A Dutch coach finishes his short gig with the Socceroos, Graham Arnold takes over, and the team’s next match is against Kuwait.
Not exactly strange, except that that exact sequence is about to happen for the second time – 12 years after its first occurrence.
Arnie’s first spell in the top job was a disappointment to many. And the more negative reactions to his return have included many references to his 2006-07 post-Hiddink coaching stint – a period that saw some evaporation of the previous years’ zeitgeist.
Of course, he does occasionally make himself a target: complaining about referees’ decisions, playing mind games with rival coaches, and even having on-air stoushes with presenters.
He is capable of being quite charming. I’ve only been in four or five media conferences with him yet I’ve seen both sides: bromantic flirting with journos when he’s happy; grumpiness, or even bitterness, when he isn’t. There was an extraordinary example of the latter after a 2015 match at Hindmarsh Stadium which his Sydney FC side lost to a late penalty. Arnold ended the presser after just 77 seconds.
I’ve usually had him in the love-to-hate category, however, it’s not hard to see that other observers were horrified by his appointment.
But I doubt that many of his critics have made an honest appraisal of the difference between 2007 Arnie and the coach we see now. And that’s probably because they refuse to credit what should be obvious examples of someone who has understood past errors and found ways to learn from them and improve.
Indeed, the first signs of this came after Arnold was replaced in 2007. Rather than have a Postecoglou-style dummy spit, he carried on as coach of Australia’s under-23 team and then served as an assistant to the man who replaced him in the Socceroos job, Pim Verbeek.
Arnold certainly didn’t do that because the alternative was unemployment – he would have been a leading candidate for club roles or punditry (particularly as he had an impressive career as a player).
After the 2010 World Cup, Arnie returned to clubland. With immediate success.
The Central Coast Mariners had finished eighth – and just one point above bottom spot – in the season before he arrived. Arnold immediately took them to second and a grand final which they lost on penalties. The following two seasons would bring a premiership and a championship.
But after more setbacks – a short and unsuccessful stint in Japan and a terrible 2015-16 season with Sydney FC (after he’d led the Sky Blues to the previous season’s grand final) – Arnold enjoyed his greatest triumphs.
The Sydney FC team of the last two seasons has been the A-League era’s best. In all domestic competition matches in that period, the Sky Blues played 67 times for 50 wins, 11 draws and just six losses; scored 156 goals and conceded just 30.
The club collected one championship, two premierships and an FFA Cup. A clean sweep of six trophies from the two years were denied by an FFA Cup final defeat at the hands of a Tim Cahill-inspired Melbourne City and this year’s thrilling extra time playoff loss to Melbourne Victory.
Arnold is a winner and if the Socceroos job had to go to an Australian after the 2018 World Cup, he was the standout candidate.
But criticism is never far away and you can set your watch by it. The first barb will probably hit social media at 3.01am – a minute after the match against Kuwait kicks off.
And it’s not likely to be fair but that’s often been the case for Arnold. He received a disproportionate amount of blame for Australia’s relatively poor showing in the 2007 Asian Cup (the first edition the Socceroos competed in after joining the Asian Football Confederation). But with memories of the previous year’s World Cup still fresh, there were expectations that Australia would roll to victory. There were times when they appeared to be shared by some of the players.
Arnie didn’t help himself with a sarcastic “welcome to Asia” comment when questioned about play-acting after a game against Oman but given how exaggerated it was, and that the match was played in Bangkok humidity, his frustration was understandable.
Even now detractors carp about a comment Arnold made earlier in the year which was, frankly, true: that the A-League wasn’t a development league. The competition’s coaches aren’t brought in to develop youngsters – their brief is to win. And because that’s the case, squads have an average age of at least 25 and include several foreign players. None of which is Arnie’s fault: he was just the messenger.
Finally, he’ll never get as much credit as he deserves for what he’s done with Sydney in the last two years. The fashion police – dictators of how the game should and shouldn’t be played – have made sure of that.
Arnold is certainly no saint and he’s made plenty of mistakes. After his Socceroos appointment was announced, he said he’d learned a lot from them. But the humility that’s recently been on display is about to get its first test.
Little unites Australian fans but most love the Socceroos unconditionally. That isn’t likely to change.
But will we come to love Graham Arnold?
Paul Marcuccitti is InDaily’s soccer columnist. Manton Street Tales – a column about the fortunes of Adelaide United – is published regularly during the A-League season.
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