It was May 2021 and a new swashbuckling midfielder was showered in praise after having burst onto the scene in the A-League.
Standing at just over 183cm tall and possessing a wand of a left, Connor Metcalfe had just been handed the captain’s armband for the incumbent A-League Champions Melbourne City.
Having undergone a meteoric rise from youth player to stardom, Metcalfe’s name was beginning to pervade the Australian football vernacular, with many suggesting a Socceroos debut to be on the cards.
Having registered five goals and three assists from a free roaming midfield position, it was hard to argue against it. Aside from his seamless linkup with City’s Socceroos attackers Jamie Maclaren and Andrew Nabbout, Metcalfe’s dogged workrate and impeccable timing of tackles had caught the eye of onlookers.
These traits – in conjunction with his penchant for winning the ball in attacking areas – proved beneficial for City’s high intensity game style which heavily relies on each individual performing a defensive role for the team.
Even those possessing but a modicum of football knowledge could recognise his ability both in and out of possession. While he was earmarked as a talent from a young age having represented Australia multiple times at youth level, it felt like Metcalfe was being recognised as an ostensibly mature midfielder rather than a mere youth prodigy.
The attention even began to seep into Metcalfe’s daily life, with his closest teammates sparking discussion about a prospective debut for the national team.
With selection for June’s World Cup Qualifiers against Chinese Taipei, Kuwait and Jordan drawing closer by the day, the now 22-year-old midfielder sought to prepare himself for a potential phone call – one which eventually came towards the end of May.
The man on the other end of the call?
None other than Graham Arnold.
“You’ve done so well this season and I just wanted to give you the opportunity and a Socceroos call-up,” congratulated the Australian National Team manager.
A plethora of emotions enveloped Metcalfe as he revelled in having accomplished a childhood dream.
“I grew up in Newcastle so I was a big Newcastle fan growing up and my dream was to play for Newcastle,” said the twice capped Socceroo in an exclusive interview with Kick360.
However, to play for the national team he reverently supported as a kid was almost beyond the realms of his imagination.
“As soon as I got off the phone [with Arnold], I just rang my parents straight away and said wow I’m going to Kuwait and it’s gonna be amazing!” he said proudly.
“It’s cliché but I’ve honestly wanted it since I was a kid.”
In a footballing sense, Metcalfe’s childhood was often synonymous with playing above and beyond his physical size and capabilities, given he was often much smaller than his opponents.
In fact, the midfielder often reminisces on a photo taken as a 15-year-old while playing at the national championships for Victoria’s National Training Centre where an “8-year-old looking” Metcalfe was stood next to a NSW youngster who Metcalfe described as a “man child”.
This photo has since been etched into Australian NTC folklore with it being shown to prospective youngsters as a learning tool for illustrating how individuals develop at different stages.
As Metcalfe grew physically more imposing, his football continued a similar trajectory of growth. Ever since his debut in 2017/18 under former manager Warren Joyce, the Olyroo has added to his number of matches played season upon season.
This culminated in Metcalfe starting all 24 of City’s first 24 matches of last season before being ruled out of the side’s final two matches against Newcastle and crosstown rivals Melbourne Victory as well as their finals triumph.
For the 22-year-old, his rise to prominence comes as a result of self-belief and trust from those around him, including the club’s coaches.
“I just put it down to confidence to be honest,” said Metcalfe when explaining the keys behind his improvement.
“When you’re a young player coming through the men’s department, you take small steps whether it’s the first team or the NPL and it’s those first couple games that you just need to get out of the road to build your confidence and make you feel like you belong.
“Now I feel like I’ve nailed my position down and I know that I belong in this team.”
With a group of coaches supporting Metcalfe’s every minute at Melbourne City, his self-belief has come on leaps and bounds since establishing himself in the first team. Head Coach Patrick Kisnorbo is often lauded for his man-management skills, and this is no exception in the case of Metcalfe.
However, the star midfielder attributes much of his growth to the trust placed in him by former manager Erick Mombaerts who was the first coach to give Metcalfe consistent playing time at a senior level.
“The coaches believe in me and they push me to be my best,” said the recently capped Socceroo.
“It all started with Erick, he really believed in me and saw something in me that other coaches obviously didn’t.
“PK (Kisnorbo) was the assistant at the time and he’s just continued that trust…I’ve known him for two years now and he’s always wanted me to succeed.”
This trust in Metcalfe exemplified by the coaches at City is not merely isolated within the Melbourne-based club, rather, it is representative of a holistic desire to maximise the midfielder’s talent.
This is most evident in that Graham Arnold is a clear suitor of Metcalfe and placed belief in the prodigy both at a senior national and U23 level. When called-up to the Socceroos, the youngster was uncertain as to whether he would even feature in any of the World Cup Qualifying matches.
“When I got there I didn’t even expect to play to be honest! I was just happy to be there,” said Metcalfe.
“Arnie told me on day 1 of camp that I was going to play and I didn’t believe him…but he stuck to his word and I got on against Chinese Taipei and then played a full 90 against Nepal. It was an amazing experience.”
Arnold’s belief in Metcalfe carried over into the Tokyo Olympics where Metcalfe started in all three of the Olyroos matches. The midfielder produced a particularly impressive display in the team’s historic victory against Argentina which rose the feet of a nation almost entirely in lockdown back home.
“It was an amazing game, we didn’t even think we’d get a win (at the tournament) because we had such a tough group,” he explained.
“We went into the Argentina game and everyone had the right attitude and positivity and we just said stuff it, who are they? Who cares? They’re just blokes the same age as us who have got the badge.
“We went out there with no respect for them and I think that really showed with us going into tackles and us playing out from the back into midfield, it was just unbelievable – and then singing on the bus afterwards, it was just perfect.”
Although the Olyroos did not secure qualification to the knockout stage after losing their next two matches against Spain and Egypt, Metcalfe looks back on the Olympic experience with positivity as he cited it as an opportunity to test himself.
“I think I got a lot out of it individually by playing against some of the best players in the world around my age and more comparing myself to them because when do we have the chance to play against players like that?” he reminisced.
“It was a once in a lifetime experience and it was a really good opportunity to see where I’m at personally but I enjoyed every minute and I wish we went through but you can’t change it now.”
When placing his comments into context, it is easy to comprehend Metcalfe’s perspective and belief that the Olyroos came against some of the best young players on the planet.
In particular, the match against Spain saw the Olyroos test their paces against five players who had only recently been defeated in a penalty shootout in the European Championships Semi-Final against eventual winners Italy.
At times, it was difficult for Metcalfe to even believe who he was playing against!
“It’s mental, there was only about one time I pinched myself and it was when Marco Asensio got subbed on,” he explained.
“I was like okay this guy probably earns about €500,000 per week, he’s won the Champions League like three times and just seeing him run on, I thought wow this is actually real!
“Pedri is Barcelona’s prodigy at the moment and just seeing him in action and how silky smooth he is, I just look back now and I’m like far out, I’m gonna watch these players go on and have such amazing careers and I’ll be able to say I played against them at the Olympics which is pretty amazing!”
After some promising performances at the Olympics, some of Australia’s most promising talents were offered the opportunity to move overseas and progress their career. Former teammate Denis Genreau and Wellington Phoenix’s Cam Devlin have nailed down starting positions at Toulouse and Heart of Midlothian respectively since making their move from Australia’s top division.
While Metcalfe too was rumoured to have courted interest from European clubs throughout the off-season, the midfielder denies this gossip and was quick to dispel rumours regarding a potential move overseas.
With that said, however, Metcalfe would relish the opportunity to test himself at the highest level in the near future, especially after having a taste of it at the Olympics.
“Europe is a definitely a goal of mine, to step up and go over there and play in a big league is definitely a goal in the future,” he acknowledged.
However, the maturing midfielder equally recognises that there remains aspects of his game that need to improve before he makes this vital move overseas.
“For me it’s about mainly getting more stats on the board, whether it’s an assist a game or a goal a game, to get that interest from overseas they like seeing a midfielder that’s scoring five, six, close to 10 goals and getting 10 assists – I think that’s where I can improve,” he assessed.
In the meantime, the 22-year-old will shift his focus towards retaining Melbourne City’s domestic double as he hopes to play a part in a Championship triumph having missed out on last season’s victory against Sydney FC due to quarantine regulations imposed upon returning to Australia after his time with the Socceroos.
“We have to stay level-headed, it was a fantastic year but we’ve just got to almost forget about it and focus on this season,” said Metcalfe.
“Why not make it three trophies this season? That’s the mentality we’ve got to have as a team and I think we do have that culture at the club now so I think you’ll be watching a team that does want to win every trophy.
“We don’t want to be that side where we’ve won it once and then slack off and come third or fourth, we want to win the Premiership and we want to make the Grand Final.”
This opportunity to play in a Grand Final was something that eluded Metcalfe last season and continues to drive him to perform at his best on a daily basis.
“I’d love to play in a Grand Final!” he declared.
“Last year I was watching it in a boring hotel and I just wish I was there lifting that trophy because it looked like such a special moment but I’ll hopefully get to do that this season.”
Image Supplied: Melbourne City