CAN you be number one without wearing No.1? That’s the hope of Ivan Necevski, the late-blooming Sydney FC goalkeeper, who after years of toiling away in the nether world of semi-pro football is on the brink of his breakthrough season.
No doubt, it’s going to be a battle royale between Necevski, the perennial understudy, and Clint Bolton, the perennial custodian, and how it plays out could be a huge factor in the team’s quest to return to the summit of the A-League.
The omens are good for Necevski. He finished last season as the first-choice keeper, and also stood between the posts for new coach Vitezslav Lavicka’s first game, the post-season friendly in China against Shanghai Shenhua. But experience has taught him to take nothing for granted. Which is where the number comes in.
In his two seasons with the Sky Blues, Necevski has never worn the No.1 shirt. Being No.1, and feeling like No.1, can be two different things. There may be a spring in his step as Sydney get into the grind of pre-season training, but he wants something more. Confirmation.
"I want the No.1 jersey with my name on the back of it," he said. He’s not going to get it. Only one player, Bolton, has had that privilege since the A-League began four years ago, and recently the club handed the fringe Socceroos keeper his old jersey back. But if he’s lost the battle, Necevski is well poised to win the war.
Certainly, he knows the value of patience – he’s had eight clubs in six years of state league football, short-term stints in the A-League with now-defunct New Zealand Knights and the Newcastle Jets, and two seasons as understudy at Sydney FC. Now he’s getting impatient, at least in terms of his opportunities.
"I wouldn’t say I’ve served my apprenticeship, because I’m still young  in goalkeeper’s terms, and you can never stop learning," Necevski said. "But I worked really hard last year, and again during this off-season, and I’ve come back a lot fitter than I’ve ever been. The break was good, but now I’m looking forward to getting back into it and having a good year. I’ve got the new one-year contract, I’m happy where I am, happy with the club, happy with the coaching staff. I’m a Sydney boy, and ultimately I’d really like to win a championship with Sydney FC. And as long as I work hard, I don’t see it being a problem keeping that No.1 spot. I want that spot, and I want to play the whole season. I proved last year what I can do, and hopefully I’ll increase the momentum."
Crucially, Necevski feels he’s starting to gain the respect of his teammates. "Last year, I ended up playing 11 games and we developed a good relationship. I’m starting to feel more comfortable with them, and hopefully they’re starting to feel a bit more comfortable with me."
That doesn’t mean he isn’t looking over his shoulder. While Bolton lost the confidence of previous coach John Kosmina, Necevski knows despite the boost of playing in Shanghai, Lavicka will be keeping an open mind. "Clint Bolton is one of the biggest names among goalkeepers in Australia, it’s always good to have the competition with him," he said. "It’s a good battle between us. You don’t want to be comfortable and complacent. You want a bit of a challenge."
■ Perth Glory owner Tony Sage will meet coach David Mitchell today as the club steps up its bid to sign Uruguayan superstar Alvaro Recoba to be the club’s new marquee player.
Sage said: "I’m not yet sure how everything has panned out – I won’t know until I meet with Mitch, but if you’re asking me, personally, I would love to have him [Recoba]." Recoba, 33, plays for Greek side Panionios, and scored in a 4-3 win over Asteras Tripoli in the final game of the season last weekend. He will be off contract in July.