Thursday, September 13, 2007

Appreciate my legacy Arnie pleads

A-League.
With Dutchman Dick Advocaat seemingly rubberstamped as the next boss of the Australian national team, caretaker coach Graham Arnold has departed by biting back at critics who accuse him of steering the Socceroos ship off course since the highs of last year's World Cup.

It's been a tumultuous journey for Arnold, Guus Hiddink's former assistant, since accepting the national team senior position when Hiddink elected not to renew his short-term contract 15 months ago.

It doesn't take much reading between the lines to recognise Arnold feels somewhat unappreciated in his efforts in transitioning an aging Socceroos line-up into one which can consistently compete with the rigours of Asian tournament football.

The amiable former Socceroos striker and long-term assistant didn't used to back his own cause quite so much, but under intense speculation about his position and following barbs about his handling of Australia's disastrous Asian Cup showing, he has been forced on the offensive of late.

The timing of the departure of the man most will remember for guiding the team to defeat against Iraq and a draw with Oman in the Asian Cup at least allowed a final wry smile after Arnold watched his patched-up Australian side compete manfully against Argentina in front of a 70,000-strong MCG crowd this week.

Humbled in Asia after blinkered arrogance made Australia underestimate the full-scale challenge of playing in the AFC, at least Arnold could leave Melbourne with his head held high after another reinvented Socceroos side at times troubled the Argentines.

After the match, Arnold revelled in the display and the result - a slim one-goal loss which came about as much from poor defending from a set piece as Argentina's individual brilliance.

But it quickly became apparent that the departing coach, who will likely continue as Advocaat's assistant and continues to lead the Australian under-23s towards the Beijing Olympics next year, was also happy with his legacy of blooding new talent.

"I'm very proud of the fact that in handing my side over that Nik Mrdja was my 53rd player in 13 months which is unbelievable," he said.

"I've had a lot of difficulties in my time as coach with unavailabilities and older players retiring. I'm very proud of the fact that I've introduced young blood in to the team."

"I've introduced A-League players into the team because the emphasis on the A-League is going to be big going forward. I can proudly say I can now hand over 30 names to the new manager who I know can play at this level."

Thirty seems a stretch, but in fairness over half the squad picked to face Argentina weren't in Hiddink's 23-man group for Germany just over a year ago regardless of the unavailability of perennial absentees Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell as well as Tim Cahill and Brett Emerton this week.

Arnold can certainly lay claim to handing former A-League stars David Carney and Nick Carle a decent chance while tenacious midfielder Carl Valeri looks to be another with a bright international future.

He has also crucially blooded fresh goalkeeping backups to Mark Schwarzer in Middlesbrough club-mate Brad Jones and Reading's Adam Federici.

But perhaps Arnold's greatest achievement is developing an exciting pool of under-23 players, many of whom will play important roles in the lead-up to the South African World Cup in three years time.

Indeed that group of up-and-comers - with the outstanding Nathan Burns leading a pack which also includes Brondby striker David Williams, Fulham defender Adrian Leijer and FC Nuremberg pair Matt Spiranovic and Dario Vidosic - might well enthuse Advocaat more than the current senior squad with doubts still hovering over the long-term commitment of Viduka and Kewell.

"Tactically, what we set out to do worked perfectly. The boys carried the game plan out very well," Arnold concluded of the loss to the world's number two ranked nation.

"It was such an honour to see the boys compete against such a world class side like that and push them the whole way and have the possibility to have occasions to score."

"By no means were we outplayed."

Copyright © Marc Fox and Soccerphile.com

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