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Mixed success in European qualifying rounds

Quite a few Aussies were involved in European qualifiers last month, notably to progress to the UEFA Conference League group stage.

Former Avondale player Manny Aguek was knocked out in the second qualifying round with Maltese side Balzan FC, having come off the bench for both legs in the first and second rounds. Meanwhile, Tete Yengi returned to Finland with Kuopion Palloseura (KuPS) on loan for the rest of the season and was immediately involved, playing every minute as the club was knocked out in the second qualifying round. That was not the best start for Yengi, who will look to replicate his 2022 season in Finland, where he racked up 17 goals and assists combined with Vaasan Palloseura (VPS).

Zach Duncan's fate was similar to Aguek and Yengi, as his Danish club AGF Aarhus was also knocked out in the second qualifying round. Making matters worse was Duncan being an unused sub for both legs.

But although mixed, there was much more success for the Aussie trio at Hibernian in Scotland. Lewis Miller, James Jeggo, and Martin Boyle progressed to the third qualifying round. However, they almost fell in the second round embarrassingly. Facing Andorran side Inter Club d'Escaldes, Hibs suffered a humiliating first-leg defeat. Jeggo came off the bench, Miller played the full ninety, and Boyle was an unused sub as he ramped up his return from injury.

In a funny anecdote, whilst still nursing his return from the ACL injury he suffered last year, Boyle was instilled – like he was for the Socceroos in Qatar – as the team’s “vibes manager” for the first leg, according to captain Paul Hanlon.

“Whether he’s fit or not fit, he’s the vibes manager here all the time, so I don’t think that changes,” he told The Scotsman ahead of the trip to Andorra.

“We’re all delighted. It’s great to have him back involved.”

Boyle might not have played any active role in that first leg, but he did in the second. Making his return from injury in a playing capacity, the Socceroo returned with a bang and scored twice to ensure Hibs turned the tie around. Unfortunately, Miller and Jeggo were both unused subs for the fixture.

Miller’s month was also impacted by missing the last week of the club’s Marbella training camp due to a minor tendon issue in his calf. But in an interview last month with Edinburgh Live, it’s clear the right-back wants to kick on with his development in his second year in Scotland.

"The first year was more of an adaption year for me, trying to get used to the league, the players and how the football is, it is obviously very different to Australia,” Miller said.

"I played a few games here and there coming off the bench, the gaffer eased me into it. And then I played some big games towards the end, Celtic and Hearts and I came on against Rangers.

“I think it was good for me mentally to face the best in the league. And that’s where I need to be for the upcoming season, I need to be mentally strong and ready to take on challenges and hopefully be the best right back in the league.

“Last year I was out for some time and I had never really been injured before. So it was tough, having so much time off because I like to go, go, go, be 100 miles and hour, especially at my age, all I want to do is play and get the best out of my body.

"But everything is looking upwards at the moment, it’s just a matter of proving what I can do to the fans, the gaffer and myself. I know what I can do.

“I’m glad they didn’t throw me in to the deep end, they gave me time to adjust. The club profits off its youth, we have a lot of young players coming through from the academy.

"So there’s going to be a challenge. I’ll need to fight for my spot, which I love, to compete and earn it. And at 22 I think it’s a good time to flourish in this league, I’m looking forward to it.”

Positives all round in Asia

There’s been some fantastic and noteworthy performances from a handful of Australians plying their trade in the K-League and J-League recently.

Alex Grant has become a staple of these reports and had another incredible month in July. The former Perth Glory man was named in the league’s Best 11 for Round 20, where he scored in a 3-1 win over Lachlan Jackson’s Suwon FC. Across five games, Grant scored twice and played every minute for the Pohang Steelers.

But most incredibly, Grant was one of five Pohang players nominated for the Team K-League all-star voting for an exhibition match against Atletico Madrid, which was played at the end of the month. Grant was selected and came off the bench at halftime of the friendly, playing the entire second half.

Elsewhere, Harrison Delbridge played two full games from a possible five as his club Incheon United won four out of their five matches in July. They now sit 7th on the table. One place below lies Peter Makrillos’ Chungbuk Cheongju, who had an undefeated month. Makrillos started four of the five matches. In an interview with K-League United following a 0-0 draw with Bucheon FC, Makrillos briefly commented on his recent form.

“I’m feeling good. Obviously I missed last game because of suspension, I did feel it a little bit today but yeah I’m getting better form, slowly, slowly, so looking forward,” he said.

We end our K-League wrap with Patrick Flottmann, who only made two appearances from a possible six last month for Seongnam FC. But they were both in wins, with the team now sitting 9th on the table. Flottmann also spoke to K-League United in July following a 1-1 draw with Gyeongnam FC. Flottmann was an unused sub for the fixture and provided an update about his inconsistent minutes.

“I’ve spoken with the coach and he said he’s been happy with my performances and whatnot. Football’s a team sport obviously and results haven’t been going our way and he had to make some changes, and that’s a part of it really,” he said.

“For me, I’ve just got to stay ready for when he calls me and when he does I’ve got to prove him right for playing me. I’ve just got to stay ready.”

Over to Japan, where Mitch Langerak had another strong month, starting every league game for Nagoya Grampus, which included a 2-2 draw against Kevin Muscat’s Yokohama F. Marinos. He also started in a third-round Emperor’s Cup win over Vegalta Sendai, where Nagoya won in a penalty shootout. Finally, Langerak’s stardom in the city was recognised by his feature on the front page of Nagoya’s magazine in July.

Meanwhile, Muscat and Yokohama had a jam-packed month. In the draw with Langerak’s Nagoya, an incredible assist from goalkeeper Jun Ichimori was a highlight, where his distribution directly from the penalty area acted as a through ball for striker Élber, who rounded Langerak to score.

Unfortunately for Muscat, his side only won one of their three league games, and they were knocked out of the Emperor’s Cup third round at the hands of Socceroo Mitch Duke’s Machida Zelvia. Muscat rested several key players for the cup tie in preparation for a monumental league fixture against Kawasaki Frontale that weekend. But it would be consecutive losses across the two competitions, as Yokohama lost the Kanagawa Derby to Kawasaki after conceding a last-minute winner at home.

Muscat’s woes were compounded by Joel Chima Fujita departing near the end of July. Fujita was a part of Muscat’s J-League title-winning side and left the club for Belgian side Sint-Truiden.

But it certainly wasn’t all doom and gloom, far from it. Yokohama also played two friendlies last month against Celtic and Manchester City. Muscat’s football received high praise from opposition managers Brendan Rodgers and Pep Guardiola ahead of each game.

“When I see Kevin Muscat's team play, it doesn’t surprise me how well he has done. Winning the championship here in 2022 was a fantastic achievement, but not just winning, winning with the style of football he plays,” Rodgers said.

 Rodgers’ comments seemed to ring true as Muscat’s side beat The Hoops 6-4. Guardiola said he liked what he saw when preparing for Yokohama and noted the friendly would be a difficult match for his side. Again, the statement rang true as City won 5-3. 

One of Muscat’s former players, Thomas Deng, had a strong month in the J-League last month, playing every minute for Albirex Niigata. According to Opta, Deng ranks among the most accurate passers in the J-League for players with a minimum of 200 pass attempts.

Duke, as mentioned earlier, of course, knocked Muscat out of the Emperor’s Cup, scoring once in the third-round tie for Machida Zelvia. Duke registered a further goal and two assists in J2 and started every league game bar one, which he missed through a yellow card suspension.

 Finally, to J3, where an Aussie is flying under the radar. Former Central Coast Mariners academy prospect Ben Duncan is a young striker starting regularly for Ehime FC. The 20-year-old has one of the best minutes-per-goal ratios in the league. In July, he featured three times, and his club is fighting for promotion in 2023.

Transfers, transfers, transfers

It’s safe to say there was a stack of transfers involving Australians moving to and already overseas last month.

We’ll start with the A-Leagues departures, where Perth Glory youngster Chris Donnell joined Fulham’s U21 side for an undisclosed fee. The Perth exodus continued with Jordan Elsey and Ryan Williams, who departed by mutual consent to join Indian Super League clubs. Elsey has signed for East Bengal FC, and the media in India have already commented on what Elsey’s acquisition could bring to his new side.

“For Carles Cuadrat now, the task is to solidify the leaky backline and Jordan Elsey can be a pivotal signing to achieve that aim. The 29-year-old has been lauded and often gotten into trouble for his unabashed aggression, but if Cuadrat can bottle it and use it to his advantage, East Bengal would've unearthed a gem,” Sportskeeda wrote.

“Elsey is also comfortable with the ball on his feet, especially in delivering cross-field long balls. For fast breaks and counter-attacks, his passing ability will be crucial.

“But more importantly, the former Adelaide United stopper is sturdy in defense, whether it comes to tackles or aerial duels. If paired with a capable Indian center-back, Elsey can elevate the East Bengal defense by some notable margins.”

Meanwhile, Williams has joined Bengaluru on a one-year deal with the option to extend for another year.

The A-League Men departures continued with Tom Glover and Sammy Silvera, as both promising Aussie talents joined Middlesborough in the English Championship. Glover joined from Melbourne City on a three-year deal. In pre-season, he was a halftime substitute against York City, started in a 3-3 draw against Bradford City, and featured in the second half against Rotherham. Meanwhile, Silvera joined Boro from the Central Coast Mariners for an undisclosed fee and a three-year deal. He started against York City while playing the first half and scoring in the 2-0 win over Rotherham.

Incredibly, roughly a month before they linked up in England’s North East, Silvera scored against Glover in the A-League Men Grand Final and notched an assist that night. Now they are teammates at Middlesborough.

Linking up with fellow Aussie Riley McGree, Glover put it neatly when speaking to The Northern Echo last month.

"We're taking over,” he jokingly said.

"I've known Riley for years. I was starting to think he didn't have many mates here because he was messaging me every day asking me when I was coming.

"I'm good mates with Riley and I know Sammy from playing against him. He put one past me in the Grand Final which I wasn't too happy about, but he's a good lad.

"Brad Jones was here for many years and obviously the big one was Schwarzer. I actually spoke to Brad last week and he was giving me all the places to stay and what to do, so I had a good chat with Brad and he told me all about the club and didn't have one bad word to say."

Glover must earn the number one spot ahead of Senegalese goalkeeper Seny Dieng to follow in Jones and Schwarzer's footsteps. He addressed the competition in an interview on the Socceroos website.

“This is European football mate and the competition is always tough … as keepers we’ll be driving each other on,” he said.

“The club have told me I’ll be fighting for the spot and that goes for any player in the team. Nothing is ever handed to you in football, you have to earn it.

“Of course, the Socceroos were in the back of your mind coming here. It’s always been a goal of mine to be involved and last month was an important step to get called up for the Argentina game.

“That was fantastic but looking ahead I want to be a regular in every camp possible.”

Meanwhile, upon joining Boro, Silvera was interviewed by Teeside Live about his previous experience playing in Portugal with Paços Ferreira and how that journey has prepared him for this latest venture.

“Portugal was a difficult time in my career,” he said.

"I was out for six months. I had four and a half months out with an injury, just got back to fitness and then caught COVID straight away. It was a difficult period, especially moving away from home at 19.

"But I think it was a huge learning curve for me. I was able to take experiences both on and off the pitch and learn from them. I feel I took those experiences back to Australia, showed there what I can do again, and I feel like that’s what’s got me the move here."

Silvera is part of many Central Coast Mariners stars who have departed Nick Montgomery’s championship-winning side. The Western Sydney Wanderers have experienced a similar exodus, which began with Calem Nieuwenhof’s big move to Scottish club Hearts.

Nieuwenhof featured in a pre-season friendly against Leeds United in July. New manager Steven Naismith highlighted the need for an adaptation period for the Australian defensive midfielder.

“We knew we needed to get people in who are not just good players, but good leaders, people who organise. You could tell Calem is coming into a new country. At times you could see his quality, at times you could see he’s still trying to get to grips with British football,” Naismith said following the Leeds outing.

Nieuwenhof agreed, echoing similar sentiments.

“I definitely have a lot of learning to do and I'm going to learn more from Steven and the other coaches about how they want us to play,” he said.

“I know we want to be that team that plays with the ball and dominates other teams. That is a team I want to play in so that is really positive for me.”

The former Sydney FC prospect spoke more about the positives of his European move when speaking to the Daily Record.

"There's been so many Aussies that have come to Scotland recently,” he said.

"The majority have done really well when they've come over and it's proven to be a huge stepping stone. Joining the other Aussies here makes it easier for me and a better transition.

"It was a pretty easy decision. It's a club I've always known and how big it is. Playing with (Oliver) Bozanic last year, who was a Hearts player as well, he spoke so highly of it. So when Hearts came in it was an easy decision and I can't wait to get stuck in.”

Bozanic’s prior experience with Hearts would have helped the decision. Before officially joining the Jam Tarts, Neiuwenhof received a massive endorsement from former teammate Morgan Schneiderlin, who he played alongside throughout the 2022/23 A-League Men season. The former Manchester United midfielder spoke to the same publication and praised Neiuwenhof’s ability and attitude.

"He's a very good player, you can see he's a young kid who's listening and doing everything right,” Schneiderlin said.

"He doesn't lose the ball and he knows how to use his body. I'm trying to help him to improve but he has a really good future ahead of him."

Neiuwenhof has moved onto new pastures, and so has his former teammate Tomislav Mrcela, who also left Marko Rudan’s side in July, joining Neftchi in Uzbekistan.

Other A-League Men departures include Connor Pain and Al Hassan Toure. Pain, a foundation player and the 11th ever to sign for Western United left last month to join second-tier Saudi Arabian club Al-Orobah FC. He leaves with the highest appearances in Western history.

Meanwhile, Toure had an active month regarding the transfer market, initially joining Turkish second-tier Eyüpspor from Macarthur. But it was later confirmed he would be loaned from his new club to fellow second-tier side Sanliurfaspor, in a somewhat bemusing turn of events.

Another somewhat strange move saw Socceroo Milos Degenek make yet another return to reigning Serbian champions Red Star Belgrade. Degenek did return from a two-month injury hiatus in early July whilst still at his previous club Columbus Crew, but his MLS return was short-lived. The centre-back re-joins Crvena Zvezda on a two-year deal with the option to extend it by a year and will play UEFA Champions League football this season.

Degenek’s Socceroo compatriot Bailey Wright was also on the move, joining Singapore’s Lion City Sailors from Sunderland. Given the obscurity of the league, many Roos followers had question marks about the transfer. Wright explained his logic in an interview with ESPN.

"I was interested in trying something new with football,” he said.

"I was open-minded as to what that might be but from the moment I had a chat with the guys (Sailors management) and got off the Zoom call, I had this real feeling of something exciting happening here.

"I wanted something that was a learning environment where I could thrive in as well. When I saw the facilities and how everything was run, I thought this is a place that's heading in the right direction."

Wright was thrust straight into a massive occasion upon joining his new club. The Sailors faced Ange Postecoglou and Mile Jedinak’s Tottenham Hotspur in a friendly, a game they lost 5-1. In the pre-match press conference ahead of the game, Wright praised Jedinak for influencing his career.

“As a younger player underneath him, I always had aspirations to be a captain like him as well. He was a great person to learn from off the pitch,” he said.

That sentiment was shared by Sunderland defender Luke O’Nien on Wright’s departure from the Stadium of Light, hailing his leadership qualities and personality as a big part of the dressing room and conceding it will be difficult to replace.

“Bailey is up there as one of the greatest players and humans that I’ve ever shared a dressing room with,” O’Nien told the Sunderland Echo.

"His leadership and everything – I don’t think I’ll ever come across another Bailey Wright.

"What he did for the club, and for me and all the boys, I think he was really exceptional. I will miss him."

Given the career phase he is transitioning into, Wright's move may be more financially focused. Another Aussie on the move last month is at the other end of his journey, staying in England and making a move to help develop his game. That man was Nicholas Bilokapic, who swapped Huddersfield Town for Peterborough United on a three-year deal in July.

Bilokapic had started to receive more opportunities for the Terriers’ first-team last season, so there was some confusion over his departure, mainly as it was permanent and not a loan deal. Steven Chicken of YorkshireLive explained why Huddersfield sold Bilokapic in a piece last month.

“Unfortunately, Bilokapic found himself in a bit of a catch-22. The acquisition of (Tomáš) Vaclik in January showed that Town did not quite consider him ready to play Championship football week in, week out – but the only way for him to reach that point would be for him to play regularly,” he said.

Bilokapic made his Peterborough debut in a friendly against Colchester, where he started. There’s room for further optimism about match minutes when you consider the former Sydney United youngster has been given the number-one jersey. Ben Wignall of Football League World added more positive news last month regarding the prospect of Bilokapic being a regular starter.

“Considering Posh don't have much of a choice when it comes to their goalkeeping options right now, you'd have to assume that Bilokapic would be coming in as a starter, unless the club have another ace up their sleeve,” he said.

We now leave England and change gears to one of the more outlandish moves from July, where former South Melbourne forward Harry Sawyer swapped Jamshedpur and the Indian Super League for a move to Vaasan Palloseura (VPS) in the Finnish Veikkausliiga. Sawyer netted his first goal for VPS by sealing a 4-1 victory over FC Haka and made three sub appearances last month.

Finally, in the women’s game, long-time Celtic Jacynta Galabadaarachchi waved goodbye to the Scottish giants, ending her stay by joining Portuguese club Sporting in July. After departing, Galabadaarachchi took to her Twitter account to release an emotional goodbye to the Celtic fans.

“To my Celtic family, Where do I begin….I can’t thank you all enough, from the teammates, fans, staff and the whole club. I have been on an incredible journey with you all, and I will forever cherish all the memories I’ve made at Celtic,” she said.

“To the best fans in the world, thank you for embracing me from the minute I joined, the love you have shown me has never gone unnoticed. This club has made me a better player and person, and I can’t express how much I will miss each and every one of you.

“I will forever support Celtic and good luck to the ghirls next season! Mon the hoops.”

Arguably a more significant transfer saw Matilda Teagan Micah swap Swedish club FC Rosengard for Liverpool in the Women's Super League. The move now means all three of Tony Gustavsson’s Women’s World Cup goalkeepers are plying their trade in England’s first tier. Liverpool has wasted no time engaging with their new signing either, with Micah receiving a special delivery from the club during Matildas' camp, a package with her new kit for The Reds.

Dub champions gutted as European clubs swoop

After a scintillating assault on the A-League Women's championship last season, it was no surprise to see a plethora of Sydney FC talent being snapped up by European clubs in July.

We start with Mackenzie Hawkesby, who has joined Brighton in the WSL. Hawkesby played 58 times for Sydney FC, scoring 14 times and being named their Player of the Year for the 2021/22 season. She will be joined at Brighton by Charlize Rule, who signed for Albion on a long-term deal. Brighton is inadvertently relocating the Sydney FC championship-winning side to England’s South Coast, as Hawkesby and Rule will reunite with former teammate Madison Haley for the upcoming season.

However, arguably the highest profile departure from Ante Juric’s side last month was A-League Women’s Young Player of the Year Sarah Hunter, who has signed for Paris FC in the French first tier. Hunter, also nominated for the 2023 PFA Young Women's Footballer of the Year in July, joins Paris on a three-year deal, signing until 2026.

Despite only being 19, Hunter won two premierships and a championship in her two seasons with the Sky Blues. She featured 37 times, scoring five goals and playing in two Grand Finals. It’s quite the resume for someone her age, and Juric expects more achievements.

“I've no doubt she will be a huge success overseas and eventually play many times for the Matildas,” he said.

The Hunter, Hawkesby, and Rule trio joins a long list of players who have secured professional contracts overseas from Sydney FC throughout history.

Ribbons Raso makes landmark Real move

Finally, Hayley Raso, one of many Matildas the Australian public idolises, completed a landmark move last month to Spanish giants Real Madrid, signing from Manchester City.

Raso becomes the first Australian in history to play for Las Blancas, and the move is more remarkable when you consider the obstacles she has overcome in recent years.

 In 2018, while playing for Portland Thorns in the NWSL, Raso broke her back in a horrific injury for any footballer. But six months later, she was back on the pitch. She even scored against New Zealand on her return for the Matildas.

Now, Raso joins one of the biggest clubs in the world. The move gave her a boost heading into the World Cup, with the star winger already netting three times at the tournament.

The basis of the information throughout this article would not have been possible without the work of Damian Davies.

You can follow Christian Marchetti on Twitter @ChristianM29, or on Instagram @christianmarchetti29.