Bosnich beavers away at second five-year plan

Phil Shaw talks to Aston Villa's Australian import, who has added consistency to his undoubted flair to become one of the Premier League's most distinguished goalkeepers
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Mark Bosnich was arguably the only beneficiary of Eric Cantona's "kung-fu" leap at Selhurst Park a year ago next week. He now practises the martial arts himself, a coincidence that may not surprise those Tottenham supporters who already see him as a Bruce Lee among Premiership custodians.

The night Cantona went over the top, Aston Villa's Australian international goalkeeper charged out of his area in a bid to beat Jurgen Klinsmann to the ball. Although his knee caught the Spurs striker on the head and laid him out, Bosnich largely avoided trial by television because of the fall- out from south London.

As Villa prepare for tomorrow's return by Spurs, who these days are sadly without the great German, Bosnich admits he might have been "slaughtered" by the media and authorities but for l'affaire Cantona. His own challenge was at worst injudicious; no foul was given. Yet it was symptomatic, along with a later sending-off at Leeds, of a turbulent season.

Villa avoided relegation only on the final day. The contrast with the current campaign, in which they stand seventh and meet Arsenal in the Coca-Cola Cup semi-finals, could hardly be more pronounced. With Bos-nich allying consistency to his undoubted agility, they have conceded fewer goals (15) than anyone in the four divisions except Gillingham.

He has kept 13 clean sheets, eight of them in League games (the same number as leaders Newcastle), and has still to be beaten in 1996. "I'm much steadier now," he said, "far more mature, more in control than I was."

Contrary to his image - the Villa manager Brian Little recently labelled him "phenomenal", "daft as a brush", "intelligent" and "extrovert" in the same answer - Bosnich likes "to have things organised" as he puts it.

The contradictions run deeper. He has been portrayed here as a stereotypical Aussie, but in his native Sydney he was very much a Croatian and endured racial abuse because of it. He is also depicted as some kind of beach bum in Brum, whereas he has been in England for all but six months during the past eight years and confesses that he could never surf anyway.

In fact, Bosnich takes his craft very seriously. Three afternoons a week he trains on his own. He also does martial arts to improve his balance, reflexes and flexibility. And then there are the five-year plans.

"My first was from when I was 16 to 21 (he reached 24 last Saturday). I gave myself five years to break into first-team football. The next five was to make myself the best keeper in the country I'm playing in. The five after that is to become recognised as one of the world's best. Then from 31 to 36 or whatever, just to enjoy it all."

At school, Bosnich excelled at rugby league and cricket before coming under the wing of a specialist goalkeeping coach at the age of 12. Friday was English football night on Channel 2 - "a ritual for me" - and he was soon poring over videos of Shilton, Clemence, Jennings and Banks.

On the back of a holiday in the former Yugoslavia he was invited for a trial by Liverpool. Kenny Dalglish was keen but, as Bosnich completed his studies, Manchester United stepped in promising to untangle the red tape holding up his progress.

The work permit did not materialise. After three appearances for United, he drifted back Down Under. He was helping his father to install swimming pools when Ron Atkinson, having placated the Home Office, took him to Villa Park. "If Ron hadn't come in for me I'd probably be if not a waster, just stuttering along," he said.

Success followed quickly, maybe too quickly. An incredible series of penalty saves - one from Bebeto, another from Ian Wright, one in a Birmingham derby, three in a shoot-out with Tranmere and two against Spurs in the next game - led to Atkinson hailing him as "the best young keeper in the world". When he helped Villa beat United in the Coca-Cola Cup final, Bosnich had just turned 22.

With hindsight, it was then that things started to sour. Because of the three foreigners rule, he was left out against Internazionale in the Uefa Cup. "I took that much worse than I should have done," he recalled. "I also forgot that I actually had to work hard, that the magic didn't come like that (snaps fingers)."

He began making bizarre blunders. At QPR he ventured upfield to clear, as if trying to operate a lone offside trap, and ended up gifting a goal. Within weeks Atkinson was sacked, and Bosnich's natural ebullience took a further blow.

"I felt I'd let Ron down. A manager can only do so much, but it's up to the players once they cross that white line. I knew that I hadn't been 100 per cent, particularly in my concentration levels. My preparation wasn't what it should have been.

"I may have played Jack the Lad a bit. As we saw with the Paul Merson thing, it's so easy to be sucked into some bad crowds. Though I didn't go to that extreme, there were times when I thought to myself: 'Hey, what are you doing here at this time of night?'"

Little, a Holte End idol of another era, also needed to re-establish his credibility with the Villa crowd. He and his coaches spent the summer working on a three-man defence (Bosnich has dubbed Ugo Ehiogu, Paul McGrath and Gareth Southgate "the Rocks"). So effective has the formation proved that Southgate now plays for England, while Ehiogu and the wing-back Alan Wright will join him at Terry Venables' get-together next week.

Bosnich, who would surely have been with them if his loyalties did not lie elsewhere, argues that Villa are one of the few teams who understand how to play the system. "I saw Manchester United try it at Sunderland the other night, and they struggled. The Rocks are leaving me the bare minimum to do, making sure it has to be something special to beat me."

How long before the cry of "Boring, boring Villa" is heard? "After we got a point at United last week we were labelled dull and uncompromising. I don't object to the second part of that, but we were pinned in our half, like they do to you at Old Trafford. It's not as if we said: 'Let's see if we can get a 0-0 draw'."

Villa's defensive excellence begs the question of how high they might be if they possessed a Sheringham or a Shearer. The jury is still out on Savo Milosevic, their pounds 3.5m striker, who happens to be from Serbia. Proud as Bosnich is of his ethnic roots, he stresses that the pair have no problems playing together.

"When Savo first came I outlined my position to him and he explained his. Obviously we've got fundamental differences but we get on well. Politics shouldn't come into it, even though it's hard because it's on the news every day. Our priority is to do well for Aston Villa."

Bosnich is doing exactly that, his second five-year plan apparently on schedule. Intriguingly, his chief rival to become the best in Britain may be his friend and opposite number tomorrow, Ian Walker, already a regular in Venables' squads.

The World Cup in 1998 would be the ideal platform for Bosnich to measure himself against the planet's safest hands. At the moment he sees no one better than David Seaman and Peter Schmeichel, although Bernard Lama, of Paris St-Germain, and Angelo Peruzzi, of Juventus, also impress him.

In the meantime Villa have a world to play for themselves. After Spurs, the coming weeks pit them against Liverpool and Leeds, not to mention an awkward FA Cup tie at Sheffield United and the double-header with Arsenal for a Wembley place.

"After that lot, we'll have a better idea of whether we can win something," Bosnich said. "The League is the one. Cups are great but I'd rather be in the top four after 38 matches. There's nothing more satisfying."

That evidently includes shutting out the opposition. "You can get into a trap of becoming obsessed with clean sheets. Then, if you concede one, it can get you so upset it makes the rest of your game fall apart. You can play brilliantly and still let in a couple, so for me it's more important to be on the winning side."

Better, of course, to fly in the face of conventional wisdom than of an onrushing attacker. Either way, Mark Bosnich is clearly no ordinary goalkeeper.