The ex-Premier League defender – who is the third most-capped Socceroo of all time – has barely been sighted over the past six years. Many of his former teammates were unable to get in contact with him after he threatened to “go to ground” if he was excluded from Ange Postecoglou’s squad for the 2014 World Cup.
But Neill made his first public comments since then in a statement released by FFA on Thursday, providing a ringing endorsement of Gustavsson and declaring his faith in the team’s direction.
“Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, FFA asked me to represent them on the ground in London and on ‘home away from home soil’ at the Australian High Commission. I was honoured to do so,” Neill said.
“This is a very important era for the Westfield Matildas and Australian football. Having spent the day with Tony, it is evident how passionate and determined he is to be successful and develop talent. His emotion combined with his attention to detail has me believing that there are exciting times ahead.
“I wish Tony, the staff, and all the Westfield Matildas all the very best as they embark on an amazing four-year journey.”
Sources close to FFA said Neill would serve as a mentor for Matildas players over the coming months, advising them on how to deal with increased pressure and scrutiny from of the continued rise of women’s football and the looming 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
With FFA staffers unable to travel internationally to attend major events or training camps, Neill will also help the federation in a logistical sense as an extra pair of hands on the ground.
Neill’s return to the fold is largely due to the efforts of FFA chief executive James Johnson, who has been in regular dialogue with him since starting in the job and has slowly convinced him to re-engage with the sport.
“Due to the COVID-19 situation globally, we really had to think creatively regarding this announcement,” Johnson said. “The fact that Tony was assisted by two former players also demonstrates how we are committed to bringing football to the centre of the organisation.”
Vince is a sports reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.