At Monday night’s PFA Alex Tobin OAM Medal, Chief Executive Brendan Schwab spoke of the leadership shown by Australia’s professional footballers – past and present – in standing up for Australian football in tough times.

It is a great pleasure to be here tonight with so many to honour two very significant figures in the history of our game: Alex Tobin and Mark Viduka.

In so doing, of course, we recognise today’s players, and reflect on how far our game has come, not only here in Victoria, but nationally.

18 months ago Alex Tobin placed his medal around the neck of the legendary Craig Johnston, the player who paved the way for 600 young Australians to move overseas in pursuit of their dream of playing football at the highest possible level.

Since then, it has been a tough time for Australian football.

In Durban, we watched the Socceroos fall disastrously to a 4-0 defeat to Germany.

At home, many A-League players faced the economic uncertainty of the days of the old National Soccer League – days our commitment to reform promised were over – as North Queensland Fury partially collapsed.  Declining crowds have since sparked a debate about the future viability of the A-League itself.

Tough times for the game mean tough times for the players.  The players have had to make a call about how we respond to these great challenges for our game.

Australian football is a special industry to be a part of because the achievement of our dream will bring so much to our nation – we are, in many ways, the ‘true believers’ of Australian sport.  We want to win the biggest prize – to enable our famous sporting nation to sit proudly among the kings and queens of the world game.  In so doing, lives will be transformed.

So bold is this dream that its pursuit, if it is to succeed, can only bring out the best in a football person’s character.

Indeed, the example on how to respond to tough times is etched in the achievements of the Tobin Medallists.

Johnny Warren ultimately did not live to see his cherished reforms realized.  Even as a player, his greatest achievement – the 1974 FIFA World Cup Finals in Germany – was cut short by injury.

Craig Johnston – who realized the pinnacle in 1986 when he scored the FA Cup final winner in Liverpool’s historic double – experienced the horrors of Heysel and Hillsborough, and retired at 27 to care for his tragically injured sister.

Joe Marston wrote to English football’s greatest clubs in search of his chance.  He traveled by sea with his wife Edith.  He achieved much, becoming one of Preston North End’s greatest players, then a goliath of the professional game.  Yet, the day he is most remembered for – the 1954 FA Cup Final – ended in defeat.

Alex Tobin and Mark Viduka together experienced arguably Australia’s most saddening sporting defeat – that to Iran in 1997, with a team that only a month later proved, by qualifying for the final of the FIFA Confederations Cup, that it would have made a major impact at the 1998 World Cup in France.

All of these players responded to disappointment and defeat by giving more to the game, their fellow professionals, and their country.  They were able to do so because of their single minded determination to become the very best players they could be.

In the words of a young Craig Johnston, “my goal, every day in life, is to go to bed a better footballer than I am when I wake up in the morning.”

And that is how the Socceroos – under the leadership of Lucas Neill – responded to the defeat to Germany.  A draw with Ghana with 10 men when we were the better side, victory over Serbia, the embracing of a new coach in Holger Osieck , and a brilliant Asian Cup that saw the Socceroos fall at the final step to our great rivals, the Blue Samurai of Japan.

At A-League level, the players have delivered what has been without question of season of quality football, widely acclaimed for technical excellence and entertaining play.

Similarly, our elite women players have embraced the challenges of the W-League and professionalism by becoming Asian champions.  The Young Socceroos – who played enticingly in qualifying for the final of the Asian Youth Cup – are demonstrating they understand what makes an Australian professional footballer tick.

The PFA is proud to collectively represent players who so ably represent their nation, each other and their profession.

And we will conduct our work by following the example of our members, and those that have gone before them.

We will continue to be a forefront of the debate about the future of football in this country, because we understand that the wellbeing of the game is a precondition to the well being of the player.

Much goes into the work of the PFA, and a lot of it, because we are a small, yet global and complex organisation, is not seen by all of the players.

Our people – especially our heads of Player Relations and Player Services – Laura Sigal and Will Hastie – are great workers for the game and the players.  They are ably supported by our staff.

Our Player Relations Executive James Johnson is leaving us to take on an important legal role with the Asian Football Confederation.

James of course becomes another member of the PFA alumni in an important role in the game, following the likes of Andy Harper, Craig Foster, Francis Awaritefe, Ante Milicic, Robbie Hooker, Alistair Edwards and John Didulica.

We wish James and his wife Jesse the very best in Kuala Lumpur.  It will be great to have another friend of Australian football and the players at the AFC, just as Australia works to be an important part of our region and the PFA works, through FIFPro –the world players’ union – to expand the collective voice of the players in Asia and Oceania.

I would like to acknowledge two long standing servants of our union – Joff Macleod, an outstanding accountant who chaired our governance committee for over a decade, and Antony Thow, a great labour lawyer, a former PFA arbitrator, who helped forge our partnership with the National Union of Workers and the PFA’s work in the community with leading businesses such as LUCRF Super and Woolworths.

Community work is a very important part of the PFA’s activities, and vital to the development of both football as a sport and our players as people.  It is undertaken in partnership with the Victorian government, which is represented here today by the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development’s Nino Napoli and John Allman, who have worked very closely with our Chairman John Poulakakis.

We have been delighted with the enthusiasm and professionalism shown by the players who have worked for the PFA Heroes program, which has so far been implemented by the players of Melbourne Heart and Melbourne Victory.  PFA Executive members Liam Reddy and Alex Wilkinson have already arranged for the players of Sydney FC and Central Coast Mariners to support the roll out of the program in Sydney and Wyong.

The PFA’s community work as all about breaking down the ceilings of disadvantage that can so unfortunately undermine the potential of young people in our society.

Here is an example of the players’ work, and I thank you for your kind attention.  Have a great evening.