There are many advantages to quitting England in November for the warmer climes of Australia. I had banked on the usual (sun, fresher foods, out of John Honney’s mobile phone range) as well as the special treat of actually seeing Australia lose at a major sport and getting the chance to carp on about it in the local press. There I was, reflecting in the afterglow of Brazil’s comprehensive outplaying of an earnest but desperately ordinary Socceroos, when an additional whopper of a bonus dropped into my lap.
It came in the form of a shambling, unshaven big mouth giving it large to the TV cameras in a whining sort of way. The face looked familiar - the name even more so. Why if it isn’t good old Mr Ned Zelic?
Zelic’s arrival, whinging and subsequent departure from Loftus Road, having barely muddied his boots, has always rankled with me, and in a big time stylee. I put him up amongst the pantheon of prats above even Messrs Hateley and Dichio because he never even gave the club a chance. I’ve long felt that, after Gerry’s leaving, the way the two big money transfers of Zelic and Hateley panned out were directly responsible for our Premiership demise.
Leave it alone, Clive. It’s spilt milk, long since evaporated - or it would be, if the chump who gets the hump hadn’t repeated the same staggeringly stupid manoeuvre he performed so crassly for our club, but this time for country.
On live telly, Zelic bellyached that he hadn’t been given a “fair go” despite playing for the whole of the first match against Brazil and wasn’t getting the support of the manager, Frank Farrell. In private, it was reckoned that the cry-baby was miffed at not getting the captaincy; whilst, in short, he declared he wouldn’t play for Australia again. Frankly, on the evidence of his lightweight, tepid display against a young, patently jet-lagged Brazil side, it seemed an accurate prediction.
For those unaware of the ill-fated series of matches between Australia and Brazil, let me run through a couple of pointers. Australia despite their one jewel in the crown, Harry Kewell, staying in England, were ridiculously bullish about their chances against Brazil.
This comes from the nation’s sporting identity - they always expect to win and this belief and confidence often extends beyond their team’s actual abilities. In the case of the Socceroos, a side that would struggle in the Premiership and, possibly, even the First Division, it was a leap of imagination too far.
Losing 2-0 in the first match, it should have been many more. When the best player in an Australian shirt is a Man City wing-back, Danny Tiatto, struggling to keep his place in his club side, you start to get the picture vis-a-vis the team’s national calibre.
Put simply, in ‘life on the African plains’ terms, the Oz national side is an antelope labouring under the delusion for far too long that it’s a lion. I reckon Zelic is occasionally smarter than he looks, woke up and smelt the (Brazilian) coffee. He opted for a tactical retirement rather than be made to look stupid and ineffectual again.
This angle did not go down well with the editor of the regional newspaper for which I was asked to pen a column about Zelic. Whilst he liked my contrived headline ‘Axed, Why Zed?’ with the N crossed out and the Z put in his place, he baulked in a serious way at my assertion that when the going gets tough, Zelic gets going (back to which of his long line of clubs is foolish enough to currently put up with his antics).
And yet, when we watched what the telly had to say about Mr Z’s farewell, the Ed began to understand. Channel 9’s coverage of Zelic’s retirement seemed to be typical of the Australian stations who struggled to cobble together more than a couple of fleeting moments of Zelic brilliance in less-than-fulsome tributes. There was that piledriver of a goal for the Socceroos a few years ago, a few nice touches and little else. It struck me that Zelic was another case of the John Barnes’ score-a-great-goal-and-survive-in-the-national-team-long-past-your-sell-by-date.
What has all this drivel got to do with Rangers? Not a great deal other than a reopening of a small but festering sore of a debate in Rangers history. I’d always gone along with the ‘blame Wilkins’ for the whole Zelic debacle. If you can cart yourself back to Zelic’s departure, itself seemingly minutes Ray’s bizarre claim that the player was “as versatile as an egg”, there was a big debate as to why the £1.25m signing wasn’t getting the games.
Wilkins gave the impression that Ned’s omission was due to a glut of midfield options making the squad as cramped as an unwelcome game of office Christmas party sardines with those wacky boys from accounts. The view some Rangers fans took at the time, myself included, was that Zelic’s arrival appeared to threaten one and only one player’s position - old slaphead himself. Of course, this was dismissed as rumour, conjecture and idle chit-chat, but I always put a lot of store by this theory.
Now, after getting a closer look at the way the Yugoslav-born player operates, which included interviewing several of his Socceroo team-mates, I’m revising my opinion and prefer to blame player as much, if not more, than manager. Captain Okon and Zelic haven’t spoken for years and one of the side I interviewed told me off the record that “Zelic is a joke of the highest order”.
This comment was made to me before Ned spat the dummy, performed another tantrum a four-year-old with attention deficiency syndrome would have been proud of and walked out on yet another team. Clearly, Zelic makes more enemies in quicker time than Monsanto turning up at a Green Party conference.
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