Jack Reilly’s firm hands had never looked safer than they did inside a Launceston cafe waiting for a flat white espresso.
To sit down on a chilly morning with the warmth of the 1974 Australian World Cup goalkeeper instills a comforting sureness.
Even to averting a nervy waitress spilling a drop of the hot drink over his lap.
Without a slight hint of hesitation, Reilly steadied the cup and saucer like he once gripped balls when staunchly defending goals on the world stage.
Nearly 50 years on since first pulling on the gloves for his adopted country, the Scottish-born Socceroo has given more to Australian soccer than it gave to him.
This from a man who was a virtual amateur in his peak when he could have easily returned back Aberdeen way and earned a comfortable living playing the game.
“Australia is now my home and I’ve had no regrets whatsoever,” Reilly states.
Home is now essentially Tasmania, a place whose love has no bounds.
It extends to two houses in the North, including a base out of Trevallyn, where Reilly regularly heads down to watch Northern Rangers play their NPL home games.
That move came at the end of 35 caps for Australia from 1970 until 1977 when he visited a mate at the other end of the state soon after the historic 1974 campaign.
“I thought right when I’ve finished my football career and then my business career, I’m moving to Bruny Island,” Reilly explains, “all because I absolutely loved the place.”
A lackadaisical approach to ferry bookings put those retirement plans on hold.
Flights to Melbourne are too frequent for that life, but not enough to move back.
“I think Tasmania offers a lifestyle second to none and anybody who comes to the state and is not satisfied should have a good hard look at themselves,” he says.
The ex-Hibernian rookie did not arrive in Australia to advance a hopeful career.
The intention was to visit a Scot-born aunt in the West Australian city of Albany.
“Here I am more than 40 years later and I still haven’t seen her,” Reilly quips, “she’s been here, lived and died.”
Brunswick Juventus got wind of Reilly landing in Melbourne, invited him to train three days later and he played in Saturday’s match.
The Victorian powerhouse club had won every trophy possible in the 1969 season, including a national playoff.
“One thing led to another and I was invited to join the Socceroos in 1970 for a world tour,” Reilly says.
That first started in New Caledonia and ended in Mexico City’s World Cup final stadium amid 16 fixtures over a “phenomenal four and a half weeks”.
“That was Rale Rasic at his best,” Reilly spoke of his first Australian coach. “But it was the start of 1974 for us.”
There was one problem.
Reilly wasn’t yet a citizen.
He was barely a resident for a year, but in a time when soccer struggled for Aussie credibility and the national side needed every quality foreigner, his British passport made a difference.
“It was a lot easier getting my citizenship back then being a part of a national sporting team,” Reilly says.
“I think it happened in the space of about 48 hours.”
It also happened around the time Reilly, who grew up dirt poor in post-war Britain, was working for money market dealers involved with the Reserve Bank.
He lost his Socceroos place over commitment, but Rasic installed Reilly for World Cup qualifying for West Germany, including the dramatic final win over South Korea in Hong Kong.
“They were all part-time players too, but they had an attitude and commitment that I had never seen before or since,” he says. “It gives me the greatest amount of pride to say I was a part of it.”
Australia lost 2-0 to East Germany, lost 3-0 to West Germany and 0-0 with Chile.
The memories still remain vivid. More so flowing every four years around this time.
But the game against the hosts stood out the most.
“In the last 20 minutes of the game against West Germany,” Reilly says, “those German supporters started supporting us incredibly.”
The experience included confronting legendary West German goalkeeper Sepp Maier at the final whistle.
All to grab a cherished piece of the star for the ages.
“He looked to be put on the field by a tailor,” he takes the story. “I couldn’t get to him quick enough to get the jumper off his back.
“I’m yanking and yanking it, and he yells ‘dressing room, dressing room’.
“There he takes off his pants and I am almost castrating the poor guy.”
What lingers with Reilly was how the Socceroos found out Rasic was sacked.
They were walking down the steps of the plane in Sydney days after the World Cup when Australian Soccer Federation president Sir Arthur George informed the players on the tarmac.
“I’ll never forget that. Rale was the very reason why Australia went to that World Cup – I have no doubt in the world about that,” he says.
The outrage was palpable.
Accusations of racism that the Yugoslavian-born Rasic was no ‘real Aussie’.
Foreign-born players had claimed he taught them to sing the national anthem.
Rasic had been named Socceroos assistant more than a decade on, but Reilly said the damage was done.
“I blame all that for the very fact that it took us another 32 years to qualify for the World Cup,” he says.
Back then he got $1700 for the World Cup, a pittance on what players got in Russia.
Not to mention the $1.5 million Tim Cahill got a year for his A-League hiccup.
“For $1.5 million, you can do a helluva lot of grassroots stuff,” he says, pointing out parents pay up to $1500 for their kids to play a season.
Reilly has worked his wonders at the top end of the game. But not for a price.
“So I’ve made a big point all through my life that I don’t take any money out of the game,” Reilly said.
John Elliott rang Reilly to enter Carlton into the NSL.
Reilly handpicked teens over veterans much to coach Eddie Krncevic’s chagrin.
That gamble produced Simon Collosomo, Marco Bresciano and Vince Grella.
Carlton reached the grand final in its first year and on sold the trio for $20 million.
Reilly’s interest extended to joining the Australian Sports Commission to all but form the A-League, to sit on the Melbourne Victory board to help finance amid a tricky period and to even facilitate a Melbourne Heart sale for Manchester City.
“I do these things because I want the game to succeed in this country,” he insists.
“I see people involved in the game because they’re thinking about themselves.”
But Reilly was almost lost to the game over a falling out with Football Federation Australia boss Frank Lowy.
It came to a head over the World Cup bid’s failure to report back to the board.
“It was his way or no way,” Reilly bluntly points out.
Lowy dismissed such criticism and accused Reilly of doing nothing for FFA.
“I’ve since got four letters of apology,” he says, “and the last letter said he wasn’t fully aware of what I have done.”