Socceroos great Gary Cole feels it is now time to “find a way to heal” the wounds of the past and move forward for the good of the game.
In a wide-ranging interview with Soccerscene, the former NSL striker believes FFA CEO James Johnson is the right man to lead Australian football into a new era, incorporating “the best of both” the old NSL and A-League.
“I think James has been an absolute breath of fresh air,” he said.
“You couldn’t have wished a worse start on a person to take over that role.
“My hat’s off to him and I just can’t applaud him enough for the start he has made and his willingness to listen and engage.”
Cole remains involved with the game in some capacity, after being elected as a member of Football Coaches Australia’s Executive Committee, late last year.
The 64-year-old has a strong belief that coaching education in Australia needs to improve and was a major factor behind his decision to put his name forward for FCA.
“Coaches have never had a seat at the table (in the game) for the last 30 odd years,” Cole said.
“Today (with FCA), we’ve got a good working relationship with James, Chris Nikou and the FFA board.
“We are talking regularly, having zoom meetings; they understand that coaches are an important part of the game. It’s absolutely terrific.”
Throughout his coaching career, Cole would go on to be an assistant to Socceroos coach Frank Arok, as well as managing various clubs in the old National Soccer League and Victorian Premier League.
The ex-Heidelberg player admits he was fortunate to land his first coaching gig, as an assistant to Ron Smith at the AIS in 1987.
“I was always going to go into coaching and I was incredibly lucky that in my last year of playing as a 30-year-old at Preston, I went and did my Senior License (equivalent of an A Coaching License today).
“That was at the end of my career, then within six months I applied for and accepted a role as Ron’s assistant at the AIS. So that was absolutely incredible.
“At the age of 30 I had a full-time job in coaching and I have to say at the time I didn’t realise how lucky I was to do that.”
The mentorship he received and experience he gained from working alongside Smith, has led Cole to question the way Australia develops coaches in recent times.
“I had an incredible coach and mentor in Ron who I worked with day in, day out. So, not only did I just complete a coaching license, I got to practice on a daily basis with someone there who would coach me as a coach and answer my questions.
“When I left and came back to Victoria because my mum developed cancer, I coached Heidelberg in the old NSL and I still had my coaching mentor on the other end of the phone.
“Nowadays, most modern coaches don’t have that.
“We’ve done a terrific job at getting thousands of coaches through coaching courses. But, getting a coaching license is a bit like being an 18-year-old and getting your driver’s license, it gives you access to the roads but it doesn’t make you a great driver.”
The AIS program was recently brought back into focus after a panel of six former ‘golden generation’ Socceroos heralded the setup and its role in their football development, in a recent Optus Sport discussion.
Cole echoed their sentiments claiming “It was integral to the development of players at that point in time.”
“Those guys all had wonderful talent but what Ron Smith did was turn the AIS into perhaps the best professional finishing school for athletes that we have ever seen.
“It was a wonderful opportunity for both players and coaches to develop and I was very sorry to see it go.”
When quizzed on the possibility of a reformation of the program, the Socceroos goal scorer believes the ship has sailed on that front, due to the current structure implemented in the game.
“Most countries around the world now have some sort of national coaching setup and some of those have a system like Clairefontaine in France, which is still there,” he said.
“But we are so different.”
According to the former Socceroos assistant, a country such as Belgium which is much smaller in size, makes it significantly easier to introduce a national setup.
That’s not the case in Australia, however.
“Here, we are so vast in distance and travel. I think it would be very difficult, because the model has been…to help A-League clubs develop academies and then…help NPL clubs develop academies.
“There are challenges around the depth and quality of the coaching talent, as well as getting kids in there. It’s not simple to answer.”
After an extremely decorated playing career in the NSL and the Socceroos, Cole looks back fondly on his time in the old national competition.
Memories of his playing days at Heidelberg stick out vividly in his mind, particularly the large crowds that would gather for matches against South Melbourne.
“It was a tough competition, played in smaller stadiums. We would have 15, 20, 25,000 people at Middle Park or Olympic Park (against South Melbourne).
“It was a real derby like Liverpool against Everton. You could have a terrible season, but if you won the derby then you are everyone’s hero.
“There was a great passion to it.”
Most NSL clubs at the time were ethnically based, which created distinct atmospheres at the grounds.
“You can remember the sights and sounds,” Cole said.
“Will Hastie (Executive Manager of Football at FV) and I were having a conversation last year, (saying) you could remember the smells from the different cultures.
“That multicultural background that it gave us was absolutely incredible.”
Cole described the transition between the end of the NSL and start of the A-League as a divisive period, which the game must now, after 15 years, finally try to put to bed.
“I loved the NSL, but so much was made out of the crowd trouble. It was bad at different times and that was a part of killing it off unfortunately.
“But by the same token, (when the A-League was created) it became ‘old soccer against new football’. It drove a stake in the heart of the game and developed this disconnect straight away.
“Not only because the (NSL) clubs couldn’t play in the top division, but we did away with the history. It was like the history of Australian football, for a long time, kicked off in 2004.”
In that year, Cole was appointed Melbourne Victory’s inaugural Football Operations Manager, a position he would hold for seven years, with the Victory winning two championships in that time.
There were certainly challenges in that period, including a board which was initially not comprised of football people.
Speaking about his time at Victory, Cole said it was “perhaps the most exciting and remarkable thing I’ve ever done.”
“I’m blessed that Ernie Merrick came on board. We brought in some great players, we developed some great talent and I’m very proud of that unique opportunity.”
Whilst a fantastic achievement, it would pale in comparison to the proudest moment in his football career.
“I can close my eyes and think about my first game for the Socceroos, standing on the pitch before the game against Greece in Melbourne.
“When you stand there with a green and gold shirt on and the national anthem plays, the hair on the back of your neck stands up.
“And then, you realise you’ve got an opportunity to represent your country.
“I’ve got a lot of things to be proud about in the game, but that for me is by far and away perhaps the best day.”