The Jedi Enforcer: How captain Mile made himself indispensable to Australia

Cronan Yu pays tribute to Socceroos midfield marshall Mile Jedinak, who might not have the natural ability of many of his rivals, but is peerless when it comes to heart and determination.

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With the first half in its late stages, Australia were on the ascendency, searching for their second goal to give the side the lead heading into half-time of their opening encounter of the Asian Cup.

As far as starts to matches go, this was arguably not the Socceroos at their best — Kuwait had scored from a set-piece in the opening eight minutes and Melbourne’s AAMI Park fell silent. While Ange Postecoglou’s troops somehow managed to fight their way past Kuwait’s high-pressing play to equalise through Tim Cahill, as if to add insult to injury, the home side suffered another shock blow. Mile Jedinak injured his ankle.

The skipper, though, was not about to give up. Despite lying motionless on the turf for a good few minutes, agony visibly etched across his battle-hardened face, the “Jedi” soldiered on ruthlessly. He did so not with the help of painkillers but by sheer adrenalin, to lead his troops to victory, not only in their opening Asian Cup match, but ultimately as Champions of Asia.

Such stoicism is hardly the result of some pre-match pep talk Postecoglou delivered minutes before kick-off, nor the tactical training the team had undergone weeks prior to the tournament proper. Rather, Jedinak’s display of courage to play on for the glory of the nation is a result of a lifetime of hard-work, dedication to the task at hand, and, in some respects, patriotism.

In hindsight, the 30-year-old’s rise to prominence, not only as a Socceroo, but as a top-notch Premier League midfielder in recent seasons, has been magnificent yet underrated. Despite being a regular member of the Socceroos since the Asian Cup in 2011, it has only been after his performances for Crystal Palace in recent seasons, firstly to secure promotion into the top-flight before finishing in 11th spot last season, that his qualities have been recognised by the wider public.

Jedinak is now into his fourth season in SE25, while Crystal Palace are going strong in their second consecutive season in the Premier League. Things will arguably only get better.

Late bloomer

Starting off in the now defunct National Soccer League, or NSL, in Australia, Jedinak’s performances rarely, if ever, made it onto the highlights reel. His quiet contributions seemingly always went unnoticed. Indeed, the defensive midfielder was not nearly as talented as some of Australia’s greats. He was deficient on the ball, comparatively speaking, and slow. Yet his will was immense, so too his heart.

"Mile wasn't as talented as the others, but he had the desire," recalled Branko Culina, then young Jedinak’s mentor.

"He wasn't a flashy player... He was a coach's player — very measured, determined, committed and team-oriented.”

Sydney United’s then director of football, Sam Krslovic, echoed Culina’s sentiments: "[Jedinak] wasn't the most talented but certainly the one who had the best work ethic, best determination, attitude and respect. Sometimes the best players don't make it, it's the ones that work the hardest that do.”

The youngster finally got his European break when he went on a year-long loan to NK Varteks (now known as Varazdin) in Croatia but his spell proved unsuccessful as he failed to crack the first team and only made the one substitute appearance in an UEFA Cup qualifier against Levadia Maardu.

“It didn’t happen for me but I learned a lot and grew a lot as a person,”Jedinak recalled. “It made me an even stronger character and a better person for it.”

His subsequent return to the A-League proved much more successful. Although originally unwanted by Central Coast Mariners, the midfielder slowly imposed himself as one of the A-League’s best, helping the Gosford-based club win the Premiers Plate in 2007-08 before being named in PFA’s A-League Team of the Season a year later.

At 24, after three successful seasons in the A-League, Jedinak returned to the European stage with Turkish side Genclerbirligi. It was a move, he insisted, which was impossible to turn down.

A bright start at life at the Ankara slowly led to marginalisation and his career was up in the air. That is, until Tony Popovic, then Crystal Palace assistant coach, offered Jedinak a life-line. Undeterred by the fact that Palace were facing relegation in England’s second tier, the Australian joined his compatriot at the club. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Soaring towards stardom

Under the tenure of coach Doug Freedman and assistant Tony Popovic, Jedinak established himself in the holding midfield role and showcased his passing range. It was here that his potential was finally realised.

Sporting a large, muscular frame, not only was the midfielder perfectly built for the role, but he excelled at it. The position requires high intensity movement around the centre of the park and supreme physicality, and he filled the bill perfectly. Not only does Jedinak read the game well, his ruthless defensive work-rate and a technique which allows him to time tackles to perfection is evocative of the old-school, no mucking about Carles Puyol-esque defenders.

His ability to pop up at crucial stages to find the back of the net, whether it be off set-pieces or in open play, has made him a dangerous foe too.

As much as Jedinak deserves an opportunity to represent one of the Premier League’s elite clubs, it seems as long as the 30-year-old remains at Crystal Palace, the future of the club is bright. In amongst managerial controversies, which have seen the club employ five coaches, Jedinak has often stood out as the club’s stalwart. Putting his aforementioned qualities aside, his ability to lead a side through turmoil is nothing short of immense.

The Tony Pulis coaching saga and subsequent resignation in conjunction with Neil Warnock’s sacking and implementation of Alan Pardew, which thus far has worked a treat, spring to mind. In addition, look no further than the Socceroos’ struggles under Holger Osieck and the subsequent squad overhaul under Ange Postecoglou, which, thus far, has been successful too.

While some may think his impact is limited to a mere leadership role for club and country, the statistics would suggest otherwise. According to Opta stats, Jedinak averages at 3.4 tackles per game and 3.7 interceptions a match, numbers higher than any other player in England’s top flight. His average rating of 7.59 is the fifth best in the league too. In fact, every other player in the top ten is from Arsenal, Chelsea or Manchester City. To add to that, in late November last year, Jedinak was named, albeit unofficially, as Europe’s second best midfielder on a purely statistical level.

Then, in amongst his inspiring club form, is his ability to translate that onto the international stage. To have the weight of a nation’s expectation placed upon the broad shoulders of one man is a tough task, and yet to combine that with the fact that the Socceroos were rebuilding heading into the World Cup and Asian Cup makes for a totally different kettle of fish. While his individual performances have not necessarily been fantastic, the role he has played in helping to gel a side of inexperienced youngsters have been phenomenal and has given the nation hope amidst the darkness.

For a player to perform as consistently as Jedinak does and yet rarely, if at all, feature on the shortlist of prestigious awards can, for the most part, be a demoralising prospect at best. Yet, it’s fair to say that Jedinak neither obsesses over the necessity of winning accolades nor does he need them to establish his credentials as a great player.

In fact, his mere humanity and down-to-earth personality is enough for youngsters to adore him and for fans to laud him. "Everyone thinks you have to have this god-given gift to succeed but Mile showed that's not the case," Culina said. "God was kind to him in other ways, he gave him other qualities — determination, character and hard work."

If history is anything to go by, Mile Jedinak still has a lot to offer. It is those qualities Culina mentioned that will see him dominate the Asian footballing scene for years to come.

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