WHAT little Teesside knows of Down Under’s colourful history of working class populist banditry was encapsulated in Alistair Brownlee’s excited stoppage time ejaculation on a momentous final match of the season at Manchester City on May 15th 2005. “Mark Schwarzer: He’s the greatest Australian hero since Ned Kelly!”
Deep into added time the big Aussie shot-stopper went full length to his left to deny a Robbie Fowler penalty and seal a watershed 1-1 draw that was enough to take mighty Boro into Europe through the league for the first time ever and send Teesside into a frenzy of celebrations. First the miracle of Cardiff, now a second successive qualification. Could it get any better?
Much maligned keeper Schwarzer – who clocks up ten years as a Boro player today – was central to both those qualifications. At Cardiff cruel one-eyed critics may point accusingly at him for the Bolton goal that somehow squrimed through him and into the net from an impossible angle – and yes it was a blob dropped – but let us not forget that he pulled off two wonder saves from Youri Djorkaeff to keep Boro the game when the pressure was really on.
Against City and Fowler it was one-on-one with the highest possible stakes. If Schwarzer had gone the wrong way and Fowler had scored then Boro would have lost out on Europe by a single point. Without that brilliant save there would be no Roma, no Basel, no Steaua, no Eindhoven, no orgasmic epoch-defining Euro-high that vindicated Steve Gibson’s vision, sent Teesside into orbit and raised the club’s profile and expectations beyond belief.
On the road to the UEFA Cup final – which he played wearing a “Gazza style mask” – he played a giant part. Under pressure against Roma in the Stadio Olimpico he made an unbelievable twisting point blank save at the foot of the post from Di Rossi’s close range shot when Boro were taking a real battering. There were others in that game too but that muscle-rending act of contortion was the one that kept the dream alive.
Schwarzer put in another wonder display in the away game at Steaua when a sluggish Boro could not resist wave after wave of attack and came away a goal down but it could have been far worse but for a string of brilliant stops by the keeper.
Maccarone became the enduring image and took the press plaudits for winning through to Eindhoven but it was the solid spadework by Schwarzer when things got sticky that really kept the UEFA bandwagon rolling for Boro.
Mark Schwarzer has been a key figure throughout Boro’s golden decade. He featured at Wembley twice and picked up losers medals in League Cup finals (had he played in the FA Cup too our dream may have lasted longer than 43 seconds), he finally got his medal at the Millenium Stadium and he was between the sticks against Sevilla. He has been on the team-sheet in almost every match of significance in a dramatic ten years.
Yes, he has his critics. Some of then froth at the mouth just watching him in the warm-up. Apparently he doesn’t command his box, isn’t much of a shot-stopper, can’t kick, can’t get down well for a big man, has a Transylvanian aversion to crosses and never comes off his line.
And yes, there have been times when his opinion polls ratings were lower than a snakes belly. There was a long spell where the terrace consensus seemed to be that Mark Crossley was far and away the better keeper and wild-eyed speculation that only a clause in his contract was getting Skippy the nod. There was a spell after his broken leg when he seemed very reluctant to come off his line and he was regularly slated. Then last season there was a dummy spitting incident after a poor stoppage time fist set up a last gasp leveller at Newcastle and a blast from the boss promted a transfer request that attracted no takers and led to booing from some more short-sighted sections of the fanbase.
But each time he has bounced back with a sparkling run of displays that disarm the doubters and have the supporters spraying superlatives at him from all angles that he easily holds.
Schwarzer is one of Boro’s all time great keepers. Bernie Slaven ranks him just behind Steve Pears but that is just sentimental talk. Pearsy (and Mr Slaven) played only two seasons in the top flight and both times the team were relegated. Schwarzer has played all but one of his ten seasons at the highest levels, has played in Europe and has featured in four major finals. The Aussie is the better keeper by all rational measures.
And certainly for the ÃÂ£1.25m Boro paid Bradford in February 1997 he must be one of Boro’s all time value for money buys. Bernie is probably top of that table (147 goals for ÃÂ£25,000 is VFM in anyone’s language) but the Aussie can’t be far behind. He has played 394 games for the club after a transfer that is barely half of the agents fees involved in the Yakubu deal.
He is probably Boro’s best ever foreign signing too (unless you count Bernie again). Juninho has his legions of believers but flattered to deceive and in three spells in truth only really hit the heights for one six month spell while Ravanelli and Emerson were just flash in the pan, one season wonders. Luca Festa gave value, as did Franck Queudrue and George Boateng continue to do so. Zenden, Viduka and Yakubu have all proved great creative forces but have had frustrating spells where they got some stick. None can claim the longevity, the consistency, the indespensibility or the ability to win games under pressure like Schwarzer.
He made his debut ten years ago today in the Coca-Cola Cup semi-final first leg away at Stockport and was hugely impressive ina 2-0 win. He was a giant who came out and skittled peopel aside to collected balls into the box and after the nervous years of Miller. Walsh and Roberts it was a revelation. That day he played behind a defence of Cox, Fleming, Stamp and Pearson. Since then he has seen a lot of far better players come and go.
In a the modern age when players rarely see out even their first contract Schwarzer has completed a decade and is still the first name on the teamsheet. It is an achievement that deserves celebration.