“Brett?” I asked as the young man at the end of the phone answered.
“Yes,” came the cautious reply.
I said my name and heard the sharp intake of breath. At the time, I was the Socceroos team manager and most players aspiring to be a part of the set-up knew that if I called them it generally meant one of two things: they were in the squad or they were not.
Brett Emerton was in.
“By the way, you don’t need to call me Brett,” he said as the call came to an end, ‘”I’m just Emmo.”
It wasn’t the first time Emmo had been selected for the Socceroos – Terry Venables had capped him the year before in 1998 in a friendly against Chile – but it was the first time he was playing under what was seen as a bright new era in the pantheon of Australian football. We had an Australian born-and-bred coach, with the 35-year-old Frank Farina appointed to the role in August 1999.
Although Emerton was one of the young stars of the old national soccer league with Sydney Olympic at the time, and shoo-in as captain of the ‘Olyroos’ at the 2000 Sydney Olympics – any player will tell you it’s good to know the new coach rates you. Especially when you’re only 20.
Not long after that phone call, the Socceroos assembled in their team hotel. Most of the squad was then based in Europe; less than a handful were in Australia. Some turned up in sports cars, others in limousines, some with an entourage of manager, publicist and companion.
Emerton turned up with his mum, dad and sister. His mother confessed to me that Brett didn’t want them to accompany him to the hotel.
“But I just wanted to see that he’d be OK here,” she said. As a mum to two boys, I understood the sentiment. “Don’t worry. It’s the next big step for him. He’ll be OK,” I replied.
Emerton, of course, went on to prove that he was more than OK. He was never the most technically gifted player on the park. But what he lacked in this area compared with players such as Ned Zelic or Paul Okon, or the ability to hold-up play like Mark Viduka, he made up for with four of the most valuable commodities not only in professional sport, but in life – he was fast, he was smart, he had a big heart and he was humble.
They are traits that have served him well throughout his career which has been spent in three cities in four clubs – Sydney with Sydney Olympic and Sydney FC, Rotterdam with Feyenoord in the Eredivisie and Blackburn with Blackburn Rovers in the Premier League.
Unlike many of the young players of recent years – and in contrast to some of his contemporaries – Emerton also didn’t rush off overseas when clubs were beckoning.
Instead, he carved out a reputation for himself with four seasons in the NSL until the Sydney Olympics was over and made his first port of call, Feyenoord. It was no surprise that he ended up in the Netherlands: the technical director of Feyenoord Rob Baan who, eight years later became Australia’s national technical director, had his eye on Emerton for some time from the player’s appearances in international youth tournaments.
Moving to Europe as a relatively unknown 21-year-old from Sydney was a big move, made easier because Feyenoord also picked up another Australian, Stephen Laybutt, at the same time.
Emerton became so valuable to Feyenoord that there was a regular push-back from Baan and the coach at the time, Bert van Marwijk, about his availability for national team duty.
But Van Marwijk and Baan didn’t deter Emerton. While he steadily built an impressive 92-game career over three seasons in the Eredivisie, he also built his international career – one that eventually saw him play 95 matches for the Socceroos, scoring 20 goals over 15 years – and got noticed in England where he had always dreamed of playing.
In 2003, he joined Blackburn Rovers where he spent the next eight years as a first-team regular with nearly 300 games to his name, until his return to the A-League and Sydney FC. Such was the regard with which Emerton was held at Ewood Park, that the club let him go without financial penalty from the last year of his contract when he and his wife, Sarah, got to the point that many of the football diaspora get to – they were ready to come home.
Emerton was given a standing ovation when he played his final match for the Rovers against Everton as captain. He has now called time on his outstanding career at a time of his choosing.
For the past three seasons, he has been the ‘Australian marquee’ player at Sydney FC. Like everywhere he’s been, he has been a great team player who has worked hard at training and in matches, but a long-term back injury which medical specialists have advised will get worse if he continues to play means that he knows it’s time.
It says much about the man that, despite his 489 domestic league games, his four-club three-city career, having played more games than any other Socceroo besides Mark Schwarzer and Lucas Neill, and having been an instrumental member of the 2006 World Cup team, Brett Emerton retires from the sport he has served so well without being a household name among the broader community.
He deserves to be. But then he wouldn’t be “just Emmo”, would he?