If I asked you,
“Which Australian footballer starred in (arguably) the greatest Grand Final played in this country, trod the hallowed turf of footballing cathedrals Old Trafford, San Siro and the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, pitted his skills against European giants Bayern Munich, Inter Milan, Benfica, and others and faced up to Leviathans Germany and Brazil on the grand stage of the World Cup Finals?”, what would be your answer?
If I threw in a clue to those scratching their heads and added he drove a bus during his down time, it’s likely to trigger the memories of most fans. Scott Chipperfield is for many the quintessential Socceroo, a laconic, ‘salt of the earth’ player who loyally served two Clubs during his career, driving buses whilst playing for the Wollongong Wolves and paying his own airfare to represent his country when it needed him the most.
He also one of the great achievers of Australian football boasting a stellar playing career stretching from the NSL Champions Wollongong Wolves, through 68 Socceroo Caps and legend status at Swiss giants FC Basel. If there is anybody placed to provide insights on football, and Australian football more specifically, it’s the player Guus Hiddink fondly refers to as ‘Chippy’ and known by many fans simply as “Chippers”. So who better to ask about the burning issues surrounding Australian football in 2017 than the man who has been there and done just about everything a professional footballer could aspire to?
This week GOAL! WEEKLY enjoyed the very great pleasure of chatting with Scott about his distinguished career as well as his insights on Australian football’s major issues including player development, A-League expansion and World Cup qualification. We also learned that Chippers is embarking on a brand new phase of his career channelling his football passion with decade’s long experience in the game to help other young Australian footballers to follow their dreams and find pathways into professional careers. Chippers is on the verge of kick starting his own player management service allied with his ‘Illawarra Football Academy’, eager to share with young players his years of experience in the World Game. He has recently joined the European based “Coilean” group as their Ambassador for Australia and New Zealand whilst establishing his ‘Football Player & Coach Youth Development Advisory Agency.
To gain a clear perspective of Scott’s footballing journey and a full appreciation of his experience, we must start at the beginning on the fields of Wollongong where his love affair with the round ball began. In his own words, he just loved “playing with his mates” and did just that for many years whilst peers were breaking into representative squads or making their first forays into professional football either through the National Soccer League or seeking trials and contracts in European Leagues.
A self-described ‘late developer’ Scott was playing local league when Glenn Fontana then coach of the Illawarra Lions in the NSW State League offered him his first contract in 1995. The following year Nick Theodorakopoulos convinced Chippers to make the move into the semi-professional environment of the NSL with the Wollongong Wolves. History recalls the famous achievements of the team Theo built on the South Coast including arguably the greatest Grand Final in the history of the code in this country. On a sunny June afternoon at Subiaco in 2000 the bemused and bedraggled Wolves slunk into the dressing rooms facing a 0-3 deficit, a rapturous home crowd and the Perth Glory coach, East German Bernd Stange, conducting a jubilant pitch side interview.
In a sane world the Wolves dreams had evaporated after the first 45 minutes, and Perth’s hubris was completely understandable. Winner’s medals were being engraved with the names of Glory’s heroes and the Cup sashed in Purple. Everything pointed to the Wolves season sinking in the West alongside the midwinter sun, but Wollongong was no ordinary team.
Facing the impossible this team’s ingredients of skill and tenacity emerged fully forged under the blow torch pressure of no second chances. No one personified these traits more faithfully than Chipperfield and his fierce determination powered the Wolves legendary comeback. The South Coast warriors turned the impossible into the unimaginable, clawing back 3 goals in regular time to take the game to extra time and a nail biting shootout. Chippers slotted the penultimate penalty before Paul Reid’s climatic spot kick snatched victory during the gut wrenching 7-6 penalty shootout.
Chipperfield’s performance that day won him the prestigious Joe Marston Medal for outstanding player and signalled the upward trajectory of his career. Scott bookended the Marston Medal with twin Johnny Warren Awards over 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 for best player at National Club level as he quietly accumulated Socceroo caps along the way.
It was through his performances with the Socceroos that Chipper’s career took its most dramatic and profound shift. When Australia qualified for the play-off match against Brazil for third at the 2001 Confederations Cup, Scott faced the unenviable decision of returning to Australia to play for his beloved Wolves in the Grand Final versus South Melbourne or pull on his cherished Gold Jersey. He chose the latter and starred in one of the great Socceroo victories to vanquish the South American aristocrats and snare 3rd place in a major upset.
As fate would have it, sitting in a bar in Brazil watching the match was the then coach of Swiss Super League team FC Basel, Christian Gross, and what he saw convinced him to make Chippers an offer he didn’t refuse.
Chipperfield confides he had never envisaged making such a move being, “Happy playing with my mates in Wollongong, I never thought about going anywhere else.” The move form Wollongong to Europe profoundly changed Scott’s career as well as his life.
The transition from semi pro in Wollongong to European football was exacting, as Scott describes dramatic changes in training and playing regimens, as well as far higher expectations from his employer. In his typically understated way, Chippers laughs when he says, “You certainly couldn’t do what you were doing in Wollongong once you moved to Switzerland”.
“Changing from training 3 nights a week with Wollongong to sometimes training every day as well as travelling to matches across Switzerland and Europe, took a while to adjust to. Those demands meant you also had to start looking after your body because you learn recovery is important. You also find you have extra time and most players used that time to work on their game, some would go to the gym, others would work on the pitch to improve their play, and I learned from watching how they all used their time to improve.”
“The change made me a better player straight off, when you train every day, your game improves, and when you are playing against so many different teams, and Basel played against lot of Europe’s top teams, we were constantly facing different playing styles, Italian, German, English.”
Off the field as well Chipperfield faced many challenges, particularly in the early days at Basel when a less than satisfactory experience with a playing agent saw his resilience fully tested. Once he had signed his contract Scott found himself in alien surrounds with no grasp of the local language or mores, and no help or guidance. Left to fend for himself Chippers at first holed up in a local Hotel before finding long term accommodation and establishing a life in Switzerland.
It was this unhappy experience which provided Scott with a sharp understanding of the potential pitfalls that aspiring footballers face when moving into professional careers. The early days at Basel provided an awareness of potential calamities but also forged Scott’s desire that somewhere down the track he might provide young players with pathways that evaded the hardships he had to overcome.
Displaying that same tenacity which had marked his career in Australia and his great “hatred of losing”, Chippers dug in and his resolve bore fruit in the most glorious fashion. When he first arrived at Basel in 2001, the one-time powerhouses of Swiss football had not won a trophy for 22 years. Chippy’s arrival heralded an extraordinary run of success with 7 Championship, 6 Swiss Cups and regular appearances in Europe’s Premier Club Competitions.
This included the Clubs best ever finish in 2002-2003 reaching the final 16 of the Champions League, collecting the scalps of Celtic, Spartak Moscow and Juventus along the way. Two draws against Liverpool saw them oust the Merseyside giants from the first group stages before being edged out in the Second Group stage on ‘head to head’ by Juventus despite a historic home triumph over the Turin champions. Basel continued punching above their weight against the Continent’s giants and in 2011 landed one of their biggest blows knocking Manchester United out of the Champion’s League.
By the time he played his last match for Basel in May 2012 he had amassed an extraordinary 388 appearances in all competitions, and proudly stands 5th on the all-time list of appearances at League level and equal 10th on the top scorer lists. His swag of Cup and Championship medals also places him as the most decorated player in the history of FC Basel. Little wonder he remains a fan favourite at St. Jakob-Park, the ground where his arrival heralded the clubs “return to the Glory days”.
During his 11 years at Basel Scott also observed at close quarters the operation of one of the most successful youth development set ups in Europe. The FC Basel Academy is world renowned for its production line of talent with recent alumni including super stars, Ivan Rakitić, Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka. In recent years some 40 inductees have advanced to first team football at Basel. Scott lived and breathed the professionalism and methods that built this stronghold of youth development. He has also observed the progress of son Liam who has been at the Academy for the last 7 years and now plays for the U/13’s where he sometimes trains 4 or 5 times a week. These experiences have provided a broad perspective on player development from both a playing and parental/guardian’s point of view as well as shaping his strong beliefs on player and career pathways.
Scott is convinced that football provided him with the opportunity to live a life he had never imagined. The move to Switzerland opened up brand new experiences, requiring him to learn a new language and live in country so different from his birthplace. When pressed on the role football has played in his life he says “If I hadn’t played football I’d still be in Wollongong driving buses”.
While Switzerland provided Chippers with so many rich experiences, his favourite football memory harks back to November 2005, “Playing Uruguay at Homebush in front of 84,000 fans, the pressure leading up to that game, it was always in the back of your mind leading up to it, you didn’t want to get injured before it. We were thinking ahead about that game for months leading up to it, there was so much pressure playing sudden death like that. The atmosphere that night, it was crazy.”
More golden moments arrived with World Cup appearances in the 2006 and 2010 tournaments with his favourite memories being the comeback victory over Japan in Kaiserslautern 2006 which led to the equally memorable hyper dramatic draw with Croatia in one of the most controversial World Cup matches of all time to qualify for the knock out rounds.
When asked about the current Socceroo’s task to qualify, he acknowledges that the engagement with the Asian Confederation has presented Australian football with an environment where the National teams face a more balanced challenge, rather than the boom and bust of previous generations. “Qualifying through the Asian Confederations means a lot less pressure, for example, before the Uruguay game, you got 2 games to play to go to the World Cup or not. You had one bad game and it was over. Now you can have a few bad games and maybe escape with a draw and you have another chance.” However, this does not simply equate to a simpler task, for as he acknowledges, Asian football is forever expanding and investing in development, and the task of playing away is one universally more difficult than playing at home regardless of what competition you play in.
Whilst on the topic of Australian football, l cannot resist asking Chippers for his take on the chat around expansion of the A-League. As a proud Wollongong boy he provides an interesting view. Drawing on his own experiences, Scott sees a situation where the presence of a local club playing in the National Competition allowed him a pathway opportunity which he would not have now, which is a major reason why he sees expansion of the A-League to be so important.
“We need a pathway for young players in the area to follow, because that’s what gave me a chance when I was young, otherwise I would have just stayed playing in Wollongong, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity. The area has always produced talent and always been a good development area, so that talent needs a pathway.”
All of this talk leads to the perennial debates over player development and the question of ‘when is the best time for a player to head overseas?’ Chippers insight on this subject reflects his highly grounded approach to such matters. “All players develop differently and at different times. In my case I was a late developer, and I could never have gone over seas at 15, whilst for other players that type of move might suit them better than staying at home.“
However Chipperfield is unequivocal that the most important advice for any young player is, “Go somewhere where you will play. If you want to develop go somewhere where you have a good chance of playing regularly.”
He sees this as the most important decision for players for he has seen too many examples where players end up at clubs where they rarely play and therefore do not have the opportunity to improve their games. You get a very strong impression that Scott hates seeing talent wasted.
This is one of the major reasons why he believes Switzerland presents Australian footballers with an ideal opportunity to develop their games. “I think Switzerland is ideal for many Australian players because they can find a training environment where they can play regular football and develop, and then head to bigger leagues if things work out for them.”
This piece of advice dovetails with other critical decision for aspiring footballers. Whilst the focus on playing needs to be paramount it is equally vital to engage the support you require to smooth your passage. Scott’s experiences have shown that the choice of a player agent or mentor who are able to provide information and support can be a crucial determinant of how successful their foray into a professional career will be.
“Also be careful in dealing with agents, make sure you find the ones who will provide the advice you need. I have experienced it all myself…”
Before we finish up I can’t help asking Scott who stands out as the best players he has faced. He immediately replies with a chuckle, “Messi- we played Barcelona in Basel and after 10 minutes we were down 3-0, he scored 2 and set the other up.”
Given that he as seen so many great players close up I asked him what is it makes them exceptional? He answered, “Movement. Arjen Robben is a great example. Robben has been doing the same movement for 10 years and longer, the same trick over and over, cuts in from the right onto his left foot and bends it to the far post. You think, we know what he does we should be able to stop him, but it doesn’t always work out that way because his movement is so good, so very difficult to stop.”
As we wrap up our chat I wish him all the best on his new career in player management and youth development. Scott has seen football from all sides, and understands just how important it is for players to receive the support and advice they need from managers and player agents. These are the reasons why he is turning his expertise and accumulated life experiences to assisting young Australian players embarking on their own footballing journeys.
Chippers has joined forces with the Euro based organisation ‘Coilean’ who have carefully built a ‘Development Acquisition Program’ shaped to accommodate the individual requirements of young g footballers seeking professional careers. ‘Coilean’ is a Gaelic word meaning ‘Achieve, fulfil, complete and accomplish’ and it is impossible to reflect on Scott’s career and not see how these words snugly match his football pathway. A loyal two club servant in an age where player transfers are rife, Chippers lived and inspired great achievements, often during times when adversity loomed large. Whether on home soils or being an integral force in the revival of FC Basel’s fortunes, and featuring in the national teams greatest run of success at World Cup level, Chipperfield has always given his all. And what is more his career is synonymous with success. Given his decorated journey through the top flights of football, both home and away, there is little doubt that young players, as well as anyone else with an interest
in football can learn from ‘Chippers way’.