ALBION'S 1990s’ experimentation with the Antipodes was not, let’s be honest, an unqualified success. The Socceroos who tended to pitch up at The Hawthorns generally played as if they were still on the wrong side of the world and watching the game upside down. To be fair to them, perhaps they had the misfortune of being at the wrong place at the wrong time because as we know, those were not golden days for the Throstles.
After all, Shaun Murphy went on to have success with Sheffield United, while Andy McDermott got a trial with Juventus. Unless that was an urban myth along the same lines as one of the Three Degrees – singing group, not footballers – ending up married and living in a council house on the Wren’s Nest estate in Dudley after spending time in the area doing publicity with the Three Degrees – footballers, not singing group.
But we digress. The biggest Australian success at the Albion came in the robust shape of Jason van Blerk, a rugged, no messing type of defender who tackled first, second and third and then didn’t bother to ask questions later. He was exactly what we needed when we were a team with the softest of centres.
A recruit from Manchester City, he signed for the Baggies in March 1998, by which stage he already had 23 international caps to his name. Yet, at the age of 30, his international days appeared behind him, not least because of the huge distance involved in travelling to Australian home games and get togethers.
We quickly saw just what kind of player it was that Denis Smith had signed for us when, on his debut at Carrow Road, he collected the first of 31 yellow cards in an Albion career that encompassed 121 appearances, an impressive rate of card collecting that certain other players can only wonder at, one that should have had him in the record books just as regularly as in the referee’s book.
Van Blerk quickly became an established figure on the left side of defence or midfield for the Albion, so much so that he worked his way back into Australia’s national plans, the return to the colours coming in February 2000 when he and his colleagues travelled to Chile for a four team tournament that also included Bulgaria and Slovakia who were able to field the international man of mystery, Igor Balis.
Our man didn’t get the chance to line up against Balis. Why? Because he was suspended, his first game back for the Socceroos, against Chile, ending with him being sent off after just over an hour, a strangely predictable outcome. So was the result. The hosts won 2-1 thanks to a penalty two minutes into injury time.
Van Blerk was back for the oddly symmetrical draw with Bulgaria that ended things, Australia scoring a minute after the start, the east Europeans equalising a minute before the end.
He got a further chance to represent the Aussies the following month in Terplice when they took on the Czech Republic, Van Blerk lining up alongside Kevin Muscat, akin to playing the Kray twins in the same side. In spite of that, Australia were beaten 3-1. Returning home for the (English) summer in 2000, cap 27 came at the Gabba in Brisbane, a 0-0 draw against Paraguay.
Van Blerk returned to England for the following season, playing a final season where he cleaned up his act, only collecting six cautions as he operated at wing-back in Gary Megson’s 3-5-2 system that reached the play-offs, playing alongside a young Neil Clement who made he left centre-half berth is own before being shunted into Van Blerk’s wing-back role the following year, meaning the Aussie’s days were numbered, the Sydneysider moving on to Stockport that summer.
But never forget, Jason Van Blerk did his bit in the gradual rehabilitation of the Throstles.