coached in the state league and national league with the Wollongong Wolves. I realise what goes on, but respect has to be there at international level – you can’t have players who are far more dominant.
Goal: A lot is often made of Australia’s attitude towards Asia. Words such as arrogant could be used to describe the approach to the 2007 Asia Cup and entry into the Asian Football Confederation. During your playing days, was it a case of fear of the unknown with regards to Asia?
AA: We had such a character in our team that we never feared anybody in Asia. We were convinced we were going to qualify, even though we knew nothing about them. When teams like Iran and Iraq - who were far stronger than they are now - came over to play against us in our group, they were rated favourites to win it. But we didn’t fear them and Australia shouldn’t because of our quality and professionalism. It’s the Australian mannerism: we have to win! We always found that when I first got into the Australia squad for the international against Greece; my schooling at international football is, “I just played Greece, who drew against England, we beat them 1-0” and straight away I thought, “We’re OK!” Yes, we respected our opposition but we never feared them.
Goal: Did the same stereotypes about Asian footballers as smaller and weaker today exist during your time as a player?
AA: Iran especially were very physical - we tend to think of Asia as a smaller race but that’s a load of crap. There are certain who are but as far as teams like Iran go, they’ve got big boys as well. They had a wonderful school of football.
Goal: You’re side didn’t manage to win a game or score a goal at the World Cup, adopting a conservative style of play. Was the team satisfied with its performance in Germany?
AA: Rasic once again was smart enough to realise that instead of opening up against high-calibre opposition, we had to try to keep score down, frustrate the opposition the longer the game went and try to hit them on the breakaway. It actually happened against West Germany after they’d already scored; I got a chance after taking the ball in midfield, I took on Schwarzenbeck, Beckenbauer and shot straight at the ‘keeper! I rushed the shot a bit.
He [Rasic] realised we never expected to get to the next round but wanted an excellent performance from us and we did it. We were no disgrace. Beckenbauer gave me a DVD when he come over to Australia and it showed that moment when I beat him!
Rasic was a bit smart too and took us on world tour for 13 weeks. We had the worst schedule: a game every three days, missing sleep, training, the worst sh** ever but it gave us a battle-hardened mentality after we went to Vietnam, Indonesia, England, Ireland, Iran and South Korea! He always wanted big, tough games, and by going to those places Rasic realised we were starting to come strong. We had that background, built up that momentum and it really helped us. At the time we were ranked with Haiti and they were getting beaten 11-0 by Asian opposition - we drew with Chile, one of the best teams in the world at the time, at the World Cup.
Goal: Describe to us those final moments in the dressing room before you took to the pitch in West Germany. What was being said between the players?
AA: There was one player in our dressing room as we were just about to go out and play, who came back inside, sat down and said, “Bloody hell its packed, there are 70-odd thousand – it’s full!”.
I said, “Sit down you f****** fool - there are millions watching around on the world!”
Before a game we had a lot of different personalities. There were those that were quiet, loudmouths like me having a laugh – we had quite a number of them regardless of the situation. One time in Vietnam the crowd invaded the pitch and were throwing petrol bombs. We went off and our tour guide from Qantas, a lovely man by the name of Tommy, had one smash in his face.
Inside the dressing room, the windows were getting kicked and smashed in, the doctor was washing Tommy’s eyes out but we got on the bus and someone threw a brick through window. Everyone dived on the floor and someone makes a smart remark to nearly-blind Tommy: “Do you want to borrow my glasses?”
Regardless of situation we’d make light of it, though we were probably petrified! That was the thing about us: we always relied on each other.
In Part 2 of this exclusive, Alston gives his views on the A-League, Australia's loss to Kuwait, comparing his '74 side to their successors in Germany in '06 and Johnny Warren...