EXCLUSIVE: Empoli signed him, Barry Fry cajoled him and Vince Grella kicked him – meet Sutherland Sharks’ Tiger Turf grand final hero Nick Stavroulakis.
The nuggetty, box-to-box midfielder has been a mainstay in the NSW Premier League over the last three seasons after coming through the AIS and having spells in England and Italy.
In 2004, the Sydney Morning Herald rated him as one of ten players to potentially become the next big thing in Aussie football alongside players such as Ljubo Milicevic, Alex Brosque and Carl Valeri.
And while Stavroulakis, 24, has seen contemporaries at state league level such as Pedj Bojic, Chris Triantis, Matt Mayora and Shannon Cole get an A-League call - as well as best mate Mark Milligan who's gone on to even bigger things - the Sutherland Sharks man has remained largely out of the spotlight.
Perhaps for not much longer though. Last Saturday he bagged a memorable extra-time goal to win the Tiger Turf Cup (NSW's FA Cup) for the Sharks over Manly.
And this weekend, Stavroulakis and a number of other state league players will be desperate to impress as the NSW Premier League finals campaign kicks off.
The Sharks play Marconi at Bossley Park and a strong showing can only help the former Peterborough, Empoli and Parramatta Power player's chances of following in the footsteps of so many of his peers into the A-League.
You went through the development system at the turn of the new millennium with some well-known names. Tell us more...
Yeah, there was Carl Valeri, Brett Holman, Freddy Agius, Nathan Coe. I remember Valeri and Coe made the best XI of the world youth cup with the Joeys. I went to the AIS for two years on a scholarship with Steve O'Connor as coach. That team consisted of Mark Milligan, Billy Celeski, Frank Lagano and Valeri was there before he went to Inter. Jobe Wheelhouse was another.
You mentioned Holman, what's your take on how his career has panned out?
I know him quite well. The Aussie media gives it to him, but you know what? He says he's going to get caned no matter what. I tell you what though, he will close down every blade of grass and do the running for some of the more creative players like Timmy and Harry.
These are the things that fans who watch the ball and only the ball don't realise. Coaches understand it though. Some say if he leaves his shooting boots at home, then that's not enough but it's his running and closing down that can create for others.
Back to you and you left the AIS for the NSL and Parramatta Power under coach Nick Theodorakopoulos in 2003/4. What do you remember of that?
It was a first team contract but I ended up playing in their youth team against the AIS in the youth league finals. I felt bad because I'd done all the hard work with them and at semi final time I had to play for Parra. We beat AIS in Canberra. The Parra youth side was tops, we had Mark Bridge and Danny Vukovic.
However, prior to signing, I'd toured Italy with the AIS and that's how the Empoli thing came along. They spotted me and Frank Lagano and we stayed back with the club a week before the Italian season ended and trialled for a week. In the off-season we get a call saying we were successful, and we were signed in May 2003.
Vince Grella was at Empoli at the time, what are your recollections?
Vinnie helped us a lot, but he is a tough character. Everyone knows that on and off the pitch. We got there and he did not want to help us one bit. Because as he says, "Boys, if I help youse, you're going to get used to it. You've got to learn for yourself." Now I speak fluent Italian so it was the right thing. At the start I was like "C'mon, Vinnie" but it helped me.
We used to play matches against the first team and he whacked me once and just patted me on the head and said, "You right mate?" It gave me a laugh. What am I going to say to him? He toughened me up.
That wasn't the only tough lesson, was it?
In my European adventures, I've made some very bad decisions. Towards the end of my season at Empoli I had an opportunity to go to Hellas Verona in Serie B in their first team. I did it without Empoli's consent though, and through an unlicensed agent.
I saw a chance to play first team with Verona. I scored on my debut for them in a trial game. Jess Vanstrattan was Verona's keeper at the time and he said the club was really keen on me and they couldn't believe I was just 18 years old.
The deal fell through though. So I went back to Empoli but they got the shits big time with me. As I said, bad decisions...
So, you returned to Australia but the game at that time was in a state of flux in 2004 wasn't it?
Yeah, so I joined Wollongong in the Premier League on a short stint. The NSL had finished and actually the league was full of the big boys like Liam Reddy and Ante Milicic.
But soon after, I got a call to go to England for a trial and the adventure continued.
How did it go?
I ended up at Timmy's place as I know him [Tim Cahill]. And while I was there Timmy's agent Paul Martin asked me to play in a game as Barry Fry had been asking for players at Peterborough in League Two.
So I was told to be at a ground in a local trial match. They had Jamie Day at left back also playing for Peterborough. And it was one of those games when everything worked out for me - a once in a lifetime game. Barry grabbed me after the game and asked me who my agent was.
At the same time, I'd also got a call from Adam Hughes [currently with Adelaide United] at Doncaster asking me to come down. I'd played with Adam when I was at Wollongong. But Barry Fry rings me and says I know you're at Doncaster but the gaffer doesn't want you there, but we'll take you on a six month deal. You don't know how much of that to believe but I said fair enough.
Tell us about Barry and the Posh...
Barry was the most intimidating person I've met in my life. I didn't have an agent, so it was just me and him. He walked in and he goes, "This is what we're offering you, take it or leave it." He just had this aura and you knew he'd dealt with the big players. He was so shrewd and made me feel like I had no choice.
It was a standard wage. I think I was on 400 pounds but every point you win there was extra on top plus appearances on the team sheet and rent paid so it all added up.
Barry was an unbelievable motivator but he could flip that around and put you down in a spray. Watch the Ron Atkinson documentary and you'll see Barry and see what he's all about....
League Two, how was the standard and how was your time at Peterborough?
Box to box. 100mph but there were certain teams who could play football. But it was mostly balls in the air and just a lot 18 to 18. But the Peterborough side had some players who could play. The gaffer was Mark Wright, who used to play for Liverpool and England. I played there from 2005 to 2007.
Shane Huke [from the Central Coast] was also there at the time. I started off well but the club was going through turmoil over the time. I was there 18 months. I did enjoy myself but I was in and out of the side.
It was a nice town and I had Pedj Bojic down the road at Northampton and Nicky Rizzo at MK Dons not far away.
Then I got loaned out to Aldershot and another team called Eastleigh FC in the southern conference They had former Southampton left back Mark Dennis as assistant coach. He was a nutter. An absolute nutter. He was like Vinnie Jones - I've never seen anyone intimidate opposition teams in the tunnel like that.
It grew me up quickly. By the end of my time in Peterborough, though, Barry was trying to sell the club and it was in turmoil with managers being sacked.
So I came back just around the start of the second season of the A-League. I was allowed to train with Sydney FC under Terry Butcher and Crooky [Ian Crook, assistant coach] liked me but I had to find a team to play for so I signed with Sutherland.
You were coached by Brian Brown at the Sharks, tell us more about "Bomber"...
Him and Cliff Pointer[assistant coach] are great football brains. Brian Brown is one of the best managers I've had in Australia. He's won seven titles. He is unbelievable. It's like that European thing with a manager and a coach with those two. Bomber's brain is too good for a semi-pro league like the Premier League here in NSW.
He did wonders for my game. He pushed me on from my usual holding role and got me scoring goals. He took the club to a different level. The mentality completely changed. Now, each year it's a semi finals club.
And I love the all-weather surface at Seymour Shaw Park. Rain, hail or shine you can train on it. It's got a fine roll and it brings the best out in players. I'll take that pitch over some of the others any time.
And what about you, how would you describe yourself?
I cover every blade of grass. Some people say I'm similar to Massimo Murdocca because of my size and my work-rate. I just think, if I could just get my foot in there - even just a short term deal. I just want to get an opportunity in the A-League.