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How will Australia star Garang Kuol cope at Newcastle?

Less than a year on from his brother Alou declaring that “Garangski has landed” when he scored on his A-League Men debut, Garang Kuol has blasted off. With the January transfer window in England now open, the 18-year-old’s move from the Central Coast Mariners to Premier League side Newcastle United has been completed, and Australian football’s latest “next big thing” leaves a small pond for the gigantic and treacherous ocean of European football.

He departs with significant hype behind him. It’s not often that any European club pays an A-League side a reported £300,000 for any player, let alone a teenager that they then reportedly put on £25,000-a-week on a four-year deal.

But to declare that Kuol departs Gosford with a presupposition of success is to misconstrue the prevailing sentiment surrounding his move overseas. Even more pervasive among Australian footballing observers than any expectations about what Kuol will become is a yearning sense of hope that he will reach that mark. For while he is not close to a finished product yet, his fearless approach, refusal to be overawed by any occasion, rapid improvement, and ability to make things happen on a football pitch has shown that the Socceroos may have a generational talent on their hands.

Since his debut against the Wellington Phoenix last April, Kuol has registered 584 minutes across 18 A-League Men, or ALM, games, split evenly across the 2021-22 and 2022-23 campaigns. Only three of those — all coming in the past month following his return from the World Cup — were starts. He scored four goals and registered a single assist in the former season, and added two goals and three assists in the latter.

According to ESPN Stats and Information, his 0.94 goals and 0.62 assists per 90 minutes both led the ALM since the start of the 2021-22 season amongst players with a minimum of 10 appearances. Further, while his scoring involvements across his first and second seasons have remained consistent at five, his chances created for teammates increased too.

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Of course these stats don’t include the fact that, at age 18 years and 79 days, Kuol became the youngest player to play in the knockout stages of the World Cup since Pele in 1958. Or that, with a 97th-minute shot that Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez somehow managed to keep out, he came within a forearm of forcing the eventual world champions into extra time in Australia’s round-of-16 defeat.

Admittedly, this promise may all go up in smoke at a moment’s notice. Injuries could strike; Newcastle’s choice of loan club could prove more adverse to his development than existed at Central Coast; the minutes he needs might not be there; his hunger and drive could begin to wane; a coach without any interest in the health of Australian football might take a dislike to him; consistently needing to start could hamstring him — and he might even not like the cold of the English winter and get homesick.

It can all happen, and has happened to other Australian youngsters that have taken the step. But at every step of Kuol’s journey so far, those waiting for the rug to be pulled out from underneath him have been left waiting as he went from NPL Victoria to the World Cup. At this point, while he hasn’t earned a blank cheque, history suggests that it would be unwise to bet against him.

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Steve Nicol expects Newcastle United to maintain their excellent start and challenge for the Premier League’s top four.

“I think what he’s shown so far, his mindset is very good. He’s a confident young man but you can see that his feet are firmly on the ground,” Melbourne Victory coach Tony Popovic, who played over 100 games for Crystal Palace during his career, observed. “It looks clear to me that he’s got a lot of good support around him and I think that’s the key. There are a lot of talented players out there, a lot of players with potential and very, very few make it to the very top. And very few play professionally. But he seems to be taking the right steps with a very good support network, I’m sure he’ll have one overseas as well.”

Popovic’s Victory had the task of keeping Kuol quiet in his final ALM game before he jetted off for Tyneside, or “spoil the party” as the coach put it. But while they were able to accomplish the former — Kuol was restricted to just a single chance created across the 79 minutes of his third career league start — Victory weren’t able to achieve the latter as the Mariners found a 2-1 win.

It’s perhaps fitting that Kuol’s last game came against Victory as, had just a few things gone differently, he very easily could have been playing for the four-time ALM champions. Despite banging in the goals at senior, albeit semi-professional level, with the Goulburn Valley Suns in Victoria’s NPL2 competition, Kuol’s older brother Alou had been rejected from Victory’s academy by a previous administration for being “too raw.” Western United gave him a trial but never made a hard commitment, while Melbourne City never showed an interest.

Alou, who now plays for VfB Stuttgart in Germany, had appeared set to sign with Melbourne Knights — the club that had previously produced Australia’s greatest striker, Mark Viduka, in the 1990s — only for the Mariners to come calling: a sliding doors moment that forged a connection with the family.

To an extent, it’s difficult to extrapolate too many developmental lessons Australian football can take from this progression; how Garang plays the game carries with it such an innate level of fearlessness, awareness, and understanding that attempting to create another player like him would be unfair on the prospect in question.

Instead, most of the lessons could largely be said to be environmental. Under coach Nick Montgomery in Gosford, Kuol found somewhere where he was put in a position to succeed. Not relegated to the youth team or the bench until he could raise all aspects of his game to an arbitrary level, but deployed in roles that maximised his strengths and minimised his weaknesses.

Given the output he was able to produce, it was little wonder when Montgomery continued to play him, but it’s a lesson in looking at a player through the prism of what they can do, rather than what they can’t. Nobody ever said that a shark would be a more effective hunter if it knew how to climb a tree and Montogomery deserves credit for recognising that and not trying to coach these attributes out of him.

The “family club” atmosphere and broader belief in youth that characterises the recent years of the Mariners undoubtedly played a role as well, as did the presence of friends and mentors such as Thomas Deng and Awer Mabil when Kuol received his callup to the national team setup for the first time. That his junior club, Shepparton Soccer Club, were willing to waive their fees for his refugee family, as well as others who couldn’t afford to pay if they instead performed volunteer work, speaks to the benefits that come with ensuring that all Australians have proper access to football.

For now, though, those are discussions for Australian football to have. Kuol’s next step will be to thrive on loan; The Daily Telegraph reported last month that Newcastle would likely look to send him to a Portuguese or German outfit for the first half of 2023, before then sending him out to a Championship club in 2023-24.

Fortunately for his hopes of finding a proper fit, the report stated that the Premier League club had been “inundated” with offers. Kuol’s next chapter awaits; Australian football and Newcastle are hoping it’s a bright one.