One of the many terrific football products hailing from Far North Queensland, Michael Thwaite has taken some significant steps to achieve what he has today. Now a permanent fixture in the Socceroos mix, this jungle kid from Cairns has had an interesting last 10 years that has led him to his home of the moment, Perth Glory.
“People ask me all the time why I smile so much on the field”, he says, bearing his classic big toothy grin.
“My Dad always told me from a young age that when you smile, a good thought pops into your head.”
“Even if it’s a fake smile, you’ll think something positive.”
It’s easy to assume that the fake smiles he refers to are the ones on the pitch in the heat of the moment when things look anything but pleasant.
“It’s 35 degrees on the field, adrenalin is pumping and instead of getting fired up I usually smile… It can definitely make for an awkward moment among the players.”
Understandably, Michael Thwaite has a lot to smile about. With a career taking him to top leagues in Eastern Europe and back to Australia with 13 caps for the National Team, “Thwaitey” reveals it was the combination of a happy home and some pretty tough times in Romania as reasons for his now light-hearted approach to the game.
” I was pretty fiery when I was younger. Romania changed me.”
Michael refers to the time he was at National Bucharest in Romania, where he experienced some of the greatest lows of his career. He was just 21, had just made his debut with the Socceroos and his profile was on the rise.
“In the last 6 months of my contract, I legitimately signed with Wisla Krakow in Poland and my current club didn’t love the idea.”
“They knew as I had made my debut for the Socceroos leading up to the World Cup, I had to be playing regularly to be in contention for selection and used this against me.”
“They pretty much tried to manipulate me to stay, saying that I didn’t in fact have 6 months remaining but 8 months so my contract with the Polish team was void.”
In Australia, all Players sign a Standard Player Contract that applies to every competing team in the A-league. This prompts me to ask why, if Michael signed a contract specifying start and completion dates, his end date was even an issue.
“It’s not really that simple over there”, Michael explains.
“In Eastern Europe every club has their own form of contract, some are even hand written.”
“And where I got caught is whenever the club would change hands or business names, they would force me to sign a new contract, in Romanian.”
“Looking back, I was pretty naive but I didn’t know any better.”
There was also the threat that he wouldn’t play – the highest form of punishment for any professional player.
“Every time I asked them to take home one of those “new contracts” they would make me sign it immediately otherwise I wouldn’t play that weekend. ”
“It was the same threat when I told them I signed with the Polish team only they followed that threat through and I didn’t play for the entire 6 months I had left on my contract, followed by 5 months into my new one with Wisla Krakow.”
Once Michael discovered National Bucharest weren’t going to accept his decision to leave, he did what thousands of other players and clubs do when disputing a contract – took the case to FIFA.
“I couldn’t play for as long as the case was open which meant I was fully fit, frustrated and I did not play a professional game for 11 months.”
“To make matters worse, the World Cup (2006) was coming up and for as long as I wasn’t playing, my chances of being involved became even more remote.”
But what started as a contract dispute and matter of not playing soon became a situation where Michael became unable to leave Romania after the club took his Passport off him.
“He was a wreck”, says wife Chantelle.
“I was on the phone to him every day and he was completely distraught.”
“He was away from home, not playing and by then the relationship with the club had completely disintegrated so things were not pleasant for him at all.”
At the time, Chantelle – now a qualified Nurse and Sonographer – had been with Michael a year but was still living in Australia to complete her studies.
“I wanted to be with him to support him but was working towards my own aspirations – I could only offer him 3 months there and 3 months home so I could continue Uni.”
“And even then it was difficult for us – but we both understood each other’s career goals and made it work to the best we could.”
Michael adds, ” I was thankful I had the support of the other Aussie boys there (Wayne Shroj, Jon McKain and Ryan Griffiths) and of course my family in Cairns – especially my Dad.”
“But it was a very lonely time without Chantelle.”
Once Michael moved to Poland – albeit with the case still pending – things were definitely looking up and he began to enjoy being a footballer again.
“Krakow was a great time for Chantelle and I. ”
“We got engaged there and all the dramas with the Romanian club were due to be resolved so we got to enjoy ourselves again”
Poland was also where Michael caught up with fellow Aussie and current captain of Perth Glory, Jacob Burns.
“Jacob and Cecilia Burns lived literally 20 metres from us in Krakow.”
“I had already met him when I trialled at Barnsley FC so of course it was great to have him and Cecilia there.”
“We are all still great friends.”
While Krakow presented life in a beautiful city, a new engagement and a sigh of relief once FIFA had decided in his favour, Michael found himself not playing as regularly as he had hoped and contemplated a potential move to Norway – even though the prospect of coming back to the A-League beckoned.
“I knew Melbourne Victory had been interested but SK Brann was a great opportunity for me to stay in Europe and so I transferred there for more game time.”
And while Michael and Chantelle kept their long distance relationship going, it became increasingly difficult to be apart.
“Once he wasn’t playing very much in Norway we made the collective decision that it was time to come home, ” Chantelle explains.
Michael emphasises that even though Eastern Europe presented its challenges, the experience of playing in three of their top leagues not only enhanced his career but showed him the true meaning of club history and playing for the shirt.
“These clubs are 100 years old – the passion over there is something I had never seen.”
“The fans, the people, they live for this sport. ”
According to Michael, both the pressure to qualify for the UEFA Cup and a system involving club promotion and relegation meant that actual livelihoods were on the line so the expectation to do well was immense.
“At Bucharest we had 4 derbies a season, and there would sometimes be deaths at these games.”
And while we often see personnel shuffles – or ousting’s – at Australian clubs, the pressure for results is nowhere near as evident as in parts of the world where the fans are essentially in charge.
“In the 18 months of me being in Poland, I had 6 different coaches.”
“But the experience was immeasurable for me.”
“I had grown as a player and had gotten my chance to play for the National Team over there. ”
Chantelle adds, “He just wanted to play regularly again, and so of course when the opportunity to go to Melbourne came along – where we could live together full time – we were excited.”
Unfortunately we “WAGS” tend to get labelled a little. We are the “Wives and Girlfriends” that scoot around the world being the significant other and loving every minute of it. But if you have ever met Mrs Thwaite, you would soon find out she is anything other than just a ‘significant other’.
“I support Michael in everything he does.”
“But it has always been very important to me that I pursue a career I am passionate about – all while being a great wife and Mum.”
“It’s why I chose not to live with him full time overseas – I always wanted to have a Plan B, not just for me, but for our family.”
“Knock wood, if anything ever happened and Michael’s career ended tomorrow, I am now confident enough to step up into the full time provider role and I will gladly do it if I need to.”
But there will hardly be a lack of job opportunities for Mr and Mrs Thwaite in the future – with the twosome being the combined bearers of three professional qualifications, soon to be four.
“I have just completed my Bachelor of Sports Science”, Michael reveals with his classic Thwaite smile.
“It only took me 10 years and lots of midnight study sessions but I did it with distinctions!”
Michael hopes to one day combine his coaching qualifications and his degree to be involved in high performance youth development.
” I have always been extremely keen on athletic conditioning and hope the extra knowledge can keep me involved in the game in a coaching and developmental capacity.”
“And I am just finishing my B-Licence so that has been a great experience.”
As for Mrs Thwaite, she has always been passionate about Obstetrics and Women’s Health and while Ultrasound is her current priority, being a Mother has awoken her calling to be a Paediatric Nurse.
“She wants to keep advancing as do I”, Michael says.
“We are both equal in our ambitions to further our careers.”
But while having a medical professional is often handy in the home it can make for some awkward conversations when the footballer of the family starts complaining about a bad game.
“She puts me in my place straight away” Michael laughs.
Chantelle adds, “I see some beautiful health stories in my profession but some aren’t so pleasant and they really strike a chord.”
“Health is the most important thing in the world”.
“It helps put things into perspective for us. At home we rarely talk about football or my work – it’s about family time.”
Moving back to Australia after 4 years in Eastern Europe proved to be a Masterstroke for the experienced defender where it didn’t take him long to get back into Socceroos contention.
“It was absolutely the best decision I made.” Michael explains.
“Melbourne Victory was a great experience but I was playing a great part of the year with an injury and so probably wasn’t playing my best football.”
“I think I flourished at Gold Coast United because not only had I gotten used to the league but Miron – with his unorthadox methods – allowed me to play more freely.”
The decision to sign with Gold Coast United – as opposed to a 4 year deal offered by Victory – wasn’t an easy one but it largely came down to the location.
“We have Queensland running through our veins”, says Chantelle.
“We just feel completely at home there, no matter where we are in the state.”
Having personally been involved with Gold Coast United when signs were crucially telling as to the future of the club, Michael speaks of the time as being very tumultuous.
“I would have signed a 10 year deal at Gold Coast United.”
“I was in a position where I would have done anything for the club – actually I did do everything I could to save that club.”
“But I could tell from the second half of the second season that things weren’t right and that’s when we, as a family, mentally prepared ourselves to leave – even though we never lost hope that things could maybe turn around.”
The somewhat forced decision to leave the Gold Coast was especially disappointing to Michael and Chantelle especially given that in the three years they were there, they had added two little Thwaite’s to the family.
“We were so settled”, says Chantelle.
“Portia (then 2.5) went to a Kindy she loved and I had just given birth to Madelene (then 3 months)”
“We had bought a house, I had an incredible job and family life was great.”
Michael’s long, windy road (and 5 hour flight) to Perth had also not come without difficult choices to make.
“I had a few opportunities to go to China and Korea – both financially better options.”
“But my heart was in Australia – I had broken back into the National Team and I felt I was playing my best football because I was happy.”
The transition to Perth for Michael was easy given he was not only reunited with his friend Jacob Burns to show him the ropes but they had planned everything before they even arrived.
“We had our house ready to move into, Portia was placed in a school and I applied for a job for Chantelle online so all she had to do was interview when we got there.”
And as for fitting into the team, Michael says it simply involved just a bit of movin’ and shakin’. Literally.
“The first thing I do whenever I go to a new team is show them my stupid dance. It breaks the ice straight away.”
And while Perth has proved to be a terrific decision for family Thwaite, this year has presented a few of the challenges that go along with his quest to keep playing for the National team.
“He was gone nearly 3 months in and out of camp with a few weekends at home.” Chantelle explains.
“Of course I understand and support him – he is doing what he does best – but being in Perth without family support around can mean I am alone a lot.”
Michael adds, “And I go crazy without my kids. I miss them so much when I am gone.”
Playing for his country however is not something Michael will ever take for granted and interestingly enough, both highlights and lowlights of his career have involved the Socceroos.
“Definitely watching Socceroos at the World Cup on TV in 2006 was the most disappointing point in my career.
Having been involved in the qualifiers and lead up to the World Cup, Michael had to accept that not playing regular football while his case with FIFA at the time had meant he was out of the picture.
“It was a classic case of being so close yet so far”
But Michael understands his accomplishments as a footballer, both domestically and internationally have more than made up for that moment.
“My ultimate highlight was definitely my National Team Debut against Jamaica in 2005″
“Just representing my country was an amazing feeling and the fact that I continue to wear the a Socceroos jersey is invaluable.”
Growing up, Michael Thwaite always said he never wanted to buy a Socceroos shirt because he wanted to earn it.
And earn it he did. With a smile.
* First seen in FourFourTwo Australia magazine in 2013