I was on my way to Europe to study for the FIFA Master, he was coming back from Tasmania, having just covered the FFA Cup run of the Devonport Strikers the night before.
His post-match television cross that night said it all. He was soaked to the bone, the wind was blowing a gale and it can’t have been far above zero degrees. But he’d just seen what he loved more than anything: real football. The elements. A community watching its team, enthralled by the underdog story.
He was still enraptured about it when we met up at the cafe. It was in a cafe that we first met and where we had our first interview at the Sydney Morning Herald.
“Life’s too short to drink bad coffee,” he would say. This would often mean a long walk around a city in a foreign country until he found the exact beans he liked. If I happened to be in his car, and he saw a sign for Campos Coffee, we’d pull over.
More often than not, we’d lose track of time trying to solve the ills of the football world. If the discussion was lively (almost always), we’d grab another. Probably the proudest day of Mike’s life was when his son, Toby, moved to Melbourne to become a barista.
Mike and I were great friends for so long – but we keenly butted heads about what we thought was the best thing for the game we both loved. We had a particularly strong exchange about his great mate John Kosmina in 2008.
At the time, I was eager to hold the then-Sydney FC manager to account. Every tactical move, every transfer decision and every small detail I scrutinised with minute detail. I’d seen “Kossie” bully the media before – and I was determined to stay a step ahead.
But as soon as he was sacked, I missed him. I realised the value of what Mike been preaching all along: develop good relationships. These days, I love chatting to Kossie and value his insights enormously. He and Mike had thirty years of rock-solid trust.
Fortunately, at Mike’s insistence, I got to know Graham Arnold in the same way. Mike’s final A-League game was seeing his great companion complete the best season in A-League history. How good is that?
I’d like to say I got to know all his friends and family, but it seemed that everywhere we went was yet another friend. He couldn’t get from one end of Sydney CBD to the other without someone stopping him for a chat, a prediction or a reminiscence. But the same was true almost anywhere: Perth, Brisbane, Newcastle, Gosford and Wellington.
On the morning of the 2016 A-League grand final, we had breakfast together in North Adelaide when in walked Ante Kovacevic. It was the busiest day of the year for Adelaide United’s director of football, but he just wanted to chat to Mike and ended up staying for an hour. He had that kind of effect on people.
Some felt he had agendas, but that’s inaccurate. His agenda was covering football – first and foremost – and then advocating where necessary. He certainly never cared for any one club more than the other. Unless he was playing, of course, which he did right up until his death (a no-nonsense defender, of course).
There were always some favourite subjects, however. His number one love was the Socceroos, and his mission to have them wear white socks was legendary, which they did (and looked fantastic in) at the 2014 World Cup. Memo FFA: please have the national team wear them in Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier against Thailand.
His passion for New Zealand football wasn’t far behind. He loved the raw, unpolished nature of the game in the land of his heritage. Conversely, he grew tired at how the FFA and the A-League slowly became the domain of non-football suits and spin-doctors.
"What good is it having all these accountants and financial experts on the board if they can’t make any money for the game?” he would frequently ask.
Football’s power-brokers often tried to influence him but never was Mike seduced by anything other than the truth. He placed all his trust and faith in the good of the game.
His battles with some figures were legendary. He openly jousted with Harry Kewell and Bernie Mandic for almost 15 years, culminating in the sensational column during the 2010 World Cup. What balls.
He bristled at the influence of what he called the “”. He hated when he saw “jobs for boys” being , repeatedly championing the cause of Australian coaches. He hated the way ethnic clubs – who he saw as essential to the fabric of the game – were being from the national football discussion.
When Ange Postecoglou took charge of the national team, Mike was thrilled. Ange was the coaching embodiment of the writer’s vision.
To be foreign was fine – just so long as you were determined to give, not take. His all-time favourite coach was Frank Arok. . I’ve read it many times.
I found out Mike had died two minutes before the Socceroos played Japan on Thursday night. It was impossible to comprehend. I sat there in tears; so what an extraordinary effort from Andy Harper to call the game live on television. They were two peas in a pod.
Another of Cockerill’s closest circle, Fox Sports’ football chief Murray Shaw, was inconsolable afterwards. The game was so irrelevant. How they put that coverage together, I’ll never know.
To think we have lost both he and Les Murray in the space of a month is completely galling, especially as both were taken well before their time. Like Les, Mike was a champion not only of the game but of his craft.
Fortunately, FFA had already inducted Mike into the Hall of Fame before his passing. It meant the world, not only to him, but his wonderful wife Jo and his two children.
Mike’s legacy in football journalism is great but his legacy in football is even greater. Quite simply, his tireless fight helped transform the sport into what it is today.
Truly, I feel blessed to call him a colleague, honoured to call him a mentor, and proud to call him a friend.