04/03/2024

Steve Mautone during his time as Melbourne Victory goalkeeper coach. (Photo: Port Melbourne Soccer Club/Design: Theo Dimou)

More often than not, there is an unfair misconception attached to the life of a goalkeeper.

Requiring minimal running and less technical ability compared to an outfield player, the position between the sticks is looked upon as the easiest.

That perception can’t be any further from the truth. In fact, it can be argued that the pressure can be so extreme to the point that it is incredibly draining and mentally demanding.

There is a reason why goalkeepers wear a different kit compared to their teammates. It’s an admirably unique position built for perseverance that cannot be taught.

Competing for one solitary position on the pitch, sometimes fortune can fall kindly when least expected.

That was the case for former West Ham United shot-stopper and Melbourne Victory goalkeeper coach, Steve Mautone who grasped his opportunity with both hands.

Speaking exclusively to The Inner Sanctum, Mautone shared his career journey and reaching the heights of professional football.

“I grew up in a regional town which was predominately dominated by either AFL or football, where I actually started out playing Aussie Rules,” he said.

“It just happened to be that my friendship group were all playing football where I would play in a few different outfield positions, before falling into goalkeeping thanks to the injury of our current keeper as we had no one else.

“Within a year of jumping in goals from around the age of 12, I headed up to Alice Springs playing in the National Championships for Victoria.

“Coming out of that tournament not conceding a goal and having an absolute blinder made me think, ‘you know what? This isn’t a bad career to pursue’.

“Over time, I took it more seriously when I was a product of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) which helped me represent state teams and every level of the Australian youth side.

“At the age of 16, my parents having an Italian background had flown over to Italy to talk about my potential. My uncle happened to know a football agent over there that allowed me to have my first stint overseas for Como, who was in the Italian first division at the time.

“That experience gave me a real taste of professional football at a really young age and from there, that’s all I wanted to do.”

The AIS program served as the catalyst in developing some of Australia’s greatest talents, with the likes of Mark Viduka, John Aloisi, Marco Bresciano, Vince Grella and Brett Emerton to name a few.

As Mautone lived and breathed the talent development project, he explained what was so special about the environment.

“When I came back from Italy, I went straight into the AIS system after I trialed as I happened to be on their radar,” he said.

“The thing that was unique about the AIS at the time was that it was the closest thing to being professional. We lived and breathed football and sport in general, surrounded by young athletes who were either at the Olympics or representing Australia.

“I was in an environment with like-minded people who wanted to thrive and if you wanted to put the work in, the resources were always available.

“The football program itself was valuable because although we went to an external school, the school was set up in a way which it was a university where you only turn up for lectures.

“The coaching staff of Gary Cole and Ron Smith sat us down as individuals and looked at our schooling schedule, and then worked training sessions around that which was incredibly flexible.

“That’s why I think the program was so successful, because you came out of it virtually ready to step into a senior club and the environment taught us how to think like elite athletes.”

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The Socceroos have always been enriched with a handful of top-class goalkeepers who have made a significant mark overseas.

Talents such as Mark Schwarzer (Chelsea), Mark Bosnich (Manchester United) and Zeljko Kalac (AC Milan) represented some of the biggest clubs in world football.

With the exception of Mat Ryan experiencing playing time for the past few seasons in England, Spain and Holland, does Mautone feel as though there is a generational gap?

“Australia always seems to produce decent keepers,” he said.

“Although I haven’t been involved at the top level for a while, I do still come across some good goalkeepers, but I think we’ve probably slowed down in terms of that conveyor belt of top goalkeepers.

“This might be down to a generational aspect, because sometimes you get an age group of keepers from Australia who are flying such as my cohort with Frank Talia, Schwarzer, Kalac and Bosnich who all went on to have fantastic careers.

“I certainly think that goalkeeper coaching has changed a lot, which has to do with keeping up with the modern game and I don’t necessarily agree with a lot of it.

“Footwork and passing distribution are an important part of the game now more than ever, however, you want that keeper to make those match-defining saves to keep you in a game and if you’re not training on that, then that’s a real issue.

“Focusing more on playing out from the back has actually taken the focus away from why a goalkeeper wears gloves, and I reckon we’re losing that element of goalkeeping in Australia.”

Arguably the biggest club in Australia since the inception of the A-Leagues in 2005, Melbourne Victory have been graced with an abundance of memorable moments in it’s rich history.

Mautone was involved in the club setup in 2006 as a goalkeeper coach, where he worked for the next nine years to guide the likes of Michael Theo and Eugene Galekovic.

Having claimed silverware with three championships and three minor premierships, the 53-year-old explained what made the club distinctive from the rest and shared the main secret to success. 

“I arrived back in Australia from England in 2006 and at that time, the season prior was the inaugural A-Leagues season and Victory didn’t do very well at all,” he said.

“I knew Ernie Merrick (former Melbourne Victory coach) for a long time as well as Gary Cole who was running the show at the club.

“When I came in, I noticed straight away that there were a lot of people who were not football people involved in the hierarchy like the CEO for example. I never experienced that before in Australia, because it was normally those who had a football background or those who were Greek or Italian businessmen.

“These guys had experience in other sports and so from a commercial point of view, they knew how to run things properly.

“When you get the backroom staff right in terms of the office and the board, it allows the football side to run smoothly without any distractions.

“When I think about the years that Victory wasn’t successful, there was always an unsettled hierarchy that then carried across to the football department.

“Kevin Muscat was always an instrumental leader at that time who was captain and dictated the side along with the coach, which created a successful formula.”

At times, the weight of expectation and pressures of being a goalkeeper at the highest level can unfortunately be the undoing of a bright prospect.

With no room for error and having to compete for one single starting position on the team sheet, the life of a keeper deserves incredible amounts of respect.

Battling some of his own demons during his playing career, Mautone shared how he overcame those pressures and the techniques he taught as a goalkeeper coach.

“My son has just started playing in goals this year in the U14’s and that’s one thing that has come up regarding the challenges he’s faced, which brought me back to how I used to manage players,” he said.

“Unfortunately, it doesn’t come down to your ability to be a goalkeeper, but more about your ability mentally to handle certain situations.

“I’ve had a lot of players who I’ve coached that have made me think, ‘these guys are going to be outstanding goalkeepers,’ and then you put them in the big games and they melt.

“That’s a fingers crossed moment praying that they can handle the pressure, because they have everything else. If you don’t have the mental fortitude, you won’t survive as a keeper.

“The main technique is focusing on the here and now and what’s happening in the present moment, especially after having made a mistake to then tune back in which is a skill that can be worked on to refocus.

“My debut in England was in a League Cup game where one of my first actions was actually a mistake, so you can imagine the perception I received from the fans as that was their first impression of me.

“I had to use all my strength and mental toughness to keep myself in the game, because that could’ve been my last opportunity at that high level as harsh as that may sound.”

In 2015, Mautone decided to step away from the game to spend more time with his young family.

Could we potentially witness a return to action in some capacity on the sidelines?

“My coaching career now has probably steered off in a different direction,” he admitted.

“I left Melbourne Victory for personal reasons and those reasons were family reasons, but also where my career was heading football-wise.

“I’ve also been involved with our very first youth team at Victory as an assistant coach, and that direction was something that I really wanted to explore more.

“I’ve had my AFC A license for 10 years and I’ve been a technical director at NPL and community level, which is the path I will probably lead down once I decide to get back into full-time coaching.

“Eventually there will come a time when my kids are more independent and I will want to get back into football in a full-time capacity whether that be in Australia or overseas.

“I feel like I have achieved everything I could in the goalkeeping department, but now I would like to challenge myself in different areas of football with the one big motivation being youth development.”

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