Well, for the #HolgerOut crew it’s mission accomplished. Which now leaves the far more hard questions that need to be answered open for review, discussion, evaluation.
However, before that complex and multi-faced dilemma is confronted I think it is only fair to look at the past regime under Holger and try and make some sense of where we were, what happened to get us to this point, and the context of Oiesck’s dismissal. I must state as a starting point that I genuinely liked him and unlike many of his critics actually met him and talked about the team and players. I am also happy to put my bias towards any coach who actually gets us to the World Cup finals on the table, considering many who arguably were more charismatic, more responsive to the media or the fans, had better squads etc didn’t. On the other hand I agree 100% with his dismissal at this moment.
So, starting with the obvious question, why was Holger picked and what was the mission he was handed. I honestly believe that the most crucial aspect of his selection as coach was not necessarily his credentials with teams like the West Germans in 1990, Canada or Urawa Red Diamonds. It is a matter of record he had some success with these teams, although that with the 1990 World Cup champions was as an assistant coach to Franz Beckenbauer. Therein lies the crucial factor in his selection, insofar as the close relationship around the time of his appointment between FFA head Frank Lowy and the German legend (and FIFA executive committee member) Beckenbauer.
I believe it is valid to think that Osieck’s appointment, which was guided by personal conversations between Beckenbauer and Lowy was probably influenced by the then FFA bid on behalf of Australai for the right to host the 2018 or 2022 World Cups. I am not saying that it was the sole reason, as Osieck did have some important indicators that related to his potential value for the Socceroos. However as in any situation when the candidates are equal and you have a very powerful referee who may influence your other activities, it is going to be natural to place their candidate ahead of the pack. If I was being very cynical I might bandy around phrases like nepotism, however that is unfair or inaccurate without any concrete evidence. I do believe it’s fair to say there is a slight smell about the original choice however, and I note today that Craig Foster has raised at least the insubstantial nature of the process :
Irrespective of any views on his effectiveness, or otherwise, Osieck was appointed reportedly because Frank Lowy called Franz Beckenbauer for advice, which is hardly a rigorous process. (source)
Now when Osieck was appointed there had already been a reaction against the previous national coaching structures, due in no small part to the failures of the two men who took over the Socceroos after the 2006 World Cup Finals and Guus Hiddinck’s successful reign. Graham Arnold was deemed a failure because of his period as interim coach during the 2007 Asian Football Confederation Cup, and Pim Verbeek had shown an almost monomaniacal desire to offend everyone in the local game. Verbeek had been unwilling to bend to any official or unofficial desire for the national team to be drawn upon either A-League players or transition through a new generation of players. His results during the qualification process through to the 2006 World Cup Finals was efficient and arguably the best ever seen in Australian football history. However at no time did he endear himself to the majority of Australian football fans, journalists and local players thanks to his attitudes, and when the calamity of the 4-0 rout against Germany in South Africa happened he was a dead man walking. Having achieved his key task and got the Socceroos to South Africa there was no more requirement for his duties.
As a point of reference here is the statement from FFA supremo Frank Lowy upon Holger’s appointment:
“They must have demonstrated the capacity to rebuild teams and to work with young footballers and develop them into internationally competitive players, be prepared to work with the national technical director and his department to enhance the elite player pathway program, have proven experience at international level and success in Asia and commit to be based in Australia and work with Australian staff to develop our own leaders of the future.
Holger clearly meets these criteria and comes highly recommended as he has worked at all levels of the game and will combine his coaching expertise and experience with an ability to contribute to the future development of young players and in particular will act as mentor to Australian coaches as we develop our own national coaches for the future,” (source)
When Osieck was appointed he made it clear he was not going to be as dismissive of the local game and the domestic capabilities of the A-League. He agreed to actually live here, and from the get-go he made plenty of the right moves and sounds to the relevant people at the start of his work in the post. Issuing statements like the following”I’ve seen a great deal of good, exciting games in the league and some good individual performances … I’m enjoying it’ and this quote showed Osieck’s more welcome attitude to the domestic game:
“That is why I opted to live in Australia. I’m not a distant coach, coaching a team via computer or laptop, I choose to live in Australia to be close to people, to get an idea about the excellent potential for development and I’m definitely interested. Wherever I go I try to promote the domestic league.” (source)
Over the three year regime of Holger Osieck he made plenty of effort to engage with the A-League and there can be little criticism of his willingness to integrate the leading A-League players into his squads. I recall from my conversation with him that he was well aware of the strengths and weaknesses of Aaron Mooy’s capabilities, and the selection of plenty of A-League players such as Mitchell Duke, Tomi Juric, Jade North, Mark Milligan, Mat Ryan, Michael Thwaite, Archie Thompson among others shows he had a far greater depth of understanding of the best attributes of the local game than his immediate predecessor. Osieck was often seen at A-League games and in hindsight he will be seen to have been the coach to have laid the basis for many a future Socceroo’s international career. For prime facie evidence I would cite the two squads that played in the East Asian Football Federation’s Cup tournaments, the first being the 2012 qualifying tournament in Hong Kong, the second the finals in 2013 and in South Korea. Here is an incomplete list of young players (those under the age of 24) who made their debuts under Osieck in the national team in those two tournaments:
- Eli Babalj
- Connor Pain
- Tomi Juric
- Mitchell Duke
- Josh Brillante
- Aaron Mooy
- Aziz Behich
- Trent Sainsbury
- Craig Goodwin
- Mark Birghitti
- Mat Ryan
Now of course giving such young players as those cited above a start in their Socceroo careers is not necessarily going to mean anything unless they get meaningful exposure to frequent game time, and these young players have not as yet made a significant contribution to the national team’s progress in arguably more substantive games. However there has been a couple of younger players (most notably Robbie Kruse, Tommy Oar and arguably Tom Rogic) who have been given opportunities and mostly stepped up. So to some degree Osieck has met Lowy’s expectations as per his announcement back in 2010.
The problem is that for all these debuts for younger players and all these pathways established for a development of a new team since 2010, the bulk of the heavy lifting when it came time for meaningful World Cup qualifiers, or in several major internationals, was left to the responsibility of senior Socceroos who were part of at least the 2010 squad if not the 2006 outfit. Tim Cahill, Lucas Neill, Mark Bresciano, Mark Schwarzer, Brett Holman, Josh Kennedy, Luke Wilkshire, Mark Milligan, Dario Vidosic, David Carney and Nikita Rukavytsya are still being seen in the green and gold as late as the last qualifier against Iraq in Sydney, or the friendlies which lead to Osieck’s demise against Braizl and France. So in a context where results were seen as the driving force youth was mostly sacrificed for the sake expediency.
It also needs to be said that many of the younger players who should be driving the national team’s progress in the last year have not been able to rise as high or as quickly as everyone as hoped, putting Osieck in the invidious situation as to having to look for answers from some of those old hands who he should have been able to ease out in other circumstances. Two games are very informative as examples of this dilemma,; the 2-2 draw against Oman was saved through the efforts of Tim Cahill and Brett Holman, whilst the final qualifier against Iraq in Sydney came down to a goal scored by Josh Kennedy from a Mark Bresciano cross. It may be that younger players may have not got us into the invidious situation of having the older guys need to ‘rescue’ the Socceroos in the first place in these games, but no one can deny that the results were earned by men who had dozens of games under their belts.
So there was the the Catch-22 situation that Osieck was faced with; he was asked to develop pathways and begin the transition of the team which he did to some effect, however with the importance of results in the World Cup qualifiers and expectations of wins against most opponents in other games driving most of the FFA’s agenda and much of the public perception of the Socceroos, he could never continually satisfy every stakeholder. The praise that he and the squad received for a generally excellent AFC Cup in 2011 where the Socceroos made their first final of a major confederation tournament, or the win over Germany in Germany (admittedly with Die Mannschaft fielding a sub-strength team), or for that matter the performances against Japan in the World Cup qualifiers, the demolition of Saudi Arabia…all these results meant nothing when the cumulative effect of a myriad of factors led to the Brazil and France debacles of the last month.
It has to be said that probably the most striking flaw in Osieck’s management of the squad was that he never seemed to be able to right answers to positional problems that perhaps needed more revolutionary thinking from another coach who could have taken the youth route more consistently. The back four for the Socceroos has been without doubt our recent downfall, and much of the problems lie with the age of Lucas Neill and the absence of a quality dedicated left back. It would be remiss of me to not refer to the continual use of Matt McKay and David Carney in this position, where neither were truly at home. McKay has been probably the most ubiquitous left back however he made his mark in the 2011 AFC Cup through his work in the midfield, not at the back. David Carney is simply incapable of sustained fitness and quality play in a position he is not really suited to. Which leaves the only other options being the likes of Rhys Williams (who has had some serious injury issues), Michael Zullo (who has left FC Utrecht on loan to go back to Adelaide Reds), Jason Davidson (who plays with Eredivisie side Heracles and who has had a less than spectacular start to his Socceroos career), Shane Lowry (who for some reason never made it into Osieck’s starting team) and Aziz Behich (who had some useful game time in the EAFF Cup tourneys).
Then there is the Socceroo captain, Lucas Neill, who in the past few seasons has struggled for regular game time in reasonable quality leagues and teams, and at 36 has definitely slowed. No one can say he hasn’t served his country well, however there is also a pressing argument for his time in the team to be brought to close at the age of 36 for a younger centre back who won’t impede the shape of the defence through lack of space. In this spot I believe Matthew Spiranovic’s development is crucial, as he should be a natural successor to Neill. However, as per other candidates for other positions in the Holger era Spira has not always been able to press his case strongly enough with quality game time in quality leagues.
I could examine every position and every existing or potential candidate for those positions and come up with a myriad of solutions, comments, queries or questions and still not get anything right. Therefore it has to be said that Holger’s situation was far harder than armchair critics like me. Throw in the problematic directives either explicitly or implicitly issued by the FFA under Frank Lowy, and is it any wonder Osieck never could find a settled squad that performed at its peak in the vast majority of circumstances? With injuries or performance levels down in some vital candidates Holger seemed to run into selection cul de sacs again and again, and whilst he was able to cobble together a World Cup qualification the next phase in the Socceroo’s development was badly hamstrung.
Perhaps the most potent or emblematic Socceroo who has risen and fallen through the Holger period is Brett Holman. The former Eredivisie and EPL midfielder was without doubt the find of the Socceroo’s 2010 campaign in South Africa. In the period 2010-11 there were arguably no other players in the squad who has the industry of effort, the skill sets and the ability to turn a game (except perhaps Cahill or Kewell), and Holman should have been one of if not the senior ‘next generation’ players to carry on the legacy of the earlier 2006 squad. However since his move to the EPL and Aston Villa the wheels have well and truly fallen off Holman’s career, and he has returned to a similar position of ridicule that saw him pilloried in social media as ‘Lolman’. The brilliant strike he scored with against Oman in the 2-2 draw in Sydney earlier this year was if anything an imitation of what he should be now, and having seen and met him before that game I can say with some justification that Brett is simply bereft of any confidence in his capabilities or skill. To compound this misreable situation with his move to the UAE domestic league, one can’t sense his career as a Socceroo is probably at an end. Unfit, down on motivation and confidence, displaying only fleeting glimpses of his once very good skills, Holman has been one of the leitmotifs of Osieck’s time in charge of the Socceroos.
So, with a job description that had arguably paradoxical tensions (i.e. World Cup qualification versus youth transition), positional problems and issues with players not being either fit enough or good enough to sustain regularly good performances, a well-intentioned but haphazard youth policy, an early period of success followed by mediocre to horrendously bad results, the senior next Generation players like Holman not really coming on, and finally a personally autocratic style of communicating with the media which certainly put many people off, is it any wonder that Osieck was up for the sacking he got last Saturday morning? Caught between the cross hairs of a football culture in Australia that has developed dramatically increased awareness of what the fans want and don’t want, where the mere act of World Cup qualification is no longer seen as enough, and where the A-League is becoming a senior partner in the public face of football in Australia, Osieck was literally left up shit creek without a paddle by the time the whistle blew in Paris. The tide of football history in Australia turned in the post-2006 era most notably under Holger Osieck and for a man who should have been able to find a new course his ultimate failure was he actually navigated an incomprehensible or effective path for the Socceroo’s future. Obviously any coach lives and dies by the amount of wins they accumulate and perhaps just as importantly how they get those wins. Osieck’s wins and especially his losses seemed to never really indicate that he could take us further.
The verdict on his tenure as coach will be without doubt cruel and arguably unfair, however his regime reflects a missed opportunity for the Socceroos. Our game has gone a long way forward since the dim, dark days of the 80s and 90s, but it now demands more and Holger Osieck could not meet this challenge. Here’s hoping the next man to be our national team’s mentor can rise to the challenge.