Chelsea FC return to Australia for the first time in more than 40 years at the end of the season, but one of the club’s former heroes has a rather fresher memory of football Down Under.
Terry Venables, one of the youth products to have formed the backbone of Chelsea’s great 1960s side, took over as Socceroos manager in 1996 following a memorable spell in charge of England, with the aim of reaching the 1998 World Cup.
Australia had not qualified since 1974, and while Venables’s side would eventually fall at the final hurdle, a play-off defeat to Iran on away goals, he maintains it was an incredible experience for all involved, and believes Jose Mourinho’s squad will enjoy playing in front of a packed ANZ Stadium in Sydney next month.
‘The whole experience of being Australia manager was fantastic, it was a joy to be a part of, and for Chelsea to be out there in June, I know the team will love that,’ Venables said, before casting his mind back almost 19 years to his appointment by Football Federation Australia.
‘After Euro ‘96 I’d had job offers but there wasn’t anything that could match that excitement,’ Venables recalls.
‘I met with David Hill, who was chairman of Soccer Australia, and we got on very well and decided to do it.’
After setting up camp in Europe and attracting a number of young stars, like Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell into the team, Australia eased through Oceanic qualifying, with a notable 13-0 win over the Solomon Islands featuring five goals apiece for Damian Mori and John Aloisi, while Graham Arnold, now manager of the Sydney FC side Chelsea FC face in Australia next month, netted against Tahiti and New Zealand, the latter being demolished 5-0 on aggregate.
This took the Socceroos into the two-legged play-off against Iran, with Kewell netting in a 1-1 draw in Tehran in front of more than 100,000 fans.
Back at the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground, Australia raced into a 2-0 lead thanks to another Kewell goal and Aurelio Vidmar, before the game was halted due to a disturbance – Peter Hore, the ‘serial pest’ of Australian sporting occasions, had run onto the field and torn the goal netting.
The six minutes it took to rebuild the goal netting allowed the Iranians to regroup, and they struck twice in quick succession to break Australian hearts and go through on away goals. The 24-year wait to reach the World Cup would continue.
‘That was a kick in the teeth. We were winning and there was aggravation. We had been by far the better team in both games, and we ended up losing on away goals. We should have been the ones going through,’ Venables reflects.
‘After we lost to Iran, I thought, “These boys will never come back from that disappointment”, but two weeks later we had to play in the Confederations Cup in Saudi Arabia.’
The reaction was impressive, and Australia progressed to a semi-final date with Uruguay after beating Mexico and stifling Brazil to a 0-0 draw during the group stages.
Kewell netted a golden goal to send Uruguay packing, meaning Brazil awaited in the final. There, the talents of Ronaldo and Romario would prove too strong, as they claimed a hat-trick each following Viduka’s early dismissal. They would go on to reach the World Cup final.
‘It’s hard enough to play against Brazil whatever the conditions, and in the end we lost pretty badly, it was 6-0, but to have lifted ourselves up from the World Cup disappointment, I couldn’t have imagined it,’ says Venables.
‘That attitude was amazing, and that’s always the case in Australia whatever the sport. The Australians are really up for it. They want to play and are full of competitive spirit, and Chelsea will see that in Sydney.
‘The Australians now expect to qualify for the World Cup, and they’ve done well to come on so well since that time and lift themselves to better things.’
As for Chelsea, Venables, who also enjoyed spells in charge of Queens Park Rangers, Barcelona and Tottenham, believes it has been a 2014/15 campaign to savour.
‘It’s been an exceptional season for Chelsea, a brilliant campaign and I can’t give enough credit,’ the 72-year-old says. ‘I think you have to give a lot of credit to the owner of the club, Roman Abramovich has done an amazing job, and Jose Mourinho, as everyone knows, is a wizard. He’ll be the Wizard of Oz next month!
‘He’s a champion, and his results are always good. People have talked about the style but there is usually skill and entertainment with Chelsea, and when you can’t do that, you remember that in the end it’s a business and the business is to win.’
Sydney FC take on English Premier League Champions Chelsea FC at ANZ Stadium on Tuesday 2 June. A limited number of tickets are on sale now! Get in quick to secure your place for this one off football clash.