Upon meeting Western Sydney Wanderers and Australian Youth international Jonathan Aspropotamitis (or as A-League commentators refer to him, Aspro) it doesn’t take long to realise that the 21-year-old has the brawn and the brains.
Aspropotamitis was educated at Newington College where former Wallabies Captain Nick Farr Jones also attended. It’s not far from the inner west café in Sydney where we drink our espressos. School has been out for a few years but one thing Aspropotamitis has learnt leading into his fourth A-League campaign is not to take anything for granted.
He began playing for Sydney University (SUSFC) in the NSW National Premier League 3 competition when he was aged 13. After stints with Paramatta Melita, Apia and Sydney Olympic he signed his first professional contract with Western Sydney Wanderers when he was 17 years old.
Unlike many of his A-League peers, the Greek Australian was ignored by most state junior representative team coaches and it’s surprising to learn that the 21-year-old defender preferred it that way.
“It was a blessing in disguise not being picked for those state teams and skill acquisition programs,” he says.
“Because you fly underneath the radar and no-one really notices what you are doing and how you are progressing. So, when you blossom and come through everyone goes, ‘where did he come from?’.
“So, in a way that kept me grounded as well. I just kept going about my work and as I got knocked back by teams through that period my parents and my brother always supported me. It was all about keep going, keep going and don’t give up, persist and in the end it’s all paid off.”
Watching Aspropotamitis play is like hearing him talk. There is an assuredness and confidence that belies his age. As a defender, his technique and composure gives the impression that he has more time on the ball than he actually does.
The Sydney junior says that the crucial development he received at a young age was important in building a skill base that is still with him today.
“I used to go to a soccer clinic that had former Socceroo Jim Patikas as a coach,” he says.
“I was there for a year or so and I used to go once or twice a week and hone my skills and that’s where it all started. Those skill clinics really helped me to get vital touches and get familiar with the ball.”
Aspropotamitis revealed that fellow Greek Australian Panos Armenakas who plays with Udinese’s youth team was also part of Patikas’s coaching school.
“We were a bunch of 11-year-old’s and Panos was eight and he was ripping us all,” he says.
“He was doing his skill moves around us and making us look silly. From that day forward you knew that he was a talent. To see him kick on where he is in Italy is great and hopefully we can now see him go on and play some first team football.
“That time was really helpful and it’s something that is missing in youth development now days with the younger boys coming through.”
While at Newington Aspropotamitis trained under Ian Crook who at the time was Sydney FC’s assistant coach. That connection then saw the then 16-year-old gain a trial for the Sky Blues youth team which ultimately proved to be unsuccessful. However, the young defender believes that rejection gave him the impetus to improve his game.
“At the time, I wasn’t good enough and I knew that,” he says. “I wasn’t up to playing for Sydney FC’s national youth league team and I accepted it and moved on. I knew there were certain points of my game that I had to improve. I knew I had to get better and if I did that I had the chance of making it.
The year after I came to the Wanderers for another trial and I was fortunate to make it then.”
His first season with the Wanderers coincided with the club’s Asian Champions League (ACL) success. But in the A-League it was a different story as Western Sydney finished second-last in the 2014/15 season. With the club playing two games a week due to playing in the ACL it gave Aspropotamitis the chance to make his professional debut and one which he recalls with fondness.
“It was a great night,” he says “I know we struggled that season but on that night, we hadn’t won for a while and we ended up coming away with a 3-2 win. It lifted us a bit and we ended the season okay. In my first season, I got to play nine games including the ACL. That year I played in big games and as a young player that experience was invaluable. I’ll never forget that, it was a great time.”
The following season Western Sydney bounced back from the previous year’s poor showing and made the A-League grand final but Aspropotamitis struggled to build on his debut season and only played five games.
“It was [a] tough year. I will admit that,” he says looking back on his second year as a professional.
“It was a development year where I tried to take in everything about being a footballer. It was my first year of being in a first-team environment during the whole season. I learnt a lot from the senior players and I took that into my next season and I’ll take some of those lessons into my whole career as well.”
After signing a contract extension Aspropotamitis says he went into his third A-League campaign confident he would get more first-team football. After being in and out of Western Sydney’s first 11 in the first four games of the season it wasn’t looking good but his belief never wavered.
“I just knew the competition for places at the club was going to be really strong but I had no regard for how young I was or how old the other guys where,” he says.
“I accepted each non-selection and believed I had done everything in my power. But then round five came and I was back in the team again and I made sure I took my next opportunity. Then luckily enough I played every game after that. I carried that same mentality for every game and I didn’t take my position for granted.
“You’ve always got to play well and work hard because if you don’t someone is always right behind ready to take your spot. Having that competition for spots was healthy and [it is] why we made the finals again last year. Again, I was exposed to big games and it was a great experience and something I’ll take into this season.”
This week Aspropotamitis was selected as part of Josep Gombau’s Olyroos squad for next month’s AFC Under-23 qualifying tournament in Myanmar. And the young defender says he is revelling in being in the national team environment again after being part of Australia’s Under-20 squad two years ago.
“It’s another step up and another coach you get to play under,” he says.
“I’m really coming to appreciate how the coach thinks about football and the way he wants the team to play. We’ve got a really strong squad going into these qualifiers and I’m really confident. There is a lot of A-League experience as lots of boys have come through the system and played a lot of first-team games, so hopefully we can do well and qualify for the Olympics which is the ultimate goal.”