Tatura’s Vince Lia is arguably the best footballing export to come out of the Goulburn Valley having played more than 200 A-League games, represented his country and won a championship in the national competition.
I was lucky enough to chat with Lia last week about his journey so far, life and all things football.
Adem Barolli: You are obviously a Tat boy, how long did you play at the Ibises before making the move to Melbourne?
Vince Lia: I started at Tat when I was six years old and got involved after going to watch my Dad (Mimmo). Back then the youngest age group was the under-12s and from about seven I was playing with them.
I stayed at Tatura until I was about 16 before I switched clubs and started playing for South Melbourne youth team in the NSL (National Soccer League).
AB: You moved from Tatura to Melbourne at such a young age, was it an eye-opening experience and how did you handle it?
VL: It was huge. I went firstly as a youth team player and I was travelling back and forth from Shepparton and at 16 I started training with the first team.
Actually, just before I turned 17 I ended up signing a first team contract at South Melbourne and back then we were training at nights, so I was travelling up and back at nights and it became too much.
My schooling became affected as a result and I decided to move to Melbourne as a 17-year-old and finish off my schooling there, which made the transition a little bit easier and lifestyle a little more real.
I was still attending school, but I was a full-time footballer at the same time, I was training every day and I was a part of a full-time set-up at a professional club, a massive club and it was great for me at that age.
AB: You ended up playing 51 games for South Melbourne, what were some of the highs and lows throughout that period?
VL: I reckon making your debut as a teenager and being one of the youngest players to play in that league was a bit of a buzz.
And also to mix it with some of the best players like Con Boutsianis, Paul Trimboli and Steve Panopoulos, so there was some big players at the club at that time.
It was a successful club, it is a historic club and they have won a lot of championships, so as a youngster to be a part of that dressing room was pretty special.
AB: You played in the NSL towards the back end of its existence and then you were a part of the inaugural A-League season, how do you compare the two?
VL: I think at that time for me it was good, I got the opportunity to play against men that have been around the game for a long time.
However, the issues surrounding the league at that time were the race riots and the problems they had with ethnic clubs, and as a result some of the bigger clubs went back to being semi-professional.
So I think it needed to change and I think the biggest difference now is the professionalism within the clubs, the support and the ability to attract more quality players from overseas.
Whereas with the NSL we didn’t really ever attract players from Europe to come and play, so it was a really good standard for a kid my age at the time.
AB: In 2005 you signed with Melbourne Victory as a fresh-faced 20-year-old when the A-League began; were you nervous and what did you make of your experiences at Victory?
VL: It was weird because it was a new league and new club, so no-one knew what to expect. We obviously had some teething problems at the start, like most clubs, but straight away you could see the difference at being involved in a fully professional environment where we could attract players to come back and play.
We were training every day and at that point it was like a dream come true, I was living the life of a professional footballer — I loved it.
AB: You have had the opportunity to play with a few big names during your time, but how does it compare to representing your country at junior level and through two youth FIFA World Cups?
VL: It is grouse, that is all you want to do as a junior footballer. You aspire to be a Socceroo, we had to qualify and then I got the opportunity to play at two World Cups which was an unbelievable experience.
Representing your country is something that I will cherish and it is a memory that I will remember forever.
AB: Having played two World Cups, who was the best player you have played against?
VL: There is a guy from Brazil called Daniel Carvalho, I played against him at the under-23 World Cup and then he went on to play in Russia.
He was incredible, we actually beat them 3-2 that day, but he was so good on the night that no-one could really get near him. We were three-nil up and then he started turning it on; we were probably lucky to win that game. He is probably the one best technically that I have played against.
Lionel Messi was also in that tournament and we played Argentina before the World Cup, but he didn’t come on in that game.
AB: What was it like to be a part of a championship winning side at Victory in 2007?
VL: Unfortunately I didn’t play in that game, but I was a part of the squad that won the grand final.
It was a bittersweet moment because we were doing so well, but at the same time I was a young kid that wanted to play and I felt that I deserved a few more opportunities than what I got.
But the reality was the squad that we had was so good, it was just too hard to break into that midfield. But it was a good experience nonetheless, playing with those players and having the success and winning the championship is nice, albeit I wasn’t a part of that team.
AB: Did you end up leaving Victory at the end of that season due to a lack of opportunity?
VL: They didn’t renew my contract at the end of that season, but I had it in my head that I wanted to leave and pursue other options to then play regular first team football.
I don’t know what I would have done if they offered me a contract at the time, but looking back I think I still would have tried to move on and find some regular football because it was an important time in my career.
At that time I then chose Wellington and I ended up playing the first team football that I went there for.
AB: You only signed a one-year deal at Wellington, is it fair to say you made the most of that year?
VL: They only offered me the one-year deal and I thought ‘‘Yeah, I will go do one year and do well enough to either stay or get something else maybe in Europe’’. But in the end I signed the one-year deal and it turned into 10.
AB: Was your heart ever set on going to play overseas or in Europe?
VL: As a kid I think everyone does and after a couple of seasons I went to Europe and trialled with different clubs, but that never really worked out for me for whatever reason.
In the end it looks like I will be staying in the A-League for my whole career and that is something that I can be proud of — but the European dream was alive when I was a young kid, that is for sure.
AB: You spent 10 years at Wellington, surely that club means the world to you considering they even held the testimonial earlier this year?
VL: It does. I have been a pro now for 15 years and I have been in Wellington for 10 of those.
It is going to be a big part of my life forever, they will always hold a special place in my heart and having that testimonial was a good way to say goodbye.
It was a great night and I look back on my time at Wellington very fondly.
AB: You’ve been through a lot at Wellington, a few preliminary finals and a bad knee injury early on. What were some of the highs and lows for you?
VL: I guess the big low for me was my second year when I missed a big part of the season with a knee injury at such a young age. The following year I came back and played a lot of football in a season in which we came one game away from playing off in a grand final.
That was the year Paul Ifill and Chris Greenacre came to the club and we had the privilege of watching Ifill do his thing day in and day out, which was amazing.
AB: You went on to play 197 games at Wellington; are you disappointed not to go on and play 200 games?
VL: It is a little bit disappointing not to make the double ton, but that is football. I would’ve made it had I not got injured in my second year, but I suppose I am just lucky to play 197 games.
But to be so close is a little disappointing, in the end though you don’t play football for those kinds of milestones.
AB: 217 A-League games and only four goals, what are your thoughts on that return?
VL: I used to score so many times when I was young, but then the goals just seemed to dry up as soon as I turned professional. I don’t know what happened and now as I get older I am moving further and further away from the goals.
Hopefully I get a few more, but I don’t think you will see too many more coming from me.
But who knows, maybe I can score another one like I did against Central Coast last season. That was by far my best goal.
AB: Is it true that you brokered your own deal to sign at Adelaide?
VL: Yes I did and I have had a bit of response in relation to an article I did talking about not having an agent.
That was my opinion alone and I thought that someone of my experience and for someone who has been around for as long as I have, I didn’t really need an agent to get involved and take a cut.
Whereas a kid coming through, I think it is important for kids to get the right advice from the right agent — every situation is different.
AB: Adelaide won its most recent FFA Cup game; what do you make of the competition?
VL: I love it, I think it is great. It obviously has a long way to go to where we want it to be. But look at the FA Cup in England and how much support and enjoyment it brings people; hopefully we can do the same here.
It is also another chance for silverware, which clubs want to win, and also it gives the opportunity for semi-professional footballers to test themselves against the A-League clubs.
AB: Promotion and relegation has been a hot talking point in Australia; what are your thoughts on it?
VL: I think it is too soon, but I do think it should happen. The A-League is quite new and there are only 10 teams at the moment and some of those are struggling as it is.
I also don’t know how efficient it would be or how many teams from the lower leagues could compete on a professional basis and survive.
I just don’t think at the moment the competition is ready for promotion and relegation, but I don’t think we need more teams in the league to promote the standard.
AB: You are nearing the end of your career, have you thought about life post football?
VL: I haven’t really thought that far ahead, but I have done a Sports Management degree and I am currently doing a Business Management degree.
I am just a little bit undecided about which route to go down, it is a scary kind of time when you are coming towards the end and all these emotions are running through your head.
However, I am definitely going to try and use this next year or so to help set myself up and get some experience in the area that I want to get in to.