Jimmy Mackay was a Scotsman who emigrated to Australia on the back of a two-year working holiday in the mid-1960’s. Until then, he’d made just a handful of appearances in the Scottish top flight with Airdrie.
But his trip down under convinced him to stay. He married, played for Melbourne Croatia, and made his debut for the Socceroos in 1970. Three years later, he became the nation’s first real World Cup hero, when he lashed home a freakish thirty metre volley against South Korea in the play-off to send Australia to their first-ever finals in 1974.
He needed help from his team-mates of course, but for many years, Mackay stood alone as the name around which Australia’s World Cup narrative was built, as successive Socceroos teams tried – and failed – to build upon that legacy.
In the modern era, the burden has eased. Mark Schwarzer’s cat-like reflexes and John Aloisi’s shirtless dash against Uruguay is etched into the memory banks from 2005. A year later, Tim Cahill, and then Harry Kewell, wrote different chapters into the story at the World Cup itself in Germany.
Four years ago, Mile Jedinak netted a hat-trick against Honduras to send Ange Postecoglou’s ‘Roos into the finals in Russia – and now, you can add the unlikely figure of Andrew Redmayne to that rather exclusive list.
Redmayne’s heroics, in a kit as grey as the sepia-tinged footage of Mackay’s goal all those years ago, will reverberate down the years. As will Graham Arnold’s gutsy decision to send him on, specifically for the looming shootout, in place of his captain, Mat Ryan.
For Arnold, it’s redemption, after a campaign in which he has been largely vilified. For a time after the defeat by Saudi Arabia in the final group game, it seemed even Football Australia were unsure as to whether he would continue. It took almost two days for them to come out and back their man after the loss in Riyadh.
But if Arnold has had his moment of catharsis, then so too has the broader game.
Football in Australia is a sport continually under attack, from both inside and outside the game. Insiders who would rather the game fail if it’s not on their terms – and outsiders, who revel in their ignorance of the sport, and who regularly attempt to reinforce old prejudices, as if football is conducting some sinister version of cultural warfare on the nation. Their Doomsday Scenario became reality this morning.
To qualify for five consecutive World Cups in the face of that, while surviving on meagre financial rations & a paucity of media coverage is something akin to a miracle. Australia regularly competes against countries that throw small country-sized budgets at their football programs, while we get by on the smell of petrol fumes.
So, it’s a tribute to football’s remarkable survival instinct that once again, the Socceroos will take their place at the top table. If there is ever a nuclear war, the next inhabitants of earth will surely only find cockroaches and games of football being played in Australia. It’s truly indestructible, a force of nature.
Already, some are starting to ask, how far will the Socceroos go in Qatar? The answer? It doesn’t matter for now. For until mainstream Australia realises the enormity of this accomplishment – 1008 days, 20 matches, only five of which were played on Australian soil, just to get there - then there is little point in having that conversation. Planning for the finals can wait.
The bigger picture is the one that has plagued the game for generations. Whether this qualification, along with the FIFA Women’s World Cup to be held on home soil, and the Asian Cup of 2023, can help drive the game to a better future.
The national teams are now primed to turbo-boost growth with those three big tournaments over the next twelve months. The domestic leagues simply MUST capitalise, with all levels of the game finally working together - instead of in silos - to unlock the sports huge potential.
No more governance wars, no more backwards steps, nor even (like Andrew Redmayne) sideways ones. Otherwise, we will still be having the same discussions in another fifty years time, when the pictures of Redmayne dancing around on his line, are as faded as the legendary Jimmy Mackay’s.