Josip Skoko: Long road to the top

Born in Australia, Josip Skoko's career as a professional footballer took him to Croatia, Belgium and Turkey before he got his chance in the Premiership with Wigan. Even then, it has taken him a while to establish himself but, he tells Phil Shaw, it has been worth the wait
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Like any natural-born footballer, all Josip Skoko has ever wanted to do is play. At the age of six in Australia he would go to church wearing full kit - including shin pads - under his Sunday best.

A quarter of a century, several exotic transfers and 50 international caps later, Skoko's approach to his role in Wigan Athletic's midfield is informed by the same desire. That hunger has survived a difficult year, which started with his opportunities in the Premiership being limited, took in a World Cup adventure that became a personal anticlimax and ends at bottom-placed Watford today in a relegation battle.

Skoko, 31, has lived in a country at war and endured a scare over the birth of a child, experiences that help to keep career disappointments in perspective. He does not disguise his frustration at being the forgotten man of Guus Hiddink's squad in Germany, yet his loyalty to Australia remains as strong as his commitment to the Wigan cause.

Patriotism and professionalism are intertwined for Skoko. When he was 16 he entered the elite Australian Institute of Sport with Mark Viduka and the tennis players Mark Philippoussis and Andrew Ilie. The restoration of bragging rights by Ricky Ponting's men in the Ashes series has provided ammunition for the banter with Wigan's English players.

There is, however, another country that tugs at his heart strings. Croatia was part of Yugoslavia when his father emigrated to Australia from the Croatian enclave in Herzegovina in 1969 to find work and escape Marshall Tito's communist regime. Ivan Skoko worked as a tree-feller, returning to marry a Croat and taking her back Down Under where their three daughters and two sons were born.

The place where they settled in South Australia, Mount Gambier, had a small Croat community. The family took on a dual identity common to the Greek and Italian populations in Australia. "Outside the house, we did things as Australians," Skoko recalls. "At home, everything was more Croatian. We kept up the traditions; the food, the music, the language. It was only when I began school that I learnt English."

With Mount Gambier Croatia FC he embarked on the road that has led him from the city on the slopes of an extinct volcano, with its caves, lakes, shipwreck beaches and wineries to a Lancashire town famous for its pier, pies and rugby league.

"Me and my brother Ante kicked about endlessly in the back yard," says Skoko. "But the big day at the club was Sunday. I went to mass in the morning wearing my strip beneath my clothes - everything except boots. Our game was first up and we spent the rest of the day watching the bigger boys play. Once I played for the under-10s, under-13s and under-16s, all in one day."

At nine he moved with his family to the Melbourne area, where he joined North Geelong Warriors and graduated to the Victoria under-13 side. "I was spotted in the national championship and chosen for the Institute. It was a world away in Canberra so I had to leave my family, friends and school. But the coaching was the best, and once I got over my homesickness and linked up with Mark [Viduka] and others I knew from Victoria, I had a brilliant time."

Viduka, now at Middlesbrough, remains a close friend. The pair room together on Australia duty, often listening to Croat music. In a mischievous moment at the Institute they tore up their sheets and painted the crests of Hajduk Split and Dynamo Zagreb. "Mark's family were Hajduk fans. Mine leaned to Dynamo," he explains. "Ironically we each went on to play for the other's team."

The upheaval also proved a useful rehearsal for the lifestyle he would adopt in the most global of games as well as for the travelling involved in representing Australia. He has never played for a professional club there, after pledging himself to Hajduk in the newly independent Croatia at 19.

The Balkan war was in its final stages when he arrived on the Adriatic coast, 100 kilometres from the nearest point that the bitter ethnic conflict was being fought. "Maybe if I'd known what I was going into, I wouldn't have gone," says Skoko. "You could see army personnel around, but as players we weren't really affected. There were just some places you didn't go to and certain games were played in neutral cities.

"I stayed four and a half years. I became captain of Hajduk and played in the Uefa Cup against Fiorentina and Schalke 04. But we never actually won anything. Football in Croatia is very political. Let's just say the president was a Dynamo fan."

Next stop was Genk in Belgium. In what now appears good practice for Wigan (a non-League outfit when he was born), he led an unglamorous provincial side into the Champions' League - the first Aussie to captain an overseas club to a title - and to tussles with Real Madrid and Roma.

Off the pitch, things did not always run so smoothly. His first son, Luka, was born three months premature. "That was a really frightening experience. Our second, Noa, was born this year and every parent will tell you that family comes before everything."

Next, as if he was intent on making up for a shortfall in syllables at Genk, came a stint with Genclerbirligi in the Turkish capital, Ankara. "We had a couple of good derbies but the biggest clubs were in Istanbul, of course. Fenerbahce is one of the most frightening stadiums you can go to. We were showered with mobile phones, coins, shoes, bottles and lighters. There were also the small towns we played in near the borders with Iraq and Iran. Terrible places. I feared for my life in one."

All the time he had an eye on the Premiership. He had played in London for Australia, as well as at Blackburn when Genclerbirligi dumped them from the Uefa Cup (Skoko having beaten Brad Friedel from 30 yards in the home leg). He liked what he saw. When the opportunity to join promoted Wigan came in the summer of last year, Skoko took it.

If he thought the competitiveness of the English game would be the ideal preparation for a World Cup, he was soon disabused of the notion. The arduous trips to play for Australia meant he struggled to show his worth on the training ground, let alone in matches. "And when I finally did break into the League side, against Chelsea and Manchester United, I got injured," he says.

Realising that reserve football was no platform for confronting the planet's finest, Skoko spent the season's final months on loan to Stoke City. He had played in two previous World Cup qualifying campaigns - the first under Terry Venables, who gave him his debut against Macedonia and retains his admiration as a coach - only for the Socceroos to fail in play-offs against Iran and Uruguay respectively.

This time, though, they had overcome Uruguay and reached the finals. "I came on in the second leg, which went to extra time and a shoot-out. John Aloisi, a friend from my Institute days, scored the decisive penalty. It was as dramatic as it could possibly be. Then before we left for Europe we played Greece in Melbourne and I got the winner. There were 95,000-odd there, the biggest-ever crowd for soccer in Australia."

But when it came to the tournament, Skoko became Australia's Theo Walcott; an unused substitute in all four games. Like the little boy in Mount Gambier who just wanted to play, he says he would be "a liar" if he pretended it did not hurt.

"I was very, very disappointed. I'm not saying that I deserved to play all the matches, but I deserved at least a few minutes out there. Hiddink just had his own ideas and obviously liked some players more than others. That's how it goes, but I wasn't happy the way some things went."

In one of the games, Australia, with seven players of Croatian descent, met Croatia, who had three born in Australia. "My feelings were jumbled up," admits Skoko, acknowledging that the 2-2 draw which took Hiddink's side into the last 16 was probably the ideal result.

"We had great fun and I'm proud of what we achieved. It was even more enjoyable for what happened back home, with thousands watching on giant screens. Soccer tended to be seen as an ethnic thing, secondary to cricket, the rugby codes and Aussie Rules, but it brought everyone together in a way that had never happened before with the sport."

Back at the JJB stadium, a fresh campaign did not, at first, offer a fresh start. It was late October before Skoko broke into Paul Jewell's side, enjoying an influential opening half-hour of Wigan's 4-0 rout of Manchester City before a hamstring strain forced him off.

"I was thinking, 'Oh no, here we go again'. But I managed to get back into the team quickly and I've doubled last season's Premiership starts already. It's been great to stay fit. After being captain at other clubs, and twice with Australia, I'm not used to being on the fringes."

Skoko's box-to-box industry won man-of-the-match plaudits against Aston Villa and saw him likened to the human dynamo that was Jimmy Bullard, who Wigan lost to Fulham last summer. He laughs off comparisons, saying, "There's only one Jimmy". Maybe so, but his emergence has enhanced Jewell's options.

"He's a manager who knows what he wants, and he usually gets it," says Skoko, who speaks from the experience of turning out for Wigan's second string or warming the bench. "In training he keeps it short and sharp all the time, which I like. He's very direct in his approach."

Like today's opponents. Watford away was always going to be physical. Wigan's run of four defeats, the latest coming against Chelsea and Manchester United, means it is also now a six-pointer.

"I watched the game at our place and it was scrappy," says Skoko. "They'll view it as a chance to catch up. For us it's an opportunity to get away. I think we've got the quality to get out of any trouble. We've had a tough Christmas and had to dig deep, but there's a long way to go."

When Wigan last won, at West Ham, the camera homed in on him as he went to take a corner kick. "There was a bit of abuse and I was chuckling to myself. It spurs you on - just as long as they're not flinging stuff at you."

The year of 2006 has thrown plenty at Josip Skoko; the good, like being awarded the freedom of Mount Gambier, along with the bad. But the resilience is beyond doubt, the desire to compete still burns and the shin pads are on.

Cosmopolitan Wigan wonders follow in the footsteps of the 'Three Amigos'

Josip Skoko is part of a Wigan Athletic squad that includes players from Austria, Bulgaria, Ecuador, Senegal, Sweden, the Netherlands and even Yorkshire. They are following a trail blazed by a trio of Spaniards - Roberto Martinez, Isidro Diaz and Jesus Seba - when they joined a club lying 16th in the League's basement division in 1995.

The "Three Amigos" were a signal of Dave Whelan's determination and ambition when the owner of JJB Sports bought control of the club. The catchy slogan "Jesus is a Wiganer" soon became popular in the town, though Seba left after two seasons. Diaz lasted a year longer, but "Bob" Martinez would stay six years. He is still playing at the age of 33, and is vice-captain of Chester.

Ed Jones' superb book on Wigan's first Premiership campaign - Northern Soul (Time Warner, £10.99) - reveals they were not their first cosmopolitan captures. Colin Methven, a 1980s defender as Scottish as Irn-Bru, had been born in India; goalkeeper Ray Tunks was born in Germany into an Army family, while Giuseppe Paladino hailed from St Helens "where his dad was a taxi driver".

Two Bulgarians, Mario Vwlkov and Stefan Vasilev, came on trial in 1989, but that was before Whelan's takeover and Wigan could not meet their wage demands.

"Why", writes Jones, "even the South-east Asian sounding Lee Koo in the non-League '70s was actually a former Anfield trainee born (of Chinese extraction, admittedly) in the shadow of the Kop".