If asked to single out the the Australian players who featured most prominently in 2010 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying, few Socceroos fans would venture the name Luke Wilkshire. Not that this would surprise the Dinamo Moscow utility man, who has seemingly made a career out of making an invaluable but understated contribution for both club and country. However, while he might lack the profile of some of his Socceroo team-mates, Wilkshire - after featuring in 11 of 14 qualifying matches - is set to play a prominent role in South Africa as Australia look to build on their Germany 2006 breakthrough success.
Indeed, no less an astute judge than former Australia coach Guus Hiddink plucked Wilkshire from relative obscurity at Bristol City, describing him as a “modern player, technically very good”. The legendary Dutchman raised some eyebrows by selecting Wilkshire in the Socceroos starting line-up against Japan and Italy in memorable encounters in Kaiserslautern at Germany 2006. Wilkshire, though, didn’t let either Hiddink or his country down with performances that helped changed the direction of his career, if not his profile.
A strong work ethic and a level of tenacity saw Wilkshire excel in midfield throughout much of his early career, which started as a 19-year-old in the Premier League with Middlesbrough before his three-season spell in Bristol. But it was the transfer to FC Twente, on the back of his Germany 2006 showings, that saw the career of the now 28-year-old really took off. Two years of regular first team action was capped by helping the Dutch Eredivisie side claim a first-ever place in UEFA Champions League. Then, in 2008, Wilkshire kick-started a new stage in his career with a hitherto highly successful move to Moscow, where he has become the first Australian to play in the Russian Premier League.
There is no doubt that we have drawn a very tough group and that we will be the underdogs going into that group.
Firstly under Hiddink, and now under current Socceroos boss Pim Verbeek, he has also figured with increasing prominence at right-back for the national team, and it was in this role that he contributed to Australia’s remarkable defensive record en-route to South Africa. “Any coach when they are building on a team focus on their defence because if you keep a clean sheet, you obviously have a big chance of winning the game,” Wilkshire told FIFA.com in reference to an Australian team whose defence was breached just four times across 14 qualifying matches. “We have a good understanding (in defence) and we have plenty of experience there. It has gelled and worked well so hopefully we can keep that going right through to the World Cup."
Despite Australia’s new found status on the world stage after reaching the Round of 16 for the first time four years ago, Wilkshire believes the Asian representatives go into Group D at South Africa 2010 as underdogs. “There are a few of us that have the experience of Germany but there is no doubt that we have drawn a very tough group and that we will be the underdogs going into it,” he said, referring to a section that sees after Australia pitted against Germany, Serbia and Ghana. “We will have to make sure we are at the peak of our game and try and draw on our experience to help us get some the results we need.”
Despite a reasonable goalscoring record at club level, Wilkshire has only just bagged his first goals for his country; goals that were 37 matches and five years in the making. A vital equaliser against Oman, plus an assist for a late Brett Emerton winner saved a ten-man Australia from a defeat in Muscat last November that would have left their AFC Asian Cup campaign teetering. As if that wasn’t enough, Wilkshire then repeated his goalscoring feat in the next match against Kuwait earlier this year and can achieve a peculiar hat-trick should he net in this week’s final Asian Cup qualifier against Indonesia.
“It took a lot of games to get my first for Australia, and to get two in succession was great," he said. "But I would give up all the goals in the world to keep on winning. That's the most important thing for me.”