James Robinson is manager of the Ballarat Red Devils in the Australian second tier. The 32-year-old began his playing career at Crewe, and went on to play in the top flights of Iceland, Australia, and Indonesia. Here, he talks about Kevin Muscat, heads and volleys in Huyton, and scoring one of the most famous goals in Melbourne Victory’s history  

Australia has been very good to me. I moved here in 2006, when I was playing for Altrincham. They were a fantastic club, but I wanted to go back to full-time football, so I looked at moving abroad.

At the time, the A-League was going into its second season. I did a lot of research – whether it was sustainable, how it compared to the MLS, and so on. In the end, I spoke to my family and I thought: “You know what, if it doesn’t work out, you learn from it. If it does work out, it’s an unbelievable experience.” And for me, it’s been an unbelievable experience. I haven’t been home in eight years.

Before I moved here I arranged a contract with Richmond, a club in the Victorian leagues. I came out in March, and the A-League began in August or September, so the idea was to put myself in the shop window. One midweek, we played (A-League club) Melbourne Victory. Afterwards, their manager Ernie Merrick said to me: “Our visa spots (for foreign players) are taken, but come in and train with us.”

Even though I couldn’t play, I weighed up my chances, and gave it a go. I trained every day, did extra sessions, and worked my socks off. In November, the Belgian defender Geoffrey Claeys retired, meaning there was a visa spot. I was offered deal and I signed up.

You think about highlights of your career, and that season was one of them. It was such a great team, with one of the best captains I’ve ever played under – Kevin Muscat. Was he a lunatic? Not at all – he was a winner. And that was the mentality we all had – “I want to win, will you win with me, will you do whatever it takes?” We won the (regular) league by Christmas, then played Adelaide United in the play-off semi-finals.

We drew the first leg 0-0, then went 1-0 down in the second leg. We made it 1-1, I came on in the 88th minute, and then, in the 92nd minute, we get a free-kick. The ball comes in and there’s a deflection. I’m at the back stick, holding back, anticipating, and the ball lands on my barnet.

Reporters over here have asked: “Why didn’t you head it towards the near post?” And it’s because of what you’re taught from a young age: head the ball back to where it’s come from. That’s what was going through my mind. It was like slow motion. And when it went in…well there’s 47,000 people in the stadium, my team-mates jumped on me, and everything went mental. We went on to win the final 6-0.

After I scored that goal, I thought back to playing headers and volleys in Huyton (an area of Liverpool) when I was nine. We’d play against a brick wall with paint on, using a flyaway (ball). We’d play “five seconds to score and you’re through to the next round”, and that’s what the semi-final goal was like. It was one of those moments. Do I watch it on You Tube? Maybe in ten or 15 years’ time!

I came through the youth system at Crewe under Dario Gradi, Steve Holland (now assistant coach at Chelsea) and Terry McPhillips (now assistant manager at Blackburn). The Crewe production line speaks for itself, so you can see how good they were. For me, the biggest thing was how simple they made it. You played in as many positions as possible to learn the game, but everything was kept simple. As a young player, I had the chance to go to other clubs. But the way Crewe worked, they made the game seem easy.

After Crewe, I played in Iceland for six months. The club was IBV on the island of Vestmannaeyjar, and if you talk about defining periods of your life, that was one. Iceland was brilliant – the people, the landscapes …everything was different class. I was 22, and it was a big turning point. It gave me the appetite to try new things. The move came about through my mate Ian Jeffs, and he’s still at IBV now. It’s a really good club – David James played there recently.

When I got home, I trained at Accrington, played a reserve game, then signed for Altrincham. Accrington were supposed to get my international clearance, but – as it turned out – they didn’t. So when the FA realised I’d been playing without clearance, Altrincham were deducted 18 points, and were relegated (although later reprieved because of other clubs’ off-field problems). I was on the phone to the Alty chairman, on the phone to the gaffer, but there was nothing I could do. When you see what happened to Sunderland this season (a fine for the same offence)…it’s ridiculous that the lower-league club gets such a worse punishment.

When I left Melbourne Victory in 2007, I moved to Sydney. There’s only one A-League club in Melbourne, but there were three in Sydney, so, again, I was putting myself in the shop window. But as it turned out, I signed for the A-League club on the other side of Australia, Perth Glory! The gaffer there, Ronnie Smith…what a coach he was. After that I moved to North Queensland Fury, which is where I did my first ACL (knee injury).

I came back, did my rehab, and agreed a deal with Brunei DPMM. The Sultan would have been my boss! I went over, agreed terms, then on my last session before coming home, I did my right ACL. I worked my way back, and agreed a deal with Sriwijaya in Indonesia in 2013. I went in there with my eyes wide open – I knew people who’d been there, I knew about the hostile contracts, and I knew it could be difficult getting paid.

I played one game in Indonesia, and did really well. But the next minute, they realised their defence was struggling massively, and they needed new defenders. So it was last one in, first one out. I was only over there for nine or ten days. I’d been teetering on the edge of retirement, and that was the final nail in the coffin. 

Management was something I always wanted to do. When I was 18 at Crewe, I’d go back to Liverpool and coach amateur men’s teams. I did my badges when I was recovering from my first ACL, but I never expected my first job to come this quickly. I know the technical director at Ballarat, Danny Milosevic (the ex-Leeds United goalkeeper) from my time at Perth Glory. He’s a good of mate of mine, so we spoke about the job, and the criteria, and I started in January.

Management is like looking after a family – but a family with 40 people in it. The players are part-time – they train three times a week, and play once a week – so man-management is vital. Some of the guys work from 6am until 4pm, they might be on a building site all day, they might have young families. So training has to be fun. We have to get the maximum out with the minimum effort, because they’ve got so much else going on.

On the pitch, we’ve taken a big leap. Ballarat are an old club, but we’re a new franchise in the National Premier League, so we’re only 90 days into that new phase (Ballarat are 12th out of 14 after ten games). But in three years’ time, we want to be winning everything. Off the field, everything is set-up. We’ve just had a 12 million dollar soccer facility built – Bahrain are coming to train here in December before the AFC Cup, and we have a few A league teams coming here in pre-season. So it’s all good.

At the moment, there is no promotion or relegation to A-League. But under AFC criteria, there has to be something within the next five years. So when they’re thinking: “Who’s next in line?” we want to be there, ticking all the right boxes. We want the right infrastructure from top to bottom; we want to close that gap between the National Premier League and the A-League. It’s a challenge, but I want to go as high as possible.

Sometimes, I look back and I laugh. How have I come from Huyton to this, playing in all these fantastic places, having all these experiences? It’s been a fantastic journey. You know, when I came over here, I became my own agent. I used to call clubs, call gaffers, send them emails with my clips. You get five million “nos” – but all you need is one person to say: “Go on then, I’ll have a little look.”

Interview by @owenamos for New interviews will be published every other week during the summer.

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