Retiring Melbourne Heart player Vince Grella at training on Tuesday.Vince Grella always took his football seriously.
It is why he made the most of his talents – even if, by his own admission, he was not the most gifted or athletic of players to have ever left Australia and made the big time.
And make the big time the boy from Dandenong did, playing for years in Italy’s Serie A, the English Premiership and in two World Cups.
Grella faced opponents of the quality of French legend Zinedine Zidane – whom he nominated on Tuesday as the best player he ever came up against. He also played alongside his boyhood friend and teammate for so long Mark Bresciano, describing him as the best player he had ever played with.
Grella’s career trajectory might not have been predicted by many when, as a 15-year-old on debut for Springvale City playing against Box Hill in the Victorian Premier League, he was sent off for clattering a bigger, older, stronger opponent. His coach, Gus MacLeod, he recalled, was not impressed, ordering him to do sprints at the next training session “until I nearly threw up”.
But Grella, unlike so many in the sporting world, also knew that while football was important (and that fulfilling your professional responsibilities to the utmost of your abilities was a crucial part of the job), it wasn’t the be all and end all of life.
When Australia was hammered 4-0 by Germany in its opening World Cup match in Durban in 2010, he put things into perspective by remarking, “F—, nobody died” after the match.
It was a similar story after the World Cup round of 16 loss to Italy four years earlier. The narrative that Australia was robbed quickly took hold among the players, the media and the country at large following the Azzurri’s 1-0 win through Francesco Totti’s last-gasp penalty after Lucas Neill had brought down Fabio Grosso. Grella would have none of it.
“Look,” he said to this reporter in the mixed zone after the game. “We had 10 versus 11 for half an hour [Marco Materazzi had been sent off early in the second half] and we couldn’t score.
“They were good enough to have their left-back in our penalty area in the last minute of the match to attack us. We weren’t good enough to beat them. I play against these guys every week. They are very good.”
It was that uncompromising honesty, a reluctance to offer excuses and a policy to never shirk personal responsibility for an action or its outcome that so endeared Grella to the media who covered the Socceroos and fans who only caught him through interviews or on television after he had left his native Melbourne as a teenager. As he puts it: “I have always been someone who just likes to say it the way it is.”
Even though he took his preparation for matches to what some would regard as fanatical lengths – he used to bring his own parmesan with him to Socceroos away games so that he had the right accompaniment for pasta when the players were carbo-loading before the match – he was more than just a dedicated trainer who made a little go a long way.
Vince Grella could play, and play very well. Nobody who appears in more than 200 games in Italy’s top flight is lacking in ability, mental toughness, physical discipline and a strong constitution.
His time in the Premiership with Blackburn was blighted by injury, but Australians will remember him as a stalwart in Serie A and as a key component in the best Socceroo line-up the country has fielded, the side that reached the World Cup in 2006.
He said his favourite memory was the game against Uruguay in Sydney in November 2005, in which Australia qualified for the tournament in a penalty shoot-out, with his great friend, current Heart coach John Aloisi, scoring the winner. “It was the biggest and most enjoyable game in my career. And also the first game in Italy, which was a childhood dream.”
Its fair to say that the Socceroos have still not replaced Grella’s range of passing, his tactical intelligence, his organisational ability and his leadership qualities in midfield, where he anchored the team in critical games against the best opponents.
Grella said a farewell to the game on Tuesday morning in the humble surrounds of Melbourne Heart’s Latrobe University training grounds – an appropriate environment for a humble footballer who has never allowed his success to go to his head.
While he has graced some of the biggest and best-known stadiums in the world, Grella remains a players’ player, and it was fitting that he addressed the media a final time with his Heart teammates looking on.
He was full of gratitude for the chance Aloisi had given him to see if his body could recover, and the chance to play at the highest level in his home town one last season.
It didn’t quite come to pass as his cameo off the bench for Heart in its 1-0 loss to Western Sydney on Saturday night was his last game. He knew he had torn a calf muscle shortly after he came on and decided “there and then” that he would not carry on. But in inimitable Grella style he decided to finish the game even if he crashed and burned in the process.
In his end were echoes of that red-card beginning – a commitment to give everything and hang the personal consequences. He leaves football with few regrets and plenty to be proud of.
Grella, now 33, will next month return to the home in Florence he shares with his Italian wife, Barbara, his twin daughters, Victoria and Sophia (11), and baby son Eduardo.
He plans to make his life in the country of his parents’ birth and to stay in football, though in what capacity he is not sure.
Given his characteristic painstaking approach to detail and commitment to the game, Grella might well be a good bet to become the first Australian to coach in Italian football. It wouldn’t be the biggest shock in a sport that specialises in producing them.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.