He may have disappeared from the playing field but former Socceroo and fan favourite Joel Griffiths is still a busy man. These days the 35 year old works as a mortgage broker in his home town of Newcastle and has media commitments with FoxSports Australia and the Newcastle Herald.
Raised in Sydney’s Sutherland district, Griffiths’ career path was like that of many of the Socceroos ‘golden generation’. He started out plying his trade on the local scene prior to the formation of the A-League, with credits at Sydney United, Parramatta Power and Newcastle. He followed the well trodden path to Europe, playing in Switzerland and England, before returning home to spearhead the Newcastle Jets’ charge to a first and only A-League Championship.
It was in 2008 that Griffiths made his first foray into Asia, taking a loan spell at Avispa Fukuoka in Japan. In 2009 Griffiths journeyed to China and the forbidden city, Beijing. The move was one he wouldn’t regret.
東: Why did you choose to move to Beijing Guoan?
JG: I knew what the club was about, where it was going and I knew that Newcastle was probably going in the other direction at the time.
Newcastle to Beijing: No Easy Move
Griffiths joined brother Ryan at Beijing Guoan but his transfer was far from smooth. Initially the striker was promised a transfer could take place if $350,000 was provided. However, when Beijing offered the required amount the Jets’ owner haggled for more. It was at that point that things broke down and Griffiths and the club ended up in court.
Joel’s transfer issues were finally resolved in 2010, but it was while he was at Beijing on loan in 2009 that he won the Chinese Super League, and finished equal top scorer at the champion club with brother Ryan.
Unfortunately Joel would not be on the pitch on the final day of the 2009 season as a previous indiscretion (Griffiths gave the referee the finger) saw him suspended.
東: Do you regret not being on the field that day?
JG: Yeah. Yeah I do. It’s one of those things that’s clearly stupid. But things happen for a reason as well, so it was meant to be for me to be suspended, and my brother filled my shoes pretty well when he did the job.
Life at Beijing Guoan
東: Teammates can help new players settle into a club and the surrounding culture. Did you have any favourite teammates?
JG: Obviously my brother (Ryan) he’s gotta be my favourite or else I’ll be in trouble. But also Zhou Ting, the captain Xu Yunlong, the goalkeeper, you know what, all of them. Huang Bowen he was funny, really funny. He didn’t have to speak and I laughed. He was really friendly. Everyone treated me really well at that club.
東: Your old teammate Darko Matic now conducts television interviews and even commentates in Mandarin, Chinese. Can you tell us a little more about him?
JG: Darko makes me happy. He has a hobby of buying fake goods and showing them to all the people he knows. I think Darko may get a job at Guoan. He’s so important. He can speak Chinese and helps new foreign players get used to the team and the city quickly.
He used to say, “If you have a fake Rolex and you have fake Armani sunglasses but you get out of a Porsche Carrera, than they’re gonna think it’s real.”
東: Who was your toughest opponent in the Chinese Super League?
JG: Zhao Peng at Henan Jianye. He was always in my face, he was just one of those players. He ended up moving to Guangzhou Evergrande.
東: Apart from your teammates what else left an impression on you from your time at Beijing?
JG: The fans. The first time we played against Tianjin. We parked the bus inside the stadium. [when leaving] We took the bus out. We had to shut the curtains. All we heard was – zziu zziu zziu – rocks hitting the bus just smashing everything. And we got off the bus about halfway back to Beijing because they’d given us the shi*#y bus (knowing what would likely happen) and we changed to the proper bus [laughs].
東: After travelling in a bus that had it’s windows broken and witnessing fans turning over the cars of opposing fans, would you agree that supporters in China are different to those in Australia?
JG: Absolutely, but the atmosphere there at the Workers Stadium (Beijing Guoan’s home ground) is awesome, and players are always excited playing a game under such conditions.
The Shanghai Experience
東: You won a CSL title and played in the Asian Champions League with Beijing but you eventually moved to Shanghai Shenhua. How did that transpire?
JG: My contract was up for renewal so I told Beijing that this is what I wanted and they didn’t get back to me for maybe a week or two weeks. Sometimes that’s a long time.
I already knew the Shanghai deal. It was much better than the Beijing deal. Then when they say Drogba & Anelka would be there, it’s like . . . far out. For me that’s like, players you would only play alongside on Playstation 4.
東: Shanghai didn’t turn out as well as Beijing. Tell us about it.
JG: I got injured at the wrong time and then I was out for maybe 15 games or something. I started to get my fitness and by that time my season was finished. Difficult (time) because I’m still owed money from that club.
FOOTNOTE: Griffiths and Anelka finally had their compensation issues resolved early this year.
東: How would you compare the two experiences. Shanghai and Beijing?
JG: Shanghai had good food, restaurants, coffee shops, good people. But Beijing as a football club would be miles ahead in terms of the history, the supporters, and how far the supporters would go.
Joel does Japan
東: Before you went to China you had a stint in Japan at Avispa Fukuoka. Tell us a little about that?
JG: Avispa was a great experience and such a beautiful country. A real eye opener for me and my wife. I was fortunate to have known Pierre Littbarski (manager) and two other Australian players who were there at the time so it was an easier transition, very different to China.
東: What are the major differences between the Chinese, Japanese and Australian professional leagues?
JG: The big differences in the three leagues, China is getting better as we all knew it could, but they have come from the bottom and are making a lot of progress on and off the field which is great to see. They are becoming a lot more accepting of western practices which will always help them improve as a footballing country.
Japan on the other hand have always maintained their professionalism and have always been the benchmark for other countries to follow.
Australia has come from nowhere in the last 10 years to being Asian Champions. We still have a lot to do but are continuing to improve in all aspects of football, so watch this space.
Since his knee injury in 2015 Joel has not played professionally. Many now fear we may have seen the last of his fiery and passionate on-field exploits. But there is hope for the ‘Griffomaniacs’ as rumours continue to circulate of a possible return in the Australian 2nd tier.
No matter the outcome it’s been a joy to watch for all these years.