Joshua Grommen: The Australian-Filipino who bounced back from Roar rejection to star in Thailand
Australian-Filipino defender Joshua Grommen has had to cope with several setbacks in his career that have largely gone unnoticed.
Now he is thriving with Khon Kaen United in the Thai League 1.
Grommen has featured 15 times for The King Cobras this term.
Grommen walks out ahead of an appearance for Khon Kaen this season. (Khon Kaen United)
The newly-promoted side is 12th in the standings, hovering two places above the relegation zone.
Grommen and his teammates feel the best is yet to come despite a somewhat inconsistent start as they aim to move up the standings at the season’s end.
“This club’s just got promoted from the T2 (Thai League 2) to T1 this year. [It] took us a few games to get used to each other; it’s a new team being put together, so it took us a bit of time,” Grommen said recently in an interview with Front Page Football.
“But now we’re starting to play well; we’re competing against the top clubs in the league.
“The goal for the rest of this season [is] to get close to [the] top six, top seven, then progress from there.”
Right now, genuine progress is something that Grommen is achieving within his career.
But it hasn’t always been an upward trajectory.
The 25-year-old’s first major setback came when his career was still in its youth at the Brisbane Roar.
Grommen was born and raised in Brisbane by a Dutch father, Rudy, and a Filipino mother, Alma.
“Growing up, I always went to the Roar games with my family, watched every game, had family passes and everything,” he said.
As a local who watched the senior side so often, it was a no-brainer that Grommen would eventually join the Roar’s youth system.
But at 17, he was released by the club, and he already found that he had to reinvent his career path.
“When you’re young, you always want to become a professional footballer. Once you reach that age, around 16, 17, in Australia, the pro clubs start to notice you. Either they choose whether they want to keep you [at] the club or whether they want to release you,” he said.
“When they (Brisbane Roar) released me, obviously it was a bit disappointing. Some players from there (at the time) just went to [the] NPL, but I was fortunate enough that I had a Philippine passport.
“I took the opportunity to go over to the Philippines and see how I [would] do over there as soon as I turned 18. Once I was over there, I just put my head down and worked as hard as I could and stayed motivated to try and get something out of it.”
Grommen (pink, centre) in action for Khon Kaen. (Khon Kaen United)
Grommen did not just get over to the Philippines because of his passport, though.
He was lucky enough to have a support network with the correct pathway set up to get his career back on track.
“There was a program run by a guy called Leigh Gunn, he played for the Philippines national team, and he’s based in Sydney. He’s an Australian-Filipino,” he added.
“I got into contact with Leigh through a person called Elmer Bedia. Both of these guys were Aussie/Filipino that played for the Philippines national team before.
“Leigh had [the] program with another person, Andrew Fletcher. The program was called Azkalroos, which helped young Filipinos that lived in Australia get opportunities in the Philippines to play professionally.
“From there, I flew over to the Philippines and signed my first professional contract with Loyola Meralco Sparks.”
That move to Loyola Meralco kick-started a professional career mostly overseas, with Grommen having also played in Malaysia.
South-East Asian football nations such as Malaysia and Thailand are often perceived as leagues that lack genuine quality.
But Grommen believes they both have their strengths, whilst he outlined some differences in style across the two countries.
“In Malaysia, it’s a lot more physical. You have to be more physically fit; you have to do a lot of running,” he said.
“In Thailand, everything here is very technical. The players are very smart on the ball and off the ball. You can see there’s a big level [of] difference.
“There’s a lot of foreigners that have played in youth internationally and stuff like this. There’s a lot of Brazilians that have played for quite a few big clubs.
“The levels of foreign players here are top class.”
Grommen has also been a foreigner in the countries he has played in for most of his career.
But it hasn’t stopped him from staying abroad and pursuing a successful career in Asia.
The centre-back has played for four clubs in the Philippines, one in Malaysia, and Khon Kaen is now the second Thai club he has represented.
His CV even includes two stints at Ceres-Negros, one of the Philippines biggest clubs.
They are now known as United City FC after the club’s current owners renamed and saved Ceres from liquidation at the pandemic's peak in 2020.
The pandemic has been tough on all Australian footballers playing abroad.
But the difficulty of Grommen’s situation was compounded when one of his closest friends took his own life just two days before Grommen joined Khon Kaen.
“That situation was probably the toughest part of my life because when that did happen, it was during COVID, so I couldn’t pull out of my flights and my contracts with the club,” he said.
“Financially, I was struggling for 4-5 months because the club in [the] Philippines I was with also went bankrupt due to COVID.
“That period was very hard for me. I had to do quarantine for two weeks, which was pretty difficult when that happened, but I then put my head down, [and] tried to put my emotions aside with what happened [and] my career.
“But it was a very, very difficult time for me; it still is.”
Grommen has had some more positive fortune on the injury table, though, as he finally looks to have shrugged off persistent concerns that had held him back in the past.
“I’ve had my issues with my shoulders, both shoulders,” he added.
“I’ve dislocated my right once, and my left I’ve dislocated about seven or eight times, so I had to get surgery on it.
“This has been going on for quite some time now. I’ve had a groin injury that kept coming up and going away for a few years.
“At the moment, I’m injury-free, so I’m able to keep playing how I want to be playing each week and not have to worry about all [of] this stuff.
“I think that plays a big part at the moment of how I’m being able to perform.”
Grommen has undoubtedly been performing well this season.
The club recently rewarded him with a two-year contract extension to keep him until at least the end of the 2023/24 season.
He’s now looking forward to being a vital part of the club’s plans moving forward as they continue to adapt to playing in the first tier of Thai football.
“All clubs here in Thailand are always wanting to win titles, but I think at the moment with this club, it’s only new in the T1. There’s a big difference in level between T2 and T1; you can see it,” he said.
“They would want to play in the Asian Champions League, but I think it would need a bit more time.
“Right now, this club’s starting to upgrade a lot of things like training facilities. They’re looking at bringing in some more big-name players.
“They signed a new player that I can’t say who it is, but he’s quite a big name player in Asia.”
It is noticeable how much Thai football, in general, seems to be growing in recent years, evidenced by Khon Kaen's investment in a big name signing.
Only a few years ago, the Socceroos were given a scare on two occasions by Thailand in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
Grommen believes that a vast array of financial backing has played a significant role in Thailand's ability to grow their league and develop more players for their national team.
“The Thai government gets involved quite a bit here with the league itself because football’s quite big in Thailand,” he said.
“That being said, the club owners individually do have a lot of money. Most of the owners here are in the government themselves.”
Founded in 2014, the 2021-22 season is Khon Kaen's first ever in the top flight. (Khon Kaen United)
As former Adelaide United defender Michael Marrone revealed to FPF back in August, most owners of A-Leagues clubs are not as well-off.
They often have to overpay players to meet the minimum requirement of the salary cap.
Due to clubs often being uncertain about what their cap space will look like long-term, most A-League Men players are offered short-term deals.
This recruitment policy has led to many labelling the competition as the ‘recycle league’, and Grommen agrees with that sentiment.
Many Australians who play locally often represent many A-Leagues clubs, meaning opportunities for overseas-based Australians such as Grommen are limited.
“When it comes to opportunities for players like myself, they don’t give us much,” he said.
“They want us to come trial. Central Coast Mariners, I went there for a trial for one week. They gave me the trial when COVID was happening at the time. I haven’t touched a football, I haven’t done any running for three, four months, and then I had to do quarantine for another two weeks in the hotel.
“I had completely no fitness, but they wanted me to come trial for only one week. I mean, that’s pretty much the limited opportunities A-League clubs give to other players. They don’t give you any chance.”
One chance Grommen will be hoping to get is to represent either the Socceroos or the Philippines internationally.
But that opportunity is something he knows he’ll have to work a little bit harder for yet.
“Everyone that grows up in Australia and plays football wants to play for the Socceroos, but there’s only a few that get the opportunity,” he added.
“You never know, it could happen, but obviously, it’s a bit limited. That’s always been an ambition and goal of mine, to play for the Socceroos. But realistically, I think the Philippines is most likely where I’ll be playing internationally.”
Grommen admitted that progressing his club career further would help him gain recognition by the Australian football public to edge him closer to the Socceroos.
“For a chance at the Socceroos, if I [were] to play in Asia, it would probably have to be in Korea or Japan,” he said.
“At first, it was just playing football to see how far I can go and where it gets me, but now I look at it in Thailand, there’s players that have been getting moves to Korea, in the J-League, stuff like that, so you never know.
“If you keep playing well, who knows. You make a move out there, and then you get noticed in Australia because, in Australia, they don’t take too much notice of players that play in the Thai league.”
Thai football is growing, though, and Grommen’s resurgence this season will surely be noticed by other clubs in Asia.
The question is whether those clubs can offer him a pathway where he can continue in this manner and work his way into Graham Arnold’s thinking in the long term.
Time will tell, but Grommen’s track record of overcoming difficult obstacles in his career means anything is possible.