NG: Mike, for those who don't know you, can you give the public a brief history of your playing and managing career?
ML: I went to Everton straight from school in 1968 and made my debut there in 1971. I stayed at Everton until 1982 and was captain of the side for some 8 years. I was then transferred to Sheffield Wednesday where I had Jack Charlton and Howard Wilkinson as a manager. There, I stayed for 3 1/2 years as captain and helped the team to be promoted to the 1st Division (today's Premier Div). Whilst there, Wilkie made me player/coach of the team. Next, I spent two years with Grimsby Town as a player/manager and then I returned to Everton as a coach. To conclude my time in England, I had a spell at Huddersfield Town as assistant manager.
For the last 2 1/2 seasons I have been the Brunei national coach, with the team playing in the Malaysian League. When I started there, the crowd size was 1-2,000. When I left it was 10% of the population or approximately, 25,000. Three months ago, I moved to Canberra, to take up the position of coaching the Canberra Cosmos.
NG: The Canberra Cosmos are a new team to the National League. What do you think are the prospects of the team?
ML: With a lot of hard work and if the players respond, we can compete for the first season. We intend to try and establish ourselves in the league as no pushovers and we have the added incentive when certain managers say “we are the whipping boys”. I like a challenge. There is a need for everybody to get behind the team.
NG: There are a few players still missing from the team. How do you think they will fit in and how long would you expect before we see the strongest lineup?
ML: I've tried to build the preseason sides around knowing what I've got to come in so that they will fit in when they arrive. Obviously, this won't be instant. It will take a while, but I hope it will progress steadily.
Out of all the managers I have played under (Harry Catterick, Billy Bingham, Gordon Lee, Howard Kendall, Jack Charlton and Howard Wilkinson), probably Howard Wilkinson has had the most effect on me. I believe that no matter what a player is, Wilkie would always be able to extract the most out of that player, even in some cases without the player knowing it himself. So, it will take a little time to educate the players to do what I want them to do.
NG: A number of your players have been obtained from the local league. What is your impression of the standard of play in Canberra?
ML: I think it is a pity that Canberra has not had a National side for the last few years and because of this we have fallen behind. It's not only one grade of football, but two as we didn't have a side in the NSW State League this last season. This I hope to rectify, with Canberra Deakin as the obvious team. Because of this, my players have lost, in some cases, 5 to 6 years of their National League playing careers. Examples include Marko Perinovic and Jason Dunn. So, for these players it's a great opportunity to show what they have and thus also a great incentive.
Throughout the National League, there are not many players playing who were born in the ACT; you could probably count them on one hand, although I must say how we have a great advantage as the AIS is based in Canberra and I hope I can keep some of their players. I think that Ron Smith has done an excellent job at the Institute and my own opinion is that the boys at the Institute should have to stay there until they are 22 or 23 and be allowed to play in the National League as a young Australian side. Notice I say Australian. I think it's crazy why the Australian National team can't be called Australia and soccer is a word I hate, but to me it will always be football.
NG: What are the prospects of players in Canberra? Is there a need for scouting? What are your thoughts on a recruitment system and how young should we be looking at?
ML: I look upon the Canberra Cosmos as being the International team of the area, in as much as players play for Everton or Liverpool, and teams should be proud to have players selected for the Cosmos who are representing the ACT and the surrounding areas. With this in mind, the captivity is not just around Canberra, but spread to places like Goulburn and Wagga Wagga and we are looking for centres of excellence all over the areas which we are covering.
My first objective is to be able to train the best youngsters from all the sides in Canberra. An example would be to put together the best 12 year olds from each team, so that they can stay together in the long-term. If the best train together they will become better. This would carry on through for all ages. There would be appointed local coaches to get involved and hence keep everyone together throughout the years.
Every training session I have invited coaches to come. I like people to be involved. The more involved the better. The Cosmos is not a closed shop. People in the city should know what's going on. I want this to be a community club.
NG: From what you have seen, what are your thoughts on the backing of the Canberra public for football?
ML: I think that from what I have seen, all the clubs are very keen on football. Juventus has a spectator who does cartwheels across the pitch when the team wins. Enthusiasm like that makes me feel i'm back home in Liverpool. To be very honest, we have not had the coverage I would have expected but to be fair it is for us to warrant that coverage, but sometimes a little bit of enthusiasm for football would help.
NG: To improve on this, is there anything in the pipeline, with regard to promotion, to help get the public more interested?
ML: It's our job to make sure that when the people come they get value for money. This in mind, I hope our matches would have a good atmosphere. There will be functions after the games and a number of promotions have been planned for during the games. We'd like to see a good family and social atmosphere.
NG: Looking more general to Australia, football, in the senior ranks, does not have the high profile as enjoyed by sports like Rugby Union, League and Australian Rules, yet it is the most popular sport amongst youngsters. What would be your suggestion to reverse this?
ML: Where I'm from in Liverpool, within 15 minutes, depending on how quick I drive, I can get to 4 Rugby League clubs, namely Wigan, St Helens, Widnes and Warrington. I have never ever had a desire to go to watch and of these games but since I've been in Australia, the support, advertising and enthusiasm for League on the television and in the papers makes me feel as if I'm missing out. I'm sure I will become a confirmed Raiders fan because everything about the advertising is enthusiasm and fun and they build the characters from within the game. Whoever thought of the Tina Turner advert should be knighted for services to Rugby League.
The beauty of Rugby League is that they are all Australians who play it. The problem with football is that everyone wants to retain their nationality. So, bearing this in mind, I would like to see a massive advertising campaign on television showing 5 to 6 Australian national players, all originally descended from different countries, saying “I'm Joe Bloggs, and I'm proud to play for Australia”.
For the younger level, everybody needs a hero, so there is a need for a higher profile for players. The Cosmos need to fulfil this role. It's no co-incidence when Seb Coe and Steve Cram were winning everything in middle-distance athletics that everbody wanted to become a miler. My hero was a boy called Jimmy Gabriel who played for Everton and so much so I had my confirmation named called James. It's healthy to have heros.
NG: Australia has had a number of good results on the international scene including a trip to the World Cup in 1974. What are your thoughts on the general standard of play? Do you think football in Australia has improved in that last 20 years and finally, the never ending question, how do we stop the continuous drain of players to Europe?
ML: One of the main things that attracted me to coming to Australia was the enthusiasm and dedication of some of the players that I'd worked with. An example is Jason Kearton, a young goalkeeper from Brisbane, who one day walked into the Everton training ground at the age of 19 and asked for a trial. It was a pleasure to take him training because of his enthusiasm and now he is understudy to Neville Southall at Everton.
Brian Bothwell, a Melbourne lad who plays for Morwell, was playing for me in Brunei. His attitudes and standards were excellent. Also, the best players in the Malay League are all Australian imports. So, that was one of the reasons I came to Australia.
Now that I'm here, some of the attitudes in the local leagues are very disappointing and I think a lot of the players need to grow up a bit. There's far too much bickering and moaning between themselves and the referees. It's strange when you've played with world class players, why is it that their attitude and gentlemanship is far superior to much poorer players.
As I've stated before, for football to really blossom in Australia, we need to strive for full proessional clubs, professionally run with better facilities all around. I have only seen a few grounds at the moment, but from what I've seen, English non-league grounds are more professional. With that in mind, we have to strive to get better attendances and we all have to pull in to help each other to achieve this. If it means better behaviour or less spoilt players on the pitch, then so be it. We can only achieve a full professional league if we keep our best young players.
I think it would benefit Australian football if we have a rule similar to one that they have in Eastern Europe where a player can only leave if he has reached a certain age. Politically here that's impossible. If we could keep our best players until 23 and state that if they do leave too early then they can't play for Australia. Also, those chosen for the AIS should be signed on by the ASF and play in the National League for the AIS, then if they do leave at 22 or 23, the money would go back into the ASF to help develop future players, stadia and facilites.
At the present moment you cannot blame youngsters for wanting to be full-time professional players. It was the big thing when I was a lad to be a professional footballer. While we do not have a full professional league in Australia, youngsters will always want to go where they can be, as we say in England, a PRO'.