During his years coaching Northern Spirit and the Mariners (and also while General Manager of Football), Lawrie signed an impressive list of players who went on to play for the Socceroos and/or have successful careers overseas. Lawrie’s Socceroos include: Mat Ryan, Mark Milligan, Bernie Ibini, James Holland, Trent Sainsbury, Michael Beauchamp, Alex Wilkinson, Matt Simon, Ollie Bozanic and, of course, Mile Jedinak – the Socceroos and Crystal Palace captain. There was also John Hutchinson who became a Maltese international, and others he signed include: Mustafa Amini, Danny Vukovic and Michael McGlinchey. These players are household names today and all have one thing in common – they were given a chance in professional football by Lawrie who must have the best Socceroo conversion rate of any A-League coach.

I’ve said from the start that I never really had a huge amount of footballing talent myself. I was big, fast and strong in the air but that’s about it. Still, I managed to make the best of what I had which enabled me to compete with far more gifted players. And while I may not have shared their gifts – I certainly knew a gift for football when I saw it.

*     *     *

Without a shadow of a doubt, my greatest success story was Mile Jedinak. The hair rises on the back of my neck just thinking about what that boy’s achieved and I couldnae be prouder that I got to help him on his way.

Back in 2006, I got a phone call from an old mate Nick Vravac – a board member from Sydney Utd (where I’d been assistant to Davy Mitchell). Nick said to me: ‘Lawrie…you’ve got to have a look at Mile.’

‘Who the fuck’s Mile?’ I asked[1], but I knew Nick to be a good judge so was prepared to listen.

‘He’s got the ability to play at any level,’ said Nick, ‘but he’s a bit shy. Will you give him at least three training sessions to see if he’ll come out of his shell and show you what he’s got?’

So I invited young Mile along for a few training runs and it has to be said: he didnae set the world on fire. But he was certainly competent, so I invited him to keep coming. He wisnae being paid for it and, in fact, it was costing him. He had to drive up from Western Sydney for every session and was still working for his old man (John – also a board member at Sydney Utd) as a builder.

Very slowly, young Mile started to impress me. He was big and fearless – strong in the tackle and good in the air – he also had rockets in his boots when it came to shooting but there was no room in the squad. I would’ve had to let someone else go to make room for him and that’s not my style. So Mile kept paying his own way to train and I think he was fairly close to packing it in to concentrate on building. He probably reached his lowest ebb when we took him up to Toowoomba to play in a preseason game against the Roar. The night before the match, we’re out for our usual post-dinner stroll and Mile approached me and said: ‘Gaffer…I don’t feel too good.’

Next day he was so sick he couldnae even go to the game and had to stay in the motel until we came back to collect him for the flight home. I could tell he was very low and obviously thought he’d missed his chance, but his chance did come just a few weeks later when I needed to sign a short term injury replacement. I rang Mile and said: ‘Are you ready to play?’ and he made his A-League debut against Newcastle.

Before the game I said to him: ‘I believe in you Big Man. You’re not gaunny be judged on just one game so enjoy yourself. Win the ball and pass it to one of our blokes…like you do at training.’

Well, that’s exactly what he did. He had a steady game in a very demanding position and in particular I remember his ball winning abilities. You’d think the ball was past him but then his legs would shoot out like Inspector Gadget and somehow we’d be back in possession. Lyall Gorman said to me after the game that he wisnae impressed, but I disagreed. I kept playing him and, just like he did at training, Mile slowly came out of his shell and by the end of that first season had not only become a fixture in the team, he was dominating the midfield in every game.

The following season he was on a full contract and had a proper preseason for the first time as a professional. I think his dad was still expecting him to pack it in and become a builder but 2007-08 was a watershed year for young Mile Jedinak. He was one of the best midfielders in the League, scoring a couple of goals along the way – including an absolute bomb from distance. He also made his Socceroos debut in a team picked by Pim Verbeek, who was notoriously dismissive of A-Leaguers.

His third season was his last for the Mariners. He was once again dominating the league and had scored six goals in fifteen games when his agent, Leo Karis, broke the news: there was an offer in for Mile to go to Glencerbirligi in the Turkish league.

Good news for Mile but devastating for me. In December we were sitting third on the table and playing good football, but Mile was the key to it all. He’d become the glue that held the team together – everything was built around him – and I knew we’d struggle if he left. But you can’t hold back ambition in a salary capped league. Mile had cost us nothing and had given a lot. It was therefore only fair that we recognised his contribution by standing aside and letting him chase the dream in the big leagues of Europe.

Mile, to his credit, was pretty upset about leaving the team in the lurch but the door had opened for him – he had to take his chance – and while the Mariners received about $800k transfer fee, it scuppered our season. We barely limped across the line into the semis and didnae trouble the statisticians after that. And yet the team was still overjoyed for Mile.

Mind you, he found it very hard to establish himself in Turkey. Shortly after he arrived there was the dreaded ‘change of coach’ situation so Mile found himself frozen out and was sent on loan to a small club: Antalyaspor, where he played well enough to be invited back to Genclerbirligi, but by then was a free agent. He spoke to Rangers and was offered a contract but, like Wilko, knocked them back. I think he thought it might be a mistake (as a Catholic) signing for such a famously Protestant club – but even so. A second of my players had knocked back the club of my boyhood dreams and it was doing my head in!

Eventually Mile signed for Crystal Palace in the English Championship and we’ve all watched on in pride as he became captain and then led them into the Premier League. He then replaced Lucas Neill as Socceroo captain and has led Australia in a World Cup and then lifted the Asian Cup in January 2015. For his next trick he led Crystal Palace out at Wembley for the 2016 FA Cup Final against Manchester United, which was truly hair on the back of the neck time for me. Lifting the FA Cup would have to be close to the most cherished daydream of any young footballer and Mile was only 12 minutes away from doing exactly that…

He didnae get to lift the Cup but what he’s achieved in ten years is an absolute inspiration to any young bloke out there who wants to be a professional footballer. If you want it bad enough and are prepared to put in the hard work, there’s every chance you’ll get there in the end.


Extract from Political Football: Lawrie McKinna's Dangerous Truth by Adrian Deans

Adrian’s latest book The Fighting Man is in the shops right now or available through Booktopia. Adrian also wrote Mr Cleansheets.

[1] Or ‘Mike’, as he’s known to Tony Abbott.