You could say Shaun Ontong was born into football. Now, as one of the youngest professional Australian coaches working overseas, football's virtually inescapable.
Shaun’s father Paul Ontong was a spiky NSL midfielder with Mooroolbark and Canberra Arrows, where he played behind Scottish playmaker Tom Sermanni, who of course went on to coach the Matildas and USA.
The pair were tight on and off the pitch with Ontong best man at Sermanni’s 1987 wedding. Ontong’s wife, however, was a last-minute withdrawal as she went into labour early with Shaun.
And when Shaun came into the world, as soon as he could, he was following dad into kicking a football around. Fast forward to 2007, Ontong had captained the Young Socceroos and was beginning an A-League career that would see him turn out for Adelaide United and Newcastle Jets.
Sadly, though, injuries scuppered his burgeoning career.
“With injuries, he was blighted, he had a big career ahead of him. And he never, unfortunately, realised his potential as a player,” Sermanni told FTBL.
“But he’s gone on and I’ve kept in touch with him over the years. If you look at his character, he’s got the attributes to be a very good coach.
“He’s hard-working, focused and he’ll know what he wants with people. He’s gone offshore to develop his coaching career. And I think all those experiences stand you in good stead whenever you come back to Australia.
“It gives you an education life-wise and coaching-wise when you go overseas to develop your career.”
CHECK IN TO INDIA’S “HOTEL FOOTBALL”
These days Shaun Ontong quite literally lives, breathes, sleeps and eats football.
After the challenges of coaching part-time players in the NPL in Victoria, Ontong’s office is now a “football hotel” with North-East United in the Indian Super League.
Due to limited options, the ISL club designed an innovative solution to house all players and coaching staff in one hotel.
While it has potential for a YouTube reality series (think, “Check In To Hotel Football”), Ontong is reveling in a professional environment.
The Aussie's six-year journey as a rookie coach owes much to Arthur Papas, who has mentored him during two stints in India and with NPL clubs Oakleigh and Green Gully during their FFA Cup runs.
“I was fortunate enough that Arthur became my mentor early once I stopped playing. I actually played under him for a season but that was when I knew the playing days were past me,” Ontong told FTBL from his Indian base.
“He saw something in me. He took me under his wing and guidance.
“We went to India in the I-League with Dempo and their national U-23s. That was the big professional challenge for me.
“I completed an apprenticeship under him. Pencil, pad, learning and taking notes: learning and learning.
Ontong's unique football journey has now returned him to the world's fastest growing country, and he's loving every minute of it.
“It’s a unique and crazy place,” he said.
“The room cleaners tend to know my routines when I’m out each day at training. Obviously it’s hotels for the team on away trips, so it’s hotels all year.
"But who am I kidding? I love it!”
Ontong is only 31-years-old but has six years experience in the coaching game.
Like 38-year-old Papas, who has since left India to join J-League powerhouse Yokohama Marinos, working with former Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou, Ontong’s horizons are wide.
Part of this challenge is moving up to take Papas’s second assistant role and working with North-East United head coach Eelco Schattorie.
“Eelco had 30 years in coaching across the world and is a great person to learn from,” Ontong says of the Dutchman.
“For my growth, I’m learning from a different coach with different ideas.
“Both Arthur and Eelco have a great way of getting the best out of players. Though the focus right now is to qualify for the finals here in India.
“Every league has its own challenges. I’m really thriving with this particular challenge,” he said.
North-East have some prestige within Indian football; they're owned by Bollywood heartthrob John Abraham and play at the picturesque Indira Ghandi Stadium.
United currently sit fourth in the league as they aim for that elusive finals finish.
‘PLAYERS CAN SEE THROUGH THE CRAP’
Ontong is now developing his own philosophy and ideas around man management.
“Players can see through the crap,” he said.
“If you are authentic and genuine, that is a big starting point. Consistency in the message, treating players as people and communicating with them about their values.
“You’re not there to be a player’s friend. You earn respect over time by being consistent and honest. That’s what I believe.”
He also has views on Australian football, and believes that being overseas right now is better for his development than being in Australia.
“I’m back in professional, full-time football," he said.
“Sometimes that’s the challenge in the NPL. What drives me is a professional set up. So your contact time with players is amazing. As a coach, you thrive in these environments.
“You can build relationships, get into some detail about what your expectations are, and have video sessions. Contact time is important.
“Coming into this environment from the NPL was an adjustment. But a really good one. At NPL level, while it’s not the players’ fault, most are not full time so it’s a challenge.
“You have them at training for a very short period of time. They may’ve had a hard day at work as a labourer for example, and you’re dealing with a lot of different challenges as a result."
FUTURE A-LEAGUE AND SOCCEROOS COACHES
Australian football is suffering from a myriad of challenges, but there is an exciting plethora of young coaches emerging: Ben Cahn, Papas, Ruben Zadkovich, Ontong and others.
After the Ange, Popa and Arnie eras end, this next generation could be the stars of Australia's future.
From Oakleigh to Bollywood, semi-professional to living in a football hotel: Shaun Ontong’s learning curve continues in India. Keep an eye out for him in the coming years.