Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Palace's underdog king leads underdog nation

Crystal Palace's gritty midfielder Mile Jedinak was chosen last week to lead the Australian national team into the World Cup finals. For Jedinak, it marks a crowning point in a remarkable football journey.

Jedinak has just completed a remarkable season in the English Premier League. Palace, the unfashionable South London club I have followed for forty seasons, defied all the odds in not just retaining its status in the league but finishing 11th out of 20.  This with the lowest paid squad in the EPL and having endured a horrid start with 9 losses from their first 10 games.

Jedinak emerged from Sydney's western suburbs to feature for Sydney United in Australia's old National Soccer League, progressing to Central Coast Mariners in the A-League before catching the eye of Turkish league club Gençlerbirliği.  After a season and a half, he moved to South London.

Crystal Palace has signed more than its fair share of Australian footballers in the last 20 years, but few have made a lasting impact on the South London faithful.  With most of Palace's football played in the demanding and physical second tier of English football over that time, "elegant" midfielders like Nick Carle and Craig Foster aren't remembered fondly, while striker Nicky Rizzo, midfielder Anthony Danze, defender Shaun Murphy and keeper Steve Mautone stayed briefly without making impact. Kevin Muscat is recalled as not much more than a thug, and though Carl Veart is remembered affectionately in some quarters, his sobriquet "goal machine" was largely tongue in cheek.  The only Aussies to make any lasting impact were Craig Moore, whose stay was all too brief after cash-strapped Palace had to sell him back to Glasgow Rangers, and Tony Popovic, who followed his playing career as assistant coach to Dougie Freedman.

Jedinak had a rocky start at Selhurst Park following his arrival in South London at the start of the 2011-12 season, with fans comments including "you see better players on a Sunday morning in the pub", "pretty likely he'll never cut it as a real midfielder" and "Dougie's worst signing simply not good enough".  However, before long, the hardened Palace faithful came to admire his robust tackling, interceptions and hard yards.  By 2012-13 he had become a fan favourite, was made club captain, and was Palace's player of the year.  

Following the club's success in the Championship play-offs, Jedinak was inspirational in leading Palace's remarkable 2013-14 Premier League campaign superbly.  He started every Premier League match for Palace, anmade more tackles and interceptions than any other Premier League player during the season.

Jedinak has been handed the Socceroo captaincy at a pivotal time for the national team. Coach Ange Postecoglou has engaged in a clearing of the decks, with a series of retirements largely dispensing with the remnants of the so-called "golden" generation which reached  peak with the 2006 World Cup campaign. What remains is the greenest, least-prepared squad seen in many years.

The 2014 Socceroos, faced with their own group of death against 2010 finalists Spain and the Netherlands, plus highly rated Chile, are expected to make a quick and potentially reputation-damaging first round exit in Brazil.  The Aussies are given as much chance of making an impression as was Palace after promotion a year ago to the Premier League.  

How fitting then that Jedinak, the battler from battling Palace, is charged with the responsibility of leading the youthful Australian über-underdogs into the fray. It is more than symbolic that Postecoglou forsook the option of choosing to hand the armband to the enduring and popular talisman Tim Cahill.  Although he falls well short of the grammatical atrocities of the former Socceroo Mark Bosnich, Jedinak lacks the smooth talking and wherewithal of Cahill or former captain Lucas Neill.  But the bustling "beast" from Selhurst Park seems just the right man in the right place for this job.

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