Wilkinson: When I heard about my debut I thought someone was taking the piss

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Sir Alex Ferguson famously said, “Attack wins you games, defence wins you titles.” Every champion team needs a champion defender. No other Australian footballer today comes close to Sydney FC skipper, Alex Wilkinson.

Wilkinson has amassed an unmatched five domestic premierships and been a crucial player in each of the wins.

The early years

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Now 36, Wilkinson is entering his 22nd season as a professional footballer. He started his career as a 17-year-old in the final years of the old National Soccer League, playing for Northern Spirit.

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He played centre back alongside Socceroo legend Alex Tobin and credits his time in the NSL as critical to his development.

“The NSL was great,” Wilkinson told The Football Sack.

“It doesn’t get talked about enough, it gets forgotten – but it was a quality league. There were quality players playing week in week out, and the standard was very good.

“The main difference between the NSL era and the A-League era is the professionalism of the game. All clubs are now full time.

“In the NSL not every club was training every day; some were doing three to four nights a week and players still had jobs. That is the biggest difference – the professionalism.”

The end of the NSL in 2004 temporarily spelled an end to top-level football in Australia. Wilkinson spent his time between the end of the NSL and the start of the A-League working on a delivery truck for The Good Guys, and behind the counter at a surf shop.

“It was a hard time,” he said.

“I was lucky: I was young, I was still living at home, I didn’t have a mortgage, I didn’t have a family, I didn’t have kids. For the guys that were older and had all of those things – for the league to stop was very difficult.

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You go from having an income to not having anything for 12-18 months.

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So the announcement of a new A-League by Frank Lowy was music to the ears of professional footballers in Australia.

Wilkinson, who was biding his time playing for Manly, secured a contract with Central Coast Mariners – coached by McKinna – in the inaugural A-League season.

Always a natural leader, he was soon their captain. And, at just 22, he captained the Mariners in the first A-League grand final.

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He looks back on his time in Gosford fondly.

“The first year was fantastic,” he said.

“It was the first time a team had been in the Central Coast. We did a lot of work in the community to embed ourselves and it was a really successful season on the field as well.

“To be able to make the grand final in the first year was a great ride. It was unfortunate we couldn’t go all the way and win it, but no one expected us to do as well as we did.”

Off to Korea

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Following seven successful seasons in the A-League, Wilkinson secured a move to Korean powerhouse Jeonbuk Motors.

Many Aussie footballers go to Asia and struggle to adapt – but that is not the Wilkinson way. He embraced the culture, and thrived.

“As a foreigner coming in you are expected to be better than who they have locally, and you are expected to perform every week. If you are injured or constantly have niggles, they can get frustrated and try to move you on,” he said.

“If we had a game midweek and we didn’t win, when we got back to the clubhouse the coach would say: ‘everyone has to stay here at the clubhouse until we play our next game.’

“I lived 10 minutes from the training game and my missus couldn’t understand why I had to stay there while she looked after my young son. Things like that you never get that in Australia – you have to get your head around it and roll with the punches.”

Wilkinson’s time at Jeonbuk was successful.  In four seasons, he played the majority of games and won two K-League titles.

Wilko becomes a Socceroo

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Wilkinson finally debuted for Australia as a 29-year-old in 2014 – a World Cup year.

“My debut was in March 2014 and the next camp was the World Cup camp,” he said.

“I got called into the 30-man squad in Terrigal. We played South Africa and the squad had to be cut down to 27. We then flew to Brazil and played against Croatia, and it got cut to 23. I was expecting to get a tap on the shoulder the whole time and told to go home. But all of a sudden, I’m in the final 23.”

Wilkinson started in all three World Cup games in the Socceroos’ ‘group of death’, against Chile, Netherlands and Spain.

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“It was the highlight of my career,” said Wilkinson.

“To get to play every game was something I never expected and was an unbelievable experience.

“You walk out against Chile – you hear the national anthem – then you’re playing in the World Cup. It was a fantastic time.”

Wilkinson has played 16 times for the Socceroos. So does he have any regrets?

“Not at all. I pretty much got to the stage where I thought I would never get a single cap,” he said.

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“When I got the message in Korea from the team manager that I had been called up I thought someone was taking the piss.

“To play one game, let alone 16, was an honour for me and it’s something I’m proud of.”

Success at Sydney FC

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Since returning to the A-League – initially for a brief stint with Melbourne City – Wilkinson has won seven trophies for Sydney FC in a period he calls the most successful of his career.

“I never would have thought – coming back five years ago – that it would be this successful. It’s been an unbelievable ride. Every year in the past five seasons we’ve won a trophy,” he said.

Wilkinson puts much of this success down to the culture at Sydney, which he describes as a “family first, person first culture.”

“Everyone is a good person,” he said.

“When the staff is looking at bringing in someone new, they do a lot of research on the individual before looking at the ability. That makes a difference.

“If you have a strong culture in the group and a group of players who get on it makes the difference on the pitch. You want to work for that person and go the extra mile for them.”

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Wilkinson is approaching his 37th birthday but he continues to play almost every game and is still one of the most consistent defenders in the league.

In 304 A-League games, Wilkinson has never been sent off.

Much of this is due to his ability to read the play, and communicate effectively – skills he said he had honed over time.

“If you can communicate effectively you can save yourself a lot of running,” he said.

“It’s one of the most important parts of being a defender – reading a game and positioning yourself well. If you do that, you can avoid tackling and finding yourself one-on-one where you can be left vulnerable.”

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Looking ahead, he would love to see the fans return in numbers to the A-League.

“After playing last year in front of no crowds – it takes playing in front of an empty stadium to realise how important and how crucial fans are,” Wilkinson said.

“It makes such a difference in the game.

“We need to find a way to get them back. At one stage they were unbelievable.”

Wilkinson is studying a Master of Business and said he would like to go into sports administration when his career ends, but retirement was not on his mind.

On Saturday, Wilkinson headed a crucial late goal to lead Sydney to a 2-1 win over the Newcastle Jets.

It was his first goal for Sydney in 122 appearances and he celebrated in true ‘Wilko’ style – by shrugging his shoulders – before calmly returning to the halfway line to ensure his team saw out victory.

Feature image credit: Keith McInnes

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Adam Sheldon
Adam Sheldon
Full time football addict. Passionate about any sport with balls. Covering Sydney FC A-League and W-League teams for the upcoming season.

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