The ‘cranky’ junior who’s a Socceroo and ‘bound for the EPL’ – but hasn’t forgotten where he came from

Kye Rowles set the standard in teams when he was little, and his progress to the national team hasn’t surprised any of his coaches a along the way, writes Tom Smithies.

The grass is a little more parched on Australian soil, but if you squint a little in the sun’s glare, the rolling pitches, simple rows of seating and total lack of shade mean Palm Beach Soccer Club isn’t so dissimilar to the Aspire Academy in the suburbs of Doha.

On the surface there’s not much in common between the Queensland grassroots club and the money-no-object, elite facility in Qatar where the Socceroos trained at the FIFA Men’s World Cup, but both have been vital staging posts on the career to date of Kye Rowles.

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Palm Beach was where a five-year-old Rowles first kicked a ball, and almost instantly showed such prowess that his coach – also his father – substituted him regularly because Rowles Jnr was scoring too many goals.

The Aspire Academy was where Rowles arguably came of age as a fully fledged Socceroo, forming a prodigious defensive partnership with Harry Souttar at the World Cup that was the bedrock of Australia’s journey to the Round of 16. In both those parts of his life, you hear the same words used about a defender who has become a star without any great fanfare.

Rowles playing for Palm Beach Soccer Club as a junior.

“He was just so fiercely determined – I don’t think I’ve seen a player more committed go through our school,” says Peter Hulme, one of the coaches at Palm Beach Currumbin State High School where Rowles was a student from years 7-10 before winning a place at the AIS in Canberra.

To put that in context, the school has produced six full Australian football internationals in football and 13 players who play professional sport.

“Every training session for him was like a cup final, he drove the standards and lifted up every player around him,” says Hulme. “To be honest he could be quite cranky if he felt his performance wasn’t good enough, he put a lot of pressure on himself to succeed.

“I don’t think at that stage he realised quite how much talent he had, but every time he crossed the white line he had to win.”

Rowles playing at the National Youth Championships in 2012.

Whether the pressure Rowles put on himself drove his success or vice versa, the effect was prodigious. At Palm Beach SC Rowles made the Under-10 development squad a year early; soon he was in the Gold Coast rep team, and then the Queensland squad for the National Youth Championships at U13 and U14 level – in both tournaments he was picked for the All-Stars team at the end.

That was the point at which the goalscoring midfielder became the goalsaving defender – so seamlessly that he won a place at the Queensland Academy of Sport and was player of the tournament at the NTC Challenge in Canberra, also in Queensland’s colours.

None of this seeingly came at any human cost. The fact Rowles went back to visit his old high school last November, just before going to the World Cup, reflects what his past coaches say about his polite demeanour and team ethic.

You could see it in his body language in the players’ dining room hours after he had played for the A-League All Stars against LaLiga powerhouse Barcelona last May. Rowles had to leave early to head straight for Doha, ready to make his Socceroos debut in the play-offs that took Australia to the World Cup; his slight air of disbelief at the game he had just played was mirrored in his apology at not stopping for more than a cursory chat as he rushed to the airport.

“It’s really important to us that what we do at PBC is not just about the development of the footballer,” says Shane Robinson, co-ordinator of the football program at Palm Beach Currumbin State High School.

“We have 12 different sports and the aim is to develop the whole person; our students get lessons on their diet, on financial literacy, we get them to do coaching and refereeing licences so they can see the game from various points of view.

“The magic here comes from the staff and they create an atmosphere where the athletes push each other in all the right ways.

“For our students to see a boy from Palm Beach who loved to surf, who played at the local club but was off to the World Cup, was fantastically inspiring. For them then to see him marking Lionel Messi at the World Cup was incredible, so motivating.

“He still has mates around here, he absolutely hasn’t forgotten where he came from.”

Rowles returns to his old school, Palm Beach Currumbin State High School, last November.


Having said all of that, nice guys do not automatically fare well in football. Politeness is for off the pitch; as his junior coaches saw early, Rowles’s determination to win has long been high-octane. Just ask Mitch Duke, now his international teammate and scorer of Australia’s winner against Tunisia at the World Cup.

“When I played against him (in the A-League), when I was with Wanderers and he was at the Central Coast Mariners, I had a bit of a battle with him,” he said. “He was kicking me and, fair play to him, here was this very young boy coming up against an older player like myself and giving it to me, sticking it into me.

“I actually had a word with him. The Mariners weren’t doing so well, and I was like, You’re gonna be playing NPL soon… and here he is, absolutely killing it, doing unbelievable in the World Cup and doing really well in Scotland with huge long contract for Hearts and huge credit to him.

“He was a great asset for us in the World Cup and he’s got a very, very good future ahead. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see him in the Premier League at some point in the future.”

Rowles, left, tackles Mitch Duke for the Mariners against the Wanderers in 2019.

Given where Rowles has come from in less than 10 months, that might seem an outlandish claim. But Duke is by no means the only one to hold it; Mariners boss Nick Montgomery, who played in the Premier League, strongly believes Rowles can earn himself a berth with the very elite.

Montgomery had just retired at the Mariners (to become the club’s head of football) when Rowles was signed by then head coach Paul Okon in 2017.

“The bones were there of a very good player, but he had a bit of frustration in his game,” Montgomery says now. “He didn’t like making mistakes or letting someone score.

“To me that’s leadership, demanding the best of everyone, but he was a bit of a perfectionist and football isn’t always a perfect game.

“The funny thing is that what really made him was going two years under Okon and Mike Mulvey when the club hardly won a game. For some players that would send them under but it just built resilience in him. His attitude was always first class, always one of the hardest trainers every day.”

Montgomery’s accession to head coach coincided with the best season of Rowles’s career and subsequent move to Hearts; plus, of course, his All Stars appearance, Socceroos debut in the World Cup play-offs and starting every game at the World Cup itself in Doha.

“He was outstanding in the play-offs, to see him perform so well against Peru when so much was at stake just filled me with pride,” Montgomery says.

“He had that injury (a broken foot) leading into the World Cup and I was in touch with him, I just knew he’d make it. The fact Graham Arnold felt able to throw him in against the world’s best players says everything, he’s the sort of player a coach can trust.

“Scotland will be a stepping stone for him, I have no doubt he can play at a higher level. Give him a year or two of playing well and consistently in Scotland and I have no doubt there’s another level for him to go to.”