Like father and son: The unique bond between Vukovic and Crawley

The bond between coach and player can be tighter than blood relatives - just ask the A-League's Danny Vukovic and John Crawley...

Sideline bust-ups and dressing room dressing downs – there’s nothing like a boil-over between coach and player to generate headlines.

The volcanic eruptions – and father and son-like rapprochements – of Manchester City wild child Mario Balotelli and former manager Roberto Mancini are legendary.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s infamous boot to the brow of Manchester United star David Beckham proves some managers will resort to the closest thing at hand to keep the prized cattle corralled.

It’s not all fury of course.

Outgoing Inter coach Jose Mourinho’s impromptu farewell outside the Bernabeu with his faithful on-field lieutenant, Marco Materazzi, in 2010 had more tears than a Greek tragedy.

Even beyond the world of football celebrity – where a salary cap keeps the egos and opportunities in check – the click or clash of the coach and his star makes compelling viewing.

Hot-headed goalkeeper, Danny Vukovic, owes much of his longevity at the top of the Australian domestic game to the early years’ steadying influence of goalkeeping coach supremo John Crawley.

Sure, sometimes there’s more madness than majesty in the one-two interplay between coach and player, but when it works it’s footballing gold.

Crawley does a nice yarn on former prodigy, now Melbourne Victory custodian, Vukovic.

In the lead up to the inaugural season of the A-League, Central Coast Mariners coach Lawrie McKinna was looking for a No.1.

The Gosford outfit, strapped for cash even then, found their pockets weren’t deep enough first for Clint Bolton (Sydney FC) and then Liam Reddy (Newcastle Jets).

Crawley, the first Australian to play in Chile, signed on as player/keeper coach but there was still the matter of a back-up.

“Lawrie asked me - who else are we going to get?” Crawley recalled. “I said, well I know this kid who I’ve spent a lot of time with. He’s playing with Bonnyrigg U20s and I think he’s up to it.”

Four games into the season, Crawley suffered a career-ending hip injury and Vukovic stepped up.

By then the pair had already know each other for six years. Their association began at Sydney’s Westfield Sports High where the coach recognised the youngster’s potential.

“I was very lucky to come across John when I did,” Vukovic said. “He pretty much moulded me into the goalkeeper I am today. Those basics we learn at 13 I’m still doing at 30.

“Even now I always think back to his motto about goalkeeping being about more than shot stopping.

“You only have to look at (Socceroo) Maty Ryan – and I think he’ll credit John Crawley as well for helping make him the goalkeeper he is today – his distribution is probably up there with the best in the world.”

Crawley, Vukovic said, was much more than a coach: “He was somewhat of a father figure to me and a mentor and was able to give me a kick up the backside when I needed it.

“I’m a very hard player to train – I’ll be the first to admit that. I’m a perfectionist. I can get a little bit moody at times but John knew how to deal with me and for the most part we had fun.”

Vukovic thrived under Crawley’s South American-inspired play while Crawley was continually amazed by the youngster’s flashes of brilliance.

“He wasn’t the biggest of boys – believe it or not – but he showed that he had something there,” Crawley said of the school years.

“Just things the special ones do that makes you think – wow, did he just do that? And he doesn’t even know he’s done it.

“He had what we called X-Factor and he would kind of pull things out of his bum to make a save and he did it quite regularly.”

There was plenty to celebrate, including the 2007-2008 A-League Premiership, but Vukovic’s send off in the 2008 A-League Grand Final, for slapping the hand of referee Mark Shield over a missed handball, was a desperately low point.

His subsequent disqualification from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, after lining up for every qualifier, was a bitter blow. It was the toughest six months of his life, Vukovic said of the fall-out from the Mariners 1-0 loss to the Newcastle Jets.

“It was important John was there – just to talk through things and vent,” he added. “John was always the voice of reason, letting me know there were going to be good time after that, I just had to get through it.”

For Crawley, who also worked with Reading’s Adam Federici at the Australian Institute of Sport and resurrected the career of Liam Reddy, it was never one size fits all.

“Danny is highly strung” he said. “I wouldn’t do a review with Danny about his match performance until well into the week.

“I’d give him time and I’d make sure it was two or three days after the match. He doesn’t want to know about it.

“Whereas Maty Ryan - he wanted to know then and there. He wanted to know when we were walking out at half-time what I thought of the first half.

 “But I’d always keep in very philosophical. I’d always tell my boys - you’re in thick of the action, sometimes you’re going to concede goals. There’s no perfect game. You’re going to look awful at times.”

That said, there’s nothing like the euphoria when it all comes together on the pitch.

If you’re lucky, there is a moment of perfect synergy, when the hours of drills between coach and player converge into one shining moment of opportunity.

Crawley recalled a particular one-on-one exercise with Vukovic where the goalkeeper was taught to keep his hands down by his sides to block the shot.

For years he used it as an example to deal with the likes of Brazilian legend Romario, who used very little back-lift to cue the goalkeeper before firing.

Fast-forward to 2006 when Romario signed a guest stint with Adelaide United.

“When I knew that he was coming I looked at the calendar to see if he played against us, and he was,” Crawley said.

“I thought, oh my God, I’ve been banging on so long about this to Danny and it could actually play out on the field.”

It was November and game day was upon them. All of a sudden, Romario broke clear and was in a one-on-one situation with Vukovic.

Crawley continued: “Romario does exactly what we knew he would do – the Romario poke we used to call it – and Danny’s just dropped down hands by his side and he’s copped it fair and square in the chest.”

The Mariners went on to defeat Adelaide 2-0 but the result could have been very different had Vukovic failed to make the save five minutes into the second half.

“It was the perfect save against the perfect opponent,” Crawley said. “And that was the highlight of my coaching career right there because what I’d actually taught him as a kid just played out perfectly in reality.

“That’s what coaching is all about. When something like that happens, I just think ‘wow’.

This is an extract of an article that originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Australian FourFourTwo - subscribe now to make sure you never miss more great features like this and get them delivered to your doorstep cut-price and before everyone else too!