Current Hakoah Sydney City East head coach Gavin Rae, a former Dundee, Rangers, Cardiff City, Aberdeen and Scottish international is one of the best kept secrets of Australian football.
The man who has been head coach at Hakoah in the National Premier Leagues NSW’s top tier competition for the last two seasons goes about his work with the minimum of fuss as he did in his professional career in Scotland and Wales where he was generally regarded as one of the most consistent midfielders in the game.
A record of 14 international appearances for Scotland pitted him against some of the best players in European football from 2001-2009.
However, after making the decision to leave Scottish football in September 2014, he is determined to make his mark on Australian football.
In this interview with Roger Sleeman, Gavin Rae discusses his professional career in the U.K., his international experiences with Scotland, the decision to emigrate to Australia and his take on Australian football.
Did you grow up with a football culture in your family?
My grandfather had played amateur football but there were no other links to the game. Like many kids I played in the school playground and became obsessed at an early age.
Growing up in Aberdeen, I was fortunate to witness the emergence of Alex Ferguson as manager at the club and I attended all home matches because I was only ten minutes from the stadium.
I clearly remember stars like Willie Miller and Ali McCleish who were part of the squad which beat Real Madrid in the 1983 European Cup Winner’s Cup.
Before Sir Alex took over, the club was a mere provincial outfit.
When were you aware you had a chance to play the professional game?
Ironically, all my friends were signed on Schoolboy Forms, including Chelsea, Manchester United, Celtic, Rangers, and Dundee United when they were 13-14 years old but I was never approached.
I continued playing youth football, but as a late developer, my career path blossomed when I left school at the age of sixteen and was offered a full time opportunity at Dundee.
Can you elaborate on the Dundee experience?
A scout had spotted me and the Dundee manager, Jim Duffy, came to see me play in a Youth Cup Final.
He liked what he saw and even though I was offered a contract to play part time with Brechin City, I couldn’t refuse the chance to play as a full professional.
I signed under the Youth Training Scheme Scheme in 1996 but I didn’t realise how tough it was going to be as I was a good player in the Aberdeen Youth League and an average one at Dundee.
However, I did enough in the youth team during the first year to be one of four players retained and graduated to reserves before making my first team debut at the age of seventeen.
Professional football can be a rollercoaster ride and after Jim Duffy left the club, John McCormack became the new manager and signed a lot of new players which drastically reduced my playing appearances.
Strangely, despite being on top of the League, McCormack fell out with the Board and I came back into favour with the new manager.
I was a regular for three seasons before the club went into administration but I was retained so I could be sold when Rangers came to the party in 2003.
Can you recall your years at Rangers?
When I went to Rangers, Ali McLeish was the manager but early in the peace I suffered an ACL injury and missed almost two seasons in my three and a half years there.
There were some great players there at the time including Marcel Arteta, the incomparable Ronald and Frank deBoer and Arveladze.
In my last year at the club, Walter Smith took over as manager and he offered me another year on my contract but I took the opportunity to accept an offer from Cardiff City under Dave Jones.
What was life like at Cardiff City?
It was a huge club with great ambition and atmosphere to match.
I played in the FFA Cup Final against Portsmouth in my first year, playing with quality pros like Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Robbie Fowler and Trevor Sinclair.
Portsmouth under the guidance of Harry Redknapp boasted David James, Sol Campbell, Pedro Mendez and Kanu who scored the winner.
Despite the narrow 1-0 loss it was an amazing experience but I admit at the time, I was very nervous.
After two years, we moved from historic Ninian Park to the new Cardiff City Stadium.
I played at Cardiff for four years before returning to Dundee.
You played fourteen times for the Scottish national team.
Can you recall some of those moments?
My first call up was at the age of 23 in an away match against Poland.
In the squad that day were some legends of Scottish football, Craig Burley, Colin Hendry, Colin Calderwood, Scott Booth, James M cFadden, David Weir and Kenny Miller so you can imagine what a great honour it was to be playing for your country with players of this calibre.
One of my greatest memories was playing against a Michael Ballack inspired Germany in a 1-1 draw at Hampden Park.
Ballack had everything and I will remember that match for many years to come.
I played in several European qualifiers including a 2-1 win at Hampden Park against Lithuania when Darren Fletcher scored on debut.
When Luka Modric was a new face in the Croatian national team, we played his side at Hampden Park and achieved a 1-1 draw.
I was given the task of tracking the Croatian maestro and to be totally honest he was so elusive, there were moments in the match when I couldn’t get near him.
In the same match, I broke clean through the Croatian lines, only to be brought down by Joe Simunic when I was in a clear goalscoring position but he only received a yellow card.
My other indelible memory from Euro qualifiers was in 2003 when we played Holland.
We won the first leg at Hampden 1-0 which I didn’t play in but nobody expected what the Dutch would dish up to us in the return leg in Holland.
I replaced the suspended Christian Dailley on the day but in retrospect I wish I hadn’t been selected as the Van Nistelrooy, Schneider combination led the Dutch demolition to the tune of 6-0 on the day.
Who were your Scottish heroes?
Jim Bett, Charlie Nicholas, Frank McAvennie, Gordon Strachan , Graeme Sounness, Ali McLeish and Willie Miller without a doubt.
You had the potential to further your coaching career in Scotland after you finished playing.
Why did you choose to come to Australia, and do you have any regrets?
As my wife is Australian, the plan was always to settle here and the weather was a major factor.
After I captained Dundee in winning promotion from the 1st Division to the S.P.L. in May 2014, I immigrated with the family to Sydney in September of that year.
I suppose the only regret is, I could’ve succeeded in coaching in the UK due to greater opportunity and my wide contacts, whereas there are fewer positions available in Australia.
I had been the reserve team manager at Dundee and at Aberdeen u/17’s so the incentive to go to a higher level was always there.
However, I did play with Hakoah in the 2015 and 2016 seasons while I was assistant coach before taking on the full coaching role in 2017.
What are your impressions of Australian football after being in the country for four years?
My biggest criticism is the lack of publicity for the game but the standard of NPL football is reasonably high when you consider the players are part timers.
However, although there are some excellent technical players in the League, they’re tactically unaware which is in contrast to my development because we would play all the time and watch the best players perform to better our understanding of what was required to play at a higher level.
How do you view Hakoah City East?
I’m happy with the club because it has a strong football culture and there is no interference from the Board with what I’m trying to achieve.
Coaching is my great passion and youth development is the model we have adopted to provide a pathway from SAP, Youth League and first grade to make the players NPL stars and maybe even Socceroos.
It’s all about giving youth a chance and because we’ve lost a number of players from last season, there will be places available for the young players to graduate into the first team squad.
What does the future hold for you in football?
It would be ideal if a full time opportunity presented itself.
I did my B Licence in Wales and the A Licence in Scotland.
I have my UEFA A badge which I recently did an update for in Canberra.
Before we left for Australia, I was invited to do the Pro Diploma in Wales but it would’ve taken 2-3 years to complete.
Critically, I do have the confidence in my ability as a coach or manager so it will be interesting what transpires.
-By Roger Sleeman (Johnny Warren Football Foundation)