Tate Russell will be looking to hit the ground running in the upcoming A-League campaign after his biggest setback on the football field so far in his young career.
The Wollongong Olympic junior - who plays for Western Sydney Wanderers in the A-League Men's - was gunning for his biggest season yet for the club before disaster struck.
The now 24-year-old suffered a season-ending ACL injury, meaning he was forced to sit in the stands and watch his Wanderers team produce their best season in over five years.
Marko Rudan took the team to the finals in his first full season as head coach of the club. It was set to be a big year for Russell. Despite being only young, he is one of the longest serving players at the club after he made his debut in the red and black first team in 2018.
The Wanderers were knocked out by their bitter rivals Sydney FC in the first round of finals last season. Despite the disappointment, it was still a proud year for the club after reaching the top six for the first time since 2017.
After a long layoff, Russell is now in contention to come into the side for the Wanderers' A-League Men's opener against Wellington in Parramatta on October 22. He told the Mercury he was gunning for a return off the back of a tough year.
"It was very tough especially considering how well the boys did," the fullback said.
"It was something that I wanted to be part of and in some aspects I was, but it's not the same as being on the field. So that was really tough. So being able to be part of it this year and wanting to help the team out as much as I can. I'm really looking forward to it and looking forward to playing again.
"[The toughest thing about the layoff was] probably when if the boys are struggling in games that we lost, I felt like we could have won it. It was just when you feel like you can contribute or just give something to the boys and you're stuck there watching. It's just the hardest thing to be sort of not on the outside, but not in the middle of it.
"It was definitely hard for me. But it was something that the club and the coaching staff were really positive with me and my mindset because it's very easy to be your own worst enemy coming back from such a big injury. But it's been nothing but positive reinforcement and just trying to realise that it does take time to get these things back.
"I'm all set. I wish it kind of sped up a little bit but definitely ready for round one."
He said the Wanderers were looking to improve again from 2022/23.
"It's a fairly new group, but as most people can see from these first couple of [trial] games, we've got a very forward thinking style," Russell continued.
"The boys seem to buy into it really well and pre-season is the perfect time to iron out all those kinks and stuff and that's what we're trying to do. Everyone's still on board and still on the same wavelength. Everyone knows what we want to do and everyone's got a similar path and what they want to achieve.
"Some way it's different tactically. We're very different this year, but the same messages has always come across in the same way. We want to be ruthless in games and be on the front foot regardless of whether we're away or at home. We want to be taking control of games."
Russell also heaped plenty of praise on Illawarra products Alex and Liam Bonetig.
From Shellharbour, older brother Alex is on the fringes of the Wanderers first team whilst his younger sibling Liam just signed a deal with Scottish powerhouses Celtic as well as being selected for the Young Socceroos for the Marbella Week of Football in Spain.
"It's really positive to be able to see those boys come through and especially Alex as well," he said.
"He's now got a couple of games under his belt. He's just seemed to flourish more and more with more minutes and he just seems a lot more comfortable in that role and position.
The A-League Men's season kicks off in Adelaide on Friday, October 20 with United taking on defending grand final winners the Mariners.
The following day it's Macarthur against Brisbane before defending premiers Melbourne City tackle Western United. A 'big blue' will follow with Sydney FC against Melbourne Victory and then the round finishes on the Sunday with WSW versus Wellington and Perth playing Newcastle.
The A-League Women's competition kicks-off this weekend (Saturday, October 14) with league newcomers the Mariners up against Newcastle in an 'F3 derby'.
Shellharbour girls Jynaya and Indiana Dos Santos will be in action when Sydney FC play Western Sydney.
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