Sport Wednesday, June 22nd Words by: Adam Knight, pictures by: Steve Niblett, James Oates, Adam Knight

Long road to Wembley: the Aussie whose FA Vase bow has been 17,000 miles in the making

Sport Wednesday, June 22nd

Long road to Wembley: the Aussie whose FA Vase bow has been 17,000 miles in the making

If you ask a Herefordian to do an Australian accent, they will likely perform the time-honoured line about shrimps and barbies in the laconic drawl of a Crocodile Dundee, or a Steve Irwin.

Some are better than others, but the truth remains – we don’t get many Aussies around here.

But when you speak to Jimmy Oates – a name that seems to fit perfectly with that rolling, imagined dialect of crocodile wrestlers and Fosters adverts – he talks with a clipped, big-city intensity, one of a Sydneysider.

A Sydneysider who now finds himself halfway across the globe, and five days away from running out at that greatest of English cathedrals, Wembley Stadium.

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“My old man is English but has lived in Oz for most of his life. When he heard about the the possibility of me running out at Wembley, he was blown away.

"He said there was no way he would miss me playing there - so he's kept to his word and flown over.”

With perhaps the exception of squads from south west London, and the hordes of readily-available antipodean barstaff at their disposal, the number of Australians playing in English football’s ninth tier could be counted on two hands.

The number of those players who were once signed to an A-League-winning squad is smaller still.

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The Hartpury Five

In spite of the city’s growing but limited diversity – there was a time when players from Wales would be viewed as a foreign signing - Hereford FC boasts a squad which draws on talent from far beyond the county’s borders.

In the phoenix club’s debut season, in large part thanks a recent and flourishing relationship with Hartpury College, Edgar Street has been graced by standout performances from Mustapha Bundu – who hails from Sierra Leone – and Ghanaian Sirdick Adjei-Grant, both fan favourites, with the latter finishing the season in the kind of breath-taking form that would appear to make the diminutive winger a likely starter at Wembley, against the odds.

Both African players were scouted by, and later starred in, development programmes in their respective homelands – Bundu with the Craig Bellamy Foundation, Adjei-Grant with Right To Dream.

Neither will be available to advance with Hereford to Level 4 next year, as a result of some inane yet not insignificant quirk of the UK’s visa regulations.

If their path to professional sport has been against the odds, then for the third of the trio – Jimmy Oates – perhaps it is just the destination which is unlikely.

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Oates, in his Central Coast Mariners colours.

A star sportsman from a young age, Oates began playing football at four.

One of seven, and the youngest of five brothers, it is no surprise that through long hours mixing it with his brothers in the backyard, as a player he developed a relentless and renowned work ethic.

“Sports over there is just massive. It's crazy. And soccer is probably the biggest youth sport. But my brothers were just sports freaks,” Oates said. “I’m the youngest by 11 years. They got me in to football when I was young, and I played rugby through school, but it got to the point where I had to make a choice."

He did. And when, at just 21, he signed for the Central Coast Mariners, head coach Graham Arnold referred to him as “among the fittest players in our squad”. That year, the Mariners won the A-League.

“He is a young man with great character and determination,” Arnold added.

Oates grew up walking distance from the water, at famed surfers playground and Sydney suburb Manly Beach.

As a youth player, he shone for Manly before getting picked up by pro side Central Coast, based as their name suggests, on the coast, and about an hour north of Sydney.

The defender was selected to captain their U20's side – a team which amongst others, produced a Valencia goalkeeper and a few stars in Japan’s J-League – and in 2012, he was signed to a contract with the senior squad, headed up by Arnold.

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There are twisted ankles and twists of fate and Oates suffered both, forced to watch from the physio room as his team-mates – a largely unheralded group, not a million miles from what we’ve seen in the East Midlands this year – lifted Australian soccer’s major trophy.

“I’ve had ankle troubles my whole life. I got a pro deal, and then in preseason I got injured.

“It was awesome to be around Central Coast that year. It was a really down-to-earth club. The coach did really well to build a team, it wasn’t a team of big names like in Melbourne or Sydney.

“And all the old pros were really open with the young boys – we hadn’t been around anyone like that before really. 

“But it was hard to be on the outskirts of the squad – even though they were doing so well – it’s hard knowing that you could have been in amongst it.”

In his efforts to get on the field, the defender pushed too hard, too fast. He was diagnosed with microfractures in his ankle – small breaks at the end of bones that are often caused by putting the joint under repetitive, physical stress.

With an apparent regret, the decision was taken by the Mariners not to renew his contract. Oates went home.

“I just sort of said, I love football – so that was the goal, to get back, and to get back playing again.

“I got in the water every day, all through the year. It’s like a 30-second walk to beach so it was just runs and workouts and straight down there for a swim.”

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The golden sands of Manly Beach.

Returning to the field for Manly, he was approached by a teammate – and current head coach at Hartpury – with a suggestion. Study, play and see a bit of the world.

With his girlfriend’s Canadian visa expiring, and the chance of a fresh start playing in a country he had watched from afar through the careers of the likes of Harry Kewell and ‘Vidukes’, Oates took up the offer and 17, 000-miles later he was in Gloucestershire, rain-soaked and ready to play.

“It was a long first winter,” Oates said, of the subtle difference in climate.

When the call came in from Peter Beadle that Hereford FC were looking for players, ‘Ricko’ – Marc Richards – thought of Oates.

“My first session with Hereford was the Thursday before the first home game against Dunkirk. It was at Hartpury so I didn’t know what it was going to be like.

“Then I turned up to the pitch and bloody saw the fans and the bull going around the pitch and it was just amazing. It was like ‘wow, I was not expecting this.’

 “In the lower leagues at home, it’s nothing really. There’s quite a lot of ethnic teams – Croatians and Serbians – and those fans do get right in to it - they’re passionate. But the Aussie teams, everyone’s just chilled watching the game.

“I was blown away.”

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Far from a culture clash, ‘Oatesy’s transition from schooners, and Sydney sunsets to life in the Cider Country has been seamless, on the field on and off.

“You can get pretty much everything from back home in Tescos.

“After the games we’ve been in to town a few times. We really like it. My missus has always been obsessed with the Cotswolds and those Old English towns, so walking through the little streets and stuff - you don’t get that anywhere in Australia, there’s just no history there. So we take it all in and we love it.

"You grow up watching English football on the tv, watching your favourite team. 

“To play over here - to play for Hereford - it’s been an awesome experience.

“Beads is a legend. There couldn’t be a better manager, I think. I’m pretty straight-to-the-point as well, so we get along good.

 “I think the Aussie game is pretty physical anyway – more physical than here I think – or just as much as in the lower leagues - and the standard at the top end is a lot better than people think.

“A lot of players would be shocked if they went over – but being over here you realise just how many good players there are down the leagues.”

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While that’s true in itself, it’s perhaps more true about Hereford FC than any other team currently playing at their level.

Beadle has at his disposal a stable of forwards so talented that at times he has been able to afford to leave a 50-goal-a-season striker on the bench.  Oates has been part of a defensive unit responsible for 21 clean sheets in the league – including a run of 10-straight during the Autumn – and both Bundu and Pablo Haysham have been responsible for more moments of sublime, cultured football than the rest of the league’s midfielders combined.

And as good as the team has been en route to promotion to the Southern Leagues, the squad have saved their best for this cup run.

 “Winning the second leg of the semi at Salisbury was unbelievable. And that Camberley game at home – that was epic,” Oates said.

“I’m not used to being in a team that wins so much. It’s always been a battle, losing 1-0 or drawing 1-1.

“We’re lucky - if we can get our job right at the back, we had loads of faith in the guys up front to bang in the goals. They’ve been incredible.”

If it’s been a long road to this point for a storied club and a seasoned manager – neither of who had a certain future in Hereford 12 months ago - it’s been a longer one for a young Aussie who learned his trade on the hard pitches of Sydney’s northern suburb.

Both now find themselves at Wembley, with only Morpeth Town standing between them and a defining moment in their respective careers.

With half the city and at least one notable Sydneysider watching on from the stands,  neither Oates nor Hereford FC are likely to let this run come to an end on Sunday.

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Oates, and Oates, Snr. Big thanks to Steve Niblett for the pics.

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This article was originally published on May 19, 2016

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