Arnold turns attention to A-League
Graham Arnold is loving life in club football, so much so in fact that he has virtually ruled out a return to international coaching. The new Central Coast Mariners manager is in full swing in his first A-League season and he couldn't be happier - and not just because his side is sitting third in the table after eight rounds.
After ten rollercoaster years with the Australian national team set-up - including a stint in charge of the Socceroos at the 2007 Asian Cup, in between World Cups as assistant to Dutchmen Guus Hiddink and Pim Verbeek - Arnold has returned to domestic football with the A-League's most stable club in search of some stability of his own.
Gone are the round-the-world scouting trips and logistical headaches. Gone too, he admits, is the burning spotlight of an increasingly critical, expectant and football-savvy Australian supporter base. Now 'Arnie' is relishing the benefits of day-to-day club coaching and the challenge of working with players who have more room for improvement than Australia's World Cup stars.
"I've pretty much had my time with international football," he says. "I've had two World Cups, three Olympic Games and two Confederations Cups, so I have great memories with international coaching. But now I'd rather do club football where you have control over the players and a lot of input into what they do.
"I'm enjoying club football immensely. Obviously it's been totally different. International football is all about man management and organisational stuff off the field. They get off a plane fatigued two days before they play a game for the Socceroos. People don't see that side of it. On the weekend they see Timmy Cahill playing for Everton and on Wednesday they see him play for Australia."
At 47, Arnold has plenty of coaching years ahead of him and, although he's not interested in the international scene for the foreseeable future, it doesn't mean he is lacking ambition in his career. In an ideal future he would blaze a trail similar to the one he did as a player when he left Australian shores to carve out a career spanning the Netherlands, Belgium and Japan.
"I was one of the first players to go and play overseas in the mid-80s and I'd love to be one of the first Australian coaches to go overseas," he says. "But my main focus at the moment is the Mariners."
Having stepped out of the Socceroos' sphere, Arnold is able to speak more freely about the fortunes of the national team and he is concerned about the quality of the next generation of players coming through. He believes the Socceroos' performances at the 2010 World Cup were undermined by a lack of new talent to replenish the stocks of the aging golden generation of 2006.
"Look at the players at the 2006 World Cup, and look at 2010, and it was 75% the same. There was no one pushing players out and, even though I'm not involved anymore, I still don't see anyone pushing players out. People talk about the next Harry Kewell, but Harry broke through overseas when he was 17 and he's probably a once in a lifetime player. Players are going to lower clubs in Turkey and Greece and it's no disrespect to those countries but I haven't seen anyone go to a top club in England for a long time, or a top club in Holland like Brett Emerton did when he was 21, or the Serie A like [Mark] Bresciano and [Vince] Grella did."
That said, Arnold believes his new stomping ground, the A-League, is absolutely critical to developing the talent to populate the green and gold ranks of the future.
"I think for the national team to be successful in future, you need a successful A-League,'' he says. ''If we don't have a viable and strong A-League you can forget about the national team being successful, at all age levels."
Despite its importance, Arnold has had his criticisms of the A-League. He recalls his time as Olyroos coach when players arrived in camp from their clubs lacking the fitness and tactical nous required for international football, meaning he had to "devise a restricted gameplan because you knew the players were going to run out of legs." But he believes the sharp improvement in quality this season shows the league is well on its way to becoming the breeding ground the Socceroos desperately need it to be.
"You're seeing the benefits of the league getting older,'' he claims. ''This year we've seen a higher calibre of visa players brought in. All the coaches have invested wisely. Coaches are doing more work tactically on the players which is making them more open-minded and more aware of tactics for the international level."
And Arnold, who is now placed better than anyone to compare the standards of the A-League and the national team, is playing his part in bridging the gap. In fact, he's getting a great satisfaction from seeing week-to-week improvement in his Mariners charges.
"Obviously you need to do a lot more tactical work with the players in the A-League," Arnold says. "The Socceroos are very smart players. Even under Hiddink, sometimes we never did any tactical sessions because you could just put the players out and they knew what they were doing. In the A-League it's more enjoyable when you see players improve in what you're working on all week at training. Sometimes there's a frustration because of what I've been used to working with but I don't get upset about it. I try to be extremely positive about the players."
Arnold insists his outfit, despite their early success, are very much "a work in progress, especially with the ball." He says: "We have a motto at the club: 'Look short before long' because I want to play a short passing game." It is taking time to implant his ideas into the players but Mariners fans will be happy to know he isn't throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Arnold reveals: "One thing that impressed me watching the Mariners from afar was their mentality and their work ethic. Every year people seemed to write them off but they proved them wrong. So when I came in I didn't want to lose that Mariners culture."
That's why he retained young defender and foundation player Alex Wilkinson as captain, and why he was so disappointed to lose another player who has been at the club since its inception, goalkeeper Danny Vukovic. But when Vukovic left, Arnold instantly sought to recruit Central Coast junior Jess Vanstrattan to go along with local boy Ollie Bozanic, who he had repatriated from England's lower leagues. He reveals he even tried to sign Chris Payne, another Coastie, who instead joined North Queensland Fury days before Arnold made contact from South Africa. Before Vanstrattan was injured, his presence along with Bozanic, Matt Simon and Brad Porter made for four Central Coast products in the starting XI.
Despite the gloom that has often surrounded the opening months of the season, the future looks bright for the Mariners and the Central Coast. Re-elected Prime Minister Julia Gillard's election promise of $10 million towards the club's Centre of Excellence - a combined club and community training and sports science facility - was a massive boost, and the early stages of the project have taken shape in the form of exclusive training pitches which would be the envy of other A-League clubs, according to the boss.
Arnold is excited about the club's promising crop of youngsters, who he claims he's "not afraid" to turn to as the club faces a daunting 18 matches from November to January. As the October 1 deadline passes, Arnold will be able to approach any A-League players out of contract at the end of the season as he starts to build a squad he can truly call his own. In his sights are "a couple of good midfielders and a quality striker", the latter being a quicker, more mobile one to complement the bustling frontmen he currently has at his disposal.
Other coaches will also be able to approach his players. He says: "We have eight or nine players coming off contract. There are some players who still need to prove themselves."
His project is in its embryonic stages, but for now Arnold is satisfied he has found himself a comfortable niche in which to operate.
"I thoroughly enjoy [the Central Coast]," he says. "It's a wonderful place to live. The club's got a great culture about it and it's a very relaxing place to work."
But make no mistake, sleepy little Central Coast is playing host to a coach who still harbours very worldly ambitions.