Perth Glory's signing of Kenny Athiu on the eve of the A-League season is the culmination of a childhood dream that began as a refugee fleeing from his war-ravaged homeland.
After three seasons with Heidelberg, Athiu has finally got the chance to play in the topflight.
The last two campaigns in the Victorian NPL has seen the lanky striker dominate. After scoring 17 goals in 21 games in 2016, his most recent season saw him top the Victorian NPL scoring charts and grab the Player of the Year award.
Athiu was only four when he and his family escaped the civil war in Sudan and then fled to Kenya where they lived for the next seven years. Then in 2004 Australia offered the Athiu family refuge.
“I came here when I was 11, with my six sisters, one brother and my mum and we came as refugees,” he said.
“It was very different to be honest. We came during the winter time, and coming from a really hot area to the Australian winter was a massive shock. We were out in the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne and ahh it was freezing.
“I don’t have much memory of the war that was happening back then but in Keyna it was good. We didn’t have a lot but we did have enough to get through life and survive.”
Growing up in Australia, Athiu found a local community in football and fustal and says his time in the suburbs of Melbourne were his formative years.
“When we came here there was a lot of people from the South Sudanese community so it wasn’t hard to settle into it,” he said.
“I didn’t speak much English but one of my cousins who came here before me used to play at a club in Keysborough, and they went and found a club for me which was South Springvale and that’s where I played all of my junior football.
“Obviously compared to now where football is more technical, with us as juniors we just had to learn playing together as a team.
"We didn’t learn a lot of the individual technical things the kids learn now. But we acquired a lot of good technical players and we just made ourselves better because everyone was that good, so we just kept on improving each other.”
After two years with South Springvale seniors and six months with Springvale White Eagles, Athiu made the move to Victorian NPL 2 side Box Hill and it was there his football education took off.
“Box Hill is probably where I learnt all my football knowledge because everything was just so technical and that was with every training session,” he said.
“The way everything was set up involved the ball and movement. It was the more thinking side of football. It wasn’t just running, it was about keeping the ball and working on your touch and all that stuff.”
It was frustrating because I wanted to play week in and week out
Box Hill is also where Heidelberg coach George Katsakis first spotted Athiu and then signed the raw but talented striker for the 2015 Victorian NPL season.
However the tall striker had to bide his time.
“It was frustrating because I wanted to play week in and week out (but) Kaine Sheppard and Daniel Heffernan were the two main strikers at that time,” he said.
“Them performing so well that year meant I was going to get limited opportunities but I knew my time was going to come sooner or later so I had to be patient.”
While Athiu’s 2015 season saw him play mostly as a substitute, the following term was his breakthrough and 17 goals in 21 games saw him awarded the Player’s Player of the Year award.
Speaking to FourFourTwo at that time, Katsakis said his protege had developed tremendously from when he first saw him play.
“From the time I picked him from Box Hill to now he’s gone to a totally new level here at Heidelberg, he’s changed 360 degrees and he’s a totally different player,” he said.