It’s fair to say that Guus Hiddink knows a thing or two about football. As a manager, Hiddink has achieved more than most and boasts an impressive resume to match. When he took over as Australia manager in 2005, his goal was to qualify for the World Cup the following year, something the Aussies hadn’t managed to do for 32 years. And he did just that. Along the way though, he discovered a gem of a player; someone he would describe as ‘one of the most technically gifted in the squad and a complete and modern player”.
That player was Luke Wilkshire, the no nonsense defensive midfielder whose tough tackling approach and ability to break up the play was viewed as essential to Hiddinks plans. Wilkshires journey from Albion Park, New South Wales to a starting berth at the World Cup is dramatic to say the least. We caught up with him recently to talk about that journey to the World Cup and beyond including his time in Holland which transformed him as a player, his spells in what he calls his second home Russia and the return to Australia and move into management. Enjoy!
Back Of The Net: You began your career at Albion Park, your local club before joining Wollongong Wolves youth team. From there, you moved to the AIS program in Canberra which was responsible for bringing through a lot of Australian talent over the years. What was your reaction when you heard that the Football Federation Australia was closing it down? Do you support Mark Viduka in calling for it to be reinstated?
Luke Wilkshire: I, like Mark and every other player who went through the AIS don’t understand or believe it should have been shut down! It was a massive massive part in preparing me for professional football and definitely should be reinstated.
BOTN: After only a year at AIS, you moved to England and joined the Middlesbroughs youth team. How did that move come about? Did you have any trepidation about joining?
LW: I had been over before i went to the AIS and Middlesbrough wanted me then however due to visa reasons i couldn’t go until 17 years old. I had no hesitation at all because all i ever wanted was to be a professional footballer and to play in the English Premier League.
BOTN: When you joined Middlesbrough, fellow Australians Mark Schwarzer and Brad Jones were at the club, and Tony Vidmar joined the following year. Did it help you to settle in to the club with them there already?
LW: Of course, for sure it helped. Brad and i actually lived together the first year and Mark was like the father figure for us there.
BOTN: With the arrival of Juninho, Geremi and George Boateng, competition for places in the midfield meant it was harder for you to establish yourself. Eventually you moved to Bristol City, dropping down a couple of divisions in doing so. What were your emotions at the time about that move and did you feel that you had not been given the chance at ‘Boro to prove yourself?
LW: It was great having that competition and drove you to improve in order to challenge these guys for places. I had my moments and played a few games. However Steve McLaren i felt wasn’t giving me a fair deal. I wanted to play regularly and that was never going to happen with him always resorting to the established players no matter my performance.
BOTN: Those first two season at Bristol appeared to be full of highs and lows – establishing yourself in the first team but missing out on promotion through the play offs. You also won your first of 80 full caps for Australia after playing at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. How influential were those years on the future direction of your career?
LW: Those were actually my worst three years in football. However it pushed me mentally to another level which definitely helped me going forward in my career.
BOTN: What happened in your final year at Bristol under Gary Johnson? How delighted were you that made the 2006 World Cup squad despite what was happening at the Gate?
LW: He was unhappy because i wouldn’t sign a new contract and as a result he tried to ruin me by not playing me. He even had me on the bench for the reserve team after being a first team regular. Ultimately hard work paid off and Guus (Hiddink) gave me my break (for Australia).
BOTN: Speaking of Gus Hiddink, he picked you for that squad stating “that he admired your flexibility, quality and technique”. How rewarding was it to hear that from your national manager ahead of the tournament? Did you expect to play a major part in it after hearing this?
LW: Of course it’s nice when one of the best coaches in the world has such words for you. I really didn’t expect anything, i just worked and was ready for whatever would come, determined to take any chance that presented itself.
BOTN: The game against Italy must be a match that people ask you the most about. You were close to progressing to the quarter finals only for it to be snatched away deep into injury time due to a rather dubious penalty. How hard was that game to process after the final whistle had blow?
LW: I still can’t believe we lost that game… It just felt like a matter of time before we got our goal. I still haven’t watched it back and i have no wish to. Just move forward
BOTN: Your performances at the World Cup earned you a move to FC Twente in Holland where under the advice of manager Fred Rutten you switched from midfield to become an attacking right back. Was it an easy transition for you to switch positions? Do you feel that it developed new parts of your overall game?
LW: Fred pulled me aside and said for me to go to the next level he felt i could be a top modern day right back. I enjoyed the position as i still loved to go forward.
BOTN: The move to Russia in 2008 was unexpected especially as no Australian had ever played in that league before. What was it about that challenge that interested you the most? Was it purely to get out of your own comfort zone?
LW: I love a challenge and everyone was telling me not to go including my mother. I’ve never been one to listen to others. I felt the challenge was exciting and rewarding and was the best decision i ever made.
BOTN: How would you describe the differences between the Russian League and the others that you have played in? More physical?
LW: It’s more like the (English) Premier League than Dutch Eredivisie. Fast and physical but also with a lot of quality. There are many top players playing the the Russian Premier League.
BOTN: You moved back to Holland to play for Fred Rutten again this time at Feyenoord. The move didn’t quite go as planned with injuries hampering your chances there. When you left the club after only one season, did you consider retirement or did you feel that you still had enough to compete?
LW: I wanted to return to Russia when Fred left Feyenoord and i felt i wouldn’t play. I’m not a player who accepts sitting on the bench. I was dreaming of a return Dynamo and eventually i got just that!
BOTN: A move back to Russia with spells at Terek Grozny and Dynamo Moscow followed then eventually you returned to Australia to sign for Sydney FC. Did you always want to finish your career back in Australia? It ended up being a good move as you picked up silverware as Sydney won the league and cup.
LW: I never wanted to and never thought i would. I was retired after Dynamo and when Arnie (Graham Arnold) called about the opportunity, my initial reaction was no. Then my wife convinced me to play another year.
BOTN: Since retiring, you have made the transition into management with the club you started out at Wollongong Wolves. What lessons have you taken from your career into management? Have you sought advice from any of your former managers?
LW: I have taken everything i have been through and seen. Naturally i draw on those experiences and try to take that into what i am doing now.
BOTN: What is your take on the current pandemic that has shut down football globally. Do you believe that the A League should I restart and finish the season?
LW: We need to when safe to be back playing. People live for football. They should finish the season, play midweek games and it can be done within a month.
BOTN: How much does the financial uncertainty around the league sponsorship guide that decision in your eyes?
LW: Everyone is aware of the financial stress on the game, that needs to be addressed but ultimately players need to be able to play!
BOTN: Finally some quick questions. You switched from being a tough tackling holding midfielder that broke up the play to an attacking wing back that set up chances for the forwards. That requires a lot of adjustments – tactically, mentally, visually, technically etc. What was the hardest thing for you to overcome with this switch?
LW: Hard to say, I just wanted to play and be on the pitch so adapted to whatever got me in the team.
BOTN: Do you have aspirations to manage abroad or manage your country in the future?
LW: I dream about managing my former club Dynamo Moscow one day.
BOTN: Which young Australian players do you rate highly and who will be the next big star?
LW: I like Awer Mabil (plays for FC Midtjylland) and think he has an x factor about him.
BOTN: Lastly, do you have any regrets about your playing career?
LW: None at all.
BOTN: Thanks Luke, pleasure talking to you.
Follow Luke on his official Instagram account.