Many young players of African descent are starting to make their mark in the A-League.
Melbourne City’s Bruce Kamau and Ruon Tongyk have featured regularly in their club’s first team – the latter more often last season than this – while defender Jason Geria has long been a mainstay of Melbourne Victory’s backline.
Victory has also given an A-League chance to Kenny Athiu, who had such a good season in the NPL at Heidelberg, although he has yet to start a game in navy blue since joining after the current season started.
One youngster who is making a big impression is Thomas Deng, a 20-year-old who came to as a six-year-old from South Sudan.
Deng is a quick and mobile centre-back who has seized his chance with Victory this year following the early season injury to James Donachie, who began the campaign as Rhys Williams’ first-choice partner in the middle of Victory’s defence.
Donachie has been missing for most of the season with a groin injury, and Deng, who played at left back in the opening match of the season – the 1-0 home defeat to Sydney when it was his unfortunate own goal that gave the visitors the win – has moved across to become a feature at centre-half.
The improvement in Deng’s game in the recent seasons has been noticeable. The then teenager played for Victory in the 2015-16 season before moving overseas to PSV Eindhoven in The Netherlands, where he transferred to the youth set-up.
Things didn’t go as well as Deng hoped in his time in Holland, so when he got the chance to return to Victory this season he took it. But even though he didn’t play too much in The Netherlands the youngster’s tactical sense and game understanding developed through training programmes and playing with and against talented Dutch youngsters.
“I was very fortunate with the opportunity I got to go there. It was a very tough experience, the boys in my team had been there for a few years, they had been in the same system,” said Deng, whose family moved to Adelaide when he was six before shifting to Melbourne a decade later.
“It took a while for me to adjust, but eventually I got to grips with things, but it was too late [to break through for regular game time]. Sometimes you have to take a backward step to go forward.”
He is not the first young n who had to come back to the A-League to reboot his career before trying to succeed in Europe a second time: current Socceroo star Aaron Mooy is merely the latest, and best, example, and doubtless Deng would like to try again at some point in the future.
But for now his focus is on establishing himself at Victory.
“My game got better, 100 per cent. I think tactically as well I got to understand more. I matured as a player and I think it helped going there. You have to grow up quickly as a young kid, but it’s a good experience. Football changes every day, so whatever opportunity you get, you take it.”
Deng is happy enough with his performances so far, but says he, and the whole team, can be better. Victory have won only one of their eight games, and currently sit outside the top six.
“I think I have done all right, stepping in, doing the job I have been asked to do. Every week I am trying to improve.
“The boys are working hard on the training field. We have got a few things that we need to get right collectively as a team. We need to get better, the better we get, the more results we will get.”
Deng scored his first goal earlier this season, and it is something he says he would like to get used to.
“That’s an area I have been trying to improve on. Getting some goals helps the team, that’s what I am willing to do.
“It was a good feeling, especially after the own goal against Sydney. To get one at the other end was good.”
Victory’s first-choice goalkeeper Lawrence Thomas injured his finger and left training at Gosch’s Paddock early on Wednesday, as did centre-half Rhys Williams.
Williams was substituted early in the defeat in Newcastle last week with a back problem, and coach Kevin Muscat will have to weigh up the benefits or otherwise of taking the former Socceroo stopper on a long plane flight to Wellington, where Victory play on Sunday.
Marquee player Mark Milligan will definitely not appear against the Kiwis as he is serving a suspension after being red carded for retaliation in the 4-1 loss to the Jets.