Culina comeback caps off Sydney FC revolution

by John Davidson on Oct 17, 2012

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Jason Culina’s return to action is a boost not only for the Sky Blues but for Australian football in general.

Some football fans have a long, distinctive memory while others seem to forget quickly.

Jason Culina’s injury-enforced near two year lay-off has taken him from Socceroo mainstay and A-League marquee to maligned and forgotten former star. Crippling knee injuries and the scandal over his arrival at the Newcastle Jets have resigned him to being an afterthought for many. Once off the field, Culina has been out of sight out of mind. It is a sad fact, but largely a common occurrence in sport.

But, Culina’s long contribution to the beautiful game down under and our national team should not be forgotten. For the past decade the talented midfielder has been a dominant figure. He has racked up 58 appearances for the Socceroos, since making is debut against South Africa in 2005, and has been a central presence in two World Cup campaigns. Culina played a full game on that memorable night against Uruguay in Sydney on November 16, 2005, and would go on to star in all four 2006 World Cup matches and all of Australia’s 2010 World Cup games.

His class has been unquestioned. His versatility in midfield, at right back and in attacking positions, throughout his career, has been an asset. Culina’s ability on the ball as a creative and inventive player has always been a joy to watch.

This is a player who has been turning heads since he first graced the National Soccer League as a plucky 16-year old for Sydney United. Who fought back when he was unwanted by Ajax to carve out a massively successively career at rival Dutch club PSV Eindhoven, winning three successive league championships and a Dutch Super Cup. Who returned home in 2009 to become the figurehead of a bold new A-League experiment, Gold Coast United. The experiment may have failed but not before he drove United to being just a few minutes from the grand final in its first season, winning the club’s inaugural player of the year award and wowing the competition with his dynamic feats. Culina was one of the rare breed of Socceroos who returned from Europe at his peak, eager to give back to the sport that has given him so much.

In the Asian Cup in January 2011 it all started to go suddenly wrong when the Melbourne-born, western-Sydney raised product first picked up a knee injury while representing Australia. He hasn’t laced up a boot in a competitive match since.

Throughout the whole dark insurance and sacking saga, which saw him leave Gold Coast and sign with the Jets, Culina has retained his dignity and integrity. He, along with his father Branko, coach of the Jets at the time, was sensationally dismissed from the club on the eve of the 2011/2012 A-League season.

Accusations and innuendo swirled that father and son had engineered a lucrative move to Newcastle on the sly. This was despite the claims of Ray Baartz, the Jets’ football advisory board, who said the board and not Branko was behind Jason’s transfer, and that due medical diligence was done on the signing.

Whatever the circumstances, it was a sad day for both the Culinas and Jets fans. While my encounters with Jason in the past have been brief, he always struck me as a thoroughly decent and honest individual who had made the move to the Newcastle with the right motives. Here was a player who was close to being the best in the A-league in his one-and-a-half seasons with the Gold Coast, and was eager to continue to excel with his new club. When I last interviewed him in early 2011, he was excited and enthusiastic about the move to Merewether with his young family.

Credit goes to Culina to be able to put this ugly episode aside and get his career back on track. He has shown strength and real mental fortitude to complete a long rehabilitation to get back to playing football, at a time when many had written him off and it would have been easier to pack it in.

It is impossible to tell how Culina will go when he finally takes the field for Sydney FC. They say form is temporary, class is permanent. Well, Culina has always had the class, ever since he emerged with Sydney United all those years ago. And if he can recapture the kind of form that saw him star with one of the best clubs in Europe at the time, command a starting spot in of the greatest Socceroo teams of all time and reign as one of the best players in the A-League, or even something close to it, then the Sky Blues will be laughing.

New coach Ian Crook and new CEO Tony Pignata have engineered a completely revamped Sydney FC this season. Along with the massive change in personnel, Crook is attempting to introduce a different style of play. Pulling this off, and accommodating the brilliance of Alessandro Del Piero, takes time.

But the chances of success will greatly improve with the involvement of a fully fit and functioning Jason Culina. The St Albans junior has the vision and passing range to complement the Italian legend, something that the first two matches have shown is in dire need. The same goes for the Socceroos. If Culina can reclaim the form that demands his spot back in the national team, we will all be the better for it.

Unlike Harry, Mark or Tim, Jason has never commanded the kind of headlines or plaudits as other members of the ‘Golden Generation’. He has always been the quiet-achiever, in the background but undoubtedly playing a vital role in some of our most important moments in the past 10 years or so.

Now, at 32 years of age, and after two years out of the game, it is his chance to take the limelight. Culina has the time, and if his right knee allows, the opportunity to resurrect his career in spectacular fashion. To be the final and crucial piece of the puzzle, at the club at the heart of the biggest story in Australian football history, would be much deserved.