Inside A-Leagues winner’s journey to Europe’s ‘opportunity league’

Yaren Sozer watched on from the bench as Central Coast Mariners lifted the 2022-23 Isuzu UTE A-League Championship. Now, after many years of toiling in the background, the 26-year-old is ready to prove himself as a number one goalkeeper. He speaks to KEEPUP’s Nick D’Urbano after moving to Europe.

For much of his career, Yaren Sozer has watched on from the sidelines.

Saddled with being primarily a backup goalkeeper ever since he made the transition to senior football, Sozer has waited patiently and bided his time for an opportunity at the highest level.

Now, he is ready to show the world what he is capable of.

Three months after watching on as his Central Coast Mariners teammates hoisted the Isuzu UTE A-League Championship at CommBank Stadium, Sozer has landed at his new home in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea with Maltese outfit Gudja United.

INS AND OUTS: Isuzu UTE A-League 2023-24 Transfer Centre

“It’s time for me to to start playing and to really show my ability,” Sozer told KEEPUP.

“It’s one thing training and working hard, but games are our showcase at the end of the day.

“I really need to prove first and foremost to myself that all this hard work that I’ve put in over the last few years is worth it. It’s time for that to show and also to set up my career for the next few years.

“Whether that’s continuing in Europe or to come back to the A-League as a number one. I’m determined to have a good season and then hopefully evaluate my options after that.”

WHO IS STEPHEN CONROY? Impressive CV of A-Leagues first Independent Chair
NEW CHAIR: Letter to the fans from new A-Leagues Independent Chairman Stephen Conroy
BEYOND THE A-LEAGUES: Asian Cup hero’s matchwinning performance has fans calling for Socceroos recall

The 26-year-old speaks to KEEPUP weeks after landing on the tiny island. Sozer joined the club after a short stint in NPL New South Wales with St George FC, following his release from the Mariners at the end of last season.

He has since started two games for Gudja, keeping a clean sheet on debut against Mosta, before playing in a 1-1 draw with Marsaxlokk.

It’s not his first foray overseas, having spent time in Turkey with Istanbul Basaksehir and Esenler Erokspor, but it’s certainly a long way away from the comforts of home, where he was part of one of the most incredible A-Leagues Championship wins in history.

According to Sozer, the Maltese Premier League is an “opportunity league” for those looking to kickstart or rejuvenate their careers and use it as essentially a launching pad onto bigger things.

“This was kind of mapped out a long time ago, through my conversations with the Mariners, and especially through Monty (Nick Montgomery) and Miguel (Miranda), the goalkeeper coach,” he said.

“We spoke probably two or three months before finals even started. The most important thing for me was game time and I ultimately need to be playing and the conversation with them as well was that they were going to help me.

“Wherever I went next, I needed to make sure that I go as a number one and that I’m playing, so ultimately after the A-League season finishing, instead of having a holiday or going off and having my six weeks off, I actually went down to NPL purely just to get some game time.

“I thought that’s probably the best thing for my career and speaking with Monty and Miguel, we were looking at all options – overseas predominantly – somewhere that I can just go and play.

“There was a few countries that were kind of thrown about and a few options to choose between, but ultimately, I think coming here as a number one to play 25 games. I think it’s good for my career.

“It’s not a big island but I think a lot of the players here are very much here for their careers and to try and do well.

“There’s a lot of scouts that come. There’s a lot of European countries that watch, it’s very much an opportunity league where the average age of the players are kind of younger as well. Early twenties, just players and trying to to come here, have a good season and just get themselves ready for the next opportunity.”

In fact, it was an interesting connection between the Mariners and the tiny nation, which helped him become the latest Aussie after the likes of former Mariners teammate Manny Aguek (Balzan), Emmanuel Peters (Kercem Ajax) and prior to that, Charles Lokolingoy (who now plays in Indonesia) to make the move.

“The club has a connection in Malta as well. One of our major sponsors Anton (Tagliaferro), has a club here in Malta,” he said.

“Monty and Sergio (Raimundo) were actually in Malta a few weeks ago before the pre-season started in the A-League, so they know the league.

“The Mariners have just signed their latest player from the Maltese League, so there is a bit of a connection there between the Mariners and the Maltese League, so they are familiar with it.

“I know Manny (Aguek) as well, so I did actually give Manny a call, before I moved over here to get some information on the league and ultimately, look, it’s a European league.

“I’m going to be playing consistently, and I think the top few teams go to Champions League qualifiers, Europa League qualifiers, which is something to aim for.”

The Mariners dichotomy

To get an understanding of Sozer’s character, it’s best to look back at his time at the Mariners – where he had moemnts that he describes as both the “best” and “worst” of his life.

Ever the optimist, Sozer will tell you each of his experiences in Terrigal helped mould him into the player and person he is now, which all started when he signed for the club in 2021.

Sozer was one of Nick Montgomery’s first signings that off-season, and throughout his two campaigns at the club, he served as back-up to Mark Birighitti and Danny Vukovic.

Opportunities were few and far between, but the experience of working alongside two of the Australia’s best keepers taught him a host of valuable lessons.

“It’s one of the toughest positions to be in,” he said about being a back-up.

“Mentally, you have to prepare for every game, throughout the week, you’ll be working as hard, if not harder sometimes because you’re facing a lot more shots. You’re doing a lot more work, but ultimately match day where you have that chance to express yourself and show yourself, you miss out on that opportunity.

“I think it’s a It’s a double-edged sword where I got to work with (Mark) Birighitti and (Danny) Vukovic, and my relationships with them both were fantastic. I still keep in contact with both of them we were almost a team within the team. Not just on the pitch, but off the pitch.

Mark Birighitti

“Vuka and I would catch up for for lunch, and I’d be over at his house and stuff. We had a really good relationship and I was really lucky to work with some world class goalkeepers, but at the same time, it’s hard because you’re not playing and it’s just one position.

“Unless there’s an opening, you just have to wait for your time.

“That’s why some some goalkeepers get given that opportunity when they’re young and the opportunity falls in their life and they get a continuous run of games, but sometimes, as I have the last couple of years, I had Birraz, who’s Goalkeeper of the Year, then Vuka this year in the Socceroos squad and the captain.

“I’ve just been waiting for my time, and I think it’s time for me to start playing.”

Danny Vukovic

Sozer’s moment finally arrived on December 5 ,2021, when he was handed his league debut against Macarthur FC, after Birighitti was suspended in what was then the FFA Cup.

Then, the unthinkable happened. Sozer pulled up with a hamstring injury after only 20 minutes and was forced off the field.

“It was definitely the hardest moment of my life,” he said.

“I worked so hard up until that point to finally get an opportunity and to have a major injury for the first time in my career and for it to come on my debut was heartbreaking.

“It really tested my character, and it really tested how much I really want it and I think the answer to that was the next three or four months and the work ethic I had and the determination I had to come back fitter and stronger and I came back ahead of time.”

He continued: “I smashed out my rehab and ultimately, I think that the the club saw that Monty, Serge and the goalkeeper department and I re-signed there as well, and they really did believe in me.

“I played pretty much most of the the pre-season until they had the opportunity to sign Vuka but you know what, I think it’s always about mindset. Everyone has setbacks, but it’s the ones that get back up and don’t play that victim mentality that I think progress furthest in life.

“That’s my mindset. I really believe in instead of blaming injury or blaming this or blaming that, I just have to control what I can control, and that’s working hard and keep chipping away because I truly do believe when that opportunity comes, then I’ll be ready for it.”

While Sozer’s impact on the field was minimal, his impact off the pitch can’t be understated.

During his time on the sidelines, Sozer took it upon himself to step into the local community and offer a helping hand where he could, establishing himself as a favourite among the Mariners faithful.

“It was really rewarding. It’s a massive part of our role as footballers,” he recalled.

“We have a special place in the community where we can really inspire a lot of the young players coming through. I remember a week or two after I got injured I spoke to the club and I said: ‘you know what? I want to take a lot of pressure off the the playing group and give me as much work in the community as possible’.

“One it will help the playing group and two I’ll stay engaged with fans and I think that was a really awesome experience for me.

“I got close with the fans, and I there’s a lot of young goalkeepers out there and young fans who I still keep in touch with to this day. They message me and we keep in touch and I think that’s what it’s all about because you can’t forget where you came from?

“About 10, 15 years ago, I was one of those boys, 9, 10 or 11 years old, dreaming of becoming a professional footballer one day so it it goes a long way to spend time with them and show them that through hard work that everything’s achievable.”

The Monty effect

Sozer would only play more one game for the Mariners, starting in their 2022 Australia Cup defeat to Sydney FC, before serving as Vukovic’s deputy during their run to the Championship.

That match was the first game of a historic 2022-23 campaign, where Montgomery led Sozer and co to the club’s second ever Championship.

“It was surreal. It was the the best moment of my life,” he said.

“We truly believed and everyone in our squad knew that we could do it.

“For a club with the smallest budget in the league to come out and to win on the the biggest stage in Australian football was incredible.

“We all promised each other that if we did win the league that we’d all get a team tattoo and we all followed through with that. So pretty much Everyone in the squad’s got a championship tattoo on them as well now, but I think that’s a memory that I’ll never forget.

“I’m sure none of the the boys will ever forget for the rest of their lives.”

Montgomery and a host of his teammates have moved on, with the likes of Jason Cummings, Nectar Triantis, Sammy Silvera and James McGarry penning deals with overseas clubs.

His former coach recently became the coach of Scottish side Hibernian, while assistants Raimundo and Miranda followed him to the other side of the globe.

“Monty is different from any coach that I’ve ever worked with before,” Sozer said.

“He really does care about the players, and that’s not just in a football sense, but off the pitch as well, his communication with the players, he maintains a dialogue with you to make sure that you’re happy in your personal life as well as on the training pitch.

“They demand learned a lot from you, and they have really, really high expectations but I think the culture that we created at the club for the last couple of years was the best change room that I’ve ever been a part of.

“I think every single day that we came in to the change room, and at training, we were very, very close as a group.

“The camaraderie, we just loved being there and I think that’s the culture that was created by the coaching staff.

“Yes, there was pressure to perform. Yes, there was an expectation to to meet certain standards but ultimately, we had fun.

“In the change room, I was right in the heart of things. I was the fine master. I was involved with a lot of the banter. You guys have seen a little bit of a snippet of Jason and I having a bit of banter.

“I think more than that, every single day in the change room, there was something else. There was a new joke. There was a new prank. There was a new something we were laughing about. There was a new story and I think, ultimately that started with the coaching staff.

“I think that is ultimately what brought us success.”