Mark Schwarzer talks Fulham, Boro, Chelsea, Mourinho and Mendy
Mark Schwarzer played more than 750 games and spent 20 seasons in the Premier League with Bradford, Middlesbrough, Fulham and Chelsea before finally hanging up his gloves at Leicester at the end of the 2015-16 campaign, aged 42.
The Australian goalkeeper gave Ladbrokes an exclusive interview into his time at Craven Cottage, the Riverside Stadium and Stamford Bridge ahead of the launch of Sunday’s 5-A-Side Bet on Leicester v West Ham.
However, Schwarzer started by giving us the lowdown on his failed move to Arsenal in 2010.
Here’s how close I was to joining Arsenal
I can talk about the story of myself and Arsenal and the links that were there in the summer of 2010 because I don’t think people know all of the details and just how close I was to signing for them.
I was actually at the World Cup in South Africa, and I think it was literally two or three days before our opening fixture and I got a call from Roy Hodgson who told me Fulham had had an enquiry from Arsenal. He told me he thought it was only the right thing to do – to let me know straight from the offset, and he asked me what I thought about it. I was very straight and honest with him, I thanked him for letting me know and while I was incredibly proud of the job we’d all done as a team, especially in that season, having reached the Europa League final, I just said to him: ‘It’s Arsenal’.
Taking nothing away from Fulham, there was this incredible opportunity to play for a top team that were there or thereabouts at the top of the table and playing in the Champions League. I was 37 years of age, so this was an opportunity I really wanted to take up. Roy just goes ‘yeah I thought you might say something like that!’
He told me he’d make it happen, but he just needed to make sure the club brought in a replacement and that’s where we left it. The problem I had was that within two weeks, Roy had left Fulham and went to Liverpool. The whole club was thrown upside down, they didn’t have a replacement ready, and my move was up in the air all of a sudden. Two weeks before the start of the season, Mark Hughes came in.
My first conversation with Mark was very much: “Hi, nice to meet you, I want to leave.” He must have known there was an offer on the table and that I desperately wanted to go. He just told me there was no offer, he knew nothing about it, and that the club wouldn’t be letting anyone leave.
I ended up meeting with Mohamed Al-Fayed in his office at Craven Cottage, and he told me that if Arsenal met the value the club believed I was worth, that I could go, and if they didn’t pay it, I was stuck. “What’s the value?” I asked. “10 million pounds” he said.
No club would pay £10m for a 37-year-old goalkeeper
I tried for the rest of that summer to come to some sort of agreement with Mr Al-Fayed and Mark Hughes, because I didn’t want to lose such a big opportunity, but things just ended up fizzling out. Mark was avoiding me like I had the plague, but I eventually managed to get in contact with him and give it one last go to push the move through. With about two weeks to go until deadline day, he told me I could go, but only on the condition he could bring in who he wanted to bring in as my replacement.
“Can you tell me who that is, out of interest?”
“What happens if he doesn’t want to come here?”
“Well, then you’re not going.”
And that was basically it. I stormed out, apparently Shay turned the move down and I had to stay. They wouldn’t let me go.
Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to work as a pundit in my post-playing career, and I had one chance to speak to Arsene Wenger after his final game as manager of Arsenal. It was away at Huddersfield, and I was interviewing him post-match. My very last question to him? “Come on, Mr Wenger, tell me. Was it true? Did you genuinely want to sign me in 2010?”
“Yes, I did. But you were too expensive!”
I was stitched up by a young Sunderland fan when I was at Boro – thank God social media wasn’t around to capture it!
Those derby games are some of the best matches you’ll play in in your career – especially up in the north-east. I loved playing against Newcastle and Sunderland. It was such a fantastic rivalry, but I never hated those teams – I could never hate a football club. I actually respected and admired Newcastle and Sunderland. I admire their supporters and I love the fanaticism that goes with it all.
I go to Newcastle games and I don’t get any abuse at all – maybe it will start now after this! But I don’t. I never turned around and gave their fans stick, I never encouraged it. I was always trying to be respectful, and in turn I think that more often than not you get it back from them.
Liverpool is another one, You go to Anfield and the respect those supporters used to show me was phenomenal. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it anywhere. They’ll give every goalkeeper that goes there – generally speaking – the respect they deserve. Obviously, when the whistle goes it’s different, but for the most part they’re great.
I remember playing against Sunderland one day, back in the early noughties. This kid comes down from the home supporters, right behind my goal as we’re warming up. He was calling out my name, he just kept shouting me until he got my attention. I turned around to speak to him and he asked me for my training shirt. He seemed like a nice enough kid, he was very respectful and seemed happy I’d given him my time. I wasn’t one to go ‘oh, he’s a Sunderland fan, I’m not giving him my shirt’. I didn’t care. He asked me politely for it, and he was nice enough. That’s a good thing, right?
Putting rivalries aside and making this kid happy before the game, I handed my shirt to him and walked back towards the goal. As I turn and walk away, something came flying past my right ear. It was my shirt! This kid threw it straight back at me and was just taking the mickey. He completely conned me. I had to just turn around and laugh. He got me good and proper. I think about that now, and I’m honestly so lucky it happened long before social media took off, because if someone had caught that on camera, I’d have never been able to live it down.
Here’s why Edouard Mendy is the best goalkeeper in the Premier League
It’s a hard one, but I would have to say Edouard Mendy is the best goalkeeper in the Premier League right now. Its hard to look beyond Ederson and Alisson, both have been phenomenal for their clubs, but I think Mendy just edges it for me. He’s someone who has just got better and better, and more assured as the season has gone on.
I said at the beginning of the season that this was arguably going to be his biggest test. I say that because I don’t think anything went wrong for him the season before. He came with little pressure on his shoulders, and the way he’s just slotted into this side, with the language barriers he’s had to face, is a testament to his character. To be able to do as well as he has done in such a short space of time, being part of a Champions League-winning side, showing incredible levels of consistency from the offset and carrying that form over to this campaign, it’s phenomenal.
He’s genuinely winning games for Chelsea now. Last season he didn’t really have many opportunities where he had absolute blinders and turned, say, one point into three for his side. But this time out we’ve seen him grow in confidence and stature, and he’s carried that with him wherever he’s gone – whether that’s for Senegal or in Europe. He’s a different goalkeeper – you can see he feels like he’s unbeatable.
It’s an art in itself to be able to go to Chelsea, play for the first team, handle the pressure and deliver top performances. And then to maintain your concentration levels, because you’re playing for a dominant team which – for large chunks of the game – leaves the goalkeeper doing very little. And then there’s one or two moments where you need to be ready to make vital saves. Many keepers in the past have come and failed, they’ve struggled to handle that pressure.
I wasn’t Jose Mourinho’s biggest fan at all…until he signed me!
I had a big dilemma on my hands before I signed for Chelsea. Obviously, on paper it’s a no-brainer when you’re 37, but I still had one eye on the World Cup in 2014, and I knew that in signing for Chelsea, I was accepting that I’d be number two behind Petr Cech. At best, I’d be playing sporadically. Obviously once I’d made the decision, I knew it was the right one, and I was always going to give the club everything I had. It was an amazing experience, and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to join that family.
I’ll tell you now, I wasn’t the biggest fan of Jose Mourinho until I met him and he signed me! Just from the outside, having played against his teams, the way he was, his persona, I didn’t really like him. But that’s him in a nutshell, that’s exactly the kind of person he is. You generally don’t like Jose unless he’s on your side. The thing about Jose is that he has very good morals and core values. He recognises hard work and respect is earned. He expects a certain level from you, and he won’t accept anything less.
It’s not that you’re crucified for not performing at a certain level, he has an obsession with looking into things on a much deeper level. Why didn’t you perform to the best of your ability? What’s going on? He’s very good at identifying that sort of thing.
I signed for Chelsea as a number two. I knew I was coming to the end of my career and I knew I was his number two, so I just gave it my everything. That’s something he acknowledged very early on, and I think he admired the fact that I was 40-years-old and working as hard as I was in training.
But, that being said, Jose was always really good with me. When I first signed for the club, he assured me I’d get plenty of game-time because of Petr Cech’s injury history. He told me they were conscious of Petr’s problems and that they wanted someone reliable enough to fit straight into the team when called upon, and that’s what swung it for me.
I had one eye on the 2014 World Cup in Brazil at the time, and despite my age I still fancied my chances of being able to play. Jose knew that, and even though Petr didn’t spend much time out injured, Jose kept to his promise and played me in enough games in that first season to justify me being considered for selection for the national team had I not retired. So for that, I’ll always respect Jose. He gave me plenty of opportunities.
Why I chose Fulham over Juventus and Bayern
When I knew I’d be leaving Middlesbrough in 2008, there was interest in me from three clubs: Juventus, Bayern Munich and Fulham. I knew earlier on in the season that there was interest from Fulham, so long as they stayed in the top-flight, but obviously in the last six months of your contract, you’ve got the option to speak to clubs outside of the UK, and that’s where Bayern and Juve came into it.
I actually had an offer from Juve. Gianluigi Buffon was at the club, but this was at a time when he was having a lot of injury problems, so they told me I would play plenty of games. There’s never any guarantee with these things because he might make a recovery and never pick up an injury again, and then all of a sudden I’m sat on the bench for however many years behind him.
That was the main thing that put me off that move – and funnily enough a similar thing happened a few years later when I joined Chelsea. Jose Mourinho told me not to worry, and assured me I’d get game-time given Petr Cech’s track record with injuries. Of course, as luck would have it, it didn’t happen because Petr didn’t get injured until right at the end of the season.
There were also discussions with Bayern, and as attractive as it was with my German heritage and the sheer stature of the club, that move seemed a long way off, if I’m being honest. I know there was interest, I just don’t know how serious that interest was, even to this day. It was enough to make me think about things, though.
And then the offer came in from Fulham, and I spoke a lot with Mike Kelly, who was instrumental in getting me to join Middlesbrough years before. I’d spoken to him and he promised me that first-team spot, which was the most important thing for me. I knew a lot of people at the club, I had reassurances from Roy Hodgson and I was impressed by his ideas, as well as the plans behind the scenes to take the club to the next level.
It ended up becoming a no-brainer for me to choose Fulham over those other sides. Another factor was my famil. They’ve always been 100% supportive of whatever I’ve done, but it’s a much easier sell to move down to London than it would have been had I gone to, say, Munich. I don’t regret for one moment signing for Fulham – it’s one of the best decisions I made in my career.
David James is brought on as a striker, I’m in goal for Boro and all I’m thinking is ‘what are they doing?’
It’s the final game of the season, in 2005, we’re away at Manchester City and all we need is a point to qualify for Europe. They need to win the game to overtake us in the table. Next thing you know, Claudio Reyna is coming off for Nicky Weaver, and David James puts an outfield shirt on with his name and number on the back.
All I’m thinking is ‘what are they doing?’
They’ve got Jon Macken on the bench, a proven goalscorer, and instead they bring Jamo up front. It’s just, like, really? The first thing you think when you’re on the defending side is that they’re just going to launch balls into the box now, and hope something falls.
I’ve spoken to Jamo about it lots of times, and he said “I think I fouled every single player on the pitch apart from you in those five minutes.”
When they made that decision, we just thought ‘oh this is brilliant’. It was the best thing that could’ve happened to us. They had a shirt made for him, and apparently none of the outfield players knew it was going to happen. The only ones who knew were Jamo, Stuart Pearce and Nicky [Weaver] – that’s what I heard. It was a remarkable decision, which becomes even more remarkable when it backfires. The chances of that substitution working out were so, so slim.
No one talks about it because it’s overshadowed, but Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink scored an absolute screamer in that game, from about 40 yards. It was an incredible game, and I was able to save Robbie Fowler’s penalty with a couple of minutes to go, which secured European football for us. The whole afternoon was just surreal; there’s no other word for it.
Megs and the Vootball Kids
We’re going back a few years, and I don’t know how many people know about this, but I’ve actually had five books published – children’s novels, which was a little project I started while I was at Middlesbrough, the first one being called Megs and the Vootball Kids, with the other four sequels following the titular character.
We don’t do it any more, but me and my mate, Neil Montagnana-Wallace just had this idea, mainly to try to encourage young kids to read, particularly boys. It was around the time when my son was quite young, and I had difficulty in finding books that I thought he’d be interested in, so we decided to go off and create these books, based on our own experiences as kids growing up in Australia, coming from multicultural backgrounds.
We spent so many hours just sat, recording conversations, recalling our own experiences and thinking about how we could get them into these stories. We put a lot of thought into our characters, and our wives are both in the stories.
The main protagonist is pretty much based on Neil. Growing up in Australia, we’re a multicultural country, and at the time when we were growing up, there was a real European influence in the country – my parents included in that. We wanted to tell that story to kids, and that’s something a lot of our characters are built around – it’s something a lot of kids back home can relate to.
The stories we tell were based largely on our own experiences and our love of football; how it can unite people. We decided to do a series of them, taking them on tour, meeting a load of kids and signing autographs – the response we had was incredible, I’ve got to say.
We sold over 35,000 copies in Australia. Neil has his own publishing company, and he was starting off on that venture at the time. He was also trying to become a professional footballer himself. It didn’t quite work out for him, so he went into journalism. Him and his wife are doing really, really well for themselves, actually. I can’t say we were especially tempted to pick up the pen again during lockdown, though!