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The greatest XI in A-League history

Besart Berisha celebrates a goal for Melbourne. (AAP Image/Joe Castro)
Expert
9th October, 2018
74
4232 Reads

How good is FIFA19? The gameplay might be better than ever, but at its core it’s still a contest of 11 versus 11.

It got me thinking about my all-time greatest A-League XI – the sort of players I’d spring for over the years in Career Mode. It may not be the most balanced of sides – who needs defending? – but I reckon the following team could do a job in a 4-4-2 formation.

Goalkeeper

Michael Theo (Melbourne Victory, Brisbane Roar)
Mat Ryan might be the most talented goalkeeper the A-League has ever produced, but no one comes close to Michael Theo’s accomplishments. He may have had a worse time in Norwich than Alan Partridge, but in between Theo won no fewer than five A-League championships with two different clubs – and still found time to shorten his name.

A young Theo was in goal for Melbourne Victory when they won grand finals in 2007 and 2009, but it was his three championships between the posts with Brisbane Roar that really stand out. A three-time A-League goalkeeper of the year, it will be some time before anyone matches Theo’s indelible mark.

Defenders

Cassio (Adelaide United)
How good are Brazilian left backs? We probably should have known Cassio would be a decent player given that he started his career with nearly 100 games for Brazilian giants Flamengo, but few could have predicted the diminutive defender would become one of the best defenders the A-League has ever seen.

Jeronimo Neumann (L) and Cassio (R) of Adelaide celebrate

Casio (right) was a stalwart at the back for Adelaide United. (Photo: Morne de Klerk/Getty Images)

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Cassio was so good that at one point there was a clamour to get him in the Socceroos team. He stuck around too – playing more than 150 games for Adelaide United in a seven-year spell. He signed off in typical Brazilian fashion as well – effectively sacked by then-Reds coach Josep Gombau after not even showing up for the 2014 FFA Cup final.

Glorious.

Andrew Durante (Newcastle Jets, Wellington Phoenix)
I’ve long been a fan of Andrew Durante. I’m so old I remember watching him ply his trade in the National Soccer League – he seems to have been around since the dawn of time. And as a former central defender myself, anyone who axes down opposing strikers with such monotonous regularity is a decent bloke in my books.

But it’s not just the fact Durante won a Joe Marston Medal after winning a grand final with the Newcastle Jets. It’s that he turned around and played more than 240 games for the Wellington Phoenix thereafter – becoming a Kiwi international in his adopted homeland for good measure. That’s some career by anyone’s standards.

Alex Wilkinson (Central Coast Mariners, Melbourne City, Sydney FC)
Watching Alex Wilkinson slot in so seamlessly to the Sydney FC back four, it’s easy to forget the 16-time Socceroo is a Central Coast Mariners legend. The 34-year-old started his career in the NSL with Northern Spirit, but it’s his time in Gosford he’s most fondly remembered for, after he captained the Mariners for almost the entirety of his 172-game stint.

Wilkinson played in three grand finals with the Mariners – losing all three in a trio of A-League classics. But he finally got his just rewards when Sydney FC beat Melbourne Victory in the 2017 grand final, playing the role of calming influence to Jordy Buijs’ tearaway antics and belatedly clinching the A-League championship he so desperately craved.

Sydney FC Football A-League Grand Final 2017

Alex Wilkinson (far left) celebrates winning that elusive A-League championship. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

Ivan Franjic (Brisbane Roar, Melbourne City, Perth Glory)
Defending, attacking, carpentry… is there anything Ivan Franjic can’t do?

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It’s a shame injuries and illness have blighted the latter stages of his career, because in his prime Franjic was arguably the finest right back the A-League has ever produced. And he did it the hard way – once combining a job as a carpenter with a lengthy spell in the Victorian Premier League.

But having signed for Brisbane Roar in 2009, Franjic immediately found his feet. He was part of all three of the Roar’s championship-winning teams, and he looked set to play a starring role in both the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and 2015 Asian Cup on home soil – until he got injured in both.

In a career full of ‘what ifs’, here’s hoping he’s still got some gas in the tank.

Midfielders

Thomas Broich (Brisbane Roar)
Not just the best player to have ever played for Brisbane Roar, but arguably the best player to have ever played in the A-League. Every competition needs a cult hero, and in Thomas Broich we got the sort of player marketing executives can only dream of. Part-player, part-philosopher, full-blown genius… the German deserves a statue outside Suncorp Stadium.

It’s not just that Broich almost single-handedly propelled the most exciting side the A-League has ever seen to three A-League titles, it was the manner in which he did it. A jinking, scheming, fleet-footed visionary of a player, Broich will go down in history as one of the best footballers to have ever set foot on Australian soil in any time period.

Mark Milligan (Sydney FC, Newcastle Jets, Melbourne Victory)
Every Broich needs a Milligan, right? The grizzled veteran might sport a countenance like a 1930s Chicago gangster, but you don’t travel to four World Cups for nothing. Milligan has done the rounds at A-League clubs, but it’s his work in a Melbourne Victory jersey most remember him for – much to the annoyance of Sydney FC fans.

Milligan won the Joe Marston Medal on the back of a dominant individual display in the 2015 grand final, and his versatility has seen him excel as both a defensive midfielder and centre back. Now at Hibernian in Scotland, his penchant for leaving the A-League for short spells overseas hasn’t always endeared him to some, but there’s no doubting his quality.

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Kevin Muscat and Mark Milligan holding up Melbourne Victory Premier's Plate

Mark Milligan’s switch to Melbourne still doesn’t sit well with Sydney FC fans. (AAP Image/David Crosling)

Milos Ninkovic (Sydney FC)
Adrian Mierzejewski may have overshadowed him last season, but there’s no denying Sydney FC midfielder Milos Ninkovic is one of the classiest players in the league. The 2016-17 Johnny Warren Medal winner is quite simply one the best playmakers the A-League has ever seen, and he’s got a championship medal to show for it.

Blessed with superb vision and the ability to pick a pass from seemingly anywhere, Ninkovic is also deceptively fleet-footed and has a happy knack for scoring goals. He scored nine in Sydney FC’s title-winning season two years ago, but it’s his penchant for playing in teammates that makes him one of the finest creative talents to ever grace our shores.

Shinji Ono (Western Sydney Wanderers)
Many A-League fans had never even heard of Shinji Ono when he pitched up at Western Sydney Wanderers, but by the time he departed, he was a bona fide A-League legend. Long regarded as one of the most talented Japanese players of his generation, Ono lit up the A-League with a superb 47-game stint in red and black.

Such was Ono’s impact that he twice played in grand finals – despite only spending two seasons in Australia. He couldn’t quite land the title Western Sydney fans craved, but the impish attacking midfielder departed a hero in the eyes of Wanderers fans. He’s still going around in Japan too, turning out for Consadole Sapporo at the ripe old age of 39.

Forwards

Bruno Fornaroli (Melbourne City)
Has there ever been a better rags to A-League riches story than Bruno Fornaroli? Arriving as a complete unknown, he’s now the eighth-highest scorer in A-League history – despite having played just two-and-a-half seasons at Melbourne City. And the irrepressible Uruguayan has done it all scoring spectacular goals by the truckload in City colours.

What is perhaps most endearing about Fornaroli is that he does it all with a smile on his face. Despite being one of the toughest competitors around, Fornaroli still seems to play the game like he’s down at his local park. Much more than just a converter of chances, the little Uruguayan is one of the best all-round attacking talents in A-League history.

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Bruno Fornaroli

Bruno Fornaroli has been absolutely dominant during his tenure with Melbourne City. (Photo by Kelly Defina/Getty Images)

Besart Berisha (Brisbane Roar, Melbourne Victory)
When it comes to cult heroes, it’s safe to say Besart Berisha was unsurpassed. Loved and loathed in equal measure, Berisha polarised fans with his take-no-prisoners approach and unstoppable drive to succeed. Yet his goal-scoring record speaks for itself – 116 goals in seven seasons for Brisbane Roar and Melbourne Victory, to go with his four championships.

Nowhere near as skilful as some of his rivals, what Berisha lacked in technical know-how he more than made up for by his pure will to win. His unforgettable shirtless attempt to fight Sydney FC defender Pascal Bosschaart at Suncorp Stadium typified his combative spirit, but what most fans remember is simply the sheer volume of goals.

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