Socceroos legend Josip Skoko goes 1v1 with the PFA to discusses his development in Australia, the move to Europe, why his time in Croatia equipped him to cope with everything football could throw at him and why patience and his self belief were so important.

PFA: Like many Socceroos greats you attended the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS). How important was your time there in the success you went on to have?

JS: It was a critical phase and everybody and you  still see that now. We have good intakes of juniors until around 14 then a lot of players leave for whatever reason and fall away. At that age we lived and breathed the game and we were fortunate to be in a professional environment, but it was not just that. As hard it was to be away from home we learnt what we needed to learn in terms of life and to get out on our own in a professional environment like it is overseas. You were still looked after quite well, but it was a stepping stone to getting out there on your own. The coaching we had from Ron Smith and Steve O’Connor was the best coaching you could possible have at the time and that is why so many of us kicked on and had careers at the highest level.


PFA: Do you feel that being taken out of your comfort zone and moving away from home at a young age helped equip you for what was to come?

JS: It was so important. It is not just about being a good footballer that is only one part of it, if you can’t do the rest of it you are in trouble; it only takes one part to fail and everything fails. You can be a great footballer, a model person, but if you can’t deal with being away or certain situations, and I’m not talking about on the park, but just in life in general it can really put a damper on you and it can affect you. The AIS gave us that little stepping and then going overseas was a huge step, but at least you had some sort of exposure to it.


PFA: After you completed your time at the AIS you joined Victorian Premier League club North Geelong, why did you feel it was the right club for you?

JS: It still wasn’t the norm to go overseas or to plan to at the time, not like it is now. Back then we didn’t really plan on that, I didn’t really think I was going to play overseas, it was more ‘I’m at the institute, if I don’t do that I won’t be able to be a professional and make a go of it.’ Every step along it was just about what was going to give me the best opportunity to be successful. The next step after the institute was to play senior football. We did play a little bit of senior football at the institute, but I really wanted to play a full season at that stage as I was preparing for the Youth World Cup and that was important. I did trial with a few NSL clubs, but  had the feeling that I would rather play in the Victorian Premier League and if I’m good enough there I can then step by step move onto the National League. It was a good standard and it really challenged me.


PFA: You mentioned that playing overseas or having the ambition to do so was not the norm at the time so how did your move to Hajduk Split come about?

JS: There wasn’t really a pathway, apart from playing for the National Team at youth level, so it was not something that you thought yes I have a chance to go overseas, but I did have a coach at North Geelong, who was good friends with Vedran Rozic, and he kept saying to me I want to take you over to Hajduk Split and most of the time I kept just laughed it off and kept going.

We had some tours just before the Youth World Cup, in Europe, and some scouts did come and watch some games. We played a game against Ajax and they were packed full of stars, like Patrick Kluivert and the like and we ended up beating them 3-1 and there was a lot of scouts there that day and I think that helped my cause a little bit. After the Youth World Cup Hajduk got in touch again and eventually there was something on paper and I went over and after a few sessions and a trial stage I signed a contract.


PFA: At the time Croatia was still at war, although it was drawing to it close, how did you adjust to life on and off the pitch?

JS: I’d had the stepping stone of being away when I was at the AIS, but I don’t think there was any stepping stone that could have prepared me for Croatia at the time. It was so different and I was so naive coming from Australia to that world over there and like you said the country was at war at the time and that just added further difficulties to it all.

Hajduk Split had just come off a Champions League campaign where they had went all the way to the Semi Finals and they had a star studded team and it was a real eye opener to see how things were done, training and the world of professional football was put in front of me and I had to deal with it. I think in a way I was lucky that there was a good group of young boys coming through; we didn’t play as much in that first year, but we trained really hard and I did get some games with a local side on loan to keep me going and after the first year I got my opportunity because the team didn’t qualify for the Champions League and a lot of players left for other clubs around Europe.


PFA: In a recent interview your long time Socceroo teammate Vince Grella stressed the need for players to be patient when they go to Europe, is that something you were forced to do in waiting for your opportunity? 

JS: I think you are always tested in terms of patience. I think at every club you are at you are tested. I had that whole year and there was so many times I woke up thinking ‘what I am doing here.’ You have three or four years of doing well and then move and you have the same thing and you start questioning yourself again. You might have a new coach come to the club or something changes. When I signed for Racing Genk from Hajduk, I went to watch the first game after I signed, they lost three nil and the coach that signed me got sacked and the new coach came in and the next week for me was terrible because the new coach wanted to get rid of me and I hadn’t even kicked a ball yet.

I had a situation at Wigan where for the first 12 months I didn’t put 10 games together and it wasn’t because I didn’t try hard, the team was doing well and I was away with the National Team for our World Cup Qualification campaign and I didn’t really get a look in. I was told at the end of the season if I would like to go on loan I could, there was only a two months left in the season and I went to Stoke just to make sure I was fully fit for the World Cup, which was great. Just before I went to the World Cup the Wigan Manager Paul Jewell told me ‘we are happy with you as a professional, but you are not the type of player I need here at the club. If you can can find another club at the World Cup go for it you, are not going to be playing here.’

That was a time where I needed to be patient. I didn’t play at the World Cup and I couldn’t find another club and I came back to Wigan knowing that he wasn’t going to play me so I just got my head down and was patient. I think it was eight to 10 rounds in where I didn’t play and just trained my heart out and eventually Paul Jewell said ‘I have to play you,’ and I got the chance against Manchester City and started really well we were up 2-0 and played a big part in the goals and then I pulled my hamstring and was out for four weeks, but thankfully I came straight back in and played the rest of the season. If I hadn’t had patience and waited I might have left and who knows what would have happened. I think it’s a really good message for the boys going over. Anything can happen a coach can change, people at the club can can change and you have to patient if you are not getting a look in.


PFA: At the time when a coach is telling you that you are not in their plans that must be very difficult to take.

JS: It depends on where you are in your life at the time. If you are 20 or 22 and you really need to play games or whether you have done a lot already has a big impact. I was into the second part of my career, in my late twenties. I really wanted to play in the Premier League and I knew was easily good enough to play for Wigan and knew of my quality, so I wasn’t bothered and it just fuelled the fire to prove him wrong. I wasn’t just going to pack up and go. My family and I were really enjoying it and I thought I would stick it out.


PFA: You were first called up for the Socceroos in your second season in Croatia, just two season after you had been playing in the Victorian Premier League, that is a very quick rise.

JS: It was a bit of whirlwind and everything happened very quickly, but like I said I was sort of prepared for everything, two years in Croatia and I was already a different person confidence wise in my football ability. It wasn’t easy we had some great squads during my time in the national team and even at the start, there were players I had looked up to for years and the main thing was the boys always came together from the first game I played to the last. Everybody was together and we had a really good bond and that just got you through everything and it was very special to be able to put the green and gold on with your mates.


PFA: You shared a common path with many of your Socceroos teammates of going abroad young and having tough it out, do you feel like that brought you closer together?

JS: All the boys went through the same experience and it was great to catch up and everyone’s experience was the same. Some might have been having harder times some better, but we had all gone through the same and it was great to have someone to share it with. Later on when we were all married our wives could share similar experiences because you can’t just talk to anyone about it. In the first four or five years in the National Team when we got called up we played a lot of games in London and it was great to catch up with all the boys, play a game and refresh a bit then go back to your club.


PFA: After four seasons in Croatia you joined Belgian giants Racing Genk how different was this move compared to when you first joined Haiduk Split?

JS: The time in Croatia was the base for everything. After I dealt with everything there, everything else was easy. I had been through a lot of things in Croatia. I think we went through maybe 12 coaches in the four years I was there and having to prove yourself every time all over again every time a new coach came in, going 10-12 months without any pay and other injustices so that set me up to be able to handle pretty much anything.

At Genk I was told before I had to go and put the boots on that I had to go and do a press conference and say I’m not happy to be here I want to go back to my old club. Basically the deal had already been done and I knew there was no doubling back and there was nothing they could do. I think the first game, after a few days on the outer, I was on the bench and I came on at 3-1 and I scored from about 30 meters out and that silenced the coach and that was the end of that and I was in the starting 11 for the next game.


PFA: You won pretty much everything you could win in Belgian football, was the move to Turkey about seeking a new challenge?

JS: I had been in Belgium for three and a half years and we had won the league and won a Cup and we had sort of done everything, and I felt like it was time for me to step up and look for a new challenge. I really wanted to go to the UK, but it just wasn’t on the table and this Turkish club just come knocking. I refused them and then came back again and I said ‘look give me some time’ and then just kept coming and I heard they were a good club and I went to check it out and ended up signing. I had some different experiences in different countries, Croatia and Turkey were one way and they were very different to say Belgium and England who were both Western. Turkey was great weather and great food, but we spent a lot of time in camps training, where the other countries were not great weather and food, but you had a lot more freedom.


PFA:  You eventually got your dream move to the UK with Wigan and become an important player in helping the club to play in the Premier League, again the start would prove a little testing?

JS: I missed the first game of the season and the club went on a brilliant role and I couldn’t get in the team. As I said earlier I was told I was not part of the manager’s plans, but I put my head down got in the team and did well enough to win a new contract.


PFA: In 2005 you were part of the Socceroos team that sealed our first qualification for the FIFA World Cup for 32 years. How much did that night mean to you?

JS: It wasn’t just for us, it was for everyone that had failed previously and I had been one of them. It was just a massive night for everyone, it had to come eventually, but the way it happened the way the script came together it was just an amazing night, even though I only played a small part in the game at the end, just being there was a special moment and one of those in your life that is a one off.


PFA: After three seasons in the UK you returned to Hajduk Split, how different was the club and country from what you had left 10 years earlier?

JS: It was a different place ten or so years later, the city the club, the people. With the war being over things had been rebuilt and people had gotten on with their lives, but the passion for the club was the same. I think one of the main reasons I returned was that a lot of us boys who were there during my first stint and then went off into Europe always said one day we would come back and try to play Champions League and win something. We won a Cup and did play in Europe, not in the Champions League, but played some good football and I really enjoyed it.


PFA: There was one last club before you decided to retire, Melbourne Heart, how did the move come about and was there always a plan or ambition to finish your career in Australia?

JS: I was getting towards the end of my career and I did want to come back to Australia and this gave me the opportunity to play in Australia in the top league, which I hadn’t done before, and to come home for a bit. At the time a good friend of mine, John Didulica, was part of the club and I thought this was good timing and meet up with John van’t Schip in Split and everything came together.


PFA: Finally, you enjoyed a brilliant career in Europe and with the Socceroos, what do you believe is the key for players today trying to replicate your success?

JS: Everyone has a different path. I think it’s just persistance and you need to be patient. If you are honest and hard working on the pitch you get your chance sooner or later and I think that is the main thing. If you have a contract for three years try and stick it out, obviously things can change, but try to stick it out because usually if you are good enough you will get your chance.