No one can take away your ambition
My career growth has mirrored the A-League’s in a lot of ways.
I was raw and unpolished when I made my debut for Sydney FC as a 21-year-old in the 2006-07 season, the second year of the competition.
All I’d ever wanted was to be part of a professional set-up. I’d been through the wringer in the NSW State League and had trials at other A-League clubs. I’d been rejected. You can’t help but wonder if you’re wasting your time.
But my family and friends told me to keep at it, so I did, and I finally got my break with the Sky Blues.
I was only there for a year, and then at Perth Glory for two more years before I joined the Jets. Anyone who follows the A-League knows it’s not unusual for players to have to move around a bit in the search for what’s a good fit for them.
Things began well at Newcastle but, when I got into my mid-20s, I started to think I knew a lot more than I actually did about how we should go about things at a club. I wasn’t prepared to take responsibility and blamed other people for my mistakes.
The manager and I disagreed a lot and, when you combined that with the whole Nathan Tinkler ownership era becoming tumultuous, there was instability everywhere you looked.
I was basically told at the end of the 2011-12 season that I wasn’t wanted, even though I had another year left on my contract. That’s when I was given a lifeline by Tony Popovic.
Popa basically saved my career. He shone a light on what I needed to do to be a real professional. He showed the way with his enormous commitment as coach.
I didn’t just follow his lead. I was truly inspired by it.
I was 26 and this was a real crossroads moment for me. I hadn’t been mentally mature in my approach to football and I’d reached an age where people aren’t going to automatically take a risk and pay you a wage if there’s a question mark.
When I got into my mid-20s, I started to think I knew a lot more than I actually did … I wasn’t prepared to take responsibility and blamed other people for my mistakes.
Plenty of people don’t agree with Popa’s methods – and there were times when I questioned them as well – but you can’t help but respect the level of dedication he puts into his craft and getting his team ready.
There was not one second when I doubted that.
I matured as a player and a person at the Wanderers. You have to eventually, or you run out of chances. Popa came along at the right time in my career.
I’d seen far more talented players than me fall by the wayside, but the thing I always had was that physically I could get out there regularly. My body held up. Now my mind was matching my body and I believed that would extend my career.
I’ve done that. After four years at the Wanderers, I had a year with Hatta Club in the UAE, and now I’m in the first year of a two-year deal with the Jets.
I’m 33 and I still feel like I’m performing to a competitive level. I’ll do everything I can to keep improving my game.
‘IT’S ALL ABOUT AMBITION’
There was no reason we couldn’t aim for the stars with the Jets this season.
It didn’t matter that the team was coming off a wooden spoon last year. We had a lot of new squad members and a coach in Ernie Merrick, who were all big-game players and proven winners.
This is the A-League. There are only 10 teams and a salary cap.
It’s not the English Premier League, where there are 20 teams and no salary cap and billion-dollar differences in the value of players from the big clubs to the not-so-big ones – yet Leicester City still managed to win the title two years ago.
That was considered the impossible. The Jets getting into a position to win the championship was always going to be possible, so we set the bar as high as we could. Now we’re back in the A-League finals after seven straight years of missing out – and one game away from our second-ever grand final.
It’s all about ambition.
I’m not saying ambition automatically equals results. You can’t just wish your way to success. But an ambitious mentality is a solid platform on which you can build a plan of how to go about your daily business.
There are countless sporting examples of this. Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Cristiano Ronaldo…
I’m not comparing us to the greats, but hard work and dedication go hand-in-hand with having the mentality of trying to be the best you can be every day. If that attitude rubs off on a group who have talent, then the potential for success is there.
There was no reason we couldn’t aim for the stars with the Jets this season.
I remember going to my first training session at the Wanderers. It was a new club. We had seven players contracted. We didn’t have a pot to piss in. We didn’t even have access to change-rooms.
We were getting changed on one side of a makeshift partition in a room at Blacktown International Sports Park and one of the club’s executives, John Tsatsimas, was negotiating contracts on the other side. But we went on to win the Premier’s Plate and make the grand final in our first year.
What I’m saying is that no-one can take away your ambition. The Jets weren’t happy to just try not to finish last again, or to make the finals. We wanted to win the championship and that wasn’t some wild dream with the players we had.
It was a realistic ambition and we’ve proved that by still being alive going into the second-last week of the season.
That hasn’t stopped people from underestimating us, though. We’ve all noticed there’s a bit of a trend in the media where they think we’re going to come undone against Melbourne City.
It seems to go back to the three straight losses we had towards the end of the regular season, including a 3-0 loss at home to City. It doesn’t seem to matter that we beat the Mariners 8-2 in the final round.
You get the impression they’re thinking, ‘It’s back to the old Newcastle, they won’t win when it matters’.
I guess it’s easy to think City will win. Melbourne City have Manchester City backing them, they’ve got all the financial resources in the world. But let the doubters think that if they want.
We finished second on the table because over 27 rounds we consistently did the business better than any other team apart from Sydney FC. Any team can hit a trough and we’ve come out of ours. We’ve got a home semi-final by rights and we’ve got total confidence and self-belief going into this game.
We’re not being arrogant. We’re not thinking we’ve got one foot in the grand final or anything like that. But we know we thoroughly deserve to be where we are.
I know from experience the key to winning these big games is to control your emotions and get your decision-making right in the key moments.
It’s easy to get over-excited or over-enthusiastic – whatever you want to call it – and make a big mistake that way.
The reason I’m still wanted, that I’m still kicking a ball around at this level at my age, is my reliability. I have my good games and bad games like everyone else, but you can be confident about what you’re mostly going to get from me.
I’m a fairly stable character and I’m not going to implode if I make a mistake.
We know we thoroughly deserve to be where we are.
My job in the centre of the defence is to organise people and keep things simple and I try to do that to the best of my ability every week.
It’s about consistency and, as a defender, you can’t afford to be having one good game out of five, otherwise your team’s season is gone and probably your position in the team as well.
But I’m just one piece of the puzzle.
As a player you need to perform. but you also need people who believe in you – coaches, teammates and fans – and some good fortune to fall your way. But the key is to be as well-prepared as possible to take advantage of opportunities that get put in front of you.
‘A YOUNG LIFE TO PROTECT’
As much as football means to me, nothing has given me more joy and emotional uplift than starting a family with my wife, Kylie. We met during my first stint with the Jets and returned to Newcastle, married and expecting our first child.
I was a different person. You become very self-absorbed as a footballer, but now it’s all about the three of us as a family. Everything I do is for Kylie and our daughter, Luna.
Luna is now six months old and rules our world. I come home from training and see her, and I forget about everything else. It has given me true perspective.
I’ve got a young life to protect and things I used to place too much importance on now seem irrelevant. I no longer sweat the small stuff and let things get the better of me and consume my thoughts.
My mind is clear. I’ve got a family to look after and a football club to serve to the best of my ability and, if I’m happy at home, I’m going to be more likely to fulfil the second part of that bargain.
I owe Kylie a lot. It takes a special person to be the partner of a professional footballer. It’s a volatile existence at the best of times and it’s hard for your partner because they tend to take on that stress as well in a bid to support you and take pressure off you.
She has been incredibly understanding and has picked up the pieces for me when they’ve needed to be picked up. She has never taken things personally if I’ve come home after a loss and not wanted to talk. She has been prepared to move with me to different cities for the sake of my career.
I sometimes wonder whether I would be as understanding if the shoe was on the other foot. I hope so.
I’m glad the Newcastle offer meant I could bring Kylie back to her home city for the birth, because her family are still here and that meant she had her parents for extra support. It makes her happy and me feel comfortable when I’m away for games.
It’s like a cold, hard slap in the face, becoming a dad for the first time. You try to prepare for it, but you really can’t know what’s it like until it happens.
Luna has sure grabbed my attention.