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Tuesday, January 1, 2008
Socceroo No.1 honoured to be Premier League No.1

Dave Roberts

It takes something extra special to dethrone Dennis Bergkamp, after all the Dutchman epitomized everything that was good about the English top flight. His 315 Premier League appearances in the red and white of Arsenal oozed the poise and balance very few have been able to reproduce.

But Bergkamp's days have gone and so has his record of the most Premier League appearances by a foreign player at any one club. Enter stage right Socceroo stopper Mark Schwarzer. His relatively untroubled afternoon on England's south coast brought Gareth Southgate a valuable victory, however it also racked up Schwarzer's 316th Premier League outing for Boro.

'It's great to break a record set by such a fantastic player. I knew it was coming as someone had given me the table of appearances a few weeks back, until then I had absolutely no idea I was anywhere near it.' Schwarzer admits.

Loyalty is a word much overused in the modern day game, however the Socceroo keeper has become a very rare find since the Premier League was formed in 1992. His longevity between the sticks for Boro highlights his importance to the club. Since joining the north east side from Bradford in 1997 the 35-year-old has not been displaced.

Remembered as the man who's stoppage time penalty save from Robbie Fowler in the last game of the 2004-2005 season put Boro into the UEFA Cup. That piece of Schwarzer brilliance did not go down too well at the City of Manchester Stadium, as Stuart Pearce's side needed Fowler to score to see them, and not Boro, go through.

The save meant it was a second successive season in the UEFA Cup, eliminated in the round of 16 the first time of asking, Middlesbrough were not prepared to let the opportunity slip-by a second time. 'It was very significant. It was the club's first ever European final, and to be part of that was fantastic for everyone. It was a piece of history'

But that final was not Schwarzer's only highlight. Just a year earlier he was part of the Steve McClaren side which had finally broken the club's 128 year trophy drought by beating Bolton Wanderers 2-1 in the Carling Cup final.

His place in Middlesbrough folklore may have been secured, but his future is far from that. Unable to agree a new contract at the Riverside due to the club's new policy of no longer offering long term deals, the 6ft 5inch giant has caught the eye of a number of the game's big clubs. Bayern Munich have been linked to the 35-year-old for the past 12 months, and with the inconsistent youngster Michael Rensing the only option to an ageing Oliver Kahn, the son of German parents becomes a sensible choice for the Bavarians.

The Munich giants are not the only UEFA Champions League regulars to express interest. It means the future could well be bright for the former Dynamo Dresden and Kaiserslautern man.

'I've plenty of time to sort that out,' Scwarzer said. 'My contract expires this summer but for now I'm more concerned about keeping Middlesbrough in the Premier League. I'm 100% focused on helping the club escape its current predicament. My situation will resolve itself.'

That focus took an unfair knock over the festive period. When asked for his availability by new Socceroos boss Pim Verbeek, like the rest of the Aussie squad, Schwarzer voiced his full commitment to the World Cup 2010 cause. That was reported back on Teesside as he'd rather play for Australia than Middlesbrough.

'I was simply asked if I'd be willing to travel from Europe to play in the World Cup qualifiers. I said yes as it's crucial that we do all we can to qualify for South Africa. Pim mentioned that all European based players had given him their full support. Suddenly I read that I'd rather play for Australia in February than for Boro in the north east derby at Newcastle. That's just not how it was discussed.'

Schwarzer's desire to experience another World Cup finals burns bright. He enjoyed Germany 2006 immensely, and is adamant that it will be two on the trot, 'We'll be there there's no doubt. It's our first time qualifying through the AFC but I honestly believe we'll be in the top 4. I know it's going to be a very, very difficult task, but we have everything we need to make it to South Africa.'

Like at the Riverside, the 35-year-old has little competition for his spot. When it comes to Pim Verbeek's first competitive game, Schwarzer will probably be the first name on the Dutchman's teamsheet (sorry Harry).

'The problem we have is that very few Australian keepers in Europe are regulars at their clubs, they get just a handful of competitive games a season. It's massively important to play regularly. To only be in the first team for a couple of months a year is not good.'

'It's very difficult to pick someone who's not playing. It may be a better option to use the guys playing week in week out at home in the A-League. It's such a specialised position I'm sure managers prefer to choose a keeper who's regularly playing.'

The choice of Verbeek is also something the Socceroo No.1's pleased with. 'He has a lot of experience in Asia and that's very important. His experience with South Korea is great and of course he was assistant to Gus Hiddink so he knows us well.'

The next month may answer the question of where Schwarzer's domestic future lays. After that the only other outstanding question is whether the reunion of Verbeek and the Socceroos will be a match made in heaven. The Asian qualifiers will soon answer that one.

Dave Roberts is an Anchor on ESPN Soccernet Press Pass, Sportscenter and Soccernet Sportscenter. He is also an international referee.


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