Michael Thwaite

A Leader's Role

Michael Thwaite
A Leader's Role

As an elder statesman of the game, my journey through football has taught me about the importance of leadership. I was a kid from Far North Queensland, and I became a professional footballer. Along the path I have learned that experience is invaluable.

The way my football career kicked off is quite funny actually – I was attending my second schoolies in Cairns, which probably makes me a Toolie, when I watched the Socceroos play. It was in 2001, when we failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup.

I was feeling a little bit under the weather, but that’s when representing the Socceroos started running through my mind. I remember thinking to myself, ‘I am going to be in the next qualifying squad for the World Cup’.

Four years later, I was on stage in Sydney celebrating our win over Uruguay – we were off to the World Cup.

As a leader, I believe that it is my role to share my journey with younger players and mentor them through their professional career. There were many things I struggled with initially, the transition into professional sport is difficult, and that’s why I am passionate about helping those youngsters around me.

I often share my story to younger guys who are aspiring to represent their national team, I tell them how I went from Cairns to playing for the Socceroos in four years. It’s about triggering their mind, if they are really passionate about achieving something then there’s no reason why they can’t do it. It’s about effort, hard work, dedication and belief.

I never purchased a Socceroos jersey as a kid, because I was determined to earn my first jersey.

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Real life stories and examples allow aspiring footballers to not only dream, but to also believe that their dreams can become a reality. You need to set short-term goals that lead to a larger long-term goal, and sometimes that means making sacrifices.

I moved from Cairns to Sydney University, where I played in the New South Wales Winter Super League on a scholarship. I then spent two seasons playing at Marconi Stallions in the old NSL before I made the snap decision to move my professional career into Europe, and I started playing in Romania.

I was selected for the U20 World Cup, then the U23 Olympic Team, which were all stepping-stones that lead to my first Socceroos cap. 

To be a leader, you don’t necessarily need to be the captain of the team. For me, it’s how the players look up to you and what they see from you. As a leader you must lead by example both on and off the field. As you get older you make a lot of sacrifices for the team and that collective environment.

It’s about being together, and how to generate that team environment and sense of togetherness. You don’t necessarily need to be the most talented or naturally gifted team to win, but you do need to be together as a squad, both on and off the football pitch.

If I were to describe myself, I would say that I am a very jovial yet very competitive footballer, and I think that’s reflected in my leadership style. I have been around football for a long time so I understand the politics associated, the hierarchy under certain coaches and the discipline – it can all become very confronting.

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As a leader, I want to make sure that all of my teammates feel comfortable and from my perspective the best way to do that is to remain light-hearted. Don’t get me wrong I want to maintain that competitiveness, but for me the jovial side is equally as important. I want to make sure my teammates are enjoying what they are doing, and assist them in relaxing and stressing less about the pressures that’s associated with football.

In a successful team, there must be happiness in team environments on and off the field together.

One former teammate taught me about the importance of sacrifice in leadership. Sacrifices are difficult for everyone but the best leaders in football are willing to make them for the greater good of the team. His name was Dominic Longo, he was one of my first captains in the NSL at Marconi and we shared the same position.

There was one instance where Dominic picked up an injury and I was playing regular first team football, yet on his return the coach picked him over me. I was a 19-year-old kid and I was extremely disappointed. I think everyone at the club knew that I deserved to play and that I had earned the right to play through my performances. I remember turning up to training the day before the game and Dominic winked at me, he had obviously had a chat with the coach and said that I deserved to make the starting 11 over him.

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It’s a moment of sacrifice that I will never forget, and a moment that taught me about the real importance of leadership. Dominic was an ex-Socceroo, the captain of Marconi and I was just a teenager. I hope that one day I can grant a youngster the same opportunity. 

I was privileged to play in the ‘Golden Generation’ of the Socceroos. One man that stood out most to me was Mark Viduka. Not only was he the most naturally gifted player and the captain of our country, but he was also the most humble man – he wasn’t your typical footballer.

Viduka is one of the best leaders that I have played under. I took a lot from his style of leadership. Like me, he is a very jovial man but he is also a fierce competitor. His quirkiness kept the team environment in a happy place. He was an example to all of his teammates through his actions, how he trained, how he prepared and played and how he scored goals. When it was time to go to work and produce, you could always rely on him.

Playing in this Golden era was unbelievable yet also very difficult, as it was tough to balance playing regularly for your club side and the national team. I returned to Europe after representing the Socceroos and found myself playing for the reserves team. Returning to Europe was difficult because of the level of competitiveness over there.

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My journey through football has brought me to the Western Sydney Wanderers, where Tony Popovic has left new coach, Josep Gombau, with a great squad. I think every coach dreams of having two players that can play in every position. We have a great combination of some older players, some younger players and the bulk of the squad in their mid-20’s peaking in physical condition.

The most important piece of advice that I give to my teammates is to do the right things not only on the pitch, but off the pitch too. Rehabilitation and recovery is paramount, the best athletes are those that put the hours in behind closed doors, whether that be ice baths or massage. To gain an extra edge over your competitors you must complete all the one-percenters right.

In terms of preparation and rehabilitation, the younger players at the Wanderers are extremely fortunate. There is nearly more coaching staff and sports science staff than there are coaches. They’re first-class, and definitely the best that I’ve worked with.

If there is one lasting piece of advice that I would give my younger self, it would be to stress less during the transfer period and have a more open mind. It’s very hard not to regret some decisions that I have made, I have been in the system since I was 18-years-old and now I’m 34-years-old. I think it’s naïve to think that there aren’t things you wouldn’t have done differently. For me, it was being so focused on one particular outcome during a transfer period – I had tunnel vision for where I wanted to go or what I wanted and that was it, it was that outcome or nothing. In hindsight, it would have been more beneficial for me to sit back and relax, and make a more clear decision rather than be so tunnel visioned.

At the end of the day it is your football career and your life, and you shouldn’t let big clubs mould you.

Your success in professional football ultimately comes down to every factor in your life, all the small details matter. From your habits outside football to the people you are surrounding yourself with, they all contribute.

Feature Image Credit Sean Ashcroft/WSW

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