Though the broader tone of his selections may be hinting at the dawning of a new age in the Socceroos, Head Coach Graham Arnold insists he’s just taking it one step at a time one it comes to the presence of veteran Mark Milligan.
The 34-year-old was one of the 23-players named to Arnold’s side on Friday afternoon ahead of the Socceroos first World Cup qualifier against Kuwait on September 11; with Milligan set to travel from club side Southend United and join his teammates for a week-long training camp in the United Arab Emirates on Monday.
Set to receive his 80th cap for his country the next time he takes the field for the Socceroos, Milligan is easily the elder statesman of the squad assembled by Arnold; twelve of the players in the squad having ten or fewer caps.
Though Milligan has played the full 90 minutes in all of The Shrimpers competitive fixtures during the 2019/20 season after moving from Scottish Premiership side Hibernian, it hasn’t been a particularly joyful start to life in League One of the Socceroos captain.
His side has suffered five-straight defeats to begin the league season – only kept off the bottom of the table thanks to Bolton’s pre-season points deductions – and was bundled out of the League Cup on Tuesday in a 4-1 defeat to MK Dons.
There had been significant conjecture that Milligan, who is unlikely to be in contention should the Socceroos secure a place at Qatar 2022, would no longer be in the frame for selection in the coming run of games; stepping aside in order to let others grow into his place.
Arnold, however, insisted that he still had a lot to give.
“He’s a great leader,” Arnold told a conference call with journalists on Friday.
“Over the past years we’ve lost players to retirement and Mark is fully committed to us. It’s one step at a time.
“I’ve obviously had a lot of communication with Mark. We’ve spoken a lot about this type of thing but, when I say one step at a time, for now, it’s the Kuwait camp and making sure that everyone’s fit, everyone’s healthy.
“Mark is in great shape and we’ll make those decisions as we go further.
“On my side of it, Mark is still a great leader of the Socceroos, a great leader in and around the boys. We value Mark and his leadership it’ll be good to see him in camp on Monday.
“I came into the job and I had to create depth, give fresh blood the opportunities and there’s a combination between doing that and needing experienced players and Mark was obviously a player that has played in four World Cups, has got a great deal of experience but he’s still playing at a very good level.
“Why can’t it be one step at a time? Why can’t he help us and work with us for one more camp or one more year or two more years for the good of the nation? And to help these boys get through these experiences?
“Mark’s a great leader, a great captain, he’s well respected by the players but the most important thing is he’s fit, he’s playing every week and he’s playing well.”
Also looking for playing time against the Kuwaitis will be Miloš Degenek and Trent Sainsbury; the two possessing vastly different experiences in their own European careers in recent times.
It wasn’t pretty, but 25-year-old Degenek and his FK Crvena Zvezda teammates were able to get past Swiss side Young Boys on away goals mid-week in order to progress to the group stages of the Champions League for the second straight year.
On Friday morning, the Serbian side was drawn into a Champions League group alongside German Champions Bayern Munich, last year’s beaten finalist Tottenham Hotspur and Greek powers Olympiacos.
Degenek has landed back in the Balkans after a brief and unsuccessful stint with Saudi Arabian club side Al-Hilal, and Arnold praised the defender for making a move that secured him both first-team minutes and Champions League football.
“Yeah look, it’s great,” Arnold began.
“Miloš was in Saudi Arabia, it wasn’t working out that great for him at that time and he’s returned to Red Star. We had those conversations about where to go next after Saudi and he chose to go back to Red Star where he felt, in himself, very comfortable in that environment; which is important for a player.
“He’s gone back there to a fantastic story. He’s doing exceptionally well, he scored in the first leg to help them get through and, as I said, it’s a wonderful story for Miloš.
“The fact that players are playing at that level and playing against those types of players in the Champions League is great for the Socceroos.
“For Miloš it’s fantastic that he’s going through to the next stage of the UCL and the fact that he’s in top condition and playing in those type of games is going to be great for us.”
Conversely, Sainsbury on Thursday night finally secured a move away from Dutch side PSV Eindhoven – where he had languished on the bench for much of his tenure – and to Israeli side Maccabi Haifa.
Joining fellow Australian Nikita Rukavytsya at the Northern Israeli club, it was a move Arnold said Sainsbury needed to make.
“The alternatives were, at this stage, was sitting on the bench at PSV or not being the squad and watching,” Arnold explained
“It’s all about playing and it’s all about life’s journey of experiencing wonderful moments. For Trent, he wasn’t playing at PSV, he didn’t have much game time in the last year and it’s all about getting on the stage and performing.
“So, for Maccabi Haifa, it’s a wonderful signing and for us the fact that he’s going to go there and play every week, I expect Trent to go to another level. It’s a top club, a big club in Israel. Israeli football is going along very strongly.
“The same as Miloš did, he took that opportunity to go back and play. The kids just want to play and, for me, Trent moving there is a good move.
“The fact that we can lean on him for his leadership and experience of being an international player; I expect him to play every week now and his performances will be great.”