The Miramar kid recalls those who inspired him on his Cup path, writes Chris Rattue.

When you hunt for exceptional skill among the All Whites, the name Leo Bertos springs to mind. Gifted, you suspect, with speed and top-notch fitness.

When you ask Bertos, though, he points to mentors and hard work rather than natural ability. Easy skill needs raw advantages, but it is also a hard-won business.

Bertos, 28, is of Greek descent on his accountant father George's side, and has Maori heritage on the side of his mother Gayle, a company administrator.

He was brought up in Miramar, the home suburb of Wynton Rufer, the 1982 World Cup striker, top European professional and the Oceania player of the century. There is a strong link between Bertos and Rufer through an old club coach, Jim McMullan, who drilled skills into them.

The initial soccer influence on Bertos was the soccer-crazy Greek community in Wellington, which congregated around the Olympic club in those days.

The first person to take the young Bertos under a soccer wing was his grandfather Leo, a Romanian who migrated to Greece and turned down the chance to play professionally in order to bring his family to New Zealand.

Leo and his younger brother Adam learnt the soccer arts from old Leo, who picked up the boys from school every day for a backyard soccer lesson.

"A lot of it was just the basic technique of kicking a ball. He used to emphasise disguising where you are going to kick," says Bertos. "He showed me how he expressed his personality in the game, the way he played to get an edge on opponents."

His other mentor was Jim McMullan, an Irishman, a former Miramar Rangers coach and club identity.

"He coached Wynton Rufer when he grew up and is the main guy who took me to the next level," says Bertos. "We trained every day before and after school. Sometimes other kids were involved but a lot of the time it was just me.

"He was more a one-on-one coach. He introduced me to all the different skills, the fundamentals, how to express yourself.

"I had a little bit of talent there, I suppose, but I did practise all these things. I was doing it every day under Jim's guidance, from the age of 8 or 9 until I was 15."

The relentless exercises included a warm-up where Bertos would juggle the ball while McMullan circled, demanding the youngster shout out how many fingers the coach had raised.

"That was preparing me for game situations - so I could see where teammates and opponents were even when I was trying to get the ball under control," says Bertos.

"He emphasised practise and practise so everything became automatic. He must have been some player. He had a natural gift in communicating."

From junior star - he was a teammate of Chris Killen's in a national school team - Bertos fell on frustrating times with English clubs.

Manchester City, where Killen was starting his pro career, was the first stop, thanks to a Sky Blues' academy coach, John Murphy, a Miramar old boy. The highlight: a trial game against Manchester United at their famous old training ground, the Cliff. The lowlights: plenty, at Manchester City and beyond.

As a foreigner, Bertos says he found it extra hard to fit into this competitive environment. By the time he made a couple of friends, the English whiz Shaun Wright-Phillips included, it was time to move on.

Barnsley, Rochdale, Chester, York, Scarborough and even a mob called Worksop Town reside on his CV.

Even when he trialled well, such as at Swindon, where the club's striker Rory Fallon judged that Bertos should be offered something, nothing resembling an acceptable contract appeared.

The rest of us may have visions of Manchester United and Arsenal when we think of England, but Bertos discovered a world of tiny grounds and old sheds.

New Zealand connections, such as the former Gisborne City All White Colin Walker and Olympic team coach Stu Jacobs, tried to help, and Millwall generously let him train with their squad. His story involves the obligatory dossing down on a mate's floor, the mate being Fallon. Hard times were softened, slightly, only by an air mattress.

With Bertos wondering if soccer was the life for him, the white knights arrived in the form of Ricki Herbert's All Whites camp for matches against Malaysia in early 2006, where Bertos was a standout performer. His spirits lifted, and A-League interest followed.

The saviour turned out to be Danny Hay, the former New Zealand captain, who organised a Bertos rebirth at Perth.

Bertos says: "I owe Danny a lot. Before that came along I was disheartened, although looking back, the tough times in England taught me a life lesson - to never give up.

"My dream as a kid was always to play in a World Cup and if I had chosen to chuck it in, I'd never be doing what I'm doing now."

His career is on a roll, not at the level he chased in England, but happily enough at the Phoenix, and as the chief hope for wizardry and goal-challenging crosses with the World Cup-bound All Whites.

Late last year, Bertos supplied the corner from which Fallon headed the goal against Bahrain which has sent the All Whites to South Africa.

Bertos still dreams of returning to a major overseas league. "I'm still bitter that I didn't crack it over there," he says.

The World Cup could bring that dream alive.

But those old mentors who taught the little Bertos so well won't be part of his World Cup ride. Bertos' grandfather died when young Leo was 10. When Bertos sought out McMullan after coming home to join the Phoenix two years ago, the old coach's memory was fading badly.

"Every now and then he would recall what we did at the park and bring up old stories," said Bertos.