Football is all I know. I've been asked many times what I would have done if I didn't play football. I've never been able to answer that. As a kid that's all I wanted to do and everything else came a distant second. I am blessed to be able to do what I truly love. Football has given me everything but has taken a lot away from me. My family, especially my dad, gave me football. He taught me everything. I wanted to be just like my dad.
My senior career began at Brisbane Roar, with my dad as my coach. It was a season that I will cherish forever. It was however, the end of that season in which football took me away, from my family, to Germany at the age of 19.
Now as I fast-forward 11 years, I am proud to announce that football has brought me back to work alongside my dad at the Wellington Phoenix.
The last 6 months have been one hell of a ride to which all the stars have aligned, with many bumps along the way.
There was a long and arduous four months of contract negotiations with my Chinese club, mainly due to them not wanting to reply which had left me in limbo. Once we’d come to an agreement, I was a free player, but many transfer windows had closed so my options were limited. There was an option to remain away from the game for another 4 months until the next transfer window.
At that point I’d missed playing, competing and doing what I loved to have gone down that path.
I’d signed for Seongnam FC, who are one of the most successful clubs not only in Korea but also in Asia. The club had recently been relegated from the top flight and were expected by not only the fans but opposition coaches, players and media to win the league and return to top-flight football immediately. I was fortunate enough despite the situation to have signed for a club with a rich history of success and ambition for further successes.
I’d arrived at the club a week before the season started. I wasn't able to play before round 3, only once I’d obtained my visa and had my registration cleared. I was filled with excitement from my early impressions; the coaches had encouraged "heavy rock n roll" football similar to Jürgen Klopp. This meant possession, playing out from the back and hard pressing when out of possession.
This is just what I had been searching for. I remember sitting in the grandstand for the first 2 games, with a big smile on my face thinking... this is going to be fun.
We felt like we were dominating by playing this brand of football. We were however out of luck early on. That forced a change. There wasn't time for 17 new players to adapt and get an understanding of their roles. Pressure affects people in different ways. We became ultra-defensive, played safe and starting line-ups would have 4-5 changes every week.
It couldn't be further from those days early on when my smile was beaming. Happiness became frustration. We went away from what made us the best team in the league and what suited the players.
In the meantime my knee would be swelling up daily and I wouldn’t have a clue as to why.
The cup game would be the big turning point of the season. By this time, I would’ve been training and playing two to three weeks on a continuously swollen knee. There was no pain so I thought there was no real cause for concern. The physios assured me it was just from the hard surfaces and a scan at the hospital, they said, also didn't show anything. I felt uncomfortable the day before the game, due to the liquid built up in the knee, so the decision was made to leave me behind and rest the knee.
This game would trigger a winning run, beginning with beating the team who Seongnam lost to in the relegation play-off the season prior. From here on in the results got better but the damage to the club had already been done with the slow start to the season. There were no sponsors and the club had been rejected by the city council, who they were owned by, for a cash injection.
During this time, my frustration with my knee had reached new heights. I was constantly you-tubing and google-ing attempting self-diagnosis on my knee to no avail.
All this time my wife was pregnant in Adelaide as we expected our first child in July.
Initially the plan was to fly home as soon as I’d found out my wife was heading into labour. I’d potentially miss the birth of my first child and only be able to spend a few days with the family before heading back to Korea. It wasn’t ideal and that also played on my mind.
With the club being in financial trouble, the situation I was in with my child on the way and my knee now 6 weeks swollen, it made it very easy for the club and myself to come to a mutual agreement. It was actually done over a coffee downstairs at the club’s complex.
I felt with my knee the way it was; I couldn't contribute 100%. I trained almost every session thinking ‘these bloody fields need some water!’
The day I said good-bye to the boys was a sad day for me. I was frustrated that I couldn't have helped more. I built good friendships with all of them, regardless of the language barrier. They were great people, even the physios who I can't be angry at, they just didn’t know.
It was a blessing in disguise. The stars aligned.
The first thing I did when I got home was booked myself in to the physio, Tony Ganter, who looked after me from the Roar. I went in thinking I was getting my body re-aligned and my hips levelled, and everything would then be back too normal and the swelling would disappear.
All it took was for Tony to look at my knee. He told me “it’s been 6 or 7 weeks of swelling and that I’ll need an MRI straight away. I believe you will need an arthroscopy”.
It turned out to be a small lateral meniscus tear.
He told me that “If I went too much longer on the knee, more meniscus could’ve come out and stripped years off my career.”
What hit me most was the fact that it may have led to problems later in life with walking. With a baby on the way and god willing a few more later in life, it did scare me to be told that. I have been lucky not to have any major injuries in my career; at most I've been out for one to two weeks with minor strains and it’s only been a handful of times.
That was the bump along the way but less than 2 days later it would be the best day of my life.
I went in for surgery on Thursday, on Friday afternoon I was on a plane for Adelaide, my wife was getting painful contractions and went to hospital in the early hours of Friday morning. They sent her home because she wasn't dilated. After I arrived at my in laws’ house a hobbling mess, my leg bandaged from my ankle to my quad, I had a bit to eat and we headed straight to the hospital.
At 9am on Saturday morning we had a new family member.
A little boy. Niko.
Everything happens for a reason and the stars aligned for me to be there to meet my son and support my wife. The courage a mother has can't be matched. The one thing I will tell my son is ‘always be good to your mum.’
The moment I saw Niko, all the little things didn’t matter anymore. I've been lucky enough to be allowed to stay with my wife and newborn son as I do my rehab for my knee. I'm very thankful for this.
I had to leave him for the first time, after 3 weeks and 2 days, as I went back to Brisbane to meet the surgeon for my check up and then flew to Wellington to prepare for the season ahead. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The emotions running through me, it was hard to let him go, there was some tears held back.
I just imagined having to go back to Korea after only 3 days which was the initial plan. I would’ve been an epic mess.
I have been on many, many flights in my life but none filled with so many emotions and thoughts as I looked back on the last 6 months.
How my life has changed and now all the great things I am looking forward to.
I miss football and I can't wait to get back out there. This is the longest time I have ever been away from a ball at my feet and it’s a strange feeling for me. My flight on Thursday was the beginning of the next stage of my football career. My emotions ran wild as I knew my dad was picking me up from the airport. When he picked me up, after a kiss and a hug, it's as though we had never been apart. It wasn't long before we were straight back into talking football about their last game in the FFA Cup.
My dad has been named Assistant Coach of the Wellington Phoenix. I was very happy to see him back doing what he loves and back out on a football field where he belongs. The new coach that has been appointed, Darije Kalezic, along with my dad both like to play a style and structure I’ve wanted to be involved in for a long time. This is where the team keeps possession, plays an attractive brand of football but at the same time set themselves up well defensively when out of possession. I know I will learn and become a better player.
I knew what they were putting together in Wellington. It was appealing and I know they’re hungry to be successful. This is an opportunity to do something special while helping out NZ football at the same time. When my dad told me about the interest from the club and how eager they were to bring me there, it was an easy decision for me to make.
This is another opportunity to live in a new country. I’ve been blessed to live in Europe and Asia. I’ve learnt lots about different cultures and even learnt a couple of new languages. I’m going to be able to tell my kids about them one day. Wellington is a new experience altogether and an opportunity to enjoy life with my family and my dad.
As soon as I could kick a ball, my dad was my coach. Hours and hours of training in the backyard, many broken palings, I’d envision being a player I looked up to at the time and score a goal. I went with my dad to every single Brisbane Strikers home game for many years, back when it was the old NSL. We didn’t miss a game. When he was playing, I was playing on the backfield against kids from the other club for hours on end. My entire football life my Dad has been there. We have an incredible relationship both as a father and son and as a footballer and coach.
We talk football constantly. He lives and breathes it. I’m quite the same. I’ve begun to think post football. I’d loved to follow again in his footsteps into coaching. I’ve learnt so much that I know as a footballer from him and I’d love to be able to do the same in the coaching ranks. I’ve already begun going through his notes and training sessions from seasons back. This is a great opportunity to learn from two very good coaches and not only improve as a footballer, but also improve my football knowledge as a coach.
I am eagerly anticipating having a pre-season, something not many sports people would say I imagine. It feels like a lifetime ago that I’ve had a preseason, a full one that is. Even though I may have missed the first couple of weeks, I still have roughly 2 months before Round 1. This is something that I have needed as well, a chance to prepare correctly; mind, body and soul. The last time I felt I was in peak shape was when playing for Adelaide United in the 2012-13 season. I’ll remember it as one of the best seasons of my career. Since then, I haven’t had a pre-season or any sort of preparation for a season.
As I reflect on the last 6 months, it’s filled with many memories, especially with the birth of my son and becoming a father, I can look confidently into the future and be happy where life has taken me. I look forward to getting to know my teammates and getting prepared for the season ahead.
Football has given me everything. It’s now also brought me back to be with my dad, both of us living in a new country, while working at an ambitious club striving for success. I can’t wait for my family to come over and for us to share this part of life together, as a family.
Family is the most important thing in the world. Without family we are nothing.
Australian footballer who plays for Wellington Phoenix ⚽ 🏃 M.V ❤️