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"It was a fantastic experience when I made my Premier League debut. The thing that stuck in my mind was that nobody could ever take that away from me. It was a childhood dream that I'd been chasing for a long time and to walk off the pitch having played in arguably the best league in the world for a kid who grew up on a farm in a town of three thousand people was a very proud moment for me and my family and something that I'll never forget."
Steve Mautone now coaches goalkeepers and youth players for Melbourne Victory at the top of the professional Hyundai A League in his native Australia, but back in the spring of 1996, at the age of twenty-five, he was invited to our shores to begin his career as a shot-stopper in England. Towards the end of his time here he featured between the sticks for Crystal Palace, but his first port of call was Harry Redknapp's West Ham:
I had an agent who was working closely with a few Australian advisers and managers. His name was Barry Silkman. My CV found its way to him and it was really strange because as I was boarding the aeroplane I didn't really know where I was going. All I knew was that I was going to have some trials. I just happened to get my foot in the door at West Ham. They had a bit of a crisis at the time with goalkeepers. They had to play a young seventeen year old [Neil Finn] because Ludek Miklosko got injured and somebody else [Les Sealey] got injured in the warm up . I think Harry just said to all of his contacts, "Who have you got?" I didn't even know where West Ham was when I was leaving Australia. I'd seen them play and I knew about the club, but I didn't realise that they were a London club. I managed to stay there for a month on trial and did really well in the games that I played in and must've impressed Harry enough to get offered a contract.
It wasn't long before West Ham wanted him to go on loan to a lower division side to get some playing experience, but a calf injury to first choice Ludek Miklosko prompted an urgent phone call to the North West:
I didn't really want to go to Crewe. I felt like it was too big a drop to go down and West Ham wanted me to go for three months to get some experience. I spent a week there, played three games and they said "Right, you've got to come back."
I'd already had my mindset that I was going to be playing in Crewe for three months, which I wasn't too happy about, so I came back and made my debut at Barnet [in the League Cup] and had an absolute horror start. In the first twenty minutes I had hardly touched the ball and the first shot they had bounced off my chest and Barnet were one-nil up. Next time I touched the ball there was a cheer in the crowd and I looked around to see what was going on and it was a sarcastic cheer from the West Ham fans at the fact that I held the ball! Luckily we managed to get a goal back [through Tony Cottee], but the good thing was that Harry gave me some faith. I made a couple of saves late in the game which probably settled my nerves a bit.
He started me in the one and only Premier League game that I played in, against Nottingham Forest, and we won 2-0. I had a bit of a blinder which was fantastic. A one hundred percent record!
You probably wouldn't have heard much about [the 2nd leg against Barnet] because the game the following Saturday was against Liverpool at home. I remember the game clearly, winning that [1-0] and going through and feeling very relieved that the mistake that I'd made in the previous game was a little bit forgotten by most people. I had a couple of crosses to come out for, maybe one save, but we dominated the game as we should have done and did what we had to do to get through to the next round.
Not only had he realised his ambition of playing in the Premier League, but Steve could also lay claim to an honour any goalkeeper would be proud of. He had kept England legend Peter Shilton on the bench:
I was a little bit of a villain amongst the English supporters because he was looking to make his 1,000th league game and I think he was at 996 at the time and everyone was hoping that he would eventually get his games. To say that I kept Peter Shilton out of playing in a Premier League game is great when you look at it from the outside, but the fact is that he was nearing on his retirement! He was great to me. In fact, I credit him with helping me to land the contract. There was myself and two Americans who trained at the same time. Marcus Hahnemann was one of them and he was there for a couple of weeks before I arrived and then for a week whilst I was there. We worked a lot with Peter and he had such a good work ethic, so there was always extra work that we could join in and do and I would have thought that he would have had some say with Harry as to what he thought of me and my performances and ultimately to help me land the contract. It was a fantastic time in my life and I was really in awe of being in a situation like that and I think if I had moved over maybe a few years earlier I may have got over that and possibly could have gone on played more games in the Premier League.
People are seeing the A League at the moment and we're getting crowds of thirty, forty thousand. We've actually had a domestic game where we've had over fifty thousand people to it. When I played here, to get a crowd of four thousand was a good crowd. We would sometimes get fifteen hundred people and that was a regular occurrence. So I didn't have that experience of regularly playing at big stadiums in front of big crowds and I think that was a bit of a shellschock for me when I went over to the UK whereas now the guys are a lot more prepared. They're a lot more used to the pressure of a big crowd expecting good performances week in, week out.
I nearly played against Liverpool the following week, but Ludo had a fitness test the day of the game and passed it so I was back on the bench. Because I'd had a taste of playing in the first team I said to my agent that I really wanted to go out on loan again and try and establish myself and get a little bit more credibility with West Ham, not thinking that I was ever going to leave West Ham.
Steve's next move was a loan period in Berkshire where he had the most successful spell of his career:
The Reading opportunity came about and I went there on loan and did really well. Reading was becoming a big club when I was there. That was still at old Elm Park and they were in the process of building the new stadium. It was, I suppose, good business sense from West Ham and Harry to let me go after eight months. I think they paid something like sixty thousand pounds for me and ended up getting two hundred and fifty thousand after appearances and stuff like that. In an eight month period I think that's good business sense. I had a great time at Reading. The plan was to go to Reading and get some real first team experience and then try and move on and see if I could land another Premier League contract and it almost worked. Coventry City reportedly put in a bid of £1.2m for me if you can believe the papers. Wimbledon at the time were showing some interest and there was another club. I had a good run of games at Reading and started to find my feet a little bit and then unfortunately I had a re-occurring knee injury and never really recovered from it. I had five knee operations in the space of twelve months, two being reconstructions. The first reconstruction didn't work and I came back to Melbourne to do the rehab and saw a specialist here who was flying to the States and doing a lot of the gridiron players. He was doing more reconstructions at the time than anyone else around and he had a look at it and said, "Look, it just hasn't worked properly. You can either try and have your six month rehab and we might need to do it again or we'll just go in and do it again now." And that's what he did. I was never really the same, and it's hard enough trying to become a pro as it is let alone after a pair of reconstructions on my left knee. I managed to get back from that and Reading didn't renew my contract. They had a complete change of management. Tommy Burns went there and he brought his own people in and I suppose because of my reputation in the Championship I was able to go to Wolverhampton Wanderers because they hadn't seen me play for a good twelve months and I signed a short term contract there for six months.
However, more frustration was in store at Molineux until a London manager remembered being impressed when his side had played against Mautone:
I never got a look in. I was on the bench most of the time and that's the nature of being a goalkeeper. You can't come on for the last twenty minutes and impress and then start the following week. That was an unfortunate situation that I didn't play any games and it then just felt like I was on a big trial. I probably needed another few months for my knee to recover properly, but because I didn't want to show the people at Wolves that my knee was still not right I was probably playing and training through stuff that I shouldn't have done to try and secure a longer term deal. I broke down a couple of times towards the end. They realised that maybe my knee wasn't right and basically said, "Thanks, but no thanks," and I was stuck then. I didn't really know what to do and Crystal Palace at the time were going through some real financial problems. They couldn't actually sign anybody on proper contracts. So I ended up signing a week-to-week contract there and again I think I went to Palace based on the games that I'd played against Steve Coppell who was the manager at the time. It was unfortunate that they were in such disarray financially, but I had a great time there. They were a big club and Wolves was a big club. To end up at Palace I thought, well, I've got nothing to lose here. I'm just going to work hard, and I managed to get my knee right. I played in a couple of games, but they were just in a situation where they couldn't do anything and it was coming towards deadline day and I really needed to try and secure something more long term and they just couldn't offer anything. I learned a lot, actually, whilst I was there through Steve Coppell. I think he's a fantastic manager with a wealth of experience.
I didn't have the best of games [a 3-2 home win over Walsall and a 0-2 away defeat at Forest] and again I felt like every game I had to prove myself to try and get a longer term contract. I never really felt that settled, but I always knew I wasn't going to stay there. Steve Coppell was really honest from the start and said, "Look, this is what we can do. You can help us. We can help you, and if you happen to play any games that's fantastic," Most of the time again I was on the bench, but I have some good memories of being there, a massive club with a great history of being the underdogs and some good characters, some good players to come out of Palace..
Steve's visit to England was his second attempt to start a career abroad. As a teenager he had followed family ties to Italy:
I was only 16 and at the time I had some family living in the north of Italy and through contacts that my uncle had he managed to get me a trial at Como. At the time they were in Serie A. I went over, stayed for 12 months and it was probably the fact that I got homesick, more than anything. We're talking 1987 and there weren't many Australian footballers going abroad. That was probably the height of the Italian league.They didn't have many foreigners going over and although I was on an Italian passport I was still considered a foreigner, so it just worked out a little bit difficult to continue on, but it gave me that taste of wanting to play overseas.
I'd originally started up in Sydney and moved back home to Melbourne and joined Morwell Falcons and I had two fantastic years there, a good foundation in terms of playing senior football on a regular basis, whereas before that as a young goalkeeper I was in and out and a little bit inconsistent. From there I got scouted by South Melbourne, who were one of the bigger clubs in the country, and made the Socceroos and so on and that's when I felt it was time to try and give it another crack overseas with a little bit of credibility as an international. Really Canberra Cosmos was a stopgap. The fact that I wanted to go over to the UK whilst I was playing here in the old A League probably stopped me from progressing my club football here. I kind of used Canberra Cosmos to keep playing. They were new in the league, and they were very supportive of me going overseas.
In Steve's senior appearances in England he played alongside future stars such as Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard and Slaven Bilic:
I used to take Rio to training on the odd occasion because I lived just the other side of the Limehouse link, in between the exit and Tower Bridge and Rio lived over the other side of the water. He used to either get a lift or get a train into my place and then we'd go in together. Frank made a couple of first team appearances while I was there. Because I was playing a lot in the reserve as they were coming through into the reserves I became good friends with both of them and kept in touch with Rio for a while, but it's always difficult. You're always moving around and stuff like that.
I had some interesting times while I was in the UK. I became really good friends with Slaven Bilic as well because when he signed I'd arrived on trial and he was still in the Swallow Hotel in Waltham Abbey so we became good friends and kept in contact for a long time. As head coach of the Croatian national team he's done really well. He was a big influence on me. He's only a couple of years older than me, but just the experience that he had at such a young age. He captained virtually every club he played for. He was the first foreigner to be a captain in the Bundesliga [of Karlsruher SC in 1993/4] and at a pretty young age. He was a really interesting guy who taught me a lot about how to think about being a professional because, like I said, when I left Australia my team used to train twice a week of an evening. It was like playing non-league and then to go over to an environment of being a professional and training every day and trying to get my head around that people used to call it work, because here, it wasn't classed as elite whatsoever. In fact, you used to have to try and get a job to fit around your football and a lot of talented footballers gave the game up because they had responsibilities of families and mortages and realised that they couldn't make the money that they needed to for themselves so they gave it up to pursue their work, which is unfortunate. The good thing is now is that it's gone to the elite and professional side and the game's benefiting from it dramatically. It's the second world cup in a row now that the national team's made. To have that many players playing abroad they have to have a foundation somewhere and it's coming from the system here. There's some good, talented players in the A League.
Steve also played alongside Stan Laziridis at West Ham and old pal Kevin Muscat at Palace:
We all tried to keep in touch and to get together socially. I was friends with Kevin before we went over. We played at the same team here and I'd known him for a few years. Stan was at West Ham and so was Robbie Slater. Kevin was at Palace and then there were some other players floating around such as Mark Schwarzer up at Bradford and John Filan at Coventry. It was great when you either played against someone or joined a team and there was another Australian there. It can be a lonely old time. Everybody sees the English game as the glitz and the glamour, which it is in the Premier League, but you've also got a lot of players like myself who probably didn't quite make it as such, playing regularly and making a huge name for themselves, but still carving a bit of a career and a lifestyle out of it and that's when it can get a little bit lonely as well, when you're in and amongst the lower divisions trying to work your way up. You don't get much publicity, you don't get much press. You've got your family support which naturally you would have anywhere, but you don't have that other recognition and it can be quite a tough place, the UK, especially as a foreigner coming over and maybe looked upon as taking someone else's job. You say it's difficult - the language is the same, the culture's pretty much the same, the climate's obviously not! - it's difficult in one sense because of the pressures of football, but in another sense it could be a lot harder. I'm crying a little bit over spilt milk because you look at what my parents had to go through. My heritage is Italian, my parents came over not speaking a word of English in the mid sixties, not having any money, not knowing what they were coming to and then setting up camp here in Australia, whereas I've gone over, I'm getting picked up at the airport, I'm getting put in a nice hotel, I'm getting an allowance every day, I turn up and I get new boots, new gear, all that sort of stuff and everybody wants to help you. It's not that difficult, but in the context of being a professional footballer it can be a lonely time as well.
Steve's now very much enjoying his opportunity to play a big part in the success of the reigning A League champions:
I always loved coaching young kids even before I went over to England. To get extra training sessions I would go to a lot of the academies and say, "Let me take your goalkeepers, but I want to join in on the training as well," so I'd get extra work and stuff like that. There wasn't really a lot of money in private coaching then. I was only doing it to keep active and to keep a little bit fitter and really enjoyed it, so I always knew I'd do some sort of coaching when I finished playing and I was lucky enough when I decided to move back that there was an opportunity to come to Victory and take the goalkeepers and that's progressed now into assisting with the youth team as well which is another dynamic in itself because I'm only used to looking after one main player plus the reserve keeper or second and third choice. Now I'm thinking about the strikers, the midfielders and the defenders and everything that goes with all that and I'm really enjoying the challenge.
Many thanks to Damien Souness, Media and Communications Co-ordinator at Melbourne Victory, for his assistance in arranging this interview.