My Football Journey: Frank Juric

by Damir Kulas 0

Image: Steve Starek

The Golden Generation of Australian football players featured a school of talented goalkeepers who went on to forge successful careers between the sticks in Europe. Bosnich, Schwarzer, Kalac, Filan, Mautone, Covic, Petkovic and Juric are names that spring to mind when listing home-grown custodians of that era. Frank Juric might be remembered most for his time as second-choice goalkeeper at German giants Bayer Leverkusen, but his 17-year career included plenty of highs and lows in between.

The recently departed Melbourne Knights assistant coach spoke at length about his involvement in one of the greatest club sides Australian football has ever seen, representing his country at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 as well as his time in Germany, which included injury and title heartache at Leverkusen.

But before all that, there was his humble junior beginnings at Nunawading City.

“I first started when I was five or six because I was the tallest player in the team and back in the day it was always the biggest, tallest and slowest who would go into goals.”

He moved to Canberra aged 16, earning himself a scholarship at the Australian Institute of Sport in 1990.

“It was a learning curve which was basically the first step towards being a professional footballer. At the time there was also Kevin Muscat, Goran Lozanovski, myself, Ante Milicic and Ante Moric to name a few, so it was a good group of boys. We all got along exceptionally well apart from that time when we’d have to go to school in the afternoon or during the day. But it was twice-a-day training which set you up for professional football.”

His first foray into senior football came two years later at Melbourne Croatia, a club he had grown up supporting. A young Juric played deputy to experienced shot-stopper David Miller in those days when the club was one of the best in the NSL.

“I went into the clubroom and team which was used to success. Obviously they didn’t win the Grand Final but were in the top two for, I think, four years out of five and were just unlucky in the Grand Finals.

“It was a team which had a winning culture and had experienced players like Joe Biskic, Branko Milosevic and David Miller in goals.

“I was at the Knights for two years before I broke into the first-team and was a regular when we won the Championship that year in Adelaide with what I’d say is one of the best teams Australia has ever produced.”

Having established himself as the club’s number one during the triumphant 1994/95 season, he continued to enhance his reputation between the sticks the following year despite the loss of star players like Mark Viduka and Steve Horvat.

He played his part as the Knights made their second successive Grand Final, though Juric missed out on the decider after being caught up in a club vs country row as Soccer Australia demanded he and teammates Joe Spiteri and Danny Tiatto miss the clash against Marconi to play a deciding Olympic qualifier.

“We were in Canada at the time and I think I played 33 out of 34 games that year and just missed out on the Grand Final. It was a little bit disappointing but I think in the afternoon we played against Canada and drew 2-2 which allowed us to qualify for the Olympics, which was a little bittersweet.”

At the Olympics in Atlanta, Eddie Thomson’s enforcers were looking to repeat the exploits of the class of ’92, who finished fourth in Barcelona four years earlier. Placed in a tough group featuring European giants France and Spain along with Saudi Arabia, Juric and his teammates faced off against the likes of Claude Makelele, Gaizka Mendieta, Fernando Morientes, Robert Pires, Raul and Sylvain Wiltord at the tournament.

“[As Australian footballers] the Olympics was just below the World Cup at the time. We had a pretty tough group and played France in the first game, which we lost, before defeating Saudi Arabia. We were then actually leading Spain in the final game 2-1 with five minutes to go before losing 3-2 and it was Raul who scored two goals against me that day.”

Upon his return to Australia, Juric joined newly established NSL side Collingwood Warriors for the 1996/97 campaign. The Victoria Park-based outfit was coached by NSL Championship-winning manager Zoran Matic and included the likes of Con Boutsianis, Juric’s AIS and Olyroos teammate Lozanovski, and Kimon Taliadoros.

Despite a promising start which included an NSL Cup triumph and a seven-game unbeaten run, the Warriors finished second last.

“It wasn’t that easy but the players that we actually had were fully professional. It was a hard year as we didn’t have a set training venue and were like nomads jumping from place to another part of the city,” he says.

“It was really hard for us especially in the end when we weren’t getting paid for three-four months but were still showing up to games and trying to put in 100% effort.”

Having made 81 appearances in the NSL, Europe beckoned for Juric, who joined second-division Bundesliga side Fortuna Dusseldorf. He eventually established himself as the club’s number one and cites the club’s goalkeeper coach and Yugoslav great Enver Maric as a huge influence in those early months in Germany.

“Enver was a world star back in the day and he helped and taught me quite a lot. He was more like a father figure to me in that first year that he was goalkeeper coach, as he left in the second year for Hertha Berlin. I thought I knew a lot about football but going to German professional football was a real eye-opener and those first two years in the second Bundesliga actually helped me quite a lot.”

Despite experiencing relegation with Fortuna, Juric was on the move and promptly joined Bayer Leverkusen in the summer of 1999 after impressing in a friendly match against them.

“There was talk that Bayer were after a second goalkeeper at the time and my name was up on that list. We had a friendly game against them in the mid-season winter break at Fortuna and I was probably best on ground.

“I had a great game and after it the manager Rudi Voller actually came up to me and asked if I would like to come to Leverkusen. I was pretty excited even if I didn’t show it to him, and a week or two later I signed a contract with them.”

He arrived at the Bayer Arena at a time when Christophe Daum’s men were preparing an assault for the league title, which had gone to Ottmar Hitzfield’s defeated European finalists Bayern Munich the previous season.

While now considered a polarising figure in German football, Daum at the time was one of continent’s best managers and Juric reflects on that first season in the Rhine and the disappointment both he and the club experienced.

“Christophe was probably one of the best coaches I’ve been coached by. He got the players fit, where we were mentally and physically up for the game, and that year we were three points ahead going into the last game of the season. We lost to Unterhaching 2-0 and that allowed Bayern Munich to win the title on goal difference.

“It was extremely disappointing as it would have been the first title for Leverkusen and that was my first year at the club. I had actually played four games that season and was the number one until picking up an injury.

“So it was bitterly disappointing to have picked up that injury and lose my number-one spot to Adam Matysek who was the Polish number one at the time.”

Juric continued to serve as back-up to newly signed goalkeeper Hans-Jorg Butt in 2001 as Leverkusen, now under the charge of Klaus Toppmaller, competed on all three fronts in the 2001/02 season.

“We were playing what was then probably the most attacking football in Europe at the time. Sir Alex Ferguson praised us after we knocked out Manchester United in the semi-finals and had a lot of flare and great players.

“Ballack, Basturk, Novotny, Neuville and Bernd Schneider were all basically German national team players alongside Lucio, who was probably one of the best defenders I have ever seen.

“We were extremely unlucky – with four weeks left in the season were going for all three titles, and by the end of it were runners-up in all of them.”

One of those runners-up medals came in the Champions League Final against Madrid at Hampden Park in Glasgow, which the German side lost 2-1 following Zinedine Zidane’s spectacular volley on the stroke of half-time that ultimately ended up being the game’s winning goal.

“Even though I didn’t play, it was very exciting as you’re still involved with the club and are a part of the team. The atmosphere at the ground just before the game and the lead-up to the game was absolutely brilliant.

“I think we thoroughly deserved to win that game and were missing probably our two best players in Ze Roberto and Jens Novotny, who were both injured. Even the Real players at the end of the game were telling us that we deserved to win it and it was only a bit of brilliance by Zidane which won the game for them.”

With the departure of Ballack to Bayern, Leverkusen struggled at the wrong end of the table the following season but still made it to the Round of 16 in Europe, with up-and-coming Bulgarian striker Dimitar Berbatov one of the team’s shining lights of that period.

Juric departed in the summer of 2004 when his contract expired and spoke fondly about his five years at the club, with Champions League encounters against Manchester United and Olympiacos being favourite memories.

“Playing in the Champions League was one of the highlights of my career. Playing against United at home at Leverkusen even though we lost 2-1; while that Olympiacos game I don’t actually want to talk about as we lost 6-2 but I thought we actually played quite well.

“The actual time at Leverkusen was brilliant and I think we finished in the top three four years from five and played Champions League in four of the five years I was there. We had a lot of experience and World Cup stars in that squad.

“In 2002, I think we had seven representatives from Bayer Leverkusen who were involved in the World Cup Final, which included five Germans and two Brazilians in that final in Yokohama. Just to have been on the same teamsheet was a privilege.”

Despite this, Juric admits some regret in his decision to join the club upon his departure from Dusseldorf.

“What I would have done differently … I wouldn’t have gone to Bayer Leverkusen straight after Fortuna Dusseldorf, where they had three international goalkeepers at the time, and instead would have gone to a lower club to get more playing time.”

Juric promptly joined fellow Bundesliga side Hannover in 2004, spending the next four years in Lower Saxony where his game time was restricted to one Bundesliga appearance – partly due to persistent knee injuries.

An unfashionable club, Hannover spent the better half of those years punching above their weight and securing successive mid-table finishes.

Deputy to then German international Robert Enke, Juric was part of the club’s experienced vanguard led by captain Michael Tarnat, and recalls the time fondly.

“It was a good dressing room to be a part of, which had a totally different atmosphere to Leverkusen where you had world stars in your team. Hannover was more of a working class club and the players were working class themselves. Michael Tarnat was great back in the day for Bayern Munich.

“After training we all used to just go have a sauna and a quiet beer together where we’d have a joke and a laugh. The atmosphere between the boys was a whole lot tighter than what we had at Leverkusen and it was probably a whole lot more enjoyable to play football at Hannover.”

One of the up-and-coming stars of the Hannover squad at the time was a young defender by the name of Per Mertesacker, who alongside the late Enke achieved international recognition during his time at the club.

“Per was my roommate. What they used to do was put one of the younger boys with an older head. Per was only 18 and all he used to do before a game was just sleep so we nicknamed him Per the Bear. He is a good friend of mine as well, and you could see that he had qualities which were above everyone else in the team and that Hannover wouldn’t be able to hold onto for that long.

“He went onto Werder Bremen and then to Arsenal and has made a great career of himself both at club level and for the national team. Much like Robert Enke, who was an exceptional goalkeeper and a good friend of mine. Sadly he passed away in 2009 and that was during his depression from football, which was very disappointing.”

Having been capped twice by the Socceroos in the mid-90s, and being part of Frank Farina’s 2001 Confederations Cup squad in Korea/Japan, Juric was not selected for the 2006 World Cup in Germany by Guus Hiddink, with the third-choice role behind Schwarzer and Kalac going to Ante Covic. Thus his senior international career was restricted to just two appearances as he spent much of his time behind the likes Bosnich and the aforementioned duo in the pecking order.

Having left Germany in 2008, Juric made the return home by joining Perth Glory ahead of the 2008/09 A-League campaign, providing competition to veteran Jason Petkovic and young gun Tando Velaphi.

Despite the increased professionalism of the new league, Juric still found Australian football a culture shock compared to his time overseas.

“To make a comparison between the A-League and the Bundesliga, it was a little bit of a shock coming back to the A-League. I thought there was going to be a whole lot more professionalism but there wasn’t much of a football atmosphere coming back to Australia, which was disappointing.

“Perth was going through a turbulent era at the time and I could understand why. In terms of making a comparison between the A-League and NSL on the park, obviously the A-League is more professional but back in the day the NSL had more technically gifted players than what they have here now.”

Having retired from playing in 2009, he quickly joined Dave Mitchell’s backroom staff at the two-time NSL Champions, serving as the Glory’s goalkeeping coach before returning to Melbourne and subsequently becoming Knights assistant/goalkeeper coach in 2012, a position he occupied until recently when he and manager Andrew Marth left the club.

“Coaching is totally different to play and I think everyone will say that to you. It’s been enjoyable and in that first year in Perth I learnt a lot when David Mitchell and Kenny Lowe were over there.

“In this full five years at the Knights, I have learned a lot from the youngsters and I’m extremely enjoyable to see someone like Harry Cakarun playing so well as he is only 19.”

In a career filled with plenty of ups and downs, one moment stands out for Juric as his standout.

“My proudest moment was when we won the Championship back with the Knights in 1994/95 in Adelaide as I was a boyhood supporter of Melbourne Croatia and it was always a dream for me to play for the club, let alone win the league.”