Labinot Haliti: Heart in the West

Iacopo La Rocca is on the ball just outside Melbourne Heart’s penalty area, the rain teeming down at a drenched AMMI Park as he drives forward, towards goal.

Iacopo La Rocca is on the ball just outside Melbourne Heart-s penalty area, the rain teeming down at a drenched AMMI Park as he drives forward, towards goal.

Two Heart defenders step out and challenge La Rocca and in that instant he slips a straight ball into the space in front of him, half with his instep, half with his toe, just to the right of the penalty spot.

While the Heart defenders have focused their attention on La Rocca, Labinot Haliti has slipped his marker undetected and curved a ghost run in-behind to meet his threaded pass.

Without a touch or hesitation, Haliti strikes the ball hard above the outstretched hands of Heart keeper Andrew Redmayne and into the roof of the net.

The goal was Haliti-s second in the match and was crucial in sealing the 3-1 win that extended the Wanderers record winning streak to 10 matches and spring-boarded them towards eventual Premiership glory.

For a man who doesn-t often hog the limelight Haliti has built his career on chiming in at the right time.

One need only cast their mind back to his playing days at the Newcastle Jets where he-d regularly pop up for an equaliser or winning goal, often in the dying stages of a match.

A hero for the home supporters; a cruel nightmare for everyone else.

For all of Haliti-s goal scoring exploits, he averages approximately one for every three matches played in the Hyundai A-League, he has often been used as impact player off the bench.

Not that it phases him, he just gets on with the job.

“To me, it-s not an issue at all, I don-t look at it as any different, you got to be ready.

“It-s a team game, and speaking for myself, for me it never changes.

“It doesn-t matter how long I play I-ve got be focused and ready and do all the right things, and hopefully everything else will take care of itself.”

Some may feel that Haliti overachieved when he was thrown a lifeline by the Wanderers after he failed to be re-signed by the Jets at the end of the 2011/2012 season.

But for a place like Wanderland, Haliti is closer to the perfect fit than many realise.

After initially being left out of the Hyundai A-League, in many ways, the Wanderers are a second chance club.

The Western Sydney community was desperate for a club but it didn-t come easy; they had fight hell for leather for it.

Given the opportunity, the Wanderers flourished into one of the biggest clubs in the league but hard work has been the cornerstone.

It is the same hard work and sheer determination, off the back of an unyielding love for the game, that characterises Haliti-s somewhat journeyman career that started in the National Soccer League with Sydney Olympic and Sydney United saw two stints with the Jets, first in 2005-2007 and then again in 2009-2012, and then abroad in Croatia, Albania and Poland before he found himself in the heart of Western Sydney.

Haliti is reluctant to talk of his past experiences as Kosovar refugee; he doesn-t wish for sympathy.

But there is no doubt that his family history and heritage helped shape his steely determination and strong work ethic.

Haliti embodies the fabric of the West, and more broadly Australia, by the way he goes about his business and gets on with it.

In a way he is a second chance person; in any situation he knows he has to seize the opportunity.

And the striker has done just that.

Haliti is relishing in life at Wanderland under the tuition of Tony Popovic and assistant Ante Milicic; two men he deeply reveres.

Importantly, both men play a mentor role with the players, which is a little different from Haliti-s previous club experiences, but he believes it is fundamental to the Wanderers- success.

“I-m grateful that I-m part of it and every day I learn something from the coaching staff.

“For me as a striker, learning from Tezza (Milicic) means a lot but in general I-ve also leant a lot from Popa, not just about football but about life and that-s the thing that you can-t buy.

“I-m learning a lot about life, I-m enjoying it and love what I do, and on top of that we have some of the best fans in the country.”

Of course, the fans are not forgotten.

Having grown up in the west Haliti is deeply humbled to represent such passionate people, doing the thing he loves, and he knows that the special connection they share isn-t something that happens every day.

“What they do here at Pirtek Stadium is just amazing.

“As a player, any player will tell you, you want to play in front of a big crowd and that being at your home, it-s just...

“Words can-t really describe it what it means to me.”

Haliti-s heart belongs in the west.

He plays with swagger and a smile and there-s no denying him when rips his jersey off and bares his chest to the crowd in his emotional trademark goal celebration.

Haliti is not big on words or dressing things up and prefers to let his feet do the talking.

When he takes the field against the Heart they will need to pay him close attention because he-s a man who takes his chances.