Taking a tumble against Newcastle … Brett Emerton.BRETT EMERTON is smiling more than usual. His teammates reckon he has loosened up a bit. His coach says he has never looked better in training.

The gorilla on his shoulders? That’s gone, finally. He’s still a marquee player but not the marquee player – a subtle but sizeable difference. Nobody knows it more than Emerton.

“I’d be lying if I said the pressure was the same on me as it was last year,” he explained. “Obviously, with everyone talking about ‘Ale’ [Alessandro Del Piero], I have to say I welcome that. He’s a fantastic footballer and one we can all learn a lot from. Is it a relief for me he’s here? Yes, it probably is.”

Emerton cut short his career with Blackburn Rovers in the English Premier League to come back to Sydney, and when the deal was done, soon after Harry Kewell’s signing with Melbourne Victory, a hailstorm of publicity followed.

Never one to seek the limelight, the 33-year-old admitted it didn’t always suit him and that he would rather be the one controlling expectations.

“There’s still a lot of pressure around but only pressure I’m feeling this year is the pressure I’m putting on myself to perform each week,” he said. “Even if people aren’t looking at me this season, I’ll still be putting that pressure on myself to play well.”

There was frustration all round at Emerton’s output last season, perhaps because the glimpses of his best proved teasing. The reason, quite simply, was that his ankle “couldn’t get any worse because it had already snapped in half”.

“I was given two options. To have surgery and miss the season or play through the pain, which I did,” Emerton said. “Some days, it could feel relatively pain-free and other days I could go over on it and I could barely get through – the pain was so bad. “

An operation finally came in April, and while he didn’t resume full training until a month ago, his blistering runs down the wing in the pre-season indicate he is getting back to his best.

“The surgery has gone really well and the ankle feels fantastic,” Emerton said. “Last year, I’d play week to week, but then couldn’t train with the team until Thursday or the Friday just for recovery purposes. It was a very disrupted campaign, but this season already feels different and I’m keen to offer much more this year.”

If Emerton is to make good on that promise, he’ll have to do it from right back, a position he hasn’t played for some time. Coach Ian Crook has decided the role – which has remained a problem at Sydney for years – now requires someone with Emerton’s experience.

“It brings back a few memories,” Emerton said. ”I haven’t played there for quite some time. I think that although it’s not my preferred position, sometimes it suits me well. In football these days, your left and right full-backs get forward quite often, and often get their fair share of possession.”

Emerton was given an unusual role as he resumed life in his home city last year, being deployed as a left midfielder, which caused plenty of public fuss – though it didn’t rankle the man in the middle of it.

“Not a great deal, no. To be honest, I don’t mind playing on the left,” he said. “I think people were more concerned about it than I was. I’m quite happy playing there. I’ve played all over the park for my whole career, so it didn’t bother me where I played.”

Domestic duties aside, Emerton has an eye on the team that’s effectively his second club, the Socceroos. With 92 caps to his name, he has lost the race with Mark Schwarzer to be the first Australian to reach triple figures but he’s determined to add his name to one of football’s elitist circles.

“Of course I want to get to 100. I have come this far, so it’d be wonderful,” he said. “Every time the national team plays and you’re watching on, you just get that urge to be involved and make a difference. Especially at the moment. This game against Iraq [this month’s World Cup qualifier in Doha] is just crucial.

“I’d have loved to have been there with the boys but maybe it’s come a little bit too soon for me. I’ll just concentrate on the first few games with Sydney, hopefully do well here and I think there’s some friendly matches in November, and fingers crossed I can be involved for those.”

Emerton will be 35 by the time Rio rolls around but if the Socceroos make it and he’s still performing for Sydney, he wants to be there, too.

“I think so, especially now that I’ve had this surgery on my ankle and now that I’ve started to feel myself again,” he said. “When you get to this age, you take it year by year, so we’ll see what happens.”

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