This time last year, Mark Natta was a name known only to the most fervent of Wanderers fans.
Part of the club academy since its inception, the young West Sydney native had worked his way through the ranks from the U14s to their National Youth League side, before a surprise inclusion in the team bubble at last season’s restart.
With his gangly frame and thick mop of curly hair, the teenager couldn’t look further removed from the stereotypical ‘flashy’ pro footballer, but on the pitch, his cool demeanour, technical ability and reading of the game has seen him emerge as one of the most exciting prospects in the A-League, rarely putting a foot wrong at the heart of defence since his first grade call up, just six months ago.
Given his rapid rise, one could be forgiven for thinking of the young centre back as an “overnight sensation”, but that moniker does a huge disservice to the many years of hard work, sacrifice and setbacks the Wanderers rookie has faced along the way.
“Who’s that kid at the back?”
“He came in to the Wanderers set up in year one.” Explains Xanthi FC assistant coach Arthur Diles, who worked with Natta during his time in the Wanderers Academy.
“I got to work with him as his coach in the NYL side. We brought him up at quite a young age, and he was quite talented from the very beginning.
“He came to us as a talented youngster and showed a good level of progression. He wasn’t one of those one hit wonders that comes in really good, but fade away.”
Diles’ spell at the Wanderers earned him a reputation as one of Australia’s greatest youth coaches, with proven track record of spotting and harnessing talented young stars.
For him, Natta has all the tools required of an elite level defender.
“I look at him as a modern centre back, physically he’s excellent, in terms of in the air, his speed and his recovery runs.
“Technically very solid. His long balls could probably be improved a bit, but his short passing, breaking lines, he’s comfortable doing that.
Natta also has the mentality; the unseen, almost intangible qualities needed to succeed.
“Mark is very level headed, very grounded. His mentality and mindset are great.
“He’s very humble, very hardworking, he’s come from a good upbringing.
“He’s a kid who just goes about his business, trains really hard, always looking to learn. He’s like a model citizen, just one of those players you love to coach. Always willing to listen and adapt his game to what you’re telling him.”
Diles chuckles as he recalls the moment he knew Natta was really something special.
“I remember the debut I gave him in the NYL, he had only been back from a long term injury for a matter of weeks. It was actually a derby game against Sydney FC, and I just threw him in there. I had no doubt that he wouldn’t let himself down, or his teammates down, and he certainly wasn’t going to let me down.
“I remember that game clearly, because he was doing things and you could just sense the crowd were admiring him. They were applauding things that he did. My wife happened to be there and after the game on the way home, she said to me ‘who was that kid at the back? The boy with the fluffy hair! He’s so talented.”
“I’ve got all the time in the world for players like Mark”
One person who certainly agreed with Mrs. Diles’ analysis was his new head coach, Carl Robinson.
“The first time I went in to the club, Ian Crook, who is the academy director, came to me and said he thinks the young boy has got something. He’s got exceptional talent, and calmness and poise on the ball, but he’s just not played.
“He missed six-eight weeks of pre-season, but when we got him out on the training field, I could instantly see things in him that are very hard to coach. He was very calm on the ball, he understood positional play very, very well, he was quick, his reading of the game was exceptional” Robinson said.
Natta’s attributes, and his impressive pace, instantly reminded Robinson of another speedy, ball playing centre half he knew all too well; former Wales teammate Danny Gabbidon.
“All defenders make mistakes, but it’s about how they recover and get back in to position once they’ve made those mistakes, and Gabs was always great at that.
His recovery speed and positioning was excellent, and Mark has got that.
The youngster’s ability with the ball at his feet also echoed that of the Cardiff City icon.
“I want to play a certain way, I want to build out from the back and play the game on our terms. He’s left footed, and he’s exceptional with his quality; he’s able to pick passes, whether it’s simple ones, or splitting midfield lines and playing through the zones, or it’s hitting long diagonal balls, he’s got that ability and poise on the ball.”
Robinson also echoes Diles’ assessment of his nature.
“He’s been a pleasure. He’s a very quiet boy and that’s one aspect of his game that I’m trying to work on, to get him more vocal. As a centre back you can’t be quiet, because forwards will try and dominate you, so you have to let them know you’re there.
“He’s very humble. He’s very quiet. He comes to match days on a Saturday with his parents!
“He’s got the humility. He lives at home with his mum and dad, and has a good support network around him, which is incredibly important for player welfare, which nowadays gets overlooked.
He’s great to work with, he wants to learn, he’s always thinking could have I done this or that better. I’ve got all the time in the world for players like that”
Speaking to Robinson, it’s clear how highly the former Wales international rates his young charge.
He entrusted Natta throughout the season, including in big games, but the Welshman is also keen to continue to push and challenge the academy graduate.
“In professional football, everyone knows the second season is the hardest. In the first year, there’s no expectation.
“We haven’t wanted to overload the young boys in their first season, so we’ve been drip feeding them and focusing on roles and responsibilities within our structures and systems, but come pre-season there’ll be a lot more detail to help take them on to the next level.
“He’ll have to continue to grow and develop, and how far he can go is up to him. I was just the lucky one who got to give him is opportunity this year.
“The hard work starts now.”
“It’s a dream come true”
With such mature showings on the park, it is incredibly easy to forget just how young the Wanderers starlet is, but speaking to Natta, you immediately get a feel for the shyness and humility that both Diles and Robertson highlighted.
No one seems more surprised than his breakthrough than the player himself.
“I joined when I was 13 and played every age group. Now that I’m in the first team, it’s almost a dream come true really” Natta said.
“You grow up idolising these players who were at the club when I was in the academy and now you’re playing alongside them… it’s really cool.”
“At the start of the year I was expecting to hopefully get on the bench and maybe play a few games here and there. I’ve maybe got a bit fortunate with injuries, and given a chance early in the season and just had the chance to show what I can do for the team.”
At every opportunity, he shies away from the spotlight, instead choosing to thank or praise the impact of those around him; be that the club, the coaching staff or his teammates.
“He’s [Robinson] been amazing with me. He was willing to give me a chance.
“It’s not easy… [but] the players around me have really helped, the other centre backs talk to me throughout the game and help me with positioning and concentration and confidence. The whole team have helped me feel comfortable.”
His coaches were full of praise for his mindset, and this is the one area that Natta seems to feel comfortable in taking some credit. For him, it is his resilience in the face of adversity, rather than any physical or technical proficiency, that has played the biggest role in his rise.
“I think for me, the mental side of the game is important.
“I’ve had a few injuries and setbacks, like missing certain tournaments and games for representative teams but just to be able to bounce back from those, especially the injuries, to come back and keep playing. “
Even then he is keen to highlight the importance his family have played in keeping him grounded and focused.
“My family have been really helpful for me. They’ve been very positive with me and helped me to keep positive and looking forward to the future.”
If his first season is anything to go by, that future is looking exceedingly bright for the Wanderers’ wonder-kid.
Images Supplied – Western Sydney Wanderers