Melbourne Heart youngster Jeremy Walker shows the commitment young Tasmanian footballers need to carve out a career in the Hyundai A-League.
Australian football has worked hard in recent years to improve development pathways for young players, but there are still gaps in the system where talented kids can miss out on opportunities.
Tasmanian footballers, in particular, face a hard journey from the lower leagues, according to Melbourne Heart youngster Jeremy Walker.
Tchnically the first Tasmanian to play in the Hyundai A-League (Wanderers keeper Jerrad Tyson was born there but moved to Queensland before reaching his teens), the 19-year-old caught the eye with his assured debut against Sydney FC in round 9.
But with football competing against the stranglehold Australian Rules Football has on the best young athletes from Tasmania, offering clear and effective pathways remains a high priority.
The lack of a local A-League team means young footballers in the Apple Isle must be prepared to make sacrifices if they are to carve out a career in the game.
And after leaving home at 16 to move to Hobart and work his way through the Tasmanian Institute of Sport-s National Training Centre programs, Walker understands that huge commitment only too well.
Walker credits Dean May, his coach at the Institute, for his eventual move to Melbourne but says football in the region needs more support if the game is to stop talented players slipping through the cracks.
“There are more players coming through,” Walker tells footballaustralia.com.au.
“I went through the Institute program the same as Will (Abbot, fellow Tasmanian and Heart Youth teammate), and Dean May is looking to develop the program a lot so there-s definitely a lot more young players coming through.
“There-s not too much backing of the program unfortunately, which it makes it a bit tough on the coaches and staff to get the support of the community in Tasmania and some youth players have already missed out because they didn-t get that chance.
“Other National Youth League teams have another team they feed from but if you-re down in Tassie you-ve got to go elsewhere to have a crack at something bigger and better.
"I-ve got a lot of mates that were in the Institute team but because they didn-t want to move, they haven-t gone as far.
“It-s only because I knew Dean and was involved in that program that I had the ability to go and train at different places and meet new people, that if I hadn-t met them I wouldn-t have the chance to come to Melbourne or be picked up by the Heart.”
May, now working with Football Federation Tasmania, said the likes of Walker and Abbott show that there is talent in the state that is starting to come through, but admits they are also an example about how difficult that pathway can be.
“We-re working hard to get into the regional areas,” he says.
“There is a requirement for boys to relocate to Hobart. The big issue was always the link with the A-League clubs but the Federation has forged links with Melbourne Victory, who sponsor the state league down here and we-ve got a good partnership with their youth team and they have first choice on our players. And we have links with Brisbane Roar and Melbourne Heart, which allows us to get players over for trials.
“With Jeremy relocating from north Tasmania down to Hobart, he had to leave his own family and move in with a rental family; there-s a lot of self-motivation required to make it to the next level and Jeremy-s the best example of that. And with him making his A-League debut we can use that as a good example of what-s required to make it to the next level.”
Victory-s ties to the state league are a great way for young Tasmanian players to connect with the A-League, according to May, who also said there is a disconnect between the state league clubs and those looking to move upwards.
“I have to bring the players and mainland clubs together, and have a battle down here with the clubs, who unfortunately don-t always see the bigger picture. But as I try to explain to the boys to make a career in football you do have to leave Tasmania.
"The people coming through now are seeing reward rather than just talk, so we-re getting more people coming into the program.”
For Walker, a mature and intelligent young man, the focus is now on making the most of his opportunity at Heart. His cool first-team performances against Sydney and Perth Glory, which he credits to the support he received from senior teammates, show he is on the right track and already becoming a beacon for other young players from his home state.
“A couple of us youth boys had been training with the senior squad full time (before the Sydney game) so it wasn-t too hard fitting in and they make sure the youth team plays the same way as the first team so it wasn-t a big jump.
“And all the players are really supportive as well. Just any other game, they didn-t hype it up too much and made sure I was aware I did a good job after the game.
“I speak to Dean quite often and there is a batch of players down there now who are younger than what I was when I was there. One boy that-s moved from the town I grew up in contacted me on Facebook and asked for some advice for moving into the program [in Hobart]. If I can help people like that it-s a bonus.”