TCN Down Under: Interview with Goalkeeping Legend Mark Bosnich in Sydney

Daniela Rogulj

January 9, 2020 – Total Croatia News interviews former Aston Villa, Manchester United, Chelsea & Socceroos goalkeeper, and current analyst for Fox Sports Football. An afternoon with Mark Bosnich at the Clovelly Hotel in Sydney.

I booked my first trip to Australia back in October 2019, though the reality didn’t set in until I flew over Singapore. “Wait a minute, I’m making my way to the other side of the world!” And then the thick humidity at Changi Airport was the best reminder that I would be arriving in Sydney in just 8 hours, in the heart and heat of an Australian summer, two days before New Year’s Eve. 

While I was worried about sweating through 40 degree temperatures and the impact of the bushfires, I was also preparing to meet the closest friends and family members of my boyfriend, who have been only visions in my head for the past year and a half. Our itinerary was loaded, and we needed the stars to align to ensure we could achieve everything we set out to do in just 15 days. 

However, while this trip had quite a few different end goals, as a member of the diaspora and writer for Total Croatia News for the last three-and-a-half years, I knew that connecting with the Australian-Croatian community was also a crucial piece to getting the most I could out of this trip. 

The TCN boss and I had discussed potential interview candidates before I left, though I found it hard to believe we could set one up with THE Mark Bosnich.

But there we were, sitting in the beer garden of the Clovelly Hotel on a Tuesday afternoon, talking about the fascinating life of this goalkeeping legend. 

Mark arrived with his precious daughter Allegra in tow, whose eyes lit up at the golden box of Bajadera I brought from Split to say, “thank you for meeting me in Sydney, at 4 pm, on a summer day”. Mark was cheerful from the start and greeted me as if we were old friends. 

I figured asking about his Croatian heritage was the perfect place to start. 

“Mum was born here. But her parents, whose maiden name is Padovan, originally come from Blato in Korcula. They came out here between the First and Second World War. Dad came out here from Blato in 1959 at an early age – he was only 15. After the Second World War, his father sat the three boys down, cut their hair, and said he could afford to send the oldest one to University, and he’d become a professor, as he was involved in politics then and lived in Split. The middle one could stay here and help on the farm, and my dad could either go with his uncle ‘stari Barba Donko’ to San Francisco, or with his sister in Australia. His sister had sent him a soccer ball from there once and he just loved soccer, so he decided to go to Australia. He worked on a farm out here, then went into the fibreglass business, and now has his own pool fibreglass business. 

My mum’s father and my dad’s brother-in-law had become good friends in Australia, and that’s basically how my parents met. Today, we have family all over –  in Split, Zagreb, and even in Kiseljak, which is just outside Sarajevo. 

I asked Mark if he visits the homeland often. 

“We do. We didn’t go the last two years because we just had another little one, little Cassius, and with him, we’d have no chance traveling haha. But before that, we used to go back every summer. We would always go two and a half weeks to Croatia, and we always have to visit the family in Blato. Sara, my fiancé, who is half Samoan and half Australian, really likes the Radisson Blu Hotel in Split, which is great for the kids. So we will usually spend a few weeks there then one week in England because I spent so much time in England.”

Mark turned around to ask his daughter Allegra how many times she’d been to Croatia – two or three?

“Three!” she said with a smile stretching from ear to ear. 

I was curious about Mark’s exposure to the Croatian community growing up in Sydney.

“Growing up over here, there was a variety of Croatian communities. You would have the ones who were staunchly, staunchly Croatian, then you had the moderate ones, or families that didn’t want to get into anything, and then you had other ones who were scattered all around. We grew up in the west of Sydney, where everyone knew each other. I left in 1988 to go to Manchester United, but I had to come back because I couldn’t get a work permit in 1991 when the war was going on. To be honest, it was really good to see at that time that the vast majority put all issues aside and came together as one. 

I went back in February 1992 to Aston Villa and followed the war and helped as much as I possibly could from over there in England. In the beginning, it was tough. My mum, who liked to stay away from politics, said that my father, who was a moderate, would be in tears about what was going on. In the beginning, it wasn’t easy. But from England to witness how they not only held on eventually, but also built themselves up, and then basically retook their lands in that stunning operation… I was really proud. There are a lot of people on the other side who tried to besmirch what was a fantastic operation. 10,000 kilometres in 3-4 days was absolutely phenomenal. I am very, very proud of what they went through and how they fought and like I’ve said many times, we’ve won the war. There is no need to fight that again. We’ve won the war and we won it well, and now we have to win the peace – and that is more difficult. 

Winning the peace will take time. Just remember, we had close to 600,000 refugees, or nearly 10% of the population, so that would be like 35 million people coming to America,” Mark estimated. 

We moved on from his Croatian upbringing to his early football days. 

“Our club here was Hajduk; the other was King Tom. There was a really good Australian goalkeeping coach named Ron Cory, who was at the Italian club Marconi and he wanted me to come there. He used to take me training with the first team as well. Then he went to King Tom, so I went to King Tom as well. That was around ’86/’87. Then I was at King Tom until I went to Manchester United when I was 16. Liverpool originally wanted to sign me at 15 but my dad wanted me to finish school, so I finished the basic schooling and went to Manchester when I was 16. And basically, Sir Alex Ferguson turned around and said, ‘you’re coming here’. 

I remember getting him to ring up my parents saying, ‘he’s coming and that’s it’. And my dad was going ‘listen, you’ve woken us up’, so he put my mum on and Ferguson said ‘he’s coming here, and he’s going to have a 2,000 GBP signing on fee, and we will put it straight into your account.’ Mum said, ‘signed!’

I was there for three years and I played three games. I was a young kid and they had a really good apprenticeship and all that, and I couldn’t stay because of the work permit thing. So I came back here for those six months, and January/February 1992 I went to Aston Villa. I had seven great years at Aston Villa, which was really good.”

I couldn’t forget to mention that TCN’s Paul Bradbury is a massive Villa fan – and my job could be on the line if Mark didn’t share his favorite moments at the club. 

“The two trophies, definitely. It was two League Cups. We won in ’94 against my old team Manchester United and we beat them as massive underdogs. And then against Leeds United in ’95/’96. There is nothing better than when you win at Wembley – that is a very special thing that no one can take away from you.

The first year of the Premier League was good too. We were going for the title against United and Norwich, funny enough. We came second, but it was still great. 

Mark Bosnich was also lucky enough to work with Sir Alex Ferguson… twice. 

“Haha yeah, the second time around. It was great, and I got to fulfil my real big dream, which was to win the Premier League title – and by a record amount until two years ago when Man City beat it. And we won the World Club Championship, which was fantastic. I would have loved to have stayed there, but I had a big falling out with him. As my dad used to say, rule number one, the boss is always right. And rule number two is that if the boss is wrong, refer to rule number one. Looking back now, I probably was a little bit too bulletproof at that age. I’m willing to compromise a little bit, although, that whole situation was really his doing and it was really that rule in a nutshell. I should have just bit my tongue and been smart, but I couldn’t. So, after one year, we won two trophies, and the writing was on the wall. He basically said ‘we will see who will win this battle’ and signed another goalkeeper even though the poor thing didn’t do great, but whatever, I was on the way out, and I left probably halfway through the following year and went to Chelsea.

Mark then spoke about his turbulent Chelsea days. 

“I had a great time at Chelsea on the pitch. Off the pitch, I divorced, and I met somebody who wasn’t as fortunate as me, didn’t grow up in a loving family like I did, and was a drug addict. I took it upon myself to try to help somebody who was less fortunate than myself, and I was injured at the time – but her habit became my habit. I was found guilty of having cocaine in my system even though at the time, I had 18 tests before, which never showed anything. But anyway, I was found guilty, and I was banned for nine months, and that’s where I let myself down. I said fine, if you think I am on drugs, I will show you about taking drugs. I had the money and the time on my hands to do what I wanted and I did. Was it the right thing to do? No. If I had the chance to do it over again, would I have? Yes, I would have done things differently. But I was devastated, because I had what I lived for, which was playing football, taken away from me, and I kept thinking to myself something is being taken away from me only because I was trying to help someone else. It would have been good to have a brother or somebody to come and knock me around the head. Dad tried to, but I just wasn’t in the mood. 

After three years of doing nothing I realised that was pretty much it, and then in 2007/2008, some people from Australia came over and asked if I fancied coming back. I said ‘are you sure? I’ve got more luggage than the queen.’ But they wanted me to come back and try it. The funny thing is, I took half the fee – the fee was 300,000 USD, and I had taken 150,000 to go on this celebrity rehab. That blond-headed guy from Lethal Weapon, and the girl from Rocky 4, Brigitte Nielsen, were going to be there. I had to come back to Sydney to do some stuff, and I told everyone I was going. Mum and Dad said, ‘you can’t go and do this’, and I didn’t get why. I said I’m clean anyway now, and I’ve never been a drinker. I told them I’ll be fine, that I’ll kill it on the show, and they begged me not to put them through it. I told them I had already taken half the money, I had an American visa, and I was going. 

Anyway, my cousin on my dad’s side is a dentist and asked me to see him before I went. We called him ‘Mali Peter’. He then turned around and said, ‘buddy, I don’t want to sound funny, but you’ve got an abscess, you can’t fly. If you fly, you could die.’

I asked him if he was serious and he said he was. I had to ring up the people and give the money back and apologise. Anyway, a week later, I went back to the dentist and my cousin said, ‘I know you’re going to think this is odd, but the abscess is not as bad as I first thought.’ I thought my parents maybe had a word with him haha. 

Since then, I played maybe six games for the Central Coast Mariners and I hadn’t played in six years. Then they asked me to take the Premier League and the local league working for Fox Sports, and it’s been lovely. The last three years they gave me and this other chap Bill Woods, who has been around for 30-40 years, our own sports show. It’s four nights a week and it’s been great. 

And Mark’s love life? 

“I’ve been married twice, this is going to be number three now, and I have two great young kids. If I don’t get this one right, I’m out of the will apparently, haha. That’s what Mum and Dad joke.”

Mark only had 17 caps for the Australia national team.

“The Australian national team was never a priority for me. I don’t want people to think that is unpatriotic – it wasn’t. The main reason was that there was no international calendar back then. In other words, when Australia played, I’d have to miss a game in the Premier League. There was not one coach that I had over there who did not say ‘all the best, go, but don’t expect to get your place back.’ That’s why I was very, very limited with the times that I could play. I remember we had a World Cup qualifier against Canada and it was on the opening day of the Premier League. And I just said to the coach, please, I’ll play the second league, and they suspended me – and I didn’t get my place back for 13 games. So I said I am going to retire now, that’s it. Things got better, but in the end, my club career was a priority for me.” 

Most Australian football fans remember the day Australia and Croatia drew in the 2006 World Cup. The draw pushed Australia into the round of 16, while Croatia was eliminated from the competition. How have these two football nations progressed since then?

“I’m trying to help Australian football as much as I can, but I’ve always been seen as more of an outsider, because I spent so much time in England. Even growing up in Australia at that time, the vast majority of people saw you as Croatian. They didn’t see you as Australian. And that was just a fact. But it was funny, when I went to England at 16, they started calling me an Aussie haha. 

So, I am always very wary when I give advice because you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. If they ask me, I tell them. 

The team Australia beat to qualify was Uruguay in 2005. The next World Cup, Australia got knocked out in the next round, but you know where Uruguay finished? Third. 

Australia drew with Croatia 2:2. Great result, they got through. Croatia didn’t. Croatia since has been in the final. Australia again has not progressed past the first round. 

We are supposed to have the most participated people in the country of Australia playing football – over one million. But you know what, that would be lucky if we had that in Croatia. The country is only 4 million people itself. Their average crowd in Croatia is about 3,000 in the 10-team league. Not last summer, but the summer before, they sold talent worth 74 million EUR. So that goes to show, in my opinion, something has either gone wrong or was wrong before. I always say to them ‘look, no, football is not the number one sport here, but neither is it in the States.’ But some things can be done that we are not doing and there are places to learn from that do it on a shoestring. And you guys have got more money in this sport here than you’ve ever had.

Do you realise how much it costs to play football over here? Here’s an example. There is a program for talented youngsters called SAP- Skills Acquisition Program. It costs 2,500 AUD a year for that. One guy wrote to me on Twitter saying he has two sons playing and has to tell the third one he isn’t good enough because he can’t afford to pay that fee. That’s extortion. 

Australia truly is a lucky country in that it hasn’t been through war, even though right now we are experiencing natural disasters. We are a very wealthy nation, we are in the G20, and this sport is very, very popular. And for whatever reason, it never has filled its potential. It came close in 2006, but I really can’t see that happening again for quite some time.

And the question needs to be asked – and I’m sure it’s asked all the time – as to why.”

We moved on from the Australian national team to the key to Croatia’s success at the 2018 World Cup. 

“I think the spirit played the biggest part, but let’s forget about the two main things, which was that we had two of the best players in the world – Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric. And that is a massive, massive thing to have. When you have two players playing for the two biggest clubs in the world, whom you know have done well, it just works. That is, for me, the two hugest factors. But then you have Mandzukic as well, Subasic, Vida, Perisic, Lovren… all of them can lay claim to playing their part and they did. It wasn’t like we had players on Real Madrid and then it went down to some lower club. 

Let’s not forget that the new manager came in, installed a lovely environment for everyone, and of course, we had that amazing will and fighting spirit. I was there working for RT Today. I had a fantastic time and actually learned Russian before I went and I was just so proud. I can never forget the night of that semifinal. I remember texting Gareth Southgate, my ex-teammate and told him who I was going to support, and he was lovely about it. 

Mark pulled out his mobile phone and scrolled through his messages to read his conversation with Southgate that night.

July 13, 2018

Thinking so much how best to say this. You remember back in the day at Aston Villa my pride in having Croatian ancestry. But from that day at my place, when we there the baseball at each other, until now, I don’t think I ever really told you how proud I was to have you as a friend. At this tournament, not only have you shown the world how good a manager you are, but you’ve shown through the team how good England is. You’ve done a fantastic job in this tournament and do not let any of the jealous bitters tell you any different. How many of them have been to the semi-final of a major tournament as a player and a manager like you? Zero. Go and win tomorrow in the 3rd and 4th playoff. All the very best. Say hi to Alison. And most importantly, I am very proud of you, my friend.”

Southgate replied:

“Thank you so much, mate. Your message means a lot to me. I think we virtually got everything out of this group. Progress for sure. Plenty of things to get better at. Also, we have made a difference in people’s lives and that will stay with me forever. I  loved our playing time together. Special team, special friendship.”

Bosnich was emotional reading the messages back.

“Look, if Croatia, England, or Australia were invaded, I’d be there on the front line. England has done so well for me. But that night was one of the best nights ever. That will live with me forever. That whole trip.”

Croatia and England will meet again, this time in the group stage of the 2020 Euros in London. 

“If it were the other way around, I’d be happy – you know, time for revenge. But now I’m a little bit concerned. I think both teams have done well since the World Cup, but if you had to maybe lean towards one that was looking a little bit more dangerous right now, it would probably be England. But from a psychological perspective, we’ve got nothing to fear. That first half we played against England in the semis, to be fair, I thought if England had scored that second goal, the game might have been different. But with the spirit that we’ve shown, in the second half, Croatia just took over. Brilliant football. We really deserved to win in normal time, but then it went to extra time and I was happy we didn’t have to win on penalties again. 

At the Euros, I think they should both get out of the group. But that also depends on who the last team in the group is.”

I told him it could be Serbia.

“I think that would be really good.”

Croatia is a team of many young talents, and I was curious to know who Mark considered the team’s best prospects.

“Kovacic at Chelsea. Dinamo’s Bruno Petkovic is magnificent. He has really stood out for me. The young goalkeeper Livakovic is looking okay as well. 

Unfortunately, there will never be another Modric or Rakitic, that’s understandable, just like there will never be another Maradona, but you’re going to have to find people who are willing to step up. They put their foot on the accelerator through these qualifiers, and I think they have that confidence from doing so well at the World Cup. 

Due to Bosnich’s excitement about Petkovic, I wondered if he followed the Croatian Championship.

“Look, I am a Hajduk supporter, but there has been a long time since we’ve won. Even though Dinamo is not my team, they should have qualified for the knockout stage of the Champions League. That game against Shakhtar was unbelievable. With the coefficient rating, it looks as though now, a second team will have a chance to get into the Champions League. 

I know there was a time in the old Yugoslavia where Tito had that law where you couldn’t leave the country until you were 27 or 28, but now, the world has changed. For me, in the big four European leagues, maybe five if you want to count France, the job is to keep developing these players and selling them and building up the funds to hopefully invest in infrastructure. There is no shame in that.”

To conclude, I asked Mark about his favorite team-mates and rivals. 

“Paul McGrath and Marcel Desailly are the best defenders I’ve played with. The most dangerous striker I’ve played against? That’s a toss-up between Gabriel Batistuta and Robby Fowler at his best. 

But the best player I’ve ever played with is Ryan Giggs.”

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