Moving south once seemed the most common next step for Queensland’s finest male and female footballers but recent seasons have seen homegrown heroes buck the trend by laying a direct route to the professional game.
Brisbane Roar young gun Dylan Wenzel-Halls helped shine a light on the improving local pathway when he swapped Western Pride and Briggs Road for Suncorp Stadium and the Hyundai A-League two years ago.
The striker’s 24-goal 2018 changed the conversation and increasing numbers of NPL Men’s and NPL Women’s products are following in his footsteps and those of the forerunners who laid the foundation for making the step up from the competition’s outset.
Hyundai A-League newcomers Western United turned to the NPL Queensland to augment their star-studded roster in January 2020, securing the services of emerging central defender Oskar Dillon. After a brief tenure in the youth ranks at Brisbane Roar circa 2015, Dillon became a staple of Gold Coast backlines, having turned out for City, United and Knights respectively.
Racking up a vitrine of accolades, consummated by a Grand Final victory over Olympic FC in season 2019, it was his NPL Men’s Young Player of the Year award that earned him plaudits in the shape of Mark Rudan, who promptly named him Western United’s first piece of January window business.
Rubbing shoulders with the likes of Alessandro Diamanti and Besart Berisha, it’s his tenacity that has seen him find his feet in Tarneit, locking down a starting spot as they hunt for a Finals Series berth. Having elevated his game to another level in just six months, the prodigious defender will be looking to build on his debut season and establish himself as one of the competition’s top prospects.
It was just three years ago that former Brisbane Roar Youth player Danny Kim moved to NPL Victoria to hone his craft with Hume City after failing to secure a senior contract at the Brisbane Roar. Then, in 2019, Warren Moon’s Lions FC beckoned.
A product of the former FFA Centre of Excellence, Kim’s innate vision and penchant for a tackle has seen him smothering attacks from the Lions’ nucleus since returning to the NPL Queensland in 2019. Of an impressive footballing pedigree, his father Kim Pan-keun having been capped 51 times by South Korea, Kim’s efforts in Lions’ Premiership winning 2019 campaign garnered the 22-year-old a Player of the Year nomination, and made him a surefire signing when Moon took over the Roar’s top job.
Now linking defence with attack in the Black and Orange, the cultured midfielder experienced a baptism of fire when he debuted off the bench in a single-goal loss to Adelaide United in July. Should Kim continue his stellar rise, a permanent move to the Roar is on the cards as his career goes from strength to strength.
While NPL Queensland to Hyundai A-League transfers are in vogue, vying for opportunities can be extremely competitive among the swathe of semi-professional talents in the state. As such, many players have turned their gaze to South-East Asia to get a taste of the professional game. Former Western Pride talisman Harrison Sawyer charted a course to the Philippines after whetting his appetite with Newcastle Jets. Finding success first with Davao Aguilas and then with Tai Po in Hong Kong, Sawyer highlighted a legitimate path to the top, one later pursued by another prolific Queenslander. The towering centre-forward will now be focused on securing his next big break after linking up with Gold Coast Knights in a mid-season move.
Hailing from a Western Pride strike-force that included the likes of Wenzel-Halls and Sawyer, Andy Pengelly boasts bags of pedigree. Formerly a midfielder in his youth, a seven hat-trick season with the Pride U20s saw him transition into one of the marquee goalscorers in Queensland.
Enjoying a scintillating 2019 season with Owen Baker’s Brisbane Strikers, his 52-goal haul across the NPL Queensland and FFA Cup competitions made him one of the hottest properties in Australian football. But with a Hyundai A-League opportunity not immediately materialising, Pengelly instead opted to test his professional mettle in the Singapore Premier League.
Joining Lion City Sailors, he christened his debut with a goal in a 1-1 draw. The intervention of COVID-19 unfortunately cut short his Singapore soiree after an exciting start.
Linking back up with Peninsula Power following his return to Australia, the club with whom he was promised to join prior to signing with Lion City Sailors, it’s only a matter of time before Pengelly’s goalscoring exploiting places him in prime position to return to the next level.
Queensland’s premier women’s competition has long been a breeding ground for the Westfield W-League stars of tomorrow. The likes of Allira Toby, Natalie Tathem and Ayesha Norrie came to prominence through the NPL Queensland Women’s competition, with all three subsequently enjoying substantial success in the Westfield W-League and Norrie’s burgeoning career taking her all the way to LA Galaxy OC in the United States. While a steady stream has been flowing through to the professional ranks since the competition’s inception, 2019 saw an influx with several exciting talents taking to the national stage.
With many of their Westfield Matildas representatives being poached either by rival clubs or overseas offers, Brisbane Roar turned their recruitment gaze to the local scene ahead of the 2019/20 campaign, granting chances to a selection of Queensland’s best and brightest.
Rylee Baisden is a triumph of the NPL Queensland Women’s program. Switching out Californian college football for Moreton Bay United, the exceptional American netted an awe-inspiring 33 goals from 23 games in her maiden season Down Under, notching a Team of the Year appearance and a Player of the Year nomination as Moreton Bay were felled 3-1 in the NPL Women’s Grand Final in 2019. Baisden’s form was enough to secure her a contract with Roar for the most recent Westfield W-League season, where she carried her explosive form into the top tier, notching three goals in 10 games as the Roar consolidated fifth spot.
Like Baisden, Shea Connors hailed from the college ranks of North America, making a brief stopover in Iceland’s Premier Division with Knattspyrnufélag Reykjavíkur before signing with Logan Lightning in 2019. Looking a class above the competition, she slotted home a remarkable 25 goals from 15 games, bagging five hat-tricks along the way and sinking a six-goal haul in just her third match for the club.
Her form had Roar boss Jake Goodship fancying his side’s chances of a late Finals Series push, with Connors chipping in one goal from her two appearance as she introduced herself to the top tier of Australian football. Netting four goals in just two games since returning to Logan, the masterful American will no doubt be at the top of recruiting lists come transfer season.
The youngest of three players Roar plucked from outside their setup, 19-year old Claire Farrington staked her claim for a pro contract with a solid incursion into the Westfield W-League arena in 2019/20. Farrington, who had spells with the Queensland Academy of Sport and the Brisbane Roar NTC, formed a formidable presence in the heart of Lightning’s defence in the NPL Women’s competition, showing experience beyond her years with an assured and resolute demeanour on the ball.
Picking up five appearances for Roar in the Westfield W-League, she proved to be a shrewd addition to Goodship’s defence, earning a 70% tackle success rate as she went toe to toe with some of the competition’s marquee names. Like Connors, Farrington returned to Lighting for season 2020 and is already showing her potential, ensuring that she’ll be on the radar of Westfield W-League clubs for years to come.
Rebekah Horsey had been plugging away in the semi-professional ranks of female football for six years before Canberra United snapped her up for the 2019/20 Westfield W-League season. The Sunshine Coast born midfielder had turned out for UQFC before making the switch to Richlands in season 2018.
A key cog in Lions FC’s midfield, she was spraying passes and crafting attacks as Lions romped home to claim the Premiership-Championship double in 2019, her tempo-setting style attracting interest from the top tier. Under Heather Garriock’s stewardship, Canberra United made their way to a sixth-place finish, with Horsey’s seven-game stint holding her in good stead in her debut season.
Nearing her 28th birthday, the industrious defensive midfielder returns to the NPL Queensland Women’s in 2020 with Mitchelton FC, joining a host of other Westfield W-League players returning to the league where they established themselves on the path to the national stage.
Roar’s Next Gen
Baisden, Connors and Farrington were not the only players blossoming for Brisbane after cutting the teeth locally. A number of former NTC/QAS products made the step up into Roar’s first team throughout the last Westfield W-League season following formative spells in the NPL Women’s competition. Leah Davidson, Winonah Heatley, Anna Margraf and Young Footballer of the Year nominee Hollie Palmer all earned matchday experience and looked right at home, while Indiah-Paige Riley impressed to such an extent that she has since won a deal with Danish champions Fortuna Hjorring. Their accelerated progress demonstrates positive signs for the club’s internal development and for the many more future stars aiming to continue Queensland’s legacy at the elite level.
Words: Angus Barnes
Images: Morgan Hancock/Getty Images; Brisbane Roar FC