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  • Writer's pictureIan Pulczynski

How Harry Sawyer bucked the A-League trend to thrive overseas

Limited by professional opportunities in his domestic competition, Australian striker Harrison Sawyer is thriving in Finland at the moment, bucking the trend of Australian footballers, particularly strikers, having to climb their way from the NPL to the A-League Men to get minutes in a professional environment.

Harrison Sawyer is enjoying his time in the Finnish first tier with VPS. Source: VPS - Vaasan Palloseura Facebook

The 26-year-old is one of many examples of how Australian footballers are starting to leave the country to look for overseas opportunities to start or build on their careers before it's too late.


The Brisbane-born striker has been significantly impacted by the low number of professional football opportunities in the A-League Men and his home state, Queensland. Currently, there is only one professional football club in Queensland - Australia's third most popular state - which means local talent can be lost to other opportunities interstate, with the football landscape in Queensland suffering as a result.


In 2017, after impressing in the NPL Queensland system, Sawyer signed for the Newcastle Jets but only managed one start during his time in the Hunter. After leaving the A-League that same year, Sawyer looked to Asia to develop his career, starting in the Philippines with Davao Aguilas. He was there from 2017 to 2019, which included a season-long loan in Hong Kong with Tai Po during the 2018/19 season.

Sawyer in action for the Newcastle Jets. Source: The Courier Mail

Despite limited minutes in his home country, Sawyer made a name for himself in Asia, winning Davao's Golden Boot and helping his Tai Po side win the 2018/19 Hong Kong Premier League. Sawyer's Asian adventure even took him to North Korea twice with the Hong Kong side as he featured in the AFC Cup. Speaking to Front Page Football, he described what it was like to travel to one of the world's most secluded countries.

"We were the only flight of the day, and we were the only people at the airport," Sawyer said when discussing his North Korea experience.


"We got checked for about an hour when we were leaving the airport. [The North Korean authorities] had a look at any books, checking every page and checking our laptops. One of the players' iPads was confiscated as it contained South Korean films.

"Once we got into North Korea, there were a lot of statues of Kim Jong-Un; the eeriness of the country was cool. There were no tourists, and we had a guide there the whole time who ran the show for us. He didn't allow us to speak to anyone. We just stayed in the hotel, so I couldn't really see too much, but it definitely was a surreal experience."


Unfortunately for Sawyer, scoring goals in Asia didn't alert A-League clubs to give him another contract, as he returned from his loan spell in Hong Kong by signing with NPL Victoria giants South Melbourne in 2020. The Brisbane-born striker enjoyed a very successful time at Hellas, winning the league and Golden Boot award in 2022 and again establishing himself on the NPL scene.

Sawyer in South Melbourne colours. Source: South Melbourne FC

Success in Victoria's first tier led to Sawyer receiving an offer from Indian Super League side Jamshedpur FC, with the striker describing the move as an eye-opening experience in the world's most populated country.


"Culturally, it was a huge change," Sawyer said.


"Hong Kong is culturally different from Australia, but India is a completely different place altogether. The amount of people everywhere is just crazy.

"There are a lot of passionate fans [in India]. It's good to see a lot of Aussies there, as it's financially attractive. The TV rights and coverage around the game is quite special and run well. It's culturally rewarding to see how a country like India operates with so many people and away from a developed country such as Australia.


"[Football] is really starting to push up against cricket, and it is on the rise. It's becoming very popular in a few cities, such as Kerala and Kolkata. A lot of Indians are now turning towards football because it is becoming popular. I wouldn't be surprised if, in five to ten years, it becomes a bigger country in the scene of Asian football."

Sawyer enjoyed an eye-opening experience in India with Jamshedpur. Source: @harrisonsawyer Instagram

After scoring goals in the Indian Super League, Sawyer moved to Finland as Veikkausliiga side VPS came in for his signature. The Finnish club had an eye on him since January.


"In January, whilst I was playing in India, [VPS] made contact with me. I still had a few months in India, and they kept tabs on me. Once the window opened, they offered another deal for me. I spoke with Tete Yengi, an Aussie who used to play for VPS, and with Aleksandr Kokko, who I knew from the Newcastle Jets. I spoke to them, and they had good things to say about the club and league."


The Veikkausliiga is a competition familiar to Australian players, especially in recent years. At the moment, including Sawyer, there are four Australians - Tete Yengi (KuPS), Alen Harbas (KTP), and Sabit Ngor (Ilves) among the others - in Finland. All have had limited minutes in Australia's first tier yet receive valuable game time in a European first-tier competition. Yengi used to play for Sawyer's current club and won the club's Golden Boot last year.


As shown previously, leagues such as the Veikkausliiga can be a perfect stomping ground for Australians starting their professional careers instead of sacrificing time and money playing in the NPL system, especially given, as Sawyer explained, the highly competitive and technical level of football on offer overseas.


"I've been pleasantly surprised with how good the Finnish league is," Sawyer said.


"The quality is really high. The speed of the play has probably surprised me the most...the ball speed is very fast. Every team tries to play out from the back, and they take a lot of risks.

"Ice hockey is the number one sport here, but football is growing. The atmosphere is really good. My experience here in Finland has been amazing; we've won every game since I arrived, so I only have positive things to say about my football experience.


"The lifestyle, especially in Vaasa, is very laidback. The people seem very nice. No one is in a hurry or a rush. The food is very good, and the water is very fresh. The weather has been very good recently too. The lifestyle is quite cool, which I think is a good word to describe Vaasa. It's quiet but unique in its own way."

In the local derby against SJK a few weeks ago, Sawyer scored a stoppage-time winner in a pulsating 3-2 victory, helping VPS climb the ladder in the hunt for European competition spots. It was Sawyer's first start and 90 minutes for the club, a moment he will never forget.


"Before the game, I didn't know this, but [VPS] hadn't beat SJK in around seven years," he said.


"SJK are a well-funded club and have been doing well the past few seasons in Finland, so the game was huge. The derby was huge, our stadium was packed out, and being able to score the winner after taking the lead 2-0, then 2-2, to scoring the 88th-minute winner in the derby...you couldn't really script it any better."


Sawyer added that the Finnish top tier could be a promising avenue for Australian players, especially young talent looking for professional minutes on the European stage and possibly even featuring in a competition like the UEFA Europa Conference League.


"The football here is of a very high quality," he said.


"I've been really impressed by the quality and the speed of the game here. I would say it's definitely a good option for Aussies to come here and try and break into Europe. The trainings have [also] been very high quality, so I'd highly recommend it."

 

READ MORE AUSSIES ABROAD CONTENT ON FPF

Stories such as Sawyer's, FPF's earlier exclusive with Sabit Ngor, or even Hassan Jalloh's time in the Icelandic first tier show that Australian players looking to start or build a professional career are departing the country because of the lack of opportunities in it. It cannot be ignored that Sawyer has and is scoring goals across various leagues worldwide. He has gained valuable experience both on and off the pitch, which he couldn't find in a professional capacity in Australia.


Whilst there are expansion and second-tier plans for Australian football, such mechanisms will still take a significant amount of time to bear fruit. The uncertain timeframes could result in more Australian footballers, especially young talent, leaving the country to develop their careers in European countries such as Finland or Iceland.


Click here to read more of FPF's coverage of Australian footballers overseas!

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