It was the decision Ange Postecoglou’s predecessor Holger Osieck couldn’t or wouldn’t make, but one that had to be made in order to move the Socceroos forward.
Lucas Neill, though he’s been among our best ever defenders, has over the past five or six years been a major part of the stagnation of the national team under managers Osieck and Pim Verbeek.
As the skipper, he might be remembered for leading the teams that qualified for both South Africa and Brazil, but he’ll also be remembered for being a big part of era where the Socceroos weren’t able to evolve beyond the success that was 2006.
While many in the establishment often trotted out the line that there weren’t enough youngsters coming through, the bigger picture was that the FFA allowed a culture of entitlement to fester across the national set-up, from players, to staff, right through.
Many, including Neill, adopted the line that there weren’t the players begging to be picked, and while it’s certainly true that the golden generation did the job for Verbeek and Osieck whenever called upon for a key qualifier, the fact they even needed the likes of Neill told its own story about their coaching quality.
Both Verbeek and Osieck were conservative, even old school, managers, who struggled to move the national team forward.
Their default was essentially to throw out the veterans for any crunch game, and generally they delivered a result.
While they brought in youngsters for camps or gave one or two the odd start, there was nothing convincing about their technical output.
Safety first and status quo was their way.
From a tactical perspective, what I’ll most remember about the ‘Roos under these two managers was the position of the defensive line.
Retreating to the 18-yard box and setting up the defensive blanket seemed to be the default position.
It was a symbol of a team that was scarred to come out and play. It was the easy way to defend.
It painted a perception of an aging, slow, conservative team, taking the easy way out.
It was very un-Socceroos.
Verbeek set the trend, at one point famously playing a 4-6-0 on the road in a World Cup qualifier, while Osieck wasn’t able to turn the team over, despite it being one of his main performance objectives.
The reality is that Neill was the cornerstone of that retreating defensive unit, and for many years.
While the skipper often performed with distinction, and the ‘Roos got their key results, particularly in qualifiers, it was rarely pretty.
The Socceroos ranking, both on the official FIFA list and in the eyes of the public, kept retreating too.
Rather than step up and play in a proactive way, as they did in Germany under Guus Hiddink, the Verbeek and Osieck years were best described as stale and reactive.
The fact that the results-obsessed FFA were unable to see and address this said much about their technical knowledge.
This was a governing body, after all, that sought to commercialise the Socceroos post 2006, maximising the exposure of a few key players, including Neill.
With their faces plastered all over the place, it became nigh on impossible to dump them, even if a manager wanted too.
At one the FFA even anointed Neill as captain ambassador for the 2015 Asian Cup, almost 18 months out.
He said at the time: “I feel very proud and deeply honoured. It’s like wearing the captain’s armband, but never having to take it off.”
It was a quote that said much.
Neill and a few others were allowed to become far too comfortable and powerful in the national set-up.
The hope is the FFA have learnt much from an era where they allowed this culture of largesse to develop.
As he had done when he arrived at the Brisbane Roar, Postecoglou sensed and said as much.
While Neill survived the manager’s first selection, it was clear Postecoglou would keep all the players, including the incumbent skipper, guessing.
The pressure showed when he snapped at a fan or two that were heckling him in at a ‘Roos friendly at the SFS late last year.
In truth, it was hard to be overly critical of Neill for hanging about as long as he did. Many players would do the same in his situation.
Frankly, he should be remembered as a Socceroos great.
But the backdrop is that his national team career coincided with a period where the ‘Roos lost a bit of their magic, and, as such a key component, it’s hard to distance Neill from that narrative.