Attacking the future
An immediate contrast is cast at Olympic Park as I arrive to meet with Mathew Theodore. Kevin Muscat, club captain and one of the originals, stands on the turf of Victory’s original, humble domicile that it rapidly out grew.
An immediate contrast is cast at Olympic Park as I arrive to meet with Mathew Theodore. Kevin Muscat, club captain and one of the originals, stands on the turf of Victory-s original, humble domicile that it rapidly out grew.
Metres away, 19-year-old Theodore, considered a talented component of the club-s future, stands, the undulating facade of Victory-s new purpose-built home his backdrop. In personnel and infrastructure, Victory-s origins and mapped direction can be seen.
In the coming season, Theodore-s first senior contract will run simultaneously to what could be Muscat-s last. While his captain is characterised by grit and aggression, and is known to be a vehement orator, Theodore relies on creativity and technical grace in his attacking midfielder role, and, by his own admission, is “not that loud”.
The demure nature to which Theodore confesses is apparent when in his company, but his reserved inclination is a personality trait, rather than intimidation at the professional football environment in which he finds himself.
It was the urging of a perceptive primary school teacher that instigated Theodore-s jaunt toward professional football. “I was just having a kick with some mates and then a teacher came and saw me and said that I should play soccer,” he reminisces, detailing the schoolyard scouting job undertaken when he was seven. “So I just went to the local club, which was Bundoora.”
Junior stints at Meadow Park and Preston followed his formative days at Bundoora, before an invitation to the Victorian Institute of Sport began a playing relationship with Ernie Merrick - at the time a coach at the VIS - that has since crystallised.
“I think that it was a big turning point,” he says of his two years at the VIS. “I learnt a lot in a tactical sense, positioning and all that.” It was only once part of the VIS set-up that football became the foci of his sporting pursuits.
“I enjoyed a lot of sports being younger,” he says in a philosophical tone that for a moment distracts from the fact that he is still not yet in his twenties. “But, at some point, with the state teams, soccer went all year through... So I committed to that.”
Merrick-s first impressions have been lasting. “I coached Mathew as a young Victorian Institute of Sport player,” Merrick remembers. “I identified him early... He-s very technically gifted and he-s one of these players that create things in behind the strikers, so he-s a typical number-10, as the Brazilians or Argentineans would say.”
Theodore appears purpose-built for the No.10 role. Standing bedecked in Victory-s 2009 kit, the strength through his hips and legs is evident, affording him great balance and permitting the quick changes of direction called for in his role. He isn-t tall, but the position doesn-t demand that he need be.
As an attacking midfielder, Theodore joins the longest positional queue at Victory. Ahead of him are the likes of Carlos Hernandez, Nick Ward and Tommy Pondeljiak. The wait in line for a midfield role may require patience from Theodore but it also presents him with a reserve of knowledge on which to call.
“Carlos is always talking to me,” he says of playing alongside arguably the league-s most gifted attacking midfielder. “I always look to him,” he continues, with further reverence for the Costa Rican international.
Merrick acclaims this paternal relationship between young and old at the club. “Most of our senior players mentor some of the younger players,” he states proudly.
“Kevin spends a lot of time in particular with the defenders and defensive midfield players. Danny Allsopp and Archie and Tommy are very good at dealing with the more attacking-type players. So there-s a very good relationship between the younger and the older players, and it shows at training - there-s just so much respect there.”
From the VIS, Theodore-s formal football education continued at the Australian Institute of Sport for a year-and-a-half, alongside many graduates who are now Hyundai A-League residents.
“It was another step up,” he says of his induction into the national-level scheme. “It was hard at first being the only Victorian boy.” And his impressions of living in the nation-s capital? “It was boring at times,” he laughs, enunciating the oft-held perception of the principality of politicians.
His playing return to Melbourne from Canberra was bridged by a two-week trial in Europe at English side Sheffield United. He sanguinely considers this sampler of European football “a good learning experience,” and not a failed pursuit.
“That-s what I like [about the A-League], you don-t have to go over there [to Europe] so quickly,” he asserts, celebrating the prosperity of the Hyundai A-League to which he returned post-European trial.
Merrick and former VIS assistant and current Victory Youth Coach, Mehmet Durakovic, drew on their collective knowledge of Theodore when signing him as the inaugural captain of the Victory Youth side on his return to Melbourne.
His isn-t a personality typical of leadership roles, but he is thankful for the appointment as Youth captain. “I-m not that loud,” he says gently, as if supporting his contention. “So it makes me do it [speak forcefully], which I think is good.” He received the inaugural Victory Youth Medal for his impressive spell as leader of the youth team.
Earmarked for a future role in the senior squad, Theodore trained with the senior side throughout his youth team participation and believes the exposure aided the transition to the senior squad.
“Because I was already training (with the senior team) it helped a lot,” he contends. “But still, I wasn-t doing a lot of the double sessions before because I wasn-t there at the time. It-s been tough but I-m getting used to it.”
His association with the senior squad may have made for a smooth playing transition, but membership of the senior party came with a more complex duty: the ritual of singing the club song for dinner on his first away trip.
“I was lucky,” he states, reliving the jocular discomfort that brings infinite joy to fellow squad members. “It was just the team; we had our own room… (others have had to sing) in the restaurant in front of everyone.”
His enforced karaoke session came as he travelled with the senior squad to Adelaide in October last year. Despite warming his vocals, he remained an un-used substitute on the trip, and still awaits his senior debut.
Participation in pre-season fixtures indicates Theodore isn-t far from debut. Particularly now the 27-game season fixture will require greater squad depth. Theodore says there is a consensus between him and Merrick about the expectation for him this season, “Just to keep improving really… hopefully I-ll get into the squad eventually”.
Exiting Olympic Park post-interview, I pause outside the construction site of Victory-s new stadium. I watch as workmen busily piece together an emblem of the club-s infrastructural progress, having moments early observed the construction of its playing future.