Jet Joel ready for Socceroo takeoff
The A-League's top-scorer Joel Griffiths is the kind of football hero that didn't even exist in Australia just a few short years ago.
In the heart of a traditional Rugby League stronghold, the Newcastle United Jets striker has built his growing popularity on domestic success without carving a notable European career nor establishing himself as a regular Socceroo.
But that's likely to change with national coach Pim Verbeek expected to throw the 28-year-old into the deep end with Australia about to begin their first World Cup qualifying campaign through Asia.
It will complete a remarkable journey for the man who was overlooked by Guus Hiddink for Germany 2006 and returned home for the A-League's second season 18 months ago, when he failed to establish himself at struggling Leeds United after a three-year spell at tiny Swiss club Neuchâtel Xamax.
With a league-leading 12 goals this season, Griffiths has made a stunning transformation from wide midfielder to the attacking focal point of the surprising Jets who finished the regular season in second spot.
The Jets were predicted to struggle after losing a host of players, including internationals Paul Okon, Nicky Carle and Vaughan Coveny, but Griffiths has been the standout performer in a resilient side that won five of its last six matches to book a place in the major semi-final against local rivals, the Central Coast Mariners.
And as well as doing the business on the field, Griffiths is attracting almost as much attention away from the pitch with his all-Aussie appeal. Tall, blonde, good-looking and passionately patriotic, he's a marketer's dream, happy to strike a pose for photographers on one of Newcastle's famous surf beaches.
Joel - and his twin brother Adam, a Jets defender - is a keen surfer. Although the Griffiths boys grew up in the Sutherland Shire, south of Sydney, they've quickly identified with Newcastle, the second biggest city in the state of New South Wales.
After two Joel goals helped the Jets to a 3-1 victory at defending champions Melbourne in round-17, one local blog described him as 'the greatest living Novocastrian' and 'the town's favourite adopted son'.
The blog added: 'Newcastle men want to be him, women want to be with him.'
The rise of the Jets has coincided with a turbulent few months for the city's long-established Rugby League team, the Knights, who finished second last on the 2007 NRL table after the shock retirement of legendary captain Andrew 'Joey' Johns followed by his arrest in London on a minor drug charge.
With the NRL and A-League seasons barely overlapping, the Knights and the Jets aren't in direct competition, even though they share the same ground. But there's little doubt that the emergence of local soccer stars like Griffiths is eating away at some of Rugby League's fan base, even if Griffiths, himself, lists Johns as one of his favourite sportsmen, along with ex-France captain Zinedine Zidane.
As a city, Newcastle has emerged beyond its blue collar roots with the beautification of many suburbs and a growing cafe culture. Although the area has long produced excellent players - ex-Liverpool midfielder Craig Johnston amongst them - its overall transformation and increased sophistication have opened more football eyes towards the end of the A-League's pulsating third season.
The Jets averaged a healthy 13,209 fans for their home games this season. And while wet conditions dampened predictions of a record crowd for their final regular season game against Perth Glory, they still attracted 16,212, a figure that was higher than all but four of the Knights' 12 matches at Newcastle's EnergyAustralia Stadium in 2007.
Many had come to see Griffiths against Perth and he didn't disappoint with his 12th goal of the season: a clinical 22nd minute header in the crucial 2-1 victory.
|“||Newcastle men want to be him, women want to be with him. ”|
|Local Newcastle blog.|
The big question is whether Griffiths - who produced just four goals in 74 appearances for his two European clubs - can unveil his scoring touch on the international stage if given the chance by Verbeek to add his two international caps.
In his interview with Soccernet, Griffths insists he is good enough to be a regular Socceroo and says that playing in a World Cup is at the top of his career goals. He also speaks about his ill-fated spell at Elland Road.
Q: Joel, you've had a fantastic A-League season, both personally, and in your role within the Newcastle United Jets. Why have you been able to take such a huge step up in your career?
A. The added responsibility I have had has made me feel more reliable and consistent with every game. I play every game as I always have, but this year I feel I have matured on the pitch.
Q: You're the leading goalscorer in the A-League and yet the goals never flowed so freely in the earlier part of your career - how have you changed things around?
A. I played a different role at Leeds, in Switzerland and even last year to an extent. The winger position makes it harder to turn opportunities into goals. This year I've been in more of an attacking position and more involved in the chances at goal.
Q: The Jets aren't the most glamorous team in the competition but there's no arguing with your results. What's the key to Newcastle's success and what kind of impression can you make in the A-League finals?
A. I think hard work and a little bit of luck go a long way in the making of a team. The Newcastle Jets have a lot of younger players who are willing to learn and we have a coach (Gary van Egmond) who is prepared to the make the hard decisions, which I think makes a big difference. The finals are looking good for us and although we have the underdog tag, I think it lessens the pressure on us and lets us stay focused on the job at hand.
Q: You famously celebrated your one and only Socceroo goal against Jamaica in 2005 by doing a Kangaroo hop. Are you good enough to be a Socceroo regular in the upcoming World Cup qualifiers and how have you enjoyed your time in the most recent camps under Pim Verbeek?
A. Personally, yes I think I am good enough. Hopefully I have made a positive impression with the new coach, Pim, but at this stage I am staying focused on the finals. The camps have been a great opportunity to strengthen my skills and train with a great group of guys with a variety of strengths, skills and experience.
Q: Your spell at Leeds United didn't work out so well. What went wrong and how do you look back on the time you spent in both England and Switzerland?
A. There were a combination of factors that led to my leaving Leeds, mostly just the general ups and downs involved in any sort of contract or 'employment'. In the end, things just didn't work out. The style of play in the (English League) Championship is very different and something you need to adapt to. I think age and experience also factored in to me returning to Australia. Both experiences though, made me stronger personally and motivated me to make as big an impact as possible in the A-League and really get ahead of the game.
Q: You once reportedly turned down a chance to play in Belgium because 'it wasn't Newy'. How much do you identify with the Newcastle area?
A. Newcastle just has the vibe of relaxation and recreation, the beaches and cafes are just great. The offer was also made to me during the season and so that also contributed to me turning it down. If any opportunities are presented to me, then of course I will consider them but any move I make from the Jets will have to be the right move for me.
Q: Do you set career goals? What is one thing you'd like to achieve on the football front during your life?
A. I think any professional football player would want to play in a World Cup game. But in terms of my immediate career, I try to make sure I maintain my consistency because it really helps build momentum in the rest of my career.
• Sydney-born Jason Dasey ( www.jasondasey.com ) is an anchor for Soccernet SportsCenter and SportsCenter on ESPN