Melbourne-born former EPL left-back Tony Dorigo on winning the English top flight title, World Cup football with England and not playing for the Socceroos.

Picture the scene. It is the early ‘80s and you are a 15-year-old Melbourne-born youngster living in Adelaide with a desire to craft a career in professional football. Your country’s National Soccer League hardly offers the glitz and glam that aspiring footballers crave. What do you do then? Simply write a stack of letters to English top flight clubs and hope for the best? That is what a young Tony Dorigo did and it worked out surprisingly well for him. “I wrote my CV out and sent 14 letters to the top 14 teams in England,” says Dorigo.

“I then waited. A few weeks later I received just one letter, from the previous season’s champions, Aston Villa.” Aston Villa said Dorigo could have a four-day trial if he could get himself over to England. “People always ask what I put in the letter. Put it this way, it was longer than War & Peace – including several pictures!”   

Dorigo was reared in Australia on a diet of English football on the television and those square eyes burned a desire to succeed on foreign shores. “At school they would ask the three careers you might want to do when you grow up and I used to put: professional soccer player, professional soccer player, professional soccer player,” says Dorigo. “I never wanted to do anything else.”

Born of an Australian mother and an Italian father, Dorigo played for South Australia in all of the age groups, being utilised on the left-wing or up front, which explains how the eventual free-scoring left-back we came to know in the English league gathered his attacking impetus. “I used to score a bucket-load of goals [in Australia]. It used to be the big kids at the back and the little ones up front, but when you get into the pro game, the ones at the back need to have the speed and skill too.”

The Villa trial was a success, as the side from the English Midlands saw genuine potential in this ambitious Aussie. “Going to Villa from Australia was like a dream. All of a sudden I was at the English Champions who had also won the European Cup in 1982. I found myself at the best club in Europe! I got better and better, I signed a professional contract and at 18 I was in the first-team.”

The sharp rise of this Aussie youngster did not go unnoticed back home. “At around 18 or 19 Australia approached me to see if I wanted to play in their World Cup qualifiers,” says Dorigo. “I thought that was fantastic, so I went into the Villa manager Tony Barton to tell him the situation. Australia has some crazy games, against the likes of Fiji and American Samoa, basically some dodgy Oceania games. Tony Barton looked at me and said: ‘Tony, you have just got into the first-team in the English First Division, we have got Manchester United away and Liverpool at home coming up and you want to go away for five weeks to play the likes of American Samoa?’ He basically laughed me out of his office and told me I was not going to be joining up with Australia.”

Australia would not get another chance to secure one of the English top flight’s best young players. Dorigo’s career progressed well at Villa, so much so that his adopted country did not hesitate to approach with an offer of their own. “England came along and asked me to play for them if I hung around for another year and got my British citizenship,” says Dorigo. “My father was Italian and my mother was Australian, so
I have no English parentage at all. What I say to my English friends today is that ‘you lot were so bad you needed an Aussie to come and play for you!’ It was very different back then to what it is now – the players in the Premier League today fly all over the world to play for their countries. They just did not allow that to happen in my day.”

The question remains though: would he have picked Australia if his career took place today? “There is no question,” stresses Dorigo. “If there was a level playing field as there is now I would have played for the country I was born in. I had a great affinity for Australia and I always have done. When it comes to the cricket and rugby, I’m an Aussie. It is just the football bit that went awry – but it just didn’t seem an option at the time. Playing for Australia back then did not mean a lot compared with playing for England, which trebled your wages.”

Club career-wise, a move to England’s capital materialised in 1987, as Dorigo joined Chelsea. “It was wonderful at Chelsea and the London clubs are very different to the more provincial clubs – the support was tremendous,” says Dorigo. “We were a club that always did very well or very badly, and nothing in-between. It was at Chelsea where I got in the full England squad. I also got to Wembley with Chelsea where I scored the winner from a free-kick in the 1990 Full Members Cup Final – all of those things you dream of doing growing up as a kid in Australia, I managed to do a few of them.”

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