‘I tried to leave’: The ‘icing on the cake’ that finally ended an 8-year wait to be No. 1

We preview Western United's first home game of the season against Newcastle Jets in Round Four of the Isuzu UTE A-League

From Premier League trials to six years on the sidelines, Thomas Heward-Belle has had to wait patiently for his chance to shine. The new Western United goalkeeper speaks to aleagues.com.au’s James Dodd.

November 16, 2005. John Aloisi had just dispatched the ball past Uruguayan goalkeeper Fabián Carini to send the Socceroos to the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany.

Among those standing behind the goal that night was an eight-year-old Thomas Heward-Belle, who was left mesmerised by what he’d just seen – especially given his favourite player had scored Australia’s first penalty of the shootout.

“Harry Kewell was my idol, he was my everything,” laughed a now 26-year-old Heward-Belle as he reflected on that famous night to aleagues.com.au.

“But having gone to the qualifying World Cup game against Uruguay, seeing Mark Schwarzer’s performance in that game in the penalty shootout was extremely inspiring for a kid at that age.”


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Initially a tricky right winger, it wasn’t until he turned 12 that Heward-Belle opted to start preventing goals as opposed to assisting them and it all came about following a key conversation with his father.

“My Dad pulled me aside and said: ‘if you want to give yourself the best chance to get into these representative teams I would recommend you trial yourself in goal because that’s where your athletic strengths are’.”

And what a decision it would prove to be.

Now 26, Heward-Belle is finally flourishing as a first choice goalkeeper and it just so happens to be under the man he saw score the winning penalty on that famous night at Stadium Australia.

But while Aloisi has played a key role in instilling confidence in his new goalkeeper, it’s a former Isuzu UTE A-League gloveman who Heward-Belle credits for convincing him to move to Western United in the first place.

“In the beginning they (the conversations) were more with Michael Theo. He said, ‘we believe that as a club we can help you reach your goal of maintaining yourself as a number one goalkeeper in the A-League and we believe you deserve that’.”

Heward-Belle’s journey to becoming a fully-fledged number has been anything but easy. In fact, there was a point at age 16 when he could have called the Premier League home.

“I had a bit of time at Swansea City and that was an eye opener, they were in the Premier League at that time.

“Then I spent a bit of time at Sheffield United, I played two games for the U18s there. Then finally my Dad took me over, when I was a little bit older, to Club Brugge in Belgium and I played two games with the U21s there as well.”

As exciting as those playing experiences were at the time, he realised pretty quickly how big the chasm was between the level he was used to and the level he was now aspiring to reach.

“Having been at a high school in Hornsby I probably didn’t quite understand how or why kids at my age were taking the game so seriously.

“Then you see the facilities they have, the coaches, the money that’s involved and what they’re aiming for, it all makes sense. That’s what bridged me to want to be a professional goalkeeper.”

And so, armed with the knowledge he’d soaked up in Europe, the burgeoning goalkeeper returned to Australia ready to try his hand at making football a career back home.

An early, and somewhat unexpected, professional debut in the Isuzu UTE A-League came when he was aged 18 for Central Coast Mariners, but eight years on, Heward-Belle has amassed just 30 professional games; and he’s keen to make up for what he feels is lost time.

“I’ve had to be quite patient in some regards,” said the shot-stopper. “At 26, this is the first opportunity I’ve had to establish myself as a number one and that’s ultimately my goal.

“Even in the first couple of games in the Australia Cup I really felt the pressure. Whether that’s the right way to think about it or not, I definitely felt that way, (I am) sort of chasing lost time.”

A lot of that ‘lost time’ saw Heward-Belle perform the role of understudy to Sydney FC and Socceroos goalkeeper Andrew Redmayne.

However, while he says the experience gained from his teammate was invaluable, there came a point where he had simply had enough. It was time to become the main man.

“Everything prior to COVID, I was accepting of being a number two at Sydney,” he recalls. “But after that COVID period, having a couple of games here and there, I just decided within myself that I wanted to go and pursue minutes.”

But wanting to spread your wings, or arms in this case, and then actually being able to do so are two very different things, as Heward-Belle would find out.

“I was trying to leave Sydney in the last two seasons of my contract. For whatever reason they decided they wanted me to stay as an insurance policy and that made it hard for me to move anywhere else.

“But as soon as my contract expired after last season, that was sort of the icing on the cake. It allowed me to go and seize an opportunity and it just happened to be at Western.”

Happily settled into life in Victoria, Heward-Belle now approaches every training session with a spring in his step, eager to prove he’s a worthy possessor of his spot at the top of the Western pecking order.

But just because his days as an understudy are behind him, it doesn’t mean he looks back on his time with the Sky Blues with any ill-feeling.

“I spent six years at Sydney and it was the club I grew up supporting,” said the 26-year-old. “I went to all the games as a kid and I still have a lot of love for the club.

“But once it became really obvious that they weren’t going to accommodate any type of loan or move temporarily, it was concrete in my mind that I had to move on.”

Western’s start to the 2023-24 Isuzu UTE A-League season has been a topsy-turvy one with plenty asked of Heward-Belle in his first three games; his performances have stood out, but he’s not shying away from the things he feels he needs to improve on.

“Shot-stopping is probably one of my biggest strengths,” said Heward-Belle, who has made more saves per 90 minutes than any other keeper in the Isuzu UTE A-League this season.

“Things like controlling my box, coming for crosses, my starting position for balls over the top – those are all things that I honestly feel will grow as time goes on.”

He added: “My whole focus is on having a really solid and consistent season for Western and hopefully they can rely on me to help them. That’s what all my effort and hard work is going into.”