One step away from number one

The laughter that regularly punctuates Mitchell Langerak’s sentences, and scatters itself throughout his speech, indicates a young footballer very much at ease with life at the nation’s strongest Hyundai A-League club.

The laughter that regularly punctuates Mitchell Langerak-s sentences, and scatters itself throughout his speech, indicates a young footballer very much at ease with life at the nation-s strongest Hyundai A-League club.

He has every right to be pleased with his place in Melbourne. At just 20, and in only his third year at the club, he is closing in on the number one shirt at Melbourne Victory.

It has been a rapid progression to would-be first choice goalkeeper which began in the tiny mining town of Tieri, about 900 kilometres north-west of Brisbane.

“It-s a town of only 1000 people, the football club doesn-t even exist anymore,” Langerak says of his junior football days. “It was more of a fun thing when we were younger; I used to learn how to keep by watching the Premier League boys on TV, and learning by myself.”

Despite growing up in a bastion of rugby, Langerak-s focus rarely strayed from football. “When I was younger I played a little bit of rugby and cricket like all Aussie boys,” he says. “But football was always, for me, number one… I-ll tell you I was good [at rugby and cricket], but I was average at best.”

Aged 14, Langerak and family - parents Mark and Debbie and sisters, Jenna and Jade - moved south to Bundaberg, and subsequent success in a larger context led to an AIS scholarship and representative duties for the Qantas Young Socceroos in 2006, before Melbourne Victory recruiters called with an offer to move to Melbourne a year later.

Relocation to big city Melbourne could have been daunting for an 18-year-old from small town rural Queensland, but acclimatisation was to be the most difficult adjustment.

“It was a big move but it was a smooth transition to be honest,” he muses. “I fitted in pretty well straight into Melbourne. I love the city - it-s fantastic. In my opinion, it-s the best city in Australia - easily,” he continues, intending no disrespect to his Queensland upbringing. “That-s what made it so easy to move down. The only problem is the cold.”

He attributes part of his seamless relocation to the structure of Melbourne Victory and the support provided from within. “At Victory… everyone was so supportive,” he reflects appreciatively. “It-s such a good club to be at because there are no cliques or anything like that - we-re a tight knit bunch. To have support from everyone is a really good thing.”

As part of the support and development process at Melbourne Victory, Langerak was sent on loan to South Melbourne in the Victorian Premier League immediately after arriving in 2007.

It was during this loan spell that reporting duties made me a first-hand witness to Langerak, and stand-out performances from a young, unrecognised goalkeeper immediately piqued my interest. Plain to see was the talent that convinced Melbourne Victory officials to convert the boy from Bundaberg into a Melbournian. Queried about the perception of the league and its role in his development, after somewhat apologetically admitting my naiveté on first-viewing, he acclaims the league-s influence on his development.

“I don-t think the VPL gets as much credit as it deserves,” he responds, taking no offence to my contrite confession of ignorance.

“Going to South Melbourne was probably the best thing for me when I first came to Melbourne because I got the opportunity to play against good players as well as learn to play in a team that strives to win and expects to win every game. It was a real learning curve and I developed as player so much just by being there.”

At just 18, his evident youth was exaggerated by those that surrounded him on the pitch; but his mature presence in South-s goalmouth, in command of a senior defensive line, belied his boyish looks. These teenage performances in a league of men insisted on an imminent ascent.

“It is tough,” he says of the task of instructing players many years his senior. “Especially when no one knows anything about you.”

There is a level of confidence required to instruct players of recognised talent and experience; a self-assurance that necessitates an absolute belief in one-s own abilities. Listening to Langerak-s poised speech indicates the requisite self-belief.

14 games at South Melbourne in 2007 and the departure of Victory back-up goalkeeper Eugene Galekovic later that year fast-tracked Langerak to second-choice gloveman at Melbourne Victory.

His debut arrived against Sydney in Round 21 of the 2007/08 season. Langerak strode onto the pitch that afternoon in front of a crowd about 20 times the population of his home town, Tieri, and departed the ground 90 minutes later having played his part in a 2-2 draw.

Langerak suggests that Melbourne Victory-s sizeable crowds, regularly the envy of fellow Hyundai A-League clubs, affect him less than they do his parents. “They-re just shocked by how many fans we have got and how much the fans love the team,” he explains.

“When they come down and watch the games they love the atmosphere. They love just watching the fans more than the game,” he modestly suggests. Though, like any parents watching the pursuits of their offspring, it-s unlikely their proud eyes stray for long.

He naturally misses his Queensland-based family and friends but, with the way his Melbourne life is unfolding, the desire to return home is non-existent - even with the two new Queensland-based A-League sides which could facilitate a northern move.

“I wasn-t tempted [to join either of the new Queensland Hyundai A-League sides] at all,” he emphatically avows. “I love being at Melbourne Victory. It-s the best club in Australia… I think we-ve got the best facilities, the best staff, the best set up. Everything here is perfect for the players to excel in all areas.”

Melbourne Victory incumbent Michael Theoklitos- decision to pursue a career in Europe has presented Langerak with an enviable opportunity to excel in the coming season - the chance to become Victory-s number one.

Having already performed first-choice goalkeeping duties in Victory-s pre-season fixtures, Langerak is locked in a two-way battle with New Zealand international Glenn Moss for the role full-time.

“It-s going to be a big battle with Glen Moss for the number one shirt, he-s a fantastic goalkeeper,” he enthuses. “It-s going to be really tough… We both push each other really hard in training and that-s exactly what you want… hopefully it-ll be the best thing for the club.”

Watching Theoklitos set off on the well-worn path to Europe, Langerak admits he too holds European aspirations; but Melbourne Victory officials and fans needn-t worry, as he doesn-t plan to act on them any time soon.

“I think every footballer has got ambitions to go to Europe and play over there,” he utters, articulating the once-held dream of generations of junior footballers. “But for the time being, and over the next few years, I just want to focus one hundred percent on playing for Melbourne Victory and doing well.”

For now, he continues to divide his time between football and a business degree at Victoria University.

With his talents and prospects, it isn-t likely that a business degree will be required any time soon. And, until then, football provides him with an inarguable excuse for missing assessment. While formal tertiary study may not command his full attention, the study of football is constant for Langerak.

“I pick up anything from any goalkeeper I watch on TV,” he says. “No matter who you watch, you-ll always pick something up. You-ll be like ‘can I put that into my game-, or ‘he does that well-… It-s important to watch and learn.”

Though, he is cautious not to overdo the football analysis. “I-ve got a reputation for being someone who thinks about football too much,” he muses. “So it-s important for me to try and get my mind off things.” Which he says does with the help of housemates, and fellow Melbourne Victory players, Leigh Broxham and Nathan Elasi.

And, with that, our interview nears its end. I offer Langerak the chance for unguided concluding words. “Make me sound good,” he blithely requests, amidst a customary bout of laughter. Fulfilment of his wry request didn-t require much on my behalf.

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