“I’ve still got the notes from my Law degree somewhere,” he says with a laugh. “I did Law for four years at Sydney University. At the time, I wasn’t really going to be playing football. My life was more about school… my dad was keen for me to keep up my studies.” Lucky for Aussie football, Zdrilic snr didn’t get his way entirely.
Zdrilic was a 19-year-old enjoying his football at St George when NSL side Sydney United picked him up in 1993. After a season on the fringes, his predatory instinct took hold and over the subsequent three seasons, the hitman nabbed 38 goals in 67 appearances for the Pumas’ first team. His coach on this golden run was Branko Culina.
With Zeljko Kalac, Tony Popovic, Kresimir Marusic, Ante Milicic and Robbie Trajkovski, Zdrilic was at the pointy end of some superb footballing displays from a United that won the minor premiership but lost the 1997 grand final to Brisbane Strikers 2-0.
“Back then you’ve gotta realise… the more likely scenario was that most players didn’t go overseas, rather they just played in the NSL,” explains Zdrilic. “It just so happened that I was playing at Sydney United while I was studying at Sydney University. But soccer began to take over and there was less time for Uni, and then I got an offer from overseas…”
For Zdrilic an offer from Grasshoppers in Switzerland was tabled after some impressive displays as a rookie Socceroo. “When Terry [Venables] came in as Socceroo coach [in 1997], he asked ‘who’s the leading scorer in the NSL?’ I was and so I got my chance in his first few games.”
That was in the Optus Cup against New Zealand, South Korea and Norway. Zdrilic fitted in immediately to the super-coach's methods. “Working with him was amazing. You see the aura. He walks on the field and he had respect. As a coach he made things so simple. Tactically he made it so clear and he put things in your head that weren’t hard and they made sense. It was an amazing experience.”
The goalpoacher spent the next 10 seasons plying his goalscoring trade in Europe. First in Switzerland, then in Germany at SSV Ulm and Unterhaching before spells in the UK with Wallsall and Aberdeen. He returned to Germany at Eintracht Trier before the lure of the A-League in 2005.
After the highs of 1997, Zdrilic didn’t return to the national squad till 2000. His 30 appearances with 20 goals sounds impressive, but 10 goals came against American Samoa. However, he’s best remembered for his powerful header that finished off Scotland at Hampden Park in a friendly in 2000. The Socceroos won 2-0 that day.
He also scored twice at Telstra Stadium to help see off the All-Whites 4-1 in a 2001 World Cup qualifier. Those were Zdrilic’s salad days.
Right now, Zdrilic’s experience and eye for goal are what’s needed by FC ahead of a difficult trip away to Persik Kediri next Wednesday night in the Asian Champions League. Ironically, it was against Indonesia that Zdrilic last played for the Socceroos two years ago. He scored that day; a good omen perhaps?
“Obviously it’s difficult to play a game in the champions league once every two weeks, or in this case, three weeks between games. Normally you’re playing week in week and out. There's no easy solution. We’ve built the A-league on the European timeframe. It’s our off-season. The only solution would be in line with Asia but would that suit us in Australia?”
This has however worked in Zdrilic’s favour as he’s had time to recover from a hamstring problem which saw him substituted against Urawa on match day two. He’s trained fully this week which puts him in the frame for selection next week.
“With the Asian Champions League, it’s a chance to put things back on track. We’ve only played two games now but the signs are good and we’re playing some very good football. We should be enjoying it, and we are,” says Zdrilic, who’ll turn 33 two days after the Persik match.
"The club last year didn’t perform the way it liked, it wasn’t as enjoyable as we would’ve hoped for."
Zdrilic has another season on his contract. After that, it’s an uncertain future, as he readily acknowledges. “I’d love to stay in the game but there are no guarantees. Something may pop up.
"I’ve worked with the PFA and they’re done some programs to help players so they don’t finish their careers and go ‘what do I do now?’ It’s scary. You can’t imagine suddenly not having a wage. There are not many clubs around. If I was a coach I’d be looking at younger players.”
As he makes his way off the training pitch, he says working with Branko Culina again “is funny... life just seems to go in full circle”.
Once his playing days are over, the circle may be fully complete by returning to that Law degree his dad so dearly wants him to have.