The best goalkeeper in Australia can't get in to his national side despite record breaking form. Here's Francis Kelly with a possible explanation.
Over the years a number of managers have been duped into signing a player they were led to believe would be the next big thing, only to find out he wasn’t even good enough to shine the youth team's boots.
The most famous of all was Ali Dia, a supposed relative to the once FIFA World Player of the Year George Weah. Brought into Southampton’s ranks by the then head honcho Graeme Souness, he was so convinced that he'd unearthed a talented striker after receiving a mysterious phone call by a man claiming to be his agent that he offered Dia a one-month contract without ever seeing him play. Now hindsight is a truly wonderful thing and I’m sure if Souness had his time again, the following would never have taken place. In what can only be seen as a moment of madness on Souness’ behalf, he decided to hand Dia his first – and albeit last – Premiership appearance a couple of days later. Replacing an injured Matt Le Tissier part way through the first half, it didn’t take long before Souness was given the smelling salts and came to his senses, substituting Dia after playing only 21 minutes.
This nightmarish tale is recited by all new coaches making their way up the managerial ladder, ingrained in the back of their minds as a lesson that must be learnt and not repeated if they are to reach the top echelons of the Football League. However, it seemed to the fans of Norwich City that this story may not have been told to Bryan Gunn when he took over as manager following relegation into League 1 - Norwich’s lowest league finish for over 50 years - and signed Australian goalkeeper, Michael Theoklitos.
Gunn’s ‘number one target’ Theoklitos came with high expectations after an impressive career in the A-League, picking up two Championship winners’ medals and earning himself a reputation as the league’s best keeper. Alongside Bryan Gunn’s own pedigree as one of City’s all time top shot-stoppers, the supporters truly believed they had a gem on their hands.
Handed the No.1 shirt, Theo played his way through preseason with little trouble of any note, but also nothing particularly impressive. That was until the first game of the season and the visit of Colchester United to Carrow Road where suspicions were raised. Within 10 minutes City went one-nil down, an appalling mistake from Theoklitos as he missed his punch allowed Kevin Lisbie to slot home. Theo hadn’t quite finished sabotaging his already very short career at City as the game went from bad to worse. Individual errors cost dearly - three of them single-handedly down to Theo – as Colchester took a five-nil advantage at halftime. The second half read much like the first, City failing miserably to quench the ferocious attacking football by Colchester, offering little attacking impetus to suggest any hope of a fightback was on the cards. The humiliating match eventually ending 7-1 to the visitors, Norwich’s worst home defeat in their 109-year history.
At this point questions were asked about the validity of a player who could concede such weak goals through basic keeping errors and have the home fans calling for his substitution at halftime. New manager Paul Lambert was installed almost immediately after the embarrassing result and moved swiftly in bringing replacement Fraser Forster to the club. Theoklitos was duly chastised, relinquished of all first team duties and sentenced to the reserves. His disastrous performance didn’t quite mark the end and he was given one more chance to redeem himself by Lambert. Theo was called up a couple of months later for a place on the bench in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy match against Gillingham, and bizarrely never even showed up for the team bus.
His contract was soon terminated by mutual consent. Only seven months after signing Theoklitos returned home to Australia, putting pen-to-paper for Brisbane Roar where he has since turned his career around. His crucial part in the Roar’s table-topping side, which sees them 9 points clear, puts him on course to become the first player in the history of the A-League to collect three Championship medals.
But the quandary still lay unanswered, how a once international touted goalkeeper with such an impressive résumé in Australian football could be at the centre of such a disastrous performance. That was until a recent interview in which he admitted how 'football in Europe is very different to ours [A-League]. It is very cut-throat. I got one opportunity and things didn’t go my way, a new coach came in and it got tougher. It was a bad experience which I will never forget but it’s just a memory now and sometimes you have to put a positive spin to a negative episode in life.'
Now, it may be a tad unfair to compare Michael Theoklitos with Ali Dia because as shown with his heroics in front of goal this season for Brisbane - rewriting the record books by going 876 minutes without conceding - that Theo is very capable and not simply a charlatan. However, as seen in Neil Sherwin’s piece concerning a new era for Australian football, manager Holger Osieck is orchestrating mass changes within the national squad and part of the process seems to be bringing through more players plying their trade in the country's A-League, so far increasing from one member of the squad to four.
Despite this, Theoklitos was overlooked for inclusion. Maybe it's because Osieck doesn’t feel the A-League is challenging enough for a keeper to prove their worth, but maybe it could just be he's scared of making the same mistake as Gunn.
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