Speaking with Soccerscene, the former West Ham goalkeeper opens up on his playing career in Australia and England, his coaching stint with Melbourne Victory, why Australia consistently produces top quality goalkeepers and much more.
First of all Steve, are you currently still involved in the game in any capacity with a club, coaching or anything of that sort.
Steve Mautone: My son who is 12 years old is showing a keen interest in playing and is doing really well. I coached his team last season at Port Melbourne and it really is the most important coaching role I’ve had in my career. That’s it really, apart from running a business that is involved in football.
You obviously played many games in the NSL for a few different clubs…take me back a little bit and tell me about those playing days and how things started out for you in Australia.
Steve Mautone: I was lucky enough to have had a scholarship at the AIS, when that was the football factory in this country for a lot of juniors. I had two years on scholarship there and it was based in Canberra so we played in the NSW leagues. My first games in the NSL were with Blacktown City in the late 80’s, making my debut when I was 19. I played there and also for Paramatta Melita Eagles for a year as well, before having an injury which kept me out of the game for a while.
From there, I moved back down to Melbourne and I was picked up by the Morwell Falcons. At the time they were not in the NSL, but eventually by default the club was put into the national league and I played a couple of seasons straight there. Morwell was fantastic for me and I played fairly consistently there, which lead to South Melbourne buying me.
I had a season at South Melbourne but it didn’t go according to plan. I had stiff competition with Dean Anastasiadis and being a big club, it was very competitive. It was a good learning experience, as you always needed to win at that club.
I then moved to Canberra and played for the Cosmos in their first year in the NSL and during that time they granted me permission to trial in the UK.
My whole journey in the NSL was to try and establish myself and get some experience to go overseas, which I eventually did.
How would you describe the NSL as a competition when you were playing in it?
Steve Mautone: It wasn’t very professional. Stadiums were second rate, crowds could vary from a few hundred to a few thousand, although within the football community it was the pinnacle, the actual competition was second rate – from the media coverage, to the professionalism, the organisations, to the money.
However, in saying that, the standard I thought was pretty high for a number of reasons.
Number one they had a very good youth system, the National Youth League was a pretty good competition.
Number two having places like the AIS and other clubs that produced great players like Melbourne Croatia definitely helped and these young players were using the NSL as a catalyst to get overseas because they wanted to be professionals.
Like you said, the youth development system back then was fairly good, how would you compare the youth ranks in the NSL to the pathways these days with the A-League and so forth?
Steve Mautone: It’s hard to compare because I’m trying to compare different generations. I’m talking about the late 80’s to the mid 90’s, where the game was different and a lot tougher. You had a lot of expats from the UK coming over and they played a hard, British style of game.
In saying that, I sometimes watch old videos and you see players knocking the ball around, keeping possession and doing some good stuff technically.
There are a couple of differences overall, I think.
First of all, my generation was still probably coming off the back of immigrants. Like myself, my parents both migrated from Italy so I was a first generation Australian and a lot of kids were similar in the game. The parents had a genuine love and understanding of the game as they grew up in Europe or South America with football being the first sport. There was a big involvement, from them playing football at home, which was very important. It’s important to learn and play the game in an unstructured environment, as opposed to a structured training session all the time.
For example, I remember just kicking the ball around for hours after a Sunday morning game and because the parents loved the game they would stay around all day until the seniors played.
It’s different times now, most people coached back then not for money but because they just loved the game. Whereas now everyone goes through their licenses, badges (and rightly so, they all want to be paid to coach)- but I just think that passion was different in my era.
The other thing is, although the competition was second rate (NSL) compared to the AFL and other mainstream sports, it probably drove us all to really want to go overseas and once we got there, we had nothing to come back to.
A perfect example is Seb Pasquali – a fantastic player, a great talent. He had probably two or three years of trying to knock on the door at a really young age at a huge club in Ajax and because he didn’t make it, he had a good option to come back to the A-League, both professionally and financially. In our day, if you didn’t make it there, you wouldn’t come home because there was nothing to come home to. You’d keep trying over there and try a different level possibly and then try to get back up where you want to be.
I think overall the A-League has been fantastic for football in Australia, but it’s probably affected the standard because people can be a big fish in a little pond. Whereas in our day you couldn’t really be professional in Australia.
Moving back to your playing career, you eventually got a move to West Ham – what was your experience like in England with other clubs such as Reading that you played for?
Steve Mautone: I was 25 when I went over and it was a dream come true. I was a bit overawed going to an EPL club, but what I noticed was the work ethic I had, alongside a lot of other Australians, was like nothing else over there and the English loved that. I think it’s why a lot of Aussies did well over there.
At the time I went over, it was a transitional period for the EPL. They were going from just being the English game and English coaches and so on, to bringing in a lot of foreigners which brought a European professional influence. Big money started coming in for player’s wages in the mid 90’s, it was a really interesting time overall.
West Ham was a really good experience, I didn’t play many games but I got the opportunity to go on loan to a couple clubs. Firstly, Crewe Alexandra and then Reading, where it all seemed to click in the Championship. Reading eventually bought out my contract from West Ham and although I only played 50 odd games there, it was my home for a few years and was a great experience. I played at a couple of other clubs such as Wolves and Crystal Palace, but unfortunately injuries struck me and stopped my career from further flourishing.
Was there a mentor over there in England or in Australia who you really thrived under and enjoyed working with? What separated them from the rest that you dealt with?
Steve Mautone: I worked a fair bit with Peter Shilton, when I first went to West Ham. Just seeing his attitude towards the game, what was important to him as a goalkeeper, I really took a lot out of that.
In terms of coaches, we underestimate the Australian coaches. Ron Smith at the AIS, was probably one of my biggest influences. In terms of a technical coach, in all aspects of coaching, he was excellent. He was a real student of the game.
Harry Redknapp was a character, he was a really good man manager. He knew how to get the best out of players and create a good atmosphere at the club.
How does Australia compare to your experiences in England in regards to an emphasis on goalkeeping development – do you think we may need to focus on anything in particular or improve?
Steve Mautone: No, I actually think we can teach them a thing or two. It’s changed now, but we didn’t have a dedicated goalkeeper coach at West Ham or Reading when I played. There wasn’t a real emphasis on goalkeeper coaching in England when I was there, so I think Australia is a little bit advanced when it comes to goalkeeper coaching.
In Australia, we’ve always had great goalkeeper coaches, the likes of Jeff Olver, Ron Corry and Tony Franken just to name a few and is probably why we do so well in the goalkeeping department overall.
You moved into goalkeeper coaching with the Melbourne Victory after your playing days – what was that like and what was it like to be involved in Australian football around that period of time?
Steve Mautone: The game experienced huge growth around that time, we were getting huge crowds. I was only telling someone the other day, if we didn’t get 40,000 people to a game, we were disappointed. At the time, the love of the sport was being able to be shared by purists and families alike.
Working for Victory was a fantastic experience, they are by far the best club in the country – they did everything right. From there merchandising, membership and matchday experience…to their corporate stuff off the field.
Historically as a country we have always produced top quality goalkeepers – why do you think that is?
Steve Mautone: Generally, it doesn’t really matter where in Australia you have grown up, you are familiar with a form a football that uses your hands, whether that’s AFL, League, Union or our game. So, we’ve got those strong hand eye coordination skills and they are essentially embedded in us.
We also have strong coaches in Australia and that trend has followed through to each generation.
I also think being a goalkeeper you probably don’t need to be technically as good than your counterparts in Europe. You’ve just got to be brave, agile and physical and I think that’s why we do so well.
One final one Steve, back on a personal note, what would you regard as your biggest personal achievement in football that you really look back on fondly?
Steve Mautone: The biggest and most emotional game I’ve ever played in was my EPL debut. I remember walking off that field thinking no matter what else I achieve now no one can take away from me that I’ve played in the EPL, one of the biggest leagues in the world.
It’s something I’m really proud of, I don’t talk about it a lot, but I am extremely proud.