To say it’s been a whirlwind year for Socceroos defender Alex Wilkinson would be an understatement. At the start of 2014, the former Mariners’ captain was looking to consolidate his spot in the starting line-up at cashed-up Korean side Jeonbuk Motors. Not even the most optimistic of people could have predicted what would happen over the course of the next 12 months.
In March, Wilkinson made his national team debut against Ecuador at the relatively late age of 30. He then proceeded to win 10 more caps and establish himself as one of Ange Postecoglou’s first choice defenders, starting all three of the Socceroos World Cup games in Brazil.
“To represent my country at a World Cup was a dream come true. I was so happy to make the final squad of 23 but then to start and play 90 minutes in all three games was unbelievable,” Wilkinson said.
Despite losing all three games, Wilkinson lapped up every minute of his time in Brazil. Facing the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Robin Van Persie and David Villa proved to be both a testing and valuable experience for the relative newcomer to the international stage.
“I grew up watching the World Cup every four years and marvelled at the players and teams. To actually be there and be a part of the tournament was pretty surreal; to start all three games was an amazing achievement for me and it’s something I am very proud of.
“In all three of our games the Aussie support was amazing. To walk out into those packed stadiums and see so much green and gold was pretty special. The atmosphere around the whole country was like one giant party.”
He was also quick to praise Postecoglou’s work since taking over following the sacking of Holger Osieck. With just two wins from 12 games, the coach has been criticized for a lack of results since his appointment. However, Wilkinson is quick to defend the man who gave him his chance.
“Ange has really made a point of giving lots of different players a chance to impress him and at the same time exposing a lot of players to international football. This can only be a good thing moving forward. With each game we are improving, but there it still a lot for us to work on.”
It was also a fruitful year for Wilkinson in his third season in Korea as Jeonbuk ran away with the league title by a whopping 14 points. For the K-League, usually a tightly-contested affair, this was testament to the strength of the champions.
Wilkinson was a regular fixture at the back, an integral member of a defence which prided itself on clean sheets and conceded just 22 goals in the calendar year. His work did not go unnoticed either, as he was named to the K-League’s Team of the Year.
“To be named in the K-League Team of the Year was such an honour. The team always comes first and without them I would never have had a chance to be selected in that team. Receiving personal accolades is always nice and this was one of the highlights of my career to date,” he said.
However, it is the prospect of celebrating more silverware with his teammates, rather than personal accolades, which is motivating him.
“After winning the league this year I know the club are desperate to do well in the ACL next season. Jeonbuk came so close to winning it in 2011 so it is definitely something the club wants to achieve. I think if we can keep much of our squad from this year, then we can mount a serious challenge.”
Before the quest for an ACL title can begin, there is the small matter of the upcoming Asian Cup. Following a promising World Cup performance, the prospect of the Socceroos winning a major tournament is a tantalising and feasible prospect.
“We are really looking forward to playing on home soil in front of our own fans; we’ve only played two games at home over the last 12 months so that will definitely work in our favour and we need to make sure we take advantage of playing the tournament at home.”
Before they entertain thoughts of the final, the trophy and the ensuing parade through the streets of Sydney, they’ll have to face fellow favourites South Korea in the group stage.
“I think my knowledge of Korean football may help a bit, and obviously I will know a lot of the players. Korea have gone through quite a few changes lately, with a new coach coming in after the World Cup,” Wilkinson said.
“They are a very strong team with some good players playing in the top leagues of Europe, so I think they will be one of the main favourites to win the tournament.”
If Wilkinson brings his club form to the Socceroos, it would go a long way to helping the team win a maiden major tournament. With a K-League title and team of the year selection, as well as three World Cup games under his belt this year, an Asian Cup winner’s medal would cap off an incredible 12 months. Not bad for someone who this time last year had never played for the Socceroos.
Much thanks to Jack Hand and Peter Hampshire of @KLeagueReport for supplying the quotes.