Training in minus 28 degrees
I probably know more about small European towns than most 22-year-olds from Perth.
I’ve lived in a few. From Serbia, to Lithuania, to Romania, to the Czech Republic and now Slovakia, I’ve clocked up a few kilometres – and my fair share of clubs – since leaving Western Australia as a 13-year-old.
There have definitely been hard times. Fending for myself on the other side of the world throughout my teens has had its challenges.
But, looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing.
It has taught me resilience and adaptability as a person, different footballing philosophies and tactics as a player and quite a few languages, too.
My entire adult life has been about proving myself over and over and over again. I was glad I had the opportunity to bring all those experiences to the Socceroos. I would love the chance to do so again.
LEARNING A NEW LANGUAGE, LIFE
Football was always a passion in my family.
My dad, Kosta, was born in Germany of Serbian descent, but moved out to Australia with his family when he was three. He played a bit of football for APIA in Sydney, but more for fun than anything. My mum, Barbara, is from Perth. They were both very supportive of my career as a junior and still set the alarm for all hours of the night back home to follow my games in Europe.
I had never been to Serbia when dad asked me whether I’d be interested in going there to pursue a football career. I was 13 at the time. I didn’t really process what it all meant. It all sounded like a big adventure – live in Europe, play football, earn a living.
I was in.
I left Perth and moved in with my aunty Zaklina and cousin Dejan in Apatin, which is a town of about 30,000 people on the Danube River. It’s a place with plenty of history – it’s more than 500 years old – but it looks a bit rundown these days. There’s a town centre, a few cafes and restaurants and that’s about it in terms of things to do.
The biggest challenge for me was the language. I understood a little bit of Serbian, but I couldn’t speak it. I was playing for a second division team, Mladost Apatin, and I could understand football terms reasonably well, but it was the day-to-day stuff around people that was hard.
My cousin taught me Serbian at the same time I was doing my distance education back in Australia online. That had its difficulties with the time zones involved, but it certainly kept me busy in between football training and games.
Before long, my Serbian was fluent and life started to get much easier. I played for eight months with Mladost Apatin and a few people had noticed me. I was invited to trial with FK Rad and I ended up making the move to King Petar I Stadium in Belgrade.
It was around this time I received a call-up to the Serbian under-17s team. I came off the bench against Armenia in a UEFA under-17s Championship game in Pecinci and was an unused substitute against Lithuania and Wales.
But Australia was always my home. No matter where I was in the world, Australia was always in my heart.
THE HARD TIMES
I was enjoying my time in Serbia, but an opportunity presented itself with FK Ekranas, the Blue-Reds, in the Lithuanian A Lyga. They were in the Europa League and my manager and I agreed it was a step forward for my career.
I moved to the town of Panevezys, which is on the Nevezis River. It’s another small European town with an incredible history – it was occupied by the Soviets, the Germans and the Soviets again during the second world war – and it’s not far from Siauliai, which is where the famous Kryziu Klanas (Hill of Crosses) stands.
I was 17 years and 10 months old when I arrived in Lithuania, and had to wait two months until I was allowed to play. I was thrown straight into the action, including a couple of Europa League qualifiers.
I was still 18 when I headed in a goal in the away leg in Belfast against Crusaders after a corner from my teammate Dovydas Norvilas. That was a pretty special moment.
But there were some hard times along the way. Language was a barrier for me again. And the mentality you encounter sometimes in those old Soviet countries took quite a lot of getting used to.
Some people were welcoming, but others could be harsh. I don’t know why, but in my experience the small towns seem to be harsher than the big cities. I’ve found it harder to get much out of the people in those places.
My entire adult life has been about proving myself over and over and over again.
After a bad training session or losing a game, the local boys can tend to get frustrated at you. ‘It’s your fault.’ That kind of thing. There are eleven players on the field, but the finger tends to get pointed more quickly at the foreigner for some reason.
Because I have a Balkan-sounding name, many people would think of me as Serbian. Some didn’t even know I was Australian. I would just go with that. It made more sense to them that I would be from Serbia given where we were in the world. Sometimes they use being Australian as a way to put you down. ‘He’s from Australia. He thinks he’s better than us. What’s this guy doing here?’ That mentality.
All this stuff hit me pretty hard at the start. Then I realised you have to push it away and not let it get to you. It teaches you to be strong mentally. You have to focus on your football and know the reason you’re there and prove yourself every weekend.
It toughens you up. I’m glad I went there and experienced all of it. I’m a better person and player for the experience.
TRAINING IN MINUS 28 DEGREES
I had a couple of seasons with FK Ekranas and then FK Jonava, which is a tough town in the centre of the country, for six months.
Lithuanian winters are quite an experience. I remember once going to training when it was minus 28 degrees. Your chest would hurt breathing. It was never a great thing coming home after days like that to see photos on social media from your mates on the beach back home!
From Jonava, I moved to CS Gaz Metan Medias in Romania. Medias is one of the oldest towns in Transylvania – it’s something like 900 years old – and it’s a centre for manufacturing and natural gas.
Living in Medias was another great life and football experience. I lived in camp with the team. We had breakfast, lunch and dinner together. We didn’t really leave all that much.
It could get a bit boring, but it gave me an opportunity to do extra training to pass the time. I figured hitting the gym and the pool were better options than sitting around doing nothing.
Gaz Metan were a good team and we were sitting atop Romania’s Liga I midway through the season. Then I had problems with my paperwork and they released me. I finished the season with FK Teplice in the Czech Republic. They’re nicknamed The Glassblowers because of the company that founded them back in the day.
The Romanian league is more tactical and technical in their approach to football, whereas the Czech Liga is more physical. I’ve been picking up different styles of football as I’ve gone along. I see that as a plus for me. I can adapt my game to different ways of thinking.
I’ve also had to do my fair share of adapting to all the different ways of life in the various countries I’ve lived in. I like to think it’s made me tolerant, curious and independent. I’ve been living on my own from my teens. Cooking, cleaning, shopping … I’ve learned to fend for myself all on my own without my parents doing it for me.
I was in the Czech Republic until recently. I moved to FK Mlada Boleslav at the end of 2017. Golgol Mebrahtu was there and it was great having another Aussie to hang around with, just to grab a coffee or dinner with. We lived in a small industrial town which was where all the Skoda cars were manufactured. We were about 50 kilometres away from Prague. I enjoyed my time there.
On the eve of the new season, I got a move to MSK Zilina in Slovakia. It’s an historic club and one of the most successful in the Slovak Super Liga. And Zilina is a great place for sightseeing. It’s one of those lovely old European towns with castles and old buildings everywhere.
My first day was great and the boys have been very welcoming. I’m ready to prove myself all over again to new teammates, a new club, a new league and a new country. I’m motivated.
See? I told you I’d seen my share of small European towns. I feel like I’m in New York every time I get to a place with more than 100,000 people in it!
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THE JERSEY THAT MEANS EVERYTHING
I had stayed in contact with Australia through the years. My agent would speak to Josep Gombau when he was coaching the Australian under-23s side and I would meet with him for a coffee on my annual trip home.
When Josep went to the Wanderers, Ante Milicic took over as Olyroos coach. He called me up for the under-23s Asian Cup in China. I was over the moon.
It meant so much to get that call. To represent Australia at any level was always a dream of mine. It’s hard to explain the emotion. I’ve lived away from home my entire adult life, yet there’s no question for me where home is. The Australian jersey brings so much joy to my life and makes my career so much better. It brightens everything up.
I knew the call-up for the under-23s Asian Cup was my big – and possibly only – chance to get noticed for the Socceroos. I was born in 1995 so I would be too old for the next Olympics. This was my opportunity to perform for Australia on an international stage.
Unfortunately, we got knocked out after the group stage, but I thought I played pretty well and had done a reasonable job of showing the Socceroos what I was capable of.
Australia was always my home. No matter where I was in the world, Australia was always in my heart.
I was back in the Czech Republic when the phone rang again. It was Ante calling to inform me I had been selected in Bert van Marwijk’s extended squad for the Socceroos’ friendlies against Norway in Oslo and Colombia at Craven Cottage in March.
I was happy to get that call-up, but wasn’t sure if I would get the nod for the final squad. The waiting went on for about a week. Then they told me I had made it. It was about 11pm in Mlada Boleslav and I was getting ready for bed when the call came. I couldn’t get to sleep for hours. I called my family back home and the excitement and adrenalin was like nothing else.
It really hit me when I woke up the next day. I would be representing my country. I was a Socceroo.
I’ll never forget getting the call to warm-up in the 47th minute against Norway. I can’t describe the feeling. There was so much excitement and adrenaline in me I didn’t feel like I needed to warm up at all! The final result was disappointing, but I was happy to play 40 minutes for my country. I hope to play much more in the future.
Obviously,missing out on going to Russia was disappointing. I was only in camp for ten days, but I felt like I learned quite a lot from Bert and his coaching staff. The squad were all very welcoming. They had a great mindset.
All I can do is work hard, play well and hope that catches the attention of Graham Arnold. The Slovakian season started last weekend and I’m as driven as ever.