Defensive stalwart John Watkiss took part in three FIFA World Cup campaigns and formed part of the Socceroos squad that played in West Germany in 1974 but his greatest thrill came when he made his first-grade debut in suburban Sydney as a 16-year-old.
Watkiss, now 77, had a distinguished career at club and country level but he has no qualms about declaring that his senior debut for his first club Canterbury provided him with an everlasting memory.
“I had a long career so I had a few highlights but I will never forget the day I made my first-grade debut with Canterbury against Gladesville at the age of 16,” Watkiss said at his home in Gymea, in Sydney’s south.
“I had played a few third-grade and second-grade games and one day after training I looked at the seconds blackboard to find out if I was playing. But my name was not there so I looked at the thirds board and my name was not there either.
“I then found out that I was playing in the firsts. It was a big thing for me. I scored a goal in a 4-2 defeat but my debut was a special memory that stayed with me throughout my career.”
Watkiss played only 23 full internationals for Australia but his contribution to the national colours was such that his last Socceroos coach Rale Rasic still regards him as “one of Australia’s greatest players of all time”.
That’s some call from a mentor who worked with the best players Australia produced in the 1970s and 1980s.
Watkiss was more than happy to reminisce on his Socceroos days so as to “keep alive” an important part of our game’s history and tradition.
How is your retirement going?
“Nowadays I spend a fair of time around the house and in the garden. I’ve got three daughters and eight grandchildren so I spend a bit of time catching up with them and their sport. A bit of golf keeps me fairly busy too.”
You played in three World Cup campaigns. Australia got smashed by North Korea over two legs in 1965. Did we ever have a chance?
“We went into a three-week training camp in Cairns before the two matches in Cambodia during which we played two local teams. We won both matches easily but we should have played tougher opposition. We knew nothing about North Korea and on the way to Cambodia some members of the media were wondering whether the Koreans would turn up. The betting was that we would beat them convincingly.
“We arrived in Cambodia and found out the Koreans had been there for two weeks and had been preparing for this World Cup campaign for five years. They were totally prepared which was something we did not expect.
“We were exhausted due to the conditions and we were outplayed in the first match and got hammered 6-1. Some of us also had gastric problems before the match but the players could not be treated because our team doctor was doing the tourist thing, visiting Angkor Wat, at the time.”
Was that tie an eye-opener in terms of our place in the world game?
“It was definitely a wake-up call. The Koreans were very superior to us and it was basically back to the drawing board for our game.”
Australia toured south-east Asia immediately after their World Cup debacle. Tell us about the riot after the match against Taiwan (then South China) in Hong Kong.
“The matches that came after our tie with North Korea did not make sense. We should have played the games before not after. Anyway, we lost 1-0 to Hong Kong and a few days later we overcame Taiwan 3-1.
“This result apparently caught some people by surprise - they gamble a lot in those parts of Asia - and at the end of the match angry spectators pelted us with fruit, bottles and all sorts of things. We had to make a dash to the dressing sheds and we could hear a commotion and glass doors being smashed. It was more than an hour before we could sneak out of the stadium and into the bus to get back to our hotel.”
You did not play again for Australia until the qualifiers for the 1970 World Cup. But you played in a series against a Scotland selection. What was striker Alex Ferguson like as an opponent?
“He was tough, rough and uncompromising. When you play against Alex you knew you’ve played a game. But that was acceptable those days. You played it tough and you expected it back, which was fine.”
The campaign for 1970 was ridiculously difficult from a logistical perspective. After beating Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) in a decider in Mozambique you guys had a date with Israel in Tel Aviv five days later before the return in Sydney after 10 days. Tell us about that two-legged play-off and the travelling involved.
“We won a three-team round-robin against Japan and South Korea in Seoul. We were bracing ourselves for a final play-off against Israel for a spot in Mexico but out of the blue we were asked to travel to Mozambique at short notice to play an extra tie against Rhodesia, who were unable to play at home.
“We beat the Rhodesians 1-0 in a play-off after two draws. It was our third match in a week but then the real nightmare started. We left Mozambique two days later than scheduled due to the fact we were forced into a deciding third match and a 10-hour stopover in Johannesburg did not help us at all. From there we flew through Angola to Lisbon which was freezing in November and I can remember some of the guys in tee-shirts and shorts sitting around the airport heaters to keep warm at four in the morning.
“Then it was on to Rome and another long stopover. We got to Tel Aviv the day before the match. We lost 1-0 and could only draw 1-1 in the return in Sydney so we were out. Israel were a good side and they did well in Mexico.”
Again, you were overlooked in the years between two World Cup campaigns while you were playing regularly at club level. Why was that?
“There were two reasons. I withdrew from the national squad that went on a world tour in 1970 because of the birth of our first daughter and from then on I was pretty much overlooked probably because new coach Rasic reckoned that since I would have been 33 by the time the 1974 World Cup came around he was looking at younger players.”
What do you remember from that famous night in Hong Kong in 1973 when the Socceroos made it to their first World Cup?
“I had played in the two games against Iran in the previous round (Australia won 3-2 on aggregate) and in the first leg of the final playoff against South Korea in Sydney when we drew 0-0. We managed a 2-2 draw in the return in Seoul so we had to play a decider.
"I was on the bench for that third game but I will never forget the celebrations at the final whistle and the singing in the dressing room. We were actually going to the World Cup which was something we all dreamed about.”
The sweeper and stopper roles at the 1974 World Cup were taken by Peter Wilson and Manfred Schaefer while you were on the bench. Were you too technical for either of the two defensive positions?
“I was physical too because of my size and the way I was brought up. But Manfred could run all day and was as tough as nails and I think that was why he was selected. And Peter was our captain and a leader.”
You must have been disappointed Australia had to wait 32 years to qualify for another World Cup.
“The big disappointment was when we lost at home to New Zealand in 1981 … that was probably a kick up the back side we badly needed. In reality, however, we came very close a few times. At the end of the day we only lost to teams like Scotland (1985), Argentina (1993) and Uruguay (2001) that are more experienced than us. That probably was the decisive factor.
"Then everything changed in 2005 thanks to the ‘Golden Generation’ but it could have gone wrong too … anything can happen in a penalty shootout.”
You played under three coaches with the Socceroos: tell us about Tiko Jelisavcic, Joe Vlasits and Rasic.
“Tiko was into fitness but he was not a great technician and he knew nothing about the Koreans. A few of the players had personal problems with him along the way which I would not like to go into.
“Joe did not go a great deal into the tactical side of the game but he was a players’ man. Everybody loved 'Uncle Joe' and looked up to him. He was a father figure to us and his prime concern was fostering team spirit and keeping the boys happy. I remember some of us got into a bit of mischief during a tournament in Vietnam in 1967.
"We went out and broke curfew one night. We caught up with some Aussie soldiers at the army base in Ho Chi Minh (then Saigon) and when we got back to the hotel Vlasits was there waiting for us at the foyer and he looked at us and shook his head and said 'very disappointing'. He gave us a bit of lecture, we said sorry and everything was soon forgotten … we all played for Uncle Joe and we went on to win the competition.
“Rale was stricter and more tactically conscious. He would leave no stone unturned to find out everything about opposition players and teams. He had people around the world providing him with all the things he needed to know. He was very intelligent and very knowledgeable.”
Any regrets in your career?
“I would have liked to get on the field during the 1974 World Cup. Looking back, I think I could have tried a bit harder to become a better footballer by working more on my weaknesses but I had a satisfactory career and I cannot really complain.”
What do you think of today’s game at club and national level?
“I tend to get frustrated watching today’s football. It is often negative and that to me is disappointing. Many times you see teams go on the attack, get into the final third and instead of persevering they pass the ball backwards and often it ends up with the goalkeeper. When that happens I sometimes walk away from the television … and go to do the crossword or something else.
“We did not play that way in my days and it is possibly for this reason that many people would rather watch the Matildas who are always on the attack chasing goals.
“I was hoping Newcastle Jets win the A-League grand final because they are a positive, direct and attacking team but it was not to be, unfortunately.”
Who were the best players you played with and against?
“Austrian deep-lying centre-forward Leo Baumgartner was one of the best foreign players to come here. We played together at Canterbury. He was so talented with his feet that he could pass the ball 50 metres and put it on the dot. And he expected the same when receiving the ball.
“I faced Bobby Charlton and George Best twice when Manchester United toured Australia in 1967. I was picked for a Sydney XI and for New South Wales.
“United had something like nine internationals in the team and they had just won the English first division league. They went on to win the 1968 European Cup so we must have provided them with good preparation.”
JOHN WATKISS FACTFILE
1964-1967: APIA Leichhardt
1965-1974: Australia (23 matches)