He’s Mr A-League, but as he prepares for a sixth grand final, Sydney skipper Alex Wilkinson says there’s no chance he’ll pull the pin – even if the Sky Blues can create history on Sunday.
The 36-year-old has been around as long as the competition itself, having played in the very first A-League fixture when his Central Coast Mariners toppled Perth Glory 1-0, but remains at the top of his game having been voted by his peers into the Team of the Year this season.
Sunday’s decider against Melbourne City will give Sydney a chance to move into rarefied air with a record fifth A-League title, and give Wilkinson a chance at a third title from six attempts.
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There are few people who have lived and breathed the A-League quite like Sydney’s level-headed leader who, as a 21-year-old, produced a desperate lunging tackle to try and deny now-captain Steve Corica in the very first grand final.
As is often the case, Corica would not be denied – slotting home under Wilkinson’s legs to notch the winning goal and seal Sydney’s first piece of silverware.
“I was sliding in to try and stop him and he hit it under me, so we’ve joked about it a few times but it’s a long time ago now,” Wilkinson told News Corp Australia.
It would be the first of three grand final heartbreakers for the stoic central defender, who has twice since tasted success under Graham Arnold and Steve Corica at Sydney.
“15 years on, it’s been an unbelievable journey,” Wilkinson said.
“Not many players get to be in the game, in the professional game for that long. I’ve been lucky with not too many injuries and whatnot, being able to stay pretty healthy and my body is still holding up really well and that’s helped me still be able to be playing now.
“If you’d ever asked me if I’d be lucky enough to play in six grand finals, I never would’ve thought that. It’s a huge honour and goes to show I’ve been lucky enough to play with a lot of great teams and great players.”
Wilkinson helped send one of Sydney’s greatest clubmen, Alex Brosque, out with the fairytale ending in last year’s grand final triumph over Perth – but says, having agreed to sign on for next season, not even victory on Sunday will tempt him to hang up the boots.
“I’m 100 per cent locked in regardless of what happens on Sunday,” he said.
“I’ve said before my body is still good and I’m really still enjoying playing. It’s a great group of guys we’ve got here.
“It’s a pleasure to come to work every day and I’m really still enjoying my football.
“Brosquey got the fairytale last year in his last game and that was fantastic for him – and it rarely happens that way. But I definitely want to play on and continue on, hopefully building more success with Sydney.”
Wilkinson was one of the calming voices in the Sydney changeroom as the losses began to mount late in the season, with the Premiers’ Plate safely secured.
While those outside the club talked of form slumps, Wilkinson – along with coach Corica and the team’s senior players – ensured the wheels didn’t fall off, leading to Wednesday’s emphatic 2-0 semi-final victory over Perth.
“He’s such a calm figure which is very good because you need that calm influence in these sort of situations,” says veteran striker Adam le Fondre.
“We’re quite an experienced group as it is, it’s not as if we’re a squad full of young pups, but we all still lean on his experience.”
Star midfielder Milos Ninkovic, who at 35 is another experienced cog in the Sydney machine, believes the transition from Brosque to Wilkinson was as seamless as it was essential to continue the Sky Blues’ ruthless winning mentality.
“I’ve said it before, Brosquey was an unbelievable captain and I think Wilks learned so many things from him,” Ninkovic said.
“Wilksy’s an unbelievable captain. He brings that (positivity) in the team and he means a lot for not just as a player (but) as a person to be in the dressing room.
“He’s a very important player to us and I said many times, when Brosquey was still playing, I can’t imagine Sydney FC without Brosquey, Wilkinson or Rhyan Grant.”