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Oct 28, 2008

Millsy's mission with the Jets

At the end of a drizzly night at Bangkok's Rajamangala National Stadium last year, the visiting Australian journalists were chasing big-name goalscorers Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell but the story was the stunning performance of unheralded Mark Milligan.

Filling in for the suspended Lucas Neill, the young defender turned in a man-of-the-match display alongside fellow rookie Michael Beauchamp as the Socceroos avoided Asian Cup elimination with a 4-0 victory over host nation, Thailand.

Kewell, among others, was glowing in his praise for Milligan, describing him as Australia's best player. "I thought Mark was outstanding," he said.

Milligan emerged from the dressing room a few minutes later and handled the accolades from his teammates and coach Graham Arnold with grace. The home-based, Olyroo captain had well and truly announced himself on the international stage as did Beauchamp and David Carney, who were also brought into the struggling side during an ill-fated campaign.

Not even a costly mistake in the subsequent quarter-final defeat in Hanoi that led to Japan's equaliser could quell the enthusiasm for a man that many considered to be his country's most influential young player. And just thirteen months earlier, he was a shock selection as a raw 20-year-old in Guus Hiddink's 2006 World Cup squad.

'Millsy' would go onto to play a talismanic role to help Australia successfully negotiate a long and difficult qualifying path through Asia for the 2008 Olympics, lead the Olyroos in their three group matches at the Games and impose himself on the plans of new senior national coach, Pim Verbeek.

At the Olympics, Milligan found himself opposing Barcelona's Lionel Messi against Argentina and Chelsea's Solomon Kalou versus Ivory Coast. While the Olyroos struggled up front throughout the tournament, they were competitive elsewhere, with Milligan and co. holding ultimate champions, Argentina, to a respectable 1-0 defeat in the second group game.

But at club level, he has endured a frustrating time with the passport stamps to match a European package tour traveller after ultimately unsuccessful trials at Manchester City and Arsenal in England, Metz in France and Germany's Werder Bremen. He's also been linked to Blackburn Rovers, FC Porto, and even Greek side Iraklis but his lack of an E.U. work visa made an already challenging task more difficult.

Fifteen months after his coming of age in Bangkok, ex-Sydney FC star Milligan finds himself back in the A-League, signing a seven week guest stint with champions Newcastle, with the likelihood of a longer deal to follow. He made his debut in the Round 9 defeat at the Central Coast Mariners on October 24th, with a mixed 70 minute performance in his first competitive match in more than two months.

His versatility - he can play anywhere at the back or as a defensive midfielder - has been recognised by Jets' coach, Gary Van Egmond after Sydney FC boss John Kosmina ruled out a return to the club where he made 52 appearances over three seasons.

Kosmina said, bluntly: "Mark left this club. He said he didn't want to be here any more and for me, that's more than enough. You don't go out with old girlfriends and you don't take old players back."

Milligan's inactivity as he looked to launch his European career was also starting to hurt his international career with coach Verbeek omitting him from the Socceroo squad to face Qatar in a World Cup qualifier in mid-October, warning him to sort out his club future. His burning - and so far unfulfilled - dream of playing in Europe has occasionally put him at odds with officials back in his homeland.

After the 2007 Asian Cup, he went A.W.O.L from Sydney FC to trial with French club Metz before hastily returning for a third season in the A-League. Earlier this year, he was suspended for five games - reduced to two on appeal - after missing an Olyroos' training camp in Townsville to try his luck with Arsenal.

Milligan maintains that he'd informed Football Federation Australia of his plans.

The fact that both teams welcomed him back - he was still appointed captain for the Beijing Games - shows the high regard in which his talents are held. However, the jury is still out on whether Milligan has the maturity and tactical discipline to take the next big step in his career.

For every Lucas Neill, Josh Kennedy and Luke Wilkshire - who have blossomed from the Australian youth system into seasoned, first-choice Socceroos playing in Europe - there are also the likes of Ljubo Milicevic and Adrian Madaschi, former senior internationals, who have sadly faded into oblivion after promising so much in their early 20s.

Milligan is at a crossroads of his short career as he tries to avoid becoming one of the growing number of apparently forgotten ex-Socceroo defenders - Michael Thwaite, Jon McKain and Hayden Foxe among them - playing in the A-League. And 'Millsy' was in a determined and positive mood when he spoke to ESPNsoccernet in the wake of his Newcastle Jets' debut.

Q: Mark, you had no shortage of interest from A-League clubs. Why did you choose Newcastle?

A: Newcastle were very up front with me from the start and very easy to deal with. They have a very young and talented team with a great coach in Gary Van Egmond. I must say though it was a bit weird before my first game when I saw my parents, grandparents and brothers in the crowd, wearing Jets' jerseys.

Q: What was your reaction to John Kosmina's comments that taking you back at Sydney would be the football equivalent of going out with an old girlfriend?

A: That's his opinion, that's fine. I was looking for a fresh start anyway and looking to move on. Sydney were very good to me. For two and a half years with them I was on a massive high with the World Cup and Asian Cup. At the end, it wasn't as good, but you'd only expect a little down after such a massive high.

Q: What would you consider to be the highlight of your trials overseas?

A: It was unbelievable to be at clubs like Arsenal and Manchester City and dealing with two of the best managers in the world in Arsene Wenger and Sven Goran Eriksson. They both showed me a lot of respect. They sat me down and told me what they were thinking. Werder Bremen were good too. They were quite keen to get me to sign and wanted me to stay for another three weeks to find a loan club, but I wanted to get back playing as soon as possible. My agency is still in touch with them so maybe something will happen down the line. Obviously the passport situation made it difficult. But I'm not looking too far ahead at the moment.

Q: What level do you see yourself ultimately playing?

A: After being in Germany, that's somewhere I'd like to end up. But, as I said, I'm not looking too far into the future. I just want to get back on the paddock and go from there.

Q: What happened with your trial in Metz with France last year?

A: That was a bit of a misunderstanding. They were looking for more of an attacking player - a wing back - which I wasn't. It would have done more harm than good to try and change positions. It ended up being more just to go over there and have a look.

Q: What do you consider to be your best position?

A: I enjoy being central, whether it's centre back or at defensive midfield. Defensive midfield is the role that I'm playing at the Jets which I like. If I get back into the Socceroos, I would say centre back or right back because Australia is spoiled for choice in midfield.

Q: How big a factor was getting back into the Socceroos and making the 2010 World Cup squad - should Australia qualify - in your thinking with joining the Jets?

A: It was definitely a factor in coming back and playing regularly again. Pim (Verbeek) has been very good to me, picking me for the South Africa game (in August) and keeping an eye on me, telling me I should be playing as soon as possible. But I needed to get back playing for my own sanity. I haven't felt like this since I was a little kid!

Q: What are your favourite memories wearing an Australian shirt at senior and under 23 level?

A: The Asian Cup was massive because it was my first start in a full strength Socceroo side even though I'd trained with them and been around them for so long. But I'd have to say captaining the Olyroos at the Olympics was the highlight. Even though it didn't go according to plan, it was a massive buzz.

Q: How do you look back on getting picked from nowhere for the 2006 World Cup squad?

A: When people mention it today, it still doesn't seem real. It was an unbelievable experience, the highlight of my life, even though I didn't get onto the field. I was just 20 years old and I was picked soon after being out for 26 or 27 weeks with a groin injury. Words still can't describe. It's something I'll never forget.

Q: What players in international football do you admire the most?

A: Growing up, it was Craig Moore. He was an amazing player and still is as we saw in the Qatar game (Moore's international comeback). Also Fabio Cannavaro. The fact that he's not the biggest of people (at 1.75m compared to Milligan's 1.80m) and yet so good gives me a bit of inspiration. The things he's achieved as a centre back are amazing.

Q: What do you need to do to improve as a player?

A: I need to increase my work rate, my consistency and perform for the whole 90 minutes. I want to get better with every game. If I can give up one less ball or make one more correct decision and concentrate for the whole 90 minutes then hopefully I will push for a Socceroo spot.

•  Sydney-born Jason Dasey (www.jasondasey.com) is an international broadcaster and corporate host. He covered the 2006 World Cup and 2007 Asian Cup for ESPN.

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