Earlier this week I had a chance to speak with original Perth Glory defender and current Portland Timbers Technical Director Gavin Wilkinson. After a successful time at Waitakere City, Wilkinson joined the Glory ahead of their 1996 inaugural season. The All Whites defender spent three seasons in Perth before playing in Hong Kong, Singapore, Ireland and his final stop, the United States. As this weekend the club is celebrating its 15th anniversary, it seemed appropriate to learn more about the early days with a club original and the inaugural Most Glorious Player award winner.
A-League US: How did you end up being recruited by what at that time was a new club, Perth Glory, in 1996?
Gavin Wilkinson: I had played for the New Zealand Olympic team, the U23 national team, and we had a tournament in Adelaide. I had just come back from trials at Sheffield United and been offered a contract and got turned down on a work visa. So I was still hunting for a club and Perth Glory had some scouts there and I suppose I got lucky.
A-League US: Was there any hesitation on your part in moving to the NSL in Australia after playing in New Zealand?
Gavin Wilkinson: New Zealand, for young, aspiring soccer players, is a difficult place to get out of at times. So I suppose most players jump at the first opportunity they can to get out of New Zealand and onto a bigger stage. I didn’t know too much about Perth but it ended up being a great decision. I’ve never minded traveling and that was something I enjoyed.
A-League US: In joining a first year club, was there anything different than you experienced in later parts of your career, joining clubs that were more established? Was there a breaking in process as far as the club went?
Gavin Wilkinson: It actually took off incredibly, incredibly well. There was a lot of hype, the crowds were very large, the following and the backing from the media was incredible and the success of the team was quite good. I think they did it in a first class fashion.
A-League US: Do you have any particular memories from the three seasons you spent at the Glory?
Gavin Wilkinson: There used to be an area called the shed and it was impressive. It was on a hill and it was just fans that were engaged in the game: very passionate, very vocal and expressed themselves during games. The backing and then the setting, within Perth, was always extremely hot. Not humid, but very hot and it was great place to play. It’s also a beautiful, beautiful city. My memories are largely about the atmosphere and some of the players I got to play with. We had a few national team players. We brought in Samson Siasia who was the Nigerian captain and had done well with them in the 1994 World Cup. So, a lot of memories.
A-League US: You were awarded the Most Glorious Player in 1996/97, an award that is still given today. Is that a trophy you were given, or was it just a title at that time?
Gavin Wilkinson: It was quite a few things, actually. The Most Glorious Player was a huge, big plate that goes on a wooden stand. It’s probably a good two feet in diameter. It’s quite large and says, “Perth Glory – Most Glorious Player.” It’s something I’ve stashed away, but I’ve still got it.
A-League US: You’ve had some experience in the last twelve months, or maybe longer, in scouting the A-League as the technical director for the Portland Timbers. How would you compare the NSL when you played in Perth and what the A-League is like today.
Gavin Wilkinson: I follow the A-League, there’s always a game on over the weekend at about one o’clock in the morning that I record and watch. I think the league is better than when I was playing. It’s a natural development of the game and the growth of the game and the money that’s being invested in the game. I try to make comparisons between MLS and the A-League, where they’ve gone and where they’ve developed. And I put the MLS a little bit further than the A-League in many areas. But I still think it’s a tremendous league and I think it’s a great league where you can find young players. With all the development within the youth game and the Institute of Sport, as well as the investment in youth at many clubs, I think the A-League can continue to grow. First, the investment of owners who honestly love the game and second, they’re spending more money. When I was in the NSL there wasn’t as much money being spent and there wasn’t a salary cap. You had the players like Samson Siasia who were extremely well looked after but there were no limits to what you could or couldn’t do. They also got a lot of players for very cheap.
A-League US: As football grows in Australia and New Zealand, is there anything that would tempt you to go back in any capacity? Be it a front office job or a return to coaching?
Gavin Wilkinson: I love New Zealand and I love parts of Australia. I think the New Zealand national team job would motivate me. Running the federation would motivate me to go back. But this is it, this is a tremendous club where I am right now. It’s hard to beat this, to be honest. So I can’t see myself going back in the next ten or fifteen years. After that it will be a different time in my life and maybe something else will motivate me to make a decision that may lend me to go in one of those directions.
A-League US: What about as a player? Did you ever consider, before you became the full-time coach of the Timbers (in 2007), going back to the New Zealand Knights or to another club at the end of the NSL or the beginning of the A-League?
Gavin Wilkinson: When I was still playing I got offered contracts a couple of times. But I always thought, once you go back, you’re there because it’s a beautiful place. I turned down contracts on two separate occasions, not to Perth, but to the Knights, before they became the Wellington Phoenix. My wife is also from New Zealand, so there were reasons to go back, but it just wasn’t the right time. It was a situation where I came out to Portland and it’s a decision that I’ve never regretted.
A-League US: In regards to a player like Jake Gleeson, is that part of the world a place that’s always going to be on your mind when you’re out looking for players? Or does it just depend on who is available and the particular circumstances?
Gavin Wilkinson: I have a natural interest in how Australian and New Zealand teams are doing. I follow they very carefully and I look at all their youth players. I constantly am phoning back to the federations and coaches I know back there to see which young players could come available. There was a young player, who I believe is in Russia right now, Kosta Barbarouses (now with Alania Vladikavkaz), who I was watching for a couple of years. There’s another kid, Marcos Flores (now with Henan Construction in China), that I’ve been watching for a while. I just will naturally be tied to the Oceania area and watching for young players. I know the majority are hard-working, down-to-earth and very blue collar in how they play. But it takes a special player to come over here and do well. I think Jake has the attributes and was a player who was pretty much being discarded. And we think he has tremendous potential. I’ll always keep an eye out and if it’s a good fit I’ll continue to look to bring them in.
A-League US: Regarding the kits, did you ever feel strange wearing purple and orange? Those aren’t always color associated with football clubs.
Gavin Wilkinson: Purple and orange are it for me, mate! It actually stands out, the kids loved it. When that came out, I think the louder the color the better at that stage, and kids just absolutely ate it up. Over the years you can see it’s become a little bit more conservative.
A-League US: The Glory are celebrating the 15th anniversary with their match this weekend against Sydney. Is there a chance you’ll figure out a way to watch it?
Gavin Wilkinson: I will probably track it down. I just did a big thank you video for the Perth Glory in commemorating this. They’re going to be playing that through the year with all the players who have come together and done it. It’s a good club, it’s got some great history and some great personalities involved.