Most players use the Olyroos as a springboard to work their way up to the Socceroos. Not Paul Okon. Before the precocious young defender captained the Young Socceroos at the 1991 World Youth Championships in Portugal, he made his full senior debut at the age of 18 on a rainy night in Paramatta in 1991. 

“It was a rainy evening, really wet and I had already been in the squad a few times when I was 17,” Okon recalled in 2008. 

“I knew that I was going to get an opportunity that night…I came on in the second half. It was the same game that Tony Vidmar made his debut.” 

“I remember the ball came out to me just outside the box, I made a 70m run, dribbled past three or four players and by the time I got to the other end I ended up giving a bad pass. 

“It took everything out of me. I felt like I was going to have a heart attack, and I didn’t really do much for the rest of the game. But I put that down to nerves and being too eager.” 

Australia lost 2-0 that night to Czechoslovakia, as they were then called, but Okon relished
the experience and went on to star for the Olyroos at the Youth Championship in Portugal in 1991 and the Barcelona Olympics the following year. 

Okon caught the eye of national team selectors after a stunning start to his career in the National Soccer League for Marconi where he won the Under 21 Player of the Season in his first two years in 1990 and 1991. 

A sweeper likened to Beckenbauer, Okon’s uncanny ability to read the play, glide past other players with ease and effortlessly hit a team mate with a cross-field pass saw him marked as Australia’s next big thing. 

His talents saw him leave Marconi for Europe, signing with Club Brugge in Belgium’s first division, where a successful five-year spell culminated in him winning the title and Golden Shoe award in 1996 for the best player in Belgium, the first non-European to win the award. 

A dream move to a star-studded Lazio team saw Okon become to first Australian to play regularly in the Serie A. 

“I grew up watching Italian football idolising players in Serie A, so to have that opportunity to play there was unforgettable,” he said.  Okon switched to midfield to fill a gap left by Roberto Di Matteo but his four-year stretch in Italy was largely disrupted by a recurrent knee injury stemming from a childhood car accident. When fit he was often one of the team’s top players and got to play alongside some of the great players of his generation including Gabriel Batistuta, Rui Costa and Roberto Mancini. 

Sadly, Okon’s career continued to be curtailed by injuries during a stint in England where he played for Middlesborough, Watford and Leeds United before returning to Italy in 2003 to play in the Serie B for a season before returning to Belgium to play for KV Oostende in the second division. 

Okon earned 28 caps over a 12-year international career. A stuttering spell in England and Italy’s second division resulted in Okon losing his place to promising young midfielders Mark Bresciano and Vince Grella. Despite captaining Australia for 24 of his 28 caps, and being part of the heartbreaking unsuccessful 2002 qualifying campaign, Okon never got to realise his dream of leading them to a World Cup. 

Okon returned to Australia in 2006 to play for Newcastle Jets in the A-League before retiring from professional football in 2007. Straight away he turned his efforts to nurturing the next generation of Australian footballers, joining a coaching development program before being appointed the national under 20 coach in 2012. During a four-year spell with the Young Socceroos, Okon helped develop talented youngsters including Daniel De Silva, Josh Brillante, Jamie Maclaren and Stefan Mauk. In 2016, Okon was appointed manager of Central Coast Mariners but after 10 wins over two seasons, he left the club over a disagreement with the board of the direction of the club. 

Despite not sharing the reputation of Socceroos such as Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka, Okon remains one of the most gifted players to represent Australia and paved the way for the golden generation that followed. 

His ambition to leave Australia at 19 years of age and establish himself in European football broke new ground, particularly in Italy where many others have since followed. 

His dedication to the game and his peers is unquestioned and the Tobin Medal will sit very comfortably on his shoulders.