Hot seat: Newcastle Jets captain Ruben Zadkovich. Photo: Max Mason-Hubers
For a player who boasts a reputation as the walking definition of white-line fever, Ruben Zadkovich is remarkably polite on this side of the fence. Even a bit charming.
It contrasts with the image of Zadkovich as a hot-headed fighter and a cold-blooded tackler, a stereotype that has dogged him. Unquestionably talented but utterly reckless.
But in the past year something has changed. Zadkovich's image is being overhauled, not least by the man himself.
Now he's captain of Newcastle, their No.1 midfielder and a target for overseas clubs who covet his new style: still tough, but tireless and smart.
He'll lead the Jets out at Allianz Stadium on Friday night in the season-opening clash bearing a responsibility to lead to his side – sans star English pair Emile Heskey and Michael Bridges – to victory. It's a burden he relishes.
“The hard work side of the game has always come naturally to me, and I think the coaching staff realised that work ethic could translate into leadership,” he said. “I really embraced it when they raised it with me, and it went a long way in my own personal performance. I had the armband for the first time, and felt at home with it pretty quickly.”
Those who watched Newcastle at close quarters raved about Zadkovich's displays last season, particularly those times when he seemed to single-handedly drag the Jets through difficult spells in several matches.
“It was a great year for me on a personal level,” he said. “Consistency is probably something I found for the first time last year, which was something I was proud of.”
Given he's 27, why did that consistency come so late?
“I played one in position all year, and that made a huge difference. The same exact position every game gave me real confidence,” he said. “The biggest lesson I learnt is while it's great to be versatile and to help the team, to give the most of yourself it's a lot easier when you're playing in the one position.”
For those who were surprised to see Zadkovich dragged in from out wide, don't be. It's actually his natural place.
“I've always been a central midfielder – that was my place when I signed at QPR and Notts County. It wasn't until I signed with Sydney FC that I was moved wide,” he said. “But they already had Ufuk Talay and Steve Corica in the middle, even Dwight Yorke, and so I was forced onto the right or left. I ended up playing right-back, and while I look back on those days fondly, it probably wasn't the best for me in hindsight. It's nice this role is now my own at Newcastle.”
Like many ex-Sydney players, there's plenty of vitriol directed his way when he returns to town. But as he doesn't mind giving it back, Allianz Stadium has become a sea of insults.
“I really like coming back here and playing. The atmosphere here with their fans is great, especially now [Alessandro] Del Piero is here, and they love to give me stick,” he said. “But I actually really enjoy it. I think it just adds to the whole occasion and it fires me on.”
If the Jets are any hope of defeating Sydney, Zadkovich knows it will be one of his jobs to cut the supply line to the Italian star.
“As much as I'm in awe of Del Piero and what he does, on the field I'll just be trying to treat him as another player,” he said. “It's tough to know how to play him because he's probably come up against everything in his whole career. Some would have tried to be physical, some would have tried to give him space, he's had it all. But if we focus too much on shutting him down, I think it could be detrimental to ourselves. We can't ignore him, but need to be smart about how we play him. Not giving away free kicks in dangerous areas would be a start.”
Few critics tip the Jets to finish in the top six this season but Zadkovich feels a good start could help them upset the apple cart.
“We're trying to be realistic this year and we're setting ourselves two main goals. First, obviously, is to make the finals,” he said. “We definitely feel we've fallen short in recent years because of consistency or club disruptions. But we're settled now and have a stronger squad. Our second goal? Make the top four, get a home final, and give this city the team it deserves.”