The countdown is on to this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup which will be held in June in France. For Australia’s Matildas, this will be their seventh-straight World Cup appearance.
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You often hear the phrase “unsung hero”. In a way, it’s a bit of a contradiction because heroes, unsung or not, are heroes to SOMEBODY, which means SOMEBODY sings their praises.
Perhaps Ian Gray was a relatively unsung hero in comparison to the more recognisable and marketable Socceroos stars of today. It’s a fair bet, though, that the majority of the current squad, as well as a good number of A-League stars, would count Ian Gray as a truly great man – both as a player and as a highly qualified coach.
Ian “Iggy” Gray died yesterday, February 15th, in his home in Sydney. He was 46.
He was a friend of mine, a team mate, a mentor, a coach and a colleague. I
‘m but one of the many people whose lives he had a hugely positive influence on. His coaching work in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, especially with the famous Hakoah club, spanned generations. He coached all ages of players, from 12 to 50 plus, often running sessions for Youth League stars of tomorrow back-to-back with sessions that included those kids’ fathers.
He coached and played in representative Masters teams to great success in the South East Asian sevens football circuit. He is one of the very few Australian coaches to have completed his professional “A” coaching licence, making him possibly the highest qualified Australian coach anywhere.
He could have used those qualifications as a ticket to an A-League club or representative side.
But Iggy preferred to work with the grass roots and the old oaks.
He took a great deal of satisfaction out of bridging the generation gap, and there are hundreds of budding young stars in Sydney’s east who owe most of their talent and work ethic to his influence, and then get to compare notes with their aching, desperate-to-wind-the-clock-back dads.
Iggy talked very little about his Socceroo career, a measure of his humility and desire to not live in the past (even if some of his Masters disciples were trying to do exactly that!) Needless to say, it was significant; 33 Socceroo appearances, and 2 World Cup campaigns as a skilful and hard-working midfielder.
Former Socceroos coach Frank Arok once told me Iggy was the first man he pencilled into the team, and not because his name was the easiest to pronounce. (Arok’s English was perfect but he sometimes got tongue-tied with his Slavic accent trying to wind its way around the game’s more exotically named players).
Iggy won a host of domestic honours with Apia Leichhardt and Marconi in the old National Soccer League, and is one of only a handful of players to have passed 300 NSL appearances, despite 4 ankle operations that curtailed what might have been an even longer playing career.
His knowledge, insight, passion and demand for excellence ensured that every training session he took, whether on a dusty suburban Sydney ground, or a major international stadium, were always serious, high-intensity affairs. No player I know ever gave less than 100% in an Ian Gray session – at least, not more than once.
There was a simple reason for that: everyone knew that Iggy gave 100 percent to every session he coached and he earned the respect of all those he guided.
He may have been unsung to some, but not to those of us who knew him.
He lived life to the full, was the hardest-working coach I know, and created a bond of friendship with a great many players in Sydney and beyond, many, like me who feel torn up by the news of his passing. Ian “Iggy” Gray, Socceroo Hall-Of-Famer, a legendary guy.