While playing for the Western Australian state team in 1995 against the touring English Premer League side West Ham, Stan Lazaridis was spotted by then Hammers coach Harry Redknapp who signed the winger on the spot.
Lazaridis was gifted with natural speed and had an ability to dribble and glide past opposition players with ease. After being signed by Redknapp, he would grace the green pitches of the English Premier League for over a decade. He spent four years at West Ham, were followed by seven seasons with Birmingham City. Looking back on his club career the winger is still surprised by what he achieved.
“Sometimes when I get an award or something like that and they have a video playing in the background, I still don’t believe it’s me. I think it’s someone else,” he says.
“I nearly went to Greece because of my background and then right at the last minute Harry Redknapp gambled on me. That was a big thing for me to be signed and then to be playing in the English Premier League. I feel myself so very lucky. I honestly look back and [apart] from making a living out of the game, I’m very fortunate and so blessed to have that journey. That I’m able to talk to Neos Kosmos about it and friends and family I feel very, very lucky.”
The Greek Australian winger was born and bred in the outer suburbs of Perth and moved to West Adelaide where he played for the NSL club between 1992–1995. Lazaridis says that former Socceroos and then West Adelaide coach Raul Blanco’s belief in his ability opened the door for his move to England.
“Raul was like a father figure to me at West Adelaide,” he says. “I remember him saying to me ‘you can play anywhere, you can go up and down the wing, just defend and attack and do your thing’ so I would just run.
“I wasn’t as skilful as the guys today and even as the guys back then like Paul Okon or Ned Zelic who had skills galore. But I guess for me, my secret was that I could run, I could press the ball and I could dribble, and because I had those attributes I was exciting, I suppose.”
When Lazaridis was playing overseas it was the halcyon days of Australia’s golden generation with many playing regularly in Europe’s top flight. But what makes the former Socceroos’ story notable is that when he first went to England in 1995, there were only a few Aussies playing in the Premier League at that time.
“When I signed for West Ham I was so young and not so many others had gone to England at the time; it was only Mark Bosnich and Robbie Slater playing,” he says.
“I ended up playing against some of the best players in the world; the Manchester Uniteds, the Arsenal invincible team, your Dennis Bergkamps, Ruud Gullits, Eric Cantonas, Ryan Giggs and David Beckhams. Even now recalling those names I still can’t believe it. Liverpool was also a team I supported and on one occasion we had beaten them at Anfield and I got man of the match and John Barnes gave me his shirt because he knew I was his fan.”
Lazaridis made his Socceroos debut in 1993 against Kuwait and would go onto play for the national team 72 times. Arguably his greatest performance for Australia was in the second leg of the 1997 World Cup qualifier against Iran. Playing in front of a record football crowd at the MCG, the winger was a man possessed as his dribbling and pace left numerous Iran defenders in his wake. Lazaridis’ performance helped Australia gain a 2-0 lead. But unfortunately, history shows Australia succumbed to a painful 2-2 draw and missed out on making the World Cup. Even though it is over 20 years ago, Lazaridis is still haunted by the events of that night.
“I’ve never ever seen that game,” he says. “I couldn’t watch it now. It was a special night, there were 100,000 thousand people and we were literally eight minutes away from going to the World Cup. We probably should’ve been up 5-0 at half time. It was a bunch of factors, it hurts me talking about it to be honest. I just try and forget about it.”
“It was just one of those nights that we failed in the end. The biggest disappointment was that group of players never got to grace the global stage. That was the most disheartening of it all. We had just unleashed Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka and it was unfortunate because we would’ve done okay in France 98.”
When Australia did finally qualify for Germany 2006, Lazaridis became the first Greek Australian to go to a World Cup. But then Socceroos coach Guus Hiddink did not give the winger any game time. While Australia did well to make the knockout stages, Lazaridis believes he could’ve made a difference for Australia particularly in the Round of 16 match that resulted in Italy knocking the Socceroos out with a late penalty.
“Guus Hiddink did a great job and I think he got 90 per cent of it right,” he says. “Against Italy when they went down to 10 men we played with eight midfielders. If Guus could’ve been a bit braver and put myself on or put [on] another striker we’d really have gone for it, especially as at that time Italy were playing really narrow. That was disappointing. Looking back Guus could’ve done something different. But he got us there and we had a really good World Cup because we got to the next stage.”
While many Socceroos fans regard Hiddink as the most successful manager of the Australian national team, Lazaridis believes there is another coach that deserves that accolade.
“I beg to differ, I think Ange Postecoglou has been our best manager,” he says.
“Ange really took us to a new level. I really wished I could’ve played under Ange, that is the best compliment I can give the guy. He was able to achieve things that I don’t think a Guus Hiddink or anyone else could have done. Ange developed a really great team culture and the players played towards his team philosophy. He was attacking, he was brave, he backed young players. He was the manager you would probably go out and die for. For me, winning the Asian Cup and qualifying for the World Cup, Ange did that without ever having the players that the other managers had.”
Ahead of Russia 2018, Lazaridis is bullish about Australia’s chances at the World Cup and feels fellow Greek Australian Dimi Petratos will do well if given the chance to play.
“He [has] certainly developed in the last six months,” he says. “He’s really just gone up another level. That’s what you really want from players, you want them to be able to step up and go to that next stage. He’s done that so I’ve been very impressed with him and he’s heading in the right direction.
“Regarding if he plays, it depends on the structure and how the coach Bert van Marwijk wants the team to play and who the opponent is. It’s not just because the player is very good that he’s going to play at the World Cup.”