THE ATTI ABONYI STORY - PART 1
With a total of 89 Australian appearances for 36 goals Attila Abonyi has done it all for his country. Credited as the only Australian to come close to scoring in the '74 World Cup finals by hitting the woodwork against East Germany, Atti gave his all for his country in a wonderful career spanning ten years. After three World Cup campaigns and three championship medals with St George, Atti's career has been one of outstanding achievement and one that few if any could ever hope to equal.
Atti has left the hustle and bustle of soccer life in the city of Sydney for the easygoing lifestyle of a beachside retreat on the north coast of New South Wales but he still hasn't lost his enthusiasm and love for the game of soccer.
In a recent interview Atti was generous enough to share his time and thoughts on his wonderful career with a sincere honesty that leaves no doubt that he is one of the true champions of Australian soccer.
GS : Members of the 1974 World Cup side made a lap of honour of the M.C.G. at the final World Cup qualifier against Iran. In front of 85,000 how did that feel?
AA : "It was an enormous buzz. I'd never imagined it to be so great. Just to come out and see 90,000 people acknowledging what we achieved. And of course that was the first time since '74 so 24 years had gone by without much notice and then all of a sudden this recognition was a tremendous buzz."
GS : Do you feel its a bit ordinary that every four years the Australian media all of a sudden get interested in the 1974 team and bring you together but between times they forget about you all a bit?
AA : "This was the first time in twenty four years that they've actually bought us together. Its an unfortunate thing I suppose but as far as I am concerned this was one of the best weekends of my life. To be able to see these guys again was tremendous on behalf of the Australian Soccer Federation. It was more than appreciated. But like you said I wish it was more often, but thats the way it goes."
GS : You were born in Hungary.
AA : "Thats right, yes"
GS : And you came to Australia as a ten year old.
AA : "Ten and a half in '56. We left Hungary after the revolution."
GS : Did you play much in Hungary as a kid?
AA : "No I couldn't because back in the 50's you couldn't play junior football competitively until the age of twelve. I started playing at the age of eleven for a little club called St Kilda in the under 12's. And from there I moved to a club called Melbourne Hungaria. I went there at the age of fourteen and played in the under sixteens. Next year I was fifteen and I started playing in the under eighteens and a month before my sixteenth birthday which was July of 1962, I made the senior side. That was in '62."
GS : You didn't make your Socceroo debut until 1967. Did you play many representative matches for Victoria leading up to that?
AA : "Oh yeah, '63 was the first one."
GS : You would have only been sixteen.
AA : "Nearly seventeen, put it that way. The first one I played was in Adelaide against South Australia. And in '64 (it) was my first time ever against an Italian club called Roma. That was in '64, Roma in Melbourne. And probably in the same year in '64, a Russian team by the name of Torpedo. They came out and I played in that too. And from then on it just went on."
GS : At the end of 1967 you went on the Asian tour in the Socceroos squad.
AA : "Yeah we went to Vietnam."
GS : How did you find that trip considering Vietnam was in the middle of civil war.
AA : "Well it was, you're right, it was smack bang in the middle of it. When you look back now we often talk about it, even now with Johnny Warren and guys like that. We just can't believe that it actually took place. We went in October of '67 and the tour was organised months and months before then but because of the war everybody thought it would be called off. I mean how crazy. We heard bombs go off in the background and things like that. I mean here we are in the middle of Saigon playing in a ten nation tournament. Just looking back on it its so strange."
GS : So it must have been extremely difficult to concentrate on the football.
AA : "Well again, you must remember that this particular team was a brand new team. I mean after the games against North Korea in the '66 qualifiers eighty percent of that particular team dropped out completely. Now this new team of '67, the average age was around 21. So basically it was a brand new team (with) guys like Billy Vojtek, Tommy McColl, Alan Westwater and myself, apart from Johnny Warren, Johnny Watkiss, Ray Baartz in fact nobody really played for Australia before then."
GS : You also went on the 1970 Asian tour which included Vietnam. Was that the same experiance with bombs going off, etc.
AA : "Oh no, it was nowhere as bad. But you know it was still Vietnam and somewhere that you didn't feel very comfortable in. I mean as I said we were there to play football and nothing else. I suppose you never thought about those kind of things but now looking back on it you say, Christ, how crazy."
GS : On those sorts of tours what was the training regime on tour like. Was it pretty casual or all very serious.
AA : "Well your now talking thirty years ago and the facilities were absolutely terrible. I mean we had training grounds in Vietnam for arguments sake that now you wouldn't even send a bunch of schoolkids onto train. It was just absolutely pathetic. But again, to play for Australia we would have trained anywhere regardless and we did. I mean we trained on top of a building for example in Vietnam. There was no training facility and we stayed at a place called the golden building which was the name of the hotel we stayed in. It was probably a twenty story building or whatever, ten story building whatever. A great big roof on top and that's where we trained a couple of times because they just could not provide us with a proper training ground."
GS : Who was the Australian coach at the time.
AA : "Uncle Joe Vlasits. He had the team from '67 right up to the end of '69 and Rale Rasic took over in 1970 up till the end of '74."
GS : At the end of 1969 you dropped out a bit from the Socceroos side due to business commitments.
AA : "Well it's a bit of a long story, but I moved to Sydney in '69 and my first child was born in May of '69 and I was just settling into Sydney, new job, etc. And they went away on this particular trip in 1970 and I think they went away for something like six weeks. At this stage I had already had so much time off from work and so forth. I mean back in those days everybody had a fulltime job and virtually part time soccer players, so you couldn't really have so much time off.
GS : But you were back shortly after.
AA : "Oh yeah it was never meant to be a retirement. I explained to Rale at the time that with my first child, the business, settling into Sydney because it was a hell of a move for me as you can appreciate I was still only young. I was only twenty two and I made a move from Melbourne, and geez it was like living in a different world. I was finding my feet, new job and so there were a lot of things I had to attend to, so that was it."
GS : So how did your move to St George Budapest come about?
AA : "It was straight forward. In '67 when I got into this final squad to go to Vietnam we assembled in Sydney and I happened to have Johnny Warren as my room mate. And he of course was captain of St George and one thing led to another and I just mentioned to him one day that I'd love to make a move to Sydney and try my luck at St George. As a kid I used to follow St George and it was such a great club. And the next minute I knew I was talking to the St George committee. But I was still contracted to Melbourne.
Actually I was going to go virtually straight after the '67 tour when we came back from Vietnam but the club in Melbourne wouldn't release me, they wouldn't give me a clearance because again we won the championship, we won the Australia Cup and they wanted to hold the team together. So they really put the brakes on it for a year.
Look, everyone’s ambition back in those days was to play in Sydney because the standard was much higher than what it was in Melbourne and I thought I'd try for two years and it turned out to be twenty years. It was such a great club it was just unbelievable."
GS : St George assembled one of the best club sides ever.
AA : "Actually we were talking about it down there in Melbourne. We had six or seven boys from St George at the reunion so there was always members who were Australian representatives. I mean people like Manfred Schaefer, Johnny Warren, Jimmy Fraser, Harry Williams, myself, Adrian Alston, Bobby Hogg, so we always had quite a few internationals."
GS : And I also hear that at some Australian games at the Sydney Sportsground the crowd would chant St George.
AA : "Yeah! One in particular I'll never forget we played against a team (that had) Yashin the goalkeeper, the great Lev Yashin that played for Russia for so many years and probably regarded as the best goalkeeper ever. Dynamo Moscow came out here I think it was in 1969, in fact my first year in Sydney and Frank Arok's first year in Sydney as well, and he had the New South Wales team and we had nine St George players playing that night. The two exceptions were Ray Baartz and John Watkiss and that was a case of come on St George (laughing) not New South Wales."
GS : How did you find Frank Arok as a coach?
AA : " Brilliant".
GS : People often say he was a few years before his time in that early period in Australia.
AA : "He was. And you must remember that he was only thirty six when he came out here in '69. He was full of aggression, a lot of ambition, he had a lot of European experience behind him even though he was only young and he brought a breath of fresh air to Australian soccer. And he was by far the best ever. Put it this way, I mean he has had his knocks and I know a lot of people don't like him, but players who have played under him and know him I'm sure they will have the same opinion. Frank was Frank. He was a total professional and he wanted the best. The time that he had St George we always won something."
GS : The 1973 World Cup campaign, how did you find that? You struggled a little bit to gain a regular starting spot....
AA : "Well, I did, but that's something I really can't answer.
GS : Was it your form?
AA : "No, I don't think so. You've got to respect that Rale was the coach and he picks the team and its entirely up to him. If he doesn't pick you, of course you don't like it but there's nothing you can do about it. Now whether he saw there was something wrong or he preferred somebody else I just had to accept it and get on with it."
GS : By the end of the '73 qualifying series you had managed to hold down a regular starting spot.
AA :"I came back fully for the game against Indonesia. I think it was six nil and I scored two goals and I had a fairly good game. The only way to answer Rale is to sort of prove him wrong. It was a brilliant team and it wasn't easy getting into the team as a permanent player. You weren't always guaranteed a place in the team. It was a very good squad."
GS : But you were in the team for the final three qualifiers against Korea that got us to the world cup.
AA : "Yes and two against Iran."
GS : Now where were you when Jimmy Mackay put the goal away that got us to the World Cup finals? I guess you remember it fairly well.
AA : "I'll never forget that goal. There it comes, boom thirty yards. He just whacked the ball and it ended in the top corner."
GS : The best goal in Australia's rich soccer history.
AA : "Its funny because I played with Jimmy for a number of years and as much as I admire him I never ever remember him scoring a goal, not even in training sessions. I don't even remember Jimmy or Manfred Schaefer ever scoring a goal during hundreds and hundreds of practise sessions (laughing)".
GS : Was it a dead ball situation?
AA : "No, actually I think it was a free kick that Jimmy Rooney played to him and he just hit it first time. He got a pass from Jim Rooney he virtually caught it on the half drop volley."
GS : I bet the celebration would have memorable that night.
AA : "Oh you've got no idea. You can't describe it. I mean to know that you actually made it to the World Cup and we went through hell as you can appreciate, again you got all the records. The number of games in the number of countries that we had to go through and to play the best in Asia. I mean we had to play THE best, not the fourth, or not the third, not the second but we had to play everybody. Japan, Korea, Iran we had to finish on top to qualify.
Now I'm not knocking the present team but they had to finish fourth to get into France. In comparison they virtually had to finish fourth to qualify. Whereas we had to finish first so again it was extremely hard and I often think I honestly don't know how we made it. Remember all these guys are now full-time professionals. There is not one player in the Australian team playing now who is a part timer. A lot of people don't even talk about or mention that we all had jobs. Manfred Schaefer was a milkman for arguments sake, Peter Wilson was working in a coalmine, I worked as a painter, everybody had a fulltime job and we just played soccer purely on a part time basis. So we were the first and only virtually part time team who ever made it to a World Cup finals where there was only sixteen teams not thirty two or twenty four".
GS : Going into '74. You were a part of the Uruguay series.
AA : "Yes two games. A 0-0 draw in Melbourne and a 2-0 win in Sydney.
GS : That was the first time the world really stood up and took notice that the Socceroos were a world class team.
AA : "Australia had a couple of decent results against visiting overseas teams but that was possibly one of the biggest (results) up to that point when we beat Uruguay in Sydney 2-0. If I remember rightly there was probably two other scores that stand out in my mind. Beating Greece in '69, that was the first time that we beat a European side, and then in '70 beating Greece in Greece 3-1. So there were two, but of course, there was Uruguay because they had won the world cup twice. That was something special."
GS : Do you remember the infamous Ray Baartz incident, when he was karate chopped by a Uruguayan player?
AA : "Oh yeah very much so. I was taking a corner kick at the time and that's when it happened. I went to take a corner from the right wing and Baartzy like everybody else was in the box waiting for the corner to be taken and the guy just karate chopped him from behind. I didn't end up taking the corner kick because everything just stopped. Baartzy went down and the game was held up for five, seven, eight minutes, I don't know. Oh geez, I remember like it was yesterday."
GS : Did the Australian players step in and start anything at that stage.
AA : "To be quite fair I really didn't see it because I had my back to it going out to take a corner kick, and next minute I heard the roar of the crowd and I thought, what the hell is going on? And as I turned around I believe Baartzy was hit and he was on the ground and of course a few players that were nearby saw the whole incident and they all rushed in and there was a bit of a scuffle, but it's up to the referee."
GS : It's hard to imagine something so blatant happening on a football field during an international friendly.
AA : "Yeah exactly! Baartzy went home and apparantly at two in the morning he was totally paralysed. He was rushed to hospital and everybody thought, well, actually, we were convinced and he was too, he'll be paralysed for life."
GS : That incident must have affected the Australian camp as Ray Baartz was one of the regular starters in the Socceroos side.
AA : "Well not only that he was one of the better players. He was one of the oldest players, not in terms of age, but he was with the team right from the word go, like most of us. It was a tremendous blow to the team."
GS : The side then left Australia for Germany via Switzerland.
AA : "Yes, three games in Switzerland. First of all we played, on the way, in places like Jakarta and Hong Kong. We ended up in Tel Aviv in Israel for ten days training camp.
We played against Israel, but it was mainly used as a training camp. Our preperation I think was only the one full international, and from there we went to Switzerland again for another ten days to two weeks as part of our buildup. We played three games in Switzerland all against first division clubs Young Boys, Neuchetal and a third team, three (Swiss first division) club sides. And from there we went on to Germany."
GS : It must have been a bit exciting for a team of part timers from downunder.
AA : "Yeah it was one of those teams that probably only comes along once in a blue moon that not only has good players, but our friendship was just tremendous. It was just like a family. And of course our confidence was growing too."
GS : Was Rale Rasic playing a reasonably attacking game or more a defensive game at that stage.
AA : "I think he was a bit cautious and I can understand that. In the next couple of weeks you'd be facing teams like East Germany, West Germany and Chile. I mean to ever think that Australia would play against West Germany, the best team in the world (with) Beckenbauers and Mullers. So he had to be cautious. In that particular tournament. Haiti I think made it in the '74 World Cup, Haiti and another team Zaire from the south of Africa they were copping eight and nine nils. It sounds silly but to lose only three nil against West Germany again would have to go down as one of the greatest results ever."
GS : And nil nil against Chile was a good result too.
AA : "Yeah thats right! We didn't score in three games but we got a point which I suppose is something, and we played against three extremely bloody good teams. When you think East Germany were the only team to beat West Germany in the tournament one nil so you actually played against the world champions and you played against the team who beat the world champions. Great results.
GS : What happened after the World Cup?
AA : "I called it quits. From '67 right up to '74 you're looking at nearly eight years non-stop and the family is starting to grow so I personally thought that maybe this is the ultimate. You've been to the World Cup, another four years who knows what? Brian Green came out from England (to be Socceroo coach) and saw me at a game at Wentworth Park between St George at Hakoah. I'll never forget that. I had a reasonably good game and he in fact approached me and said, "We've got two games coming up against New Zealand later that month, would you be available?". Anyway we sat down and talked about it, what my chances are, what my possibilities are, and why he wanted me back. He said he was keen and by this time I suppose I was getting itchy feet again and I really wanted to play. I didn't go to Auckland for the first game but I played the second game in Melbourne which we won 3-1."
GS : And you were included in the world tour.
AA : " No, then Brian Green got the bullet after that and Jimmy Shoulder came along. Shoulder was only a very, very young chap at the time. I think he was only twenty-nine (or) thirty. And by this time people like Jimmy Rooney, myself, Peter Wilson were two or three years older than Jimmy. Up to that point he had never had a club side. He was working at the AIS in Canberra. Eric Worthington (the director of coaching for the ASF) actually got Jimmy the job. That's either very late in '75 or early '76. That's when we went on the world tour in '76. We went to England with Jimmy Shoulder.
GS : What was that tour like to be on.
AA : "Well, every trip was brilliant, lets face it. Up to that point I'd never played in England before and we played two games in England. We went to Israel, we went to all the Asian countries so it was memorable."
GS : You'd never had a desire to try your luck in England up to that point?
AA : "Well, back in those days it was unheard of. I think Ray Baartz was the only one who went to Manchester United as a young boy, he had couple of years trial there. Johnny Warren went to a team called Stockport who were in the third division in England but it was just unheard of, not like nowadays. In fact nobody really played apart from Joe Marston who was before our days. Apparantly he went overseas and even played in the F.A. Cup. But he was the only one, it was just unheard of. Of course as much as you wanted to no other (overseas) club never even considered looking at an Australian player. We were a laughing stock, we have to be honest about this. These (current) guys have got the Joeys, the Young Socceroos, the Olympic team.
I had the opportunity back in '75 when Manchester United came out here. Tommy Dockerty invited to me to play for United as a guest player against Queensland. But I was already twenty-eight by that time and he said as much as I'd like to sign you and he wanted to but he said you're too old. You're twenty-eight we're not going to sign a twenty-eight year old guy.
GS : Do you regret that at all.
AA : "Of course you do. From the day I was born I was a Man U supporter and for him to invite me to play for United against Queensland in Brisbane was the only time an Australian player has appeared as a guest player for a team like Man United or any overseas team. So that was probably my greatest achievement on the personal side. We were talking about '74 but that was as a squad. On a personal level that (Man U) would be my greatest memory."
GS : And that was in........
AA : "In '75. They came out here to play. I think they played about six games, played three against Australia and they played the usual Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland and so forth. I think they played four or five interstate games as well."
GS : Did you get to keep the jumper and the gear after the game.
AA : "Oh yeah. He gave me the whole kit which again was a tremendous gesture. Socks and shirts and badges and bags. They gave me everything and really treated me nicely. Great memory."
GS : You've kept a lot of stuff.
AA : "Well that's one thing I have kept over the years but by the same token I have given a lot away. I've got my very first shirt and I've got a couple of jerseys from the '74 World Cup. I've got the ones we swapped against Germany, I've still got a few of those shirts.
GS : You were a part of the infamous "mudbath" 1970 grand final against Yugal.
AA : "Yep 4-0."
GS : Leo Baumgartner coached Yugal. It was one of greatest coaching triumphs.
AA : "Yeah, and the week before we beat them 4-0 to knock Hakoah out of the grand final. We deliberately played Hakoah out of the grand final because we were winning 4-0 after twenty minutes and Frank Arok who was coaching St George at the time virtually told us not to score any more goals. Because had we scored one more it would have put Hakoah back into the grand final and Hakoah for some reason we could never beat. So by keeping it down to four which meant that we played Yugal into the grand final on goal difference and they bloody beat us 4-0 would you believe (laughing). Talk about rain! That game should never have been played."
GS : Tony Boskovic was the referee and everyone except him thought it should have been called off.
AA : "I've got pictures of it! I've still got black and white shots of that game and all you could see is water. You could not kick the ball five yards. You had to lift the ball."
GS : The St George supporters who went out that day say it was one of the worst days in their life to see the side get beaten under those circumstances.
AA : "One of the stories going around was apparantly Tony Boskovic was flying out the next day. He'd been invited to referee a few games in Asia, in some Asian tournament. So he thought if the game was called off on Sunday the game would have to be either replayed on a Wednesday or the following Sunday and he would have been in Asia and he wanted to referee the grand final. Whether it's true or not I don't know, but there you go."
GS : Do you remember your last game for the Socceroos.
AA : "Yes I certainly do. Do I ever. Against Iran in Teheran. In the '77 qualifiers. I knew that was it. By this time I am like thirty-one, I knew this was the end of the road for me (as a Socceroo)."
GS : You were still playing club football?
AA : "Oh yeah, I was playing for Sydney Croatia at the time. I left St George and went there in '77 '78 and '79 three years."
GS : It must have been hard leaving St George after all those years.
AA : "Very hard. It was just a personal thing. My contract was up in '76 and that was the last year of the original state league. The national league was starting up in '77. Manfred Schaefer was the coach at the time at St George and I went into see him about my contract. I couldn't come to an agreement. It was basically as simple as that after eight years, eight wonderful years. You know, that's the highlight of my soccer life, I had a brilliant eight years at St George. Unfortunately I was thirty one at the time and I had to think about myself for a change, my family was growing up plus national league was starting up. It was more demanding, more travelling, more this, more that, but as far as Manfred could see there was no more money for me. We couldn't come to terms and Croatia came along and offered me more money and so I went to Croatia."
GS : And how did you find your time at Croatia.
AA : "Brilliant. Unfortunately we were in state league, Croatia at that stage didn't go into the NSL but it was tremendous. Crowds, we used to average 8 to 10,000 people in 77' 78'. I was there for three years '77 78' and '79. In the three years that I was there we won the minor premiership, we won one grand final, we lost another one and we bombed out in the third one. So we had a very good three years and financially it was very good. Back in those days you were looking at $5,000 being good money. These guys are earning hundreds of thousands now, but who cares about money?
We never played for money always for the love of it. I can just imagine these guys coming back from England earning two hundred thousand or half a million. I wish I was born twenty years later."
GS : So you weren't paid a great deal for the Socceroos.
AA : "We got five (thousand) for the whole World Cup in '74. That's all the games, all the qualifiers, which in total was about thirteen games plus the World Cup included. Five thousand for the whole lot minus tax so we ended up getting about four."
GS : But they supplied all your gear for that.
AA : "Oh yeah, Adidas did. Adidas was like a Nike - by far the biggest sporting company, plus the fact that it was in Germany they sponsored nearly all the teams. Everything was provided by Adidas of course. Not by anybody else (and not by) the Australian federation or anybody. Adidas purely sponsored ninety percent of the teams in the '74 World Cup."
GS : So you got five grand and a lot of memories.
AA : "Yeah, well, more memories. Like Johnny Warren's Christmas card this year said a lot of memories but no money (laughing). Him and I keep in touch and we always have a good laugh about it and good old chats about times but those were his exact words. A lot of memories but no money (laughing)."
GS : From the '74 team, Johnny Warren has been the only player to have a long term career in the media. Guys like Ray Richards and Adrian Alston on television only occasionally and the others like yourself, we don't hear much about you.
AA : "Well I used to do quite a few on SBS, same thing with Les Murray. I moved here in '89, so for the '86 World Cup I did quite a bit there with Johnny Warren and Les Murray. A few guys occassionally, like now, call in for bits and pieces. But like Adrian Alston, you might see him around World Cup time or something as important as the Iran match, but now you won't see him on television for another three or four years. It's just the way it works. That's the pattern."
GS : It doesn't bother you too much.
AA : "Not anymore."
GS : I thought that being Australia's greatest ever soccer team that there would be more of a profile for all twenty two of you.
AA : I know what you're getting at but unfortunately it never worked that way. You're right, because even the ASF to my knowledge has never offered a particular position to a player. I mean, would you like to be involved in the New South Wales or Australian soccer federation as a representative or a secretary or a PR man?"
GS : Or even an ambassador.
AA : "Nope nothing what so ever."
GS : Its a tragedy because I personally feel that your talents as individuals and as a team haven't been utlilised.
AA : "And to be honest with you they have killed a lot of people that way. I now, having been in Coffs for nine years and you might not be able to tell, have lost a hell of a lot of interest for the game. It will always be with me, the memories and all, but soccer to me now is soccer. It's past, it's gone, it's not something that I live for like I used to.
I could talk to you for forty minutes on this topic, why there is so much politics in the game and what I've seen and what I've heard. I have just had enough. There is a lot of politics in the game unfortunately that spoils the game right from junior level up to senior level."
GS : Are you talking about the ethnic side of the game.
AA : "That might come into it too. And of course there's a lot of bickering and in my opinion the game never took the right direction. There was too much politics involved in the game. Back in '74 they said "Right, from now on soccer is going to kick on" and it just died. It just died for the next ten years until something else came along. We had a lot of interest shown and a lot of publicity for the first time, good coverage and certain people, I am not going to name names, but certain people let it all fade away again with politics and bickering. Somebody didn't like somebody or somebody else instead of thinking about the game itself. And there was always a lot of personal conflicts, a lot of personal interests that played in front of more important issues.
I found that at club levels too. If you're a wealthy guy and you didn't know anything about the game it didn't matter, you were the president. Only because you had the money, not because you were interested in the game or you had some knowledge of the game or you had passion for the game. It was because you were well off, and that to me is not the way. I can say that after twenty years.
My last years at St George, I went back as Frank's (Arok) assistant at St George in '88 and '89 so I have been through quite a few clubs and I have, unfortunately, seen the way it's run and you're right, with the ethnic problems too."
GS : You were player coach at Croatia and you finished there in....?
AA : "'79 as a player-coach."
GS : And then where did you go from there.
AA : "Melita. I gave away playing and by this time I was thirty-three. I thought I'd had enough and I just wanted to concentrate on coaching rather than playing-coaching."
GS : Did you have a lot of success as a coach.
AA : "Well, I was at Croatia for three years and player coach for the last two years '78 and '79. We won the minor premiership in both those years. Then I went to Melita in '80 which was my first year as just a coach, not a player. We won the minor premiership (but) we lost the grand final. So that was three out of three if you like. And from there I was offered a full time job at a little club called Riverwood you might remember in the state league. That was a case of a lot of things coming together at the time. I was working for a sports store in Liverpool with this guy Steven Smith (the cricketer) and that particular store folded. The company (All Round Sports) folded completely so I lost my job like he (Steve Smith) did and everybody else did.
And just at that time, honestly, I think it might have even been that same week at the end of the '80 season at Melita. I mean, brilliant. We won the league, we won the grand final, everything was going well, and a brilliant little club, absolutely brilliant club to work for. Nice people, good facilities and I had no intention of leaving. But Riverwood came along, they used to be called Arncliffe Scots but it was the year they changed to Riverwood, and they offered me a full time job.
I couldn't believe it. I was the only full time coach in the state league back in those days (laughing). How could you knock it back? So I took that on for two years as coach.
The first year we finished seventh I think and the second we finished runners up to Croatia. In fact I think that was their (Croatia) last year in state league before they went up into the NSL. So we finished second to them on goal difference. I left them and was offered a job in Canberra in '83 in the national league with Canberra City."
GS : Did you have much success down there.
AA : "I was only there for one year. They offered me a two year contract but I didn't take it because I still had a house and family in Sydney. I moved to Canberra by myself purely to take on this full time coaching job. But I couldn't move my family, my house and so forth. So I said I'll see what happens after one year. I think we ended up finishing seventh on the table and there was fourteen teams in the NSL. It was quite enjoyable, a fairly successful year. They offered me a two year contract. Then it was a case of what do I do? Do I sell up and move to Canberra or what? And that was the year that Croatia came back into the NSL, '84 was going to be their first year in the NSL. So they rang me up while I was still in Canberra and asked would I be interested in taking Croatia again?
So I thought, what an opportunity, I can come back to Sydney and continue full time coaching. I wouldn't have to sell or move. So a lot of things happened and I came back and took on Croatia in '84. And they sacked me (laughing). Typical! Halfway through the season we lost a few games on the trot and bang! Typical soccer. I said to them at the start of the season that here we are playing in the NSL. We're going to be playing against teams like St George, Hakoah and APIA who are really established and brilliant teams and they have already been in the NSL since 1976, eight years in the NSL. You step up from state league into it. (They said) Croatia must finish up the top. I said you're crazy or what?"
GS : Too high an expectation.
AA : "I said this will take three or four years to catch up to these clubs. I virtually took on that team with a pure state league squad with unknown players. Don't get me wrong, they were good players, but they were just like Barnsley in the premier league. First year, poor Barnsley, bottom of the table. Lucky if you survive. If you don't get relegated you're doing well. Next year you do a little bit better. So I said to them it will take time and they said we cannot wait this long, what about our supporters? And I said well, stuff you, let the supporters do the job if that's your attitude.
But that's soccer of course. Who's to go first? It' s always the coach isn't it? So I left and then I started to be a bit (pause), I don't know. It's not because I got the bullet, don't get me wrong, it's part of the game. But when you give up playing it's never the same.
Once you stop playing, believe me it's not the same. Your passion goes. Coaching is alright but its not like being a player. I started to be a bit sceptical about the game (and) the people running the clubs. Because when you are a player you don't give a stuff what the committee says or what they do or what they think (because) you're playing. But when you're involved as a coach you go to these meetings, committee meetings and some of the shit (pause)..
Anyway, I don't want to bore you. That's what happened and then I thought, that's it, I want a break from soccer for a full year completely. That's when I started working for AMP as a rep selling life insurance. Again, Mike Johnson got me the job there and I thought I'm not going to do anything for a full year. And then in '85 Rockdale Illinden rang me up and asked would I coach the team? So I ended up going there. Probably one of the silliest mistakes, but again I wanted to do it. By this time I had a year off and I was starting to....."
GS : Get itchy feet?
AA : "Yeah, itchy feet and I just wanted to be involved and I went along to their little practice ground out at Rockdale. So I was there and one thing led to another and Frank Arok got in touch with me and said "How would you like to come back to St George?" And magic, back to my love. So in '87 and '88 I was back at St George assisting Frank in the national league."
GS : And from there St George went out of the National League.
AA : Well, I left at the end of '88."
GS : And then you moved to Coffs Harbour.
AA : "That's right. I went to see Frank at the end of the year and I said we'd decided to move up north and I was leaving.
GS : And you're enjoying your soccer retirement up there?
AA : "I love it. The lifestyle is absolutely perfect. It's what we like and I'm now involved in things like golf. I'm been a bloody golf fanatic for the last four years. When you're working and playing soccer, training three or four nights per week plus every weekend you've got no time for anything else. So I thought once I come up here the lifestyle is entirely different. But the first year I was up here would you believe I ended up playing soccer for a little club called Sawtell up here."
GS : You actually played?
AA : "I actually played! It was nine years ago so I would have been forty-two. The reason for that is certain guys found out that I was moving up here. Leo Baumgartner was already here for a full year before I moved up."
GS : Is he still coaching up there"
AA : " No, but he was. He actually coached a club for two years, North Coffs, and then he was director of coaching up here for about three years and last year he just packed it up completely. Again, politics. Certain guys didn't want him in the job."
GS : I can't imagine that because he was arguably one of our best imported players, if not the best.
AA : "I'm glad you said that because it took me all this time to tell him. I've known him for donkeys (years) and we've become very good friends, and it took me that long to tell him. When I was a kid growing up he was my idol and he couldn't believe it. I told him he had no idea, when I was thirteen (or) fourteen, he played for New South Wales while I was still living in Melbourne being a little ballboy and when I heard that Leo Baumgartner was coming I couldn't sleep for two nights. Things like that and he's a mate of mine! Incredible! If you had to ask me who was the best player to play in this country, or import if you like, it's Leo. I have seen him play and he was unbelievable."
GS : They used to call him Sabrina because he was like a ballerina with the ball.
AA : "Yeah Sabrina, that's right. Unbelievable, the little professor. I've got his book too, called the Little Professor."
GS : Has he signed it for you?
AA : "Oh yeah, he did of course. He wouldn't be more than seven minutes in the car from my place to his place. So I see quite a bit of him and his wife. We've been there for a barbeque, they come to our place occassionally and we get on real well."
GS : So who would have been the best player you played with? You can pick a few.
AA : "To play with I'd have to mention Johnny Warren of course. For a lot of reasons. His leadership of course, his skills and ability, but more so his leadership and determination. An example to all of us as a player, I mean he was just a 110% player.
So it's a combination of a number of things. Another guy would be Doug Utjesenovic, the right fullback (for St George and Australia) because we had a brilliant understanding and he possessed so much skill. It's a pity that all his life he was a right fullback, which I thought was probably the wrong position for him. He just had so much skill that he would have been a better player, say, playing as a midfielder. Very creative, very skilful, read the game perfectly and we had a brilliant understanding, so I enjoyed playing with him more than anybody else. Those two would have to stand out in my mind, and Adrian Alston up front. Probably those three I would have to mention."
GS : What about the hardest defender.
AA : "Stan Ackerley without a doubt, the bastard (laughing). I'll never forget when I was playing in Melbourne as a young lad of sixteen or seventeen he played for a club called Slavia. I'll never forget the first game, I actually played against him. I didn't even know who the hell he was. He said to me even before the game kicked off when we were lining up, he just looked at me, he was left fullback and I was right wing and a skinny little boy at seventeen year old. He said these exact words - "I am gonna' break your leg before this day is out". Just then I sh*t myself but that was a put-off of course, but he was by far the hardest defender I've faced. But they are all hard, let's face it. As a forward you find every defender hard."
GS : Coaches - Frank Arok the best you have played under?
AA : "Yes, by far."
GS : Even better than Rale Rasic? I guess it's like comparing chalk and cheese...
AA : "I wouldn't say by a mile, but Frank and Rale, those two in particular. I've had quite a few over the years but yeah, those two would have to stand out more than anybody else."
GS : Do you have any regrets on your career at all.
AA : "Oh no, not at all. I am very, very grateful and very lucky at the same time.
You know how you hear players saying "Ever since I was a kid I dreamed of playing for Australia"? To me, that's such bullsh*t. Now again that might surprise you. When I started playing soccer I only thought about the next Saturday's game. If you get selected to play for your club side at first grade level or New South Wales or Victoria it's an extra added bonus. You're not going to think about it from the age of ten.
I never thought I'd play for Australia. That was never my ambition. My ambition was to be a good player, end of story. If you were good enough or lucky enough to get picked it was unbelievable, but I never thought at the age of ten one day I'd like to play for Australia. And I honestly don't think anybody could. It sounds silly and a lot of people sort of look at me and say that's not right. But people will always say that once they've made it. Have you noticed that? It's always when a guy makes the Australian team in any sport he says, "Oh, I had a dream that one day I might like to play for Australia". But you never hear a guy who never made it say, "Geez, one day I want to play for Australia. That's what fascinates me. I just think it's not possible. I think if you love the game and you're good enough and you work hard enough you'll get the benefits out of it. You'll play for Australia, but you can't actually dream about it. I just don't believe it's possible.
Even Bobby Charlton said the same thing! He said, "I was dead lucky to have been picked for England". All he wanted to do was play for Man United and he said, "All of a sudden I got picked for England, I don't know whether I deserved it or not". Now fancy him saying that! And he's the only guy I've ever heard that said exactly what I always thought."
Not frightened to call a spade a shovel, the talented right sided forward who once thrilled crowds on the pitches of Australia now drives golf balls on the north coast of New South Wales. Now firmly retired from the game, Atti adamantly maintains that's the way he plans to stay. An outstanding person both on and off the field, the countless memories he gave all Autralian soccer supporters will be fondly remembered for many years to come.
By Greg Stock