The story of a young Australian footballer grasping at cherished European opportunities is nothing new in the modern transfer ecosystem.
Following these European expeditions, the path to reintegrate players into Australia’s top flight has been a successful endeavour for some, yet for others it involves inconceivable goals within the state-based National Premier Leagues with the ambition of securing a trial with an A-League club.
Avondale FC’s Stefan Valentini is emblematic of these characteristics, having situated himself to play football in both Europe and Australia in both semi-professional and professional environments.
His strong frame and lightning speed is complemented with a gracious touch and a powerful right foot, diverse in his positioning in both striker and winger roles.
In his youth days he was deployed as a number 10 and a winger, rarely putting a foot wrong in the developmental systems at National Premier Leagues clubs across the country as he ventured from the suburbs of Perth of Balcatta FC to the lakeside training backdrop of South Melbourne FC.
“I won the Under 20s player of the year for Balcatta (NPL WA) and I moved up into the first team. Just before I turned 18 I wanted to go to Melbourne to play, so I went over to South Melbourne Under 20s because I just wanted to make a name for myself somewhere else other than Perth just to kind of get my name around” Valentini said.
His return to Perth signified the genesis of an exciting young forward eager to imprint his name in the history books for Perth Glory’s successful academy sides.
“The youth team coach John Gibson gave me a call and told me to come over to Perth and trial with them, I went back to Perth, trialled with the Glory youth, signed a contract with them and that’s how it started with the youth team.”
Valentini was subsequently named the 2015 Dylan Tombides Young Player of the Year at the conclusion of the NPL campaign.
Given his rise from the development ground of an A-League academy, Valentini’s success in the National Premier Leagues was rewarded with a competitive debut in Australia’s nationwide cup competition, the FFA Cup, playing in the Perth Glory side that made the final in 2015.
“I moved up into the first team and made my debut for the first team, debuted against the Newcastle Jets in the FFA Cup. I remember coming off the bench, came on and did really well.
“Going into that, they were pretty physical players so I had to compete with them. I was nervous coming on but I did really well, I ended up winning a penalty during the game in extra time, was brought down by (Jason) Hoffman in the penalty box and Marinkovic scored.
“We ended up going into penalties… I ended up taking the second penalty and (Mark) Birighitti was in goals and I knew him through family so walking up to the ball I was like ‘far out Birighitti is there’, he smirked at me when I was going to take it and I put it away and we ended up winning on penalties.”
A Journey in Germany
Captivating cameo performances in the FFA Cup caught the eye of overseas agents, who deemed him ready and able for the next step despite the absence of a senior A-League appearance with the gory.
Valentini deemed it the right time to be thrusted into a European environment for both footballing and climate purposes, with the pristine and clear summer of Perth juxtaposed against the coolness of a German winter.
“I got contacted by a German agent, he said that he’d been watching me for a while, following my journey in Melbourne and in the youth league in Perth” Valentini explains.
“I decided to pursue the opportunity, we agreed it was the right thing to do. When I was over there, it was snowing and it was the first time I had never seen snow… it was a weird feeling.”
A multitude of Australians have played in the Regionalliga, with Alou Kuol presently adding to the extended list.
“He took me to Eintracht Braunschweig’s youth team playing in the Regionalliga North and I trialled for a week and a half and I had a really good trial… they said I was up to it and we want to offer you a contract. It happened very quickly, it was a once in a lifetime trial, when you do everything right… then they signed me.
“I was playing a lot and adapting to football there and the Regionalliga is a tough league, it’s not easy… hard to adjust to but it was good that I was playing.”
Following an encouraging and engaging first year in Germany, the often harsh and unforgiving realities of European football caught up with Valentini with a combination of injuries and circumstance leaving him searching elsewhere.
“When you’re playing football all is good and well, you’re happy and everything and focusing on football and in a professional environment it was really good but it was getting tough, I wasn’t playing, there were first team players dropping down, most of the time strikers… I was a bench player and trying my best.”
A university town in north Germany, Erndtebrück was the next destination, providing an intriguing project and differing playing standards to one of the 2. Bundesliga.
“A team called TuS Erndtebrück, they had just been promoted to the Regionalliga, in a small city… it wasn’t in the most professional environment but they played in the Regionalliga West.
“By then I had adapted to the German lifestyle, I was playing well, playing every week… we ended up getting relegated but I was struggling a lot with injuries.”
Home is where the heart lies
A return to Australia beckoned, with overseas-based Australians often afforded opportunities in the A-League following stints in Germany – a trial at least.
However for Valentini, the road back to the A-League was inhibited through both injuries and the desire from exterior forces to play at a state-league level.
“There was talk to get a trial at Central Coast, Brisbane and I decided to come back to Australia to get my injury sorted.
“I ended up getting a trial with Melbourne City… I trialled there for two weeks and I had a really good trial, one of those trials when you do everything right.
“Warren Joyce who was the coach at the time said the squad was full and we can’t sign you, we want you to play in the NPL Victoria and then we can see how you go from there, we want you to score 15+ goals and we can talk.”
To the NPL Victoria Valentini went, linking up with relative new boys Avondale FC who boasted an extensive CV of signing former A-League youth and senior talent as the side manifested into a must-watch side within the extensively competitive second tier.
With training a nightly affair in the community-driven National Premier Leagues, a stark disparity is evident between the fully professional A-League sides and those further down the pyramid, furthering the perceived gap between the semi-professional and professional tiers within Australia.
As Valentini describes, the unwavering ambition to succeed within football on a full-time basis is what drives many NPL players daily.
“As an NPL player, you’re semi-professional so most players have full time jobs and you train three times a week. To juggle work and soccer it’s not easy but as a footballer you want to make it happen because if you still have goals and you want to make that next step you have to train hard”
“When you’re in a professional environment you’re training every day… quality wise you have quality players in the NPL. I back myself, I believe I can play in the A-League but the reason why a lot of players don’t make that step is the physicality side and even tactically there is a big difference as well.”
This stark contrast between the effective top tier and second tier in the Australian footballing pyramid presents a number of complexities with the National Second Division (NSD) earmarked for commencement in a year’s time, for which Avondale have pencilled themselves into the running for as a part of the Australian Association of Football Clubs.
Avondale are notable for pushing Sydney FC to extra time in the FFA Cup in 2018, and Valentini describes his experiences at the club as one of the most eye-opening experiences within his footballing career.
“Since I joined the club the effort (staff) they’ve put in is on another level. They’re there organising sessions, their player management, they put that onto us and they place it in our minds. Our whole team has such good relationships will all three coaches and the club, they’re always there for us, calling us, helping us out especially as interstate boys to come to a club and for them to look after us with anything we need because they want us to be as comfortable as possible.
Valentini’s eye catching form in both 2019 and 2020 seasons was taken to another level in 2021 where despite the early curtailment of the campaign, Valentini was the top goalscorer within the NPL Victoria, scoring 14 goals in 15 games with a firm eye and view to take Avondale to the next level as well as position himself for an A-League contract.
He credits his goalscoring success to Avondale and the developmental structures that are in place from a coaching and playing perspective.
“They’ve believed in me since day one and within my individual development I feel like I learnt a lot.
“They embed this into your mind what is needed to make that next step to win the league, to go far in the FFA Cup and that just shows from this year in how well we’ve done as a team.
“We got to another level this year because everyone is on the same page, it’s the best group I’ve ever been a part of. I’ve never been apart of something like this, it’s the most fun I’ve ever had and the most I’ve learned as well.
“I’ve done really well but that’s due to the fact of the coaches believing me and my teammates backing me and knowing my qualities and getting the best out of me”
Among other NPL Victoria bolters such as fellow Avondale teammates Yusuf Ahmed, Kristian Trajceski, Liam Boland, Yitay Towns and a plethora of others across the state, Valentini is a firm believer that performances translate into opportunities arising within the A-League.
“We got to another level this year because everyone is on the same page, it’s the best group I’ve ever been a part of. I’ve never been apart of something like this, it’s the most fun I’ve ever had and the most I’ve learned as well.”