Harrison Devenish-Meares has had a full range of experiences in training sessions, varying from using state of the art facilities in America, to feeling the wrath of Romanian football ultras.
The Round of 32 of the Romanian Cup is as unlikely as any stage for an Australian footballer to make his debut.
Yet, inside a 6,000 capacity stadium in Slobozia, some 15,000km from his home city of Sydney, Devenish-Meares found himself with his long-awaited opportunity to make his mark in the professional game.
The 24-year-old has taken a rather different path to most young, up-and-coming Australian footballers by moving across the Pacific Ocean to study biological health science at the University of South Florida, while also playing for the university’s football team, the South Florida Bulls.
He tells Kick360 that at the time he made the move, it felt like the only option for him.
“Honestly, it was 50-50 if football was going to be the career for me, and that was super generous to myself. I didn’t come through any academy, all the training I did was on my own, twice a week.
“No one took my talent as seriously as I wanted it to be taken, I wanted to train full time and I couldn’t find anywhere to do that in Australia, so I decided to go to college.”
Aged 20, Devenish-Meares was thrown into a completely unique environment, but soon learned to love the lifestyle of being a college student and athlete.
“College is like the movies, we would have a big match on a Tuesday, and then afterwards we would just throw a big party in someone’s apartment! They’re not small apartments either, there’s like 80-100 college kids in this small apartment, and the air conditioning wouldn’t be working so it became so hot. We’d then have another match on the Saturday and we’d do it all again that night!
“That was what it was like during the first six to eight months, because the squad had a lot of internationals and a lot of crazy personalities. My second and third years were a lot more focused on becoming and living like a pro, which meant no more midweek partying.
“But it was just an amazing lifestyle, we were training every morning and we had clubs from around Europe coming to South Florida to get tips on how to develop their own training bases.”
After three years in America, Devenish-Meares graduated and started to look for a club. He had trials lined up with a couple of MLS clubs, but after advice from his Romanian girlfriend, he took advantage of the break in their season to ask several clubs for a trial in order to sign in the January transfer window.
“She was saying, ‘come over to Romania, there’s lots of clubs’ and I didn’t realise how many clubs there are out there and just how crazy they were about football, but she was spot on.
“So I just rolled the dice to be honest, I sent out nine different emails to nine different clubs, one of them got back to me. At the time I didn’t realise it was one of the biggest clubs in the country in terms of support, but I just went for it.”
“It was probably good that I didn’t know what I was getting myself into because their would have been more pressure if I had known they were such a big club, but for me it was like any other training session, and I went and did well. The initial seven days turned into two weeks and then a month and then after two months of trialling I was signed.”
The club in question were three-time Romanian champions Rapid Bucuresti, a fallen giant since the turn of the century. They’re one of the best supported clubs in Romania, with a large, passionate fanbase, as Devenish-Meares found out.
Although he never made a first team appearance, he experienced first hand how brutal they could be.
“We lost a couple of games on the trot and they slashed our tyres and spray painted our training complex with profanities.
“In Romania, the word for ‘cabbage’ is like telling someone they’re stupid, it’s a common insult. One time we came to train at the stadium, and on the top there was 15 cabbages, each with someone’s name on, which was basically the fans telling us what they thought of us.
“They put nappies filled with – I don’t want to know what was in them – with our names on in dressing room.
“But the active support was crazy, with flares and banners. It’s proper Eastern European ultras.”
Despite impressing in training, Devenish-Meares’ lack of experience meant that the various managers at Rapid during his time at the club overlooked him. The frustration at not being able to play lead to Devenish-Meares pursuing a move to second division club SS Politehnica Timisoara, a club whose fans have a close friendship with Rapid’s.
“One thing I have learnt is that if you don’t have professional minutes, it doesn’t matter how good you are there’s going to be so many sceptics.
“For weeks at Rapid I would be the best player at training, and I’d go an ask why I’m in the team, all the players would ask ‘why aren’t you playing?’, and the coaches would say ‘we can’t risk you, you have no experience and we haven’t seen you in an official match.’
“There’s only one way to find out, otherwise I’m never going to play, and that’s why I left, even though I had another year on my contract.”
“Here [at SS Poli] I’ve been given the opportunity to play, and after two and half years of waiting, I’m out there with a smile on my face.”
And finally, after three years of college followed by two years of waiting patiently, Devenish-Meares gets his debut.
It’s Wednesday, September 22nd, away to fellow second-tier outfit Unirea Slobozia in the Romanian Cup. He keeps a clean sheet in a 1-0, making a remarkable 90th minute save to help his team progress. He’s understandably emotional at full-time.
“I actually broke down in tears at the full-time whistle. I couldn’t control myself, I was just bawling my eyes out.
“My teammates were shocked because none of them knew I hadn’t played any professional matches before based on how I was training, but once someone started saying it, they all got around me and gave me a big hug and a congratulations.
“It was the best feeling in the world, all of the emotion coming out of me right there on the pitch.”
The match confirmed to Devenish-Meares that his optimism and confidence in his own ability was justified.
“It had been five years since I’d left to go to college, and I’d said to myself then, in five years I’m either a pro, or that’s it, I’m getting a job using my degree back at home.”
“The risk is you’re 25, not making great money because you’re not playing, but you know you’re good enough. When do you stop? Are you going to be 30, with an empty resume and struggling to get employment?
“The guys I went to university with who weren’t athletes are getting jobs and working their way up in their respective fields, whilst I had that monkey on my back. In fact it was my Mom’s voice, saying ‘that’s enough, you’re not playing, it’s time to come home and get a job.’
“To get that monkey off the back, I think that’s where all the emotion came from.”
With minutes under his belt, Devenish-Meares’ next challenge is to establish himself and continue to play consistently, and although he played the following weekend in the league, SS Poli sacked their manager the following Monday, bringing uncertainty to his own spot as the club’s starting ‘keeper. However, he chooses to remain optimistic, continuing to work hard in training.
“I’ve gone through so many managers since being in Romania. The pressure’s much higher in the professional environment, and in the space of two years I’ve had probably seven different managers. At Rapid it was like, four in three months!
“You see who has the mental toughness to keep going. When a new manager comes in it’s like preseason again. Everyone’s running and kicking each other, fighting for positions, but of course if you’ve been pushing and fighting hard the whole time, no matter what, you’ve got a leg up on one of those guys that’s hitting reset again.
“I’m one of those guys, with that ‘Mamba Mentality’ that I developed at college, always working to improve yourself. Yes I was in favour with the last manager, and maybe someone’s going to come in and change that, but because I’m so focused on bettering myself, it’s another opportunity to prove to someone else what I can do.”
Looking further ahead to the next five years, Devenish-Meares has ambitions to play continental football, and knows that with momentum, he’s in the right place to achieve that.
“You string five, six games together and you become a starter, you might get a transfer and go from there. Once the cogs are turning, your momentum is building and it’s hard to stop.
“I think it’s one of Newton’s Laws isn’t it? I don’t know, I’m talking s*** now!
“Obviously I want to better myself as much as possible, but I’m a pretty adventurous person too and I want to see the world.
“I’d love to play in South America, maybe in Chile, or Argentina or Uruguay. It would be amazing to play there. But I’d also one day like to come home, maybe at the end of my career, to the A-League and get some recognition in Australia.”
For now though, he wants to nail down his spot as a starting goalkeeper at SS Poli, and then maybe one day face teams like the club he supports, Tottenham Hotspur, in European tournaments.