It was Jim Fraser, the former heroic Socceroo goalkeeper and current head of Western Sydney Wanderer’s youth goalkeeping program, who some years ago recognised Glenn Fontana’s contribution to football in the Illawarra region by naming him the Lord Mayor of Wollongong.
In his many years as a senior player, senior and youth coach, Fontana has been held in high esteem by generations of former senior and youth players which has elevated him to household name status in the region.
Fontana commenced his long journey in football as a professional with Balgownie in NSW Federation 2 in the 1974 season, graduating to the NSL with Wollongong City where he remained for five seasons , making ninety appearances and scoring over twenty goals. He has been ever present in coaching roles to this day since he retired from playing.
Unlike most Australian coaches who confine their education to home, Fontana had a long term association with Liverpool and Fulham for whom he was Chief Talent Scout for a combined period of seventeen years.
He has crossed paths with many legendary football figures in his ventures overseas but never believed he would meet Wiel Coerver at a Liverpool training session.
At one stage he had two hundred players at his Coerver coaching school in Wollongong.
In this interview with Roger Sleeman, Glenn Fontana recalls his early memories of football on the South Coast, the worship of Jim Kelly’s Gang , Adrian Alston, Peter Wilson and Max Tolson, his experiences as a senior player, adventures in Europe and his love affair with the world game.
What are your memories of South Coast football in your early days, and who were the greatest coaches, influences and idols?
I played my junior football from u/6’s with Balgownie and always had an ambition to play first grade which transpired when George Ramage, the legendary Balgownie and South Coast keeper, selected me in a match against Marconi as a striker in 1974 at the tender age of eighteen
I was fortunately influenced by the great South United flanker, Denis Paterson, who I also played with in the Illawarra League when Balgownie became defunct.
In 1980, I signed for Wollongong United in the NSW State League and was coached by the inimitable Mike Johnson.
When Jim Kelly, the former Blackpool and England B player, who was a team-mate of Sir Stanley Mathews came to Australia in the early 1960’s to eventually become captain coach of South Coast United, football boomed in the Illawarra?
What are your recollections of those times?
It was a famous era in the region when the Kelly Gang would play, particularly after that inspiring win against Apia in the 1963 grand final at the Sydney Sports Ground which drew a record Australian club crowd of 30,158.
It was the day local South Coast products like Max Tolson, Denis Paterson, Peter Beattie and Casey de Bruin came of age.
All youngsters on the Coast aspired to play for the Kelly Gang and Max Tolson was a major idol for me as he personified skill, tenacity and sometimes outright brilliance.
When Peter Wilson and Adrian Alston came to Australia, I witnessed two magnificent footballers who have created such a legacy for Australian football.
Significantly, at the time football was in the psyche as no other sports mattered.
I still remember at the age of six taking the train to Sydney with my grandmother to see the great Ron Lord play in goals for Prague.
I always supported United but always took notice of visiting players like Ray Baartz, John Giacometti, Alan Marnoch, John Watkiss and Mike Denton to name a few.
In the NSL you played ninety games and scored more than twenty goals as a target man for Wollongong City.
Did you like doing all the hard work which was required as a central striker and what were your main attributes?
I originally started my career as a winger because I had genuine pace but I was used as the wide player in a 4-3-3 structure . My first coach at Wollongong City, Ken Morton brought me in to replace the Kiwi striker, Brian Turner, who didn’t fit the bill in the centre of the attack.
I was given my chance in 1981 and scored in my debut game against Newcastle who that day boasted the Leeds United and England defender , Paul Reaney as a guest player.
I was good in the air and had a useful first touch but I was never a dribbler.
I was mainly there to finish or create chances for others.
You never played representative football for NSW or Australia?
What was that next step to play at those levels?
My first touch was adequate and I was good at laying the ball off to team-mates but I only worked on first touch in senior football, not at youth level.
I was sadly lacking in this area and was a late developer and learner.
Technique should be mastered between 10-15 years of age and I was working at striking a ball at 22-23 with Brian Turner, Max Tolson and Adrian Alston.
They made be a better player which made up for the lack of instruction I received as a youth player.
What are your lasting memories of the NSL?
Those five seasons were all memorable as my dream to play senior football at the highest level in the country was realised.
However, the highlight was the third place finish in the 1982 season.
In the final we played St George but were defeated by two goals from the England striker, Ted McDougall .
I was denied a headed goal by former Socceroo custodian, Terry Greedy, who somehow spread himself low into the extreme left hand corner of his goal to parry the ball beyond the goal-line.
What prompted your interest to enter the coaching ranks after your playing career ended?
I was always a keen student of the game and was fortunate to coach youth at Wollongong Wolves and Fairymeadow.
I did my apprenticeship as assistant coach to John Fleming and Dave Ratcliffe in senior football at the Wolves and went out on my own as a senior coach at Mount Pritchard in 1989.
What was your football philosophy?
I emphasized playing out from the back in a passing game with a predominant skill and attacking style.
Also, I was determined to give youth a chance to play at the highest level.
When I was assistant coach at the Wolves in the State League, I introduced Matt Horsley and Sasha Dimoski to the youth team and at Wollongong United , Scott Chipperfield, Mile Sterjovski and Richard Lloyd .
Matt Horsley was one of the best products on the South Coast?
Why was he different to other wide players?
I watched him in a State League match and like Rhyan Grant and Brett Emerton, he had boundless energy and an unique ability to run at players and cruise past them.
I selected him for the Wolves youth team and by the end of the year , Dave Ratcliffe put him into the first team and the rest is history.
I’ve always believed we should be encouraging youth to progress to elite level and Horsley was a perfect example.
You were involved with Coerver training during it’s infancy in Australia and you were also privileged to meet Wiel Coerver in England.
Tell us more.
Football NSW conducted some demonstrations in 2000 and in the same year Charlie Cooke, the former Scotland and Chelsea wizard, came to Australia with Alf Galustian ,the Chelsea youth coach , to demonstrate how Coerver could be implemented into normal training.
Charlie Cooke was amazing and he was instrumental in influencing me to use Coerver in my own coaching from that day on.
I encouraged young players to use it in dribbling e.g. the Cruyff turn , the Beckenbauer inside outside cut and the Rivelino method, especially in small sided games.
Terry Antonis, David Carney and Brett Holman were among the best exponents of Coerver in the NSW state teams I coached .
I met Wiel Coerver by chance when I was watching a training session at Anfield in 2008.
I saw this fellow on the sideline and introduced myself to him and I was in seventh heaven when he told me who he was.
I told him I used his method with my coaching in Australia and we had a great discussion about the finer points of the game.
You were Liverpool’s chief scout for Australia between 2000-2010
How did that transpire and can you relate your experiences?
In 2000 when I was the coach of the NSW u/15’s at the national titles, I met Trevor Gould(son of the legendary Coventry striker, Bobby Gould) who was the Academy Manager at Coventry City.
He invited me England to look at the club setup because he wanted me to represent Coventry and when I went there I was also approached by Sam Allardyce at Bolton. The very next day I was watching Liverpool at Anfield with my old team -mate from the Wolves, Jeff Ainsworth ,and he introduced me to Sammy Lee.who offered me the opportunity to join Liverpool’s scouting network and I agreed.
In that time period, I would spend 3-4 weeks a year at Anfield and meet with Steve Heighway, the Academy Manager, and he made it quite clear to only send the best players to him.
At the time, Nick Rizzo and Robbie Fowler were playing and I also became friendly with U.S. goalkeeper, Brad Friedl .
I was responsible for bringing Dean Bouzanis to the club and it was Rafa Benitez who rated him the best goalkeeper in the world for his age at the time.
After Heighway left, Malcolm Elias took over but he was sacked and went to Fulham.
You were Fulham Chief Scout for Australia from 2011-2017.
Describe your experience at Fulham.
Malcolm Elias enlisted my services and he had a very strong background in discovering talent like Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott.
I took Corey Gameiro over and he stayed for two seasons without making any first team appearances.
Malcolm came to Australia and was very impressed with Bailey Wright playing for Victoria in the state titles.
Unfortunately, Malcolm missed out when Wright signed for Bristol City.
Alex Gersbach was also considered but his commitments with the Olyroos and the Socceroos were always a hinderance.
When Fulham were relegated they dropped all their scouts so at the moment I have no attachment to the club.
However, if they remain in the Premier League , I will probably get work again.
What role are you performing at the moment?
I’m employed by Football South Coast to run the SAP program for the South Coast Flames which I do three days a week and I play a very keen interest in A-League and NPL football.
I’m often asked to write reports on games for local coaches.
The game runs in my veins and I’ve been extremely fortunate to experience such wonderful times in football in Australia and Europe and had the pleasure of attending three World Cups.