From Victoria, through the Northern Territory to Gosford: the story of Stefan Nigro's journey to an A-League comeback with Central Coast Mariners is a tale of both professional and personal development, aided by the mentorship of Australia's iconic "coach whisperer".
Nigro, 24, made 35 A-League appearances across stints at Brisbane Roar and Melbourne Victory before joining NPL Victoria outfit Green Gully in 2020.
But, in the midst of the pandemic, the NPL season was abandoned, leaving Nigro at a crossroads.
With an ambition to make an A-League return and no conventional route presenting itself to do so in uncertain times the young defender forged his own path, embarking what would prove to be a testing and rewarding journey across three states as he pursued a contract with the Mariners.
"2020 was a challenging year for many, not just football-wise, we’re talking on a global scale," Nigro told a-league.com.au.
"We played I think four or five games, and then [the NPL] got cancelled.
"I was still training. I couldn’t train with the team but I was doing a lot of individual training, I was working on areas I wanted to improve in, on and off the field.
"In that period I did everything possible, I would train a week or a day of a professional footballer, that’s what I’d do.
"During that whole process, there were a lot of unknowns. I didn’t know when the opportunity was going to come, but I knew when it did I would be ready.
"And that’s what happened."
Nigro was ultimately presented with an opportunity to trial under Alen Stajcic at the Mariners.
With border restrictions denying the defender easy passageway into the state, Nigro realised that a two-week quarantine period in Darwin would be necessary should he accept the trial opportunity.
To aid in his decision was Nigro's mentor Bradley Charles Stubbs – nicknamed "the coach whisperer" – renowned for his work instilling winning mentality and unrelenting belief in a number of high-profile coaches and athletes in many sporting codes around the world.
The likes of Socceroos boss Graham Arnold, former Wallabies coach Michael Cheika and Sydney Roosters coach Trent Robinson are just some of the high profile names to have benefited from Stubbs' mentorship to date.
"I got passed onto Bradley’s book ( titled 'The Science of Belief') through a friend," Nigro said.
"I read it, and we connected. His LinkedIn popped up and I messaged him, I said I really liked the book… we spoke on the phone, and the rest is history.
"Bradley is a major influence on me, I’ve got nothing but respect for him.
"He’s been a massive help to me in everything related to football and life in general, he had a major influence, and still does, on me and everything in my mindset.
"Results speak for themselves, if it’s good enough for Trent Robinson, Graham Arnold, Michael Cheika and other coaches that he’s worked with, then it’s good enough for me.
We spoke when I was playing in the NPL and he had the vision of me going back to the A-League straight away - that grew and grew with me.
With Stubbs in his corner and his family on board, Nigro made the decision to travel from Victoria to the Northern Territory and quarantine for two weeks in Darwin ahead of the trial.
Without the promise of a contract, the gamble was huge. But Nigro's mentality was solid, and there was no obstacle in the way the 24-year-old felt he couldn't overcome.
"I didn’t think twice, I knew I had to do it because of the border closures," he said.
"I didn’t want to wait until it opened because then someone else could have gone in and trialled – that’s why I went.
"I knew I had done the work, obviously I didn’t know what the quarantine would be like, I’ve never done it before.
"I had a full training regime when I was there, I was training three hours a day.
"I was able to exercise, do my work – that in itself, I wouldn’t call it a mini pre-season – but I was able to come in with a good level of fitness.
"I believed I was ready, I believed in myself before I got there. I knew I had left no stone unturned, based on all the work I had done physically and mentally.
"I had massive belief in myself going into the trial that I knew the hard work would pay off.
I knew going into quarantine all the hard work I had done would lead to a contract.
The Mariners gave me the opportunity, and I’m so thankful to them."
MATCHWEEK 6 PREVIEW: Western United v Melbourne Victory
Nigro had finally sealed his return to the A-League. He'd left his home in Victoria brimming with belief and arrived in Gosford determined to hit the ground running.
And that's exactly what he's done to date.
Nigro has featured in every fixture the soaring Mariners have played so far in the 2020/21 campaign, notching three wins from five games accrued with confidence, guts and grit by a squad speckled with exuberant young talent, elder statesmen, and players like Nigro who at 24 offers a blend of youth and experience.
"The group itself, the coaches, as soon as I got there they were nothing but accomodating to me," Nigro said.
"From the first day I arrived at the club to now I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, I’ve got a lot of respect for the coaches and I’ve got a lot of belief in what we’re doing.
"We’ve started the season really well but every week we look at how we can improve for the next game – that’s our attitude."
"The culture and the unity the playing group and the club has at the moment is top notch," Nigro said.
"There’s a lot of experience around the group, then myself and Ruon [Tongyik] who are around that 24 age group, then we’ve got the likes of Alou [Kuol], Gianni [Stensness], Dan Bouman, the other boys coming off the bench, that injection of youth – it’s a great mix I believe.
"You can see in the games, the determination, the hunger and team work. Everyone’s got each other’s backs. We defend as a team, we attack as a team and everyone is there for each other for the full 90 minutes.
"We know that’s a big trait of the team, the boys coming on are all making an impact.
Nigro continued: "if you look from the starting 11 to the boys coming on – and we’ve rotated a little bit as well – everyone has their role, everyone knows what they’re doing, and it has shown in the first four games.
"We are striving to improve every single week, every game, every training session - that’s the culture that we’ve got.
We’ve got a lot of belief in the group, we all trust the coach and we trust each other."
Nigro and the Mariners are next in action against Melbourne City on Wednesday, February 3.
Next Match – Matchweek 6
Central Coast Mariners v Melbourne City
Wednesday, 3 February
Kick-off: 7.05pm AEDT
Venue: Central Coast Stadium
Broadcast: FOX Sports 505
Stream: MyFootball Live App, Kayo Sports
Ways to watch
MATCHWEEK 6 PREVIEW: Central Coast Mariners v Melbourne City
REPORT: Late Sotirio goal sinks Mariners as Phoenix snatch first win
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