Socceroos coach Graham Arnold is poised to become longest-serving in the role but he’s a very different figure to the caretaker he was in 2006.
On his first day on the job as Socceroos head coach, Graham Arnold admitted that he had no idea if he would still be there the following week, let alone for the following game.
More than 17 years later, he’s about to make history as Australia’s longest-serving head coach.
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On Thursday night, his 59th game in charge – a World Cup qualifier against Bangladesh – takes Arnold clear of his old friend Frank Farina (58), and somewhere along the line the Socceroos caretaker became something of an elder statesman.
As Arnold himself likes to say, that perversity is why we love the game so much.
With perfect irony, Arnold is back in Melbourne with the Socceroos this week just as he was in August 2006, a matter of weeks after the glories of the World Cup under Guus Hiddink.
As Football Federation Australia’s then chairman Frank Lowy searched for an international coach with a similar profile to Hiddink, he asked Arnold to mind the shop and gave him the title of interim Socceroos head coach.
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In some ways it was utterly logical – Arnold had been assistant to Farina (and to Ange Postecoglou with the Australian youth teams) since 2000, and then No. 2 to Hiddink for nine exhilarating months.
But as a head coach his experience was limited to just a few dozen games in charge of Northern Spirit, the NSL club that rose and fell spectacularly around the turn of the century.
On the back of that, Arnold gathered an A-Leagues-only squad of players together in Melbourne to prepare for Asian Cup qualifiers in 2006 – and then, once those were navigated, was suddenly leading the Socceroos to the Asian Cup in 2007 – Australia’s debut at a tournament even the players assumed they would win.
History shows it didn’t end well, and this week Arnold has said he wasn’t ready for it.
But he was still asked to keep on minding the shop for a few more weeks, as well as resuming control of the Olympic team, at one point juggling two Olyroos home qualifiers and a Socceroos friendly with Argentina in the space of five days.
In the background he was, at FFA’s request, briefing Dick Advocaat who had accepted the job of Socceroos boss… until the lure of Russian money prompted Advocaat to renege on the deal. Pim Verbeek was appointed instead, Arnold became his assistant, and the two became such close friends that Arnold spoke by video at Verbeek’s funeral in 2019.
Verbeek just months earlier had spoken proudly of watching Arnold’s club success, and that was before his old No. 2 took Australia to the knockout stages of the 2022 World Cup.
It’s fitting in a way that his role now has added a broader remit to mentor the coaches of the junior national teams as well as coach the Socceroos, because in those early days Arnold himself had precious little mentoring.
Hiddink’s influence was and continues to be profound; Verbeek’s too. But from planning an Asian Cup in 2007 with players whose commitment was ambivalent to navigating a World Cup qualification campaign through the ravages of a global pandemic, there’s been rather a lot of learning on the job.
It’s also worth noting that the month or so when he was unemployed after leaving J.League side Vegalta Sendai in 2014 is the longest break from the game that Arnold has had since 2000.
Even before the 2010 World Cup, when Arnold announced he would become head coach at the Mariners after the tournament, he started taking training sessions at the Gosford club and went there immediately after his duties with Verbeek in South Africa were concluded.
There’s something about Arnie and overlapping jobs.
In part that’s because he rarely stops thinking about the game, or ways to improve it. Sometimes the ideas are driven by exasperation, such as the phone call in 2012 to this reporter to fulminate against the preponderance of foreign playmakers in the A-League and how the transfer system should be changed to fix it.
Others have been more strategic, like the paper he presented to FA’s board advocating for a national reserve league to give young players more game time.
Ultimately, though, after all this time, Arnold most enjoys what he gets to do this week, and coach his team. The way he does it has changed enormously over the years, to the point that it’s almost hard to reconcile the then and now of this servant of the game.
But while the method has evolved, the end game remains the same as it was 59 games ago: three points on Thursday night and more minutes for another generation of Socceroos.
Socceroos v Bangladesh
Thursday, 16 November 2023, AAMI Park, Melbourne
Kick-off: 8.OOpm AEDT
Tickets: via Ticketek
Broadcast: Network 10 and Paramount+
Palestine v Socceroos
Tuesday, 22 November 2023, Jaber Al-Ahmed International Stadium, Kuwait
Kick-off: 1am AEDT
Broadcast: Network 10 and Paramount+