When leadership and awe are intertwined

Australian skippers: The Matildas' 2019 captain Sam Kerr (left) and the Socceroos' 1974 captain Peter Wilson.

Australian skippers: The Matildas' 2019 captain Sam Kerr (left) and the Socceroos' 1974 captain Peter Wilson.

We would catch glimpses of him irregularly. But just often enough to know it was him and that he lived among us.

For sports-mad kids even then, it was like inhaling a blast of pure oxygen - exciting and sustaining all at once.

I get the feeling a whole new generation is on the verge of this again. But wait for it.

"He" is former Socceroo captain Peter Wilson. It was back in the middle ages. Well, let's say, the late 1970s, maybe the 80s.

Of course, he knows nothing of his impact on a bunch of school kids who spied him as they walked to the bus stop of a morning. But this week, he's been on my mind.

It was a time of relative innocence. Sport, politics and the media were not as intrinsically intertwined as they are today; there were shades of grey, and a notion of mutual respect prevailed.

Now, with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, I realise that for me, it is Wilson who rose highest above the ordinary.

The big defender, who has kept his own counsel for decades now, captained the Socceroos at the 1974 FIFA World Cup in Germany. It was Australia's first finals appearance on the world stage.

It was - and still is - an achievement of utterly massive proportions. They were the epitome of part-timers. They were miners, tradies, salesmen, and milkos first; amateur footballers second.

Included in that squad was the redoubtable Johnny Warren.

Warren, later to be known as "Captain Socceroo", led Australia in 24 internationals. He passed the captain's armband to Wilson.

And here's the rub. Even back then the cult of personality surfaced. For Wilson, its effect would compound exponentially as the years wore on.

Wilson was not a demonstrative leader, he was a quiet doer.

He had the respect of his squad but, reportedly (and that's a weighty word here) did not feel he was respected as widely as he deserved. For that reason (reportedly), he withdrew from public life.

That's it. The man who led the team which won Australia's first ever point at a World Cup retreated to the shadows.

Now, decades later, Australia's captain at the next football World Cup will be a woman.

Sam Kerr is as far removed from Wilson and the '74 Socceroos as imaginable.

Here's hoping after the 2019 Women's World Cup in France there's a whole generation who gaze at Kerr and her Matilda mates with the same awe as we watched Wilson from afar.

Janine Graham is an ACM journalist