There was a moment in one of Alex Wilkinson’s 299 A-League games that explains just why the centreback has been so trusted by every one of the distinguished coaches he has played under.
Sydney FC were in chaos a few minutes into their trip to the Mariners in January 2017, with centreback Seb Ryall forced off in the opening moments through a hamstring injury and the home side cutting through them.
During a break in play, Wilkinson ran to the Sydney bench and in a few terse sentences with his coach, Graham Arnold, the pair detailed the tactical changes the Sky Blues needed to inspire what became a 3-2 win.
Unflappable, utterly consistent and a superb thinker about the game, Wilkinson joins a select bunch with his 300th A-League appearance due on Tuesday night against Melbourne City, one of just five players to achieve that milestone. More remarkably still he is just one of two players remaining in the competition from the teams that started its first ever round in August 2005.
“He’s a great player and an even better guy,” says Arnold now. “As a coach you know what you’ll get from him in terms of his ability to read play, his determination, and his leadership.
“But probably the best thing you can say is that he’s always had the knack of making those around him even better players.”
President of Professional Footballers’ Australia, Wilkinson has been a natural captain of pretty much every team he has played for. Making his debut for Northern Spirit at 18, he was a few days past 21 when he appeared in the Mariners’ first competitive league game – and was skipper a year later. (He even captained the Socceroos once, for the last 25 minutes of a friendly.)
Since those early days the silverware has grown exponentially, making him the most domestically successful footballer produced in this country – an unprecedented five premierships and three A-League titles, an FFA Cup, two K-League titles and an Asian Cup with the Socceroos.
Perhaps most memorably he played at a World Cup, marking the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Arjen Robben, though he could legitimately wonder why he didn’t earn more caps for his country. His biggest attribute is that reading of the game, a positional sense that means a relative lack of pace is scarcely ever an issue.
His ability to anticipate partly explains an almost unnaturally clean disciplinary record, with just 22 yellow cards and not one dismissal in the 299 games so far. In interviews he is similarly measured, but it’s the measure of the man that his achievement tonight will be welcomed by teammates and opponents across the league.
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