Australia will hold an invaluable home-ground advantage when they face Thailand on Friday night, with local favourite Matt McKay set to lead as many as six former Brisbane Roar players back to Suncorp Stadium.
McKay, who was recently snatched by Scottish powerhouse Rangers after leading the Roar to A-League glory in 2010-11, has been joined in Holger Osieck’s 23-man Socceroos squad by an unlikely number of former club-mates.
Luke DeVere departed for Korea midway through Brisbane’s championship-winning 2010-11 campaign; Adam Sarota and Michael Zullo were transferred to Dutch side FC Utrecht before last season began; while livewire forward Robbie Kruse and hard-boned defender Sasa Ognenovski featured in Frank Farina’s Roar sides from 2006 to 2009.
Of the half-dozen to make their way back to Brisbane in national colours, McKay and Zullo are favoured to retain first XI positions, Kruse is closing in on a starting birth, DeVere and Ognenovski will battle for minutes in defence, and only the inexperienced Sarota is unlikely to see game time.
Twenty-two-year-old Zullo, rewarded with a national call-up after impressing with Utrecht in the demanding Dutch arena, says the large contingent of ex-Roar players gave Australia an advantage in cohesion and that the return to familiar surrounds was aiding his assimilation into the national set-up.
“It’s settling that there’s so many of us that have known each other for a long time in this team,” said Zullo.
“In a way, we can come in here relaxed and play our football and not have to worry about pressure or anything like that.
“It’s great to be back home, it’s great to be playing at Suncorp, and in the green and gold, there’s really nothing better.
“A team can only get better with time, and when you’ve got players that have known each other for a long time, it does build up that little connection between the two of you or how many there are.”
While the Football Federation of Australia’s choice of location for their first World Cup Qualifier presents Zullo and the other Roar alumni a homecoming, for McKay the Suncorp-scheduling delivers a chance to say farewell.
Having played with the club since its inception in 2006, McKay’s journey with the Roar culminated in Grand Final glory, when he captained the side to a comeback win over the Central Coast Mariners.
Austtralia’s match against Thailand, currently ranked 120th in the world, now serves the workhorse midfielder an opportunity to both cement his place in the national set-up and enjoy a fitting send-off.
“I guess it is [a farewell] to some extent, with family and friends there especially. I’m going to miss the Roar, but I know they’ll do well this season,” he said.
“Saying goodbye last week was difficult; they’re all great mates, every single player of them, and I’ve been at this club since the very beginning”