Walker blazing a trail
Jeremy Walker is the first true Tasmanian product to grace the A-League and with new pathways developing he likely won't be the last.
It was a good day for Tasmania. Jeremy Walker was the apple of the isle, so to speak. The first fair-dinkum Tasmanian to play in the Hyundai A-League was given his Melbourne Heart debut in challenging circumstances.
As part of a bare-bones team, in a bottom-of-the-table dogfight, away from home, against a Sydney FC side adorned by Alessandro del Piero.
Walker - playing out of position at right back if you believe his junior coaches - could easily have been star-struck. He wasn't. As a professional debut, it was impressive. No sign of nerves, no hint of panic, he was composed in his work on and off the ball. This kid's got a future. He deserves it.
Being a Tasmanian trying to make it as a professional footballer is tough enough. Being from Ulverstone, a couple of hours from Launceston on the picturesque north-west coast, makes it even more of a challenge. You have to want it, badly. Walker does.
He left home at 16 to board with a family in Hobart and participate on the NTC program. He moved to Melbourne a couple of years later to toughen himself up in the Victorian Premier League with Oakleigh Cannons, a club fast developing a reputation as a hothouse of emerging talent. He got his break last year with a youth team deal at Melbourne Heart, and now he's got his reward with his first team debut.
Walker got lucky as a kid in that he came into the orbit of Mike Denton, an Englishman who came to Australia mid-career after bouncing around non-league football and ended up playing for the Socceroos.
Old-timers might remember him as part of one of the great club sides in our history - the St George team of the early 1970s. Surrounded by the likes of Atti Abonyi, Manfred Schaefer and Johnny Warren, Denton followed them into the national team for the failed 1969 World Cup campaign. By the time the next World Cup was played in 1974, the Socceroos were there, but Denton wasn't. He had moved to his wife's hometown of Burnie, and he's been there ever since, contributing what he can to the development of players in a far-flung corner of the country where AFL has generally reigned supreme.
The word is Denton isn't after any credit in the rise of Walker, but we'll give him some anyway. In football, as in life, there's always an element of chance. Let's assume Walker might not be the player he's become if Denton hadn't been around, and leave it at that.
The good news for Walker is that he's opened the door. Now it's up to him. The great news for Tasmania is that he's not alone. In the youth team at the Heart is Will Abbott, a central defender from Hobart, and another graduate of Tasmania's NTC program. Suddenly, things are on the move in a state which has traditionally been regarded as a footballing wasteland. It's not by chance.
When the Hyundai A-League was in its expansion phase four years ago, one of the bids came from Tasmania United. The absence of a cornerstone investor killed the bid before it got off the ground. But the process of preparing a submission was just as important as the outcome.
The Tasmanian government helped out with the bid, and some key politicians came, at the very least, to discover that football offered exciting potential. That's a significant marker for the future. Frank Lowy has told this website there won't be expansion before 2017 unless a 'big present' drops from the sky. In the meantime, the Tasmania United submission sits in a government office, ready to be executed if ever the stars align. But more importantly, it's provided the spark for the game to wake from its slumber.
In the last few years, Tasmaina has enlisted former Young Socceroos skipper Kurt Reynolds as state technical director.
A couple of years ago, a Tasmanian youth team played a series of matches against the youth teams of Hyundai A-League clubs, and lost only one game. Next year, an eight-team statewide league will be re-born after a lengthy hiatus, providing a further platform for developing players. When the announcement was made in July, Tasmania became the first state to enact the terms of FFA's National Competition Review. Tasmania a leader, not a follower? Strange days, indeed.
Tasmania hasn't been a complete disaster for the game, it must be said. The state which in some quarters has a genuine claim to have hosted the first organised football game on Australian soil in the 1830s has a long and proud history.
Since the national team was formed 80 years ago, 10 Tasmanians (Les Honeysett, Len Norman, Bill Faulkner, Alistair Rattray, Harry Wise, Stan Kent, Adrian Harmsen, Frank Gmelch, Bill Firkins and Dominic Longo) have played for the Socceroos, but none since Longo last wore the green and gold in 1998. In the old NSL, there were a clutch of Tasmanians spread across the country, among them Reynolds, Longo, David Clarkson, Luciano Fabrizio, Angelo Ambrosini, Anthony Breaden, Corey Baldock, Ibro Cahut and Simon Miotto. Some did better than others, some went on to play professionally overseas. What they all had in common was they lacked a clearly-defined, professionally-managed, pathway. That's the real change.
Walker, technically, is not the first Tasmanian to play in the Hyundai A-League. Goalkeeper Jerrad Tyson - who played 14 games for Gold Coast United and is now on the books of Western Sydney Wanderers - was born in Hobart. But Tyson left when he was 10, and developed through the Queensland system.
Where Walker has broken new ground is that he's the first product of Tasmania's revamped elite development pathway to make it to the Hyundai A-League.
No wonder Reynolds was settling into his couch with a beer to watch the broadcast when I spoke to him just before kick-off. Walker's professional debut was a worthy cause for celebration.
The irony, of course, is that it's not Melbourne Heart but Melbourne Victory who have been investing time and money into Tasmania. The Victory have played six games in Tasmania over the last five years, including league fixtures.
In July, they sold-out KGV Park in Glenorchy for a pre-season friendly against the state team. It was a record crowd for a football game in Tasmania. Next month, they'll take their key match against Central Coast Mariners back to Launceston. And the Victory are sponsoring the new state league when it kicks off in 2013.
Whether Victory are therefore frustrated, exasperated or indifferent to the fact that Walker and Abbott are now in the colours of their fierce rivals I do not know. In truth, it hardly matters.
What counts is that Tasmania, in a football sense, is back in the game. Long-time football writer Walter Pless senses a new golden age is coming: The doyen is not easily impressed, having lived through so many false dawns. But he sees the emergence of Walker and Abbott as a potential game-changer. ''I'm often a bit cynical these days, but I'm finding all this very exciting,'' says Pless. That makes two of us.