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  • Writer's pictureMatt Olsen

The story of Nicholas Olsen: Australian football's unlikely trailblazer

Entering a second season in the Vietnamese first tier, the V-League 1, and following on from a rather fruitful period in 2022, Nicholas Olsen is ready to kick on with his form and make a statement as a rare example of a successful Australian player within the ASEAN region.

I sat down for a chat about all things football with Nick, including his career, from its humble beginnings in Sydney's south to how he became a shining example of how Australians can fare in unfamiliar surroundings.

Although born in Sydney, Olsen grew up in Perth; at age eight, he returned to the harbour city, playing local football in the Hurstville region.

It was here, playing with the New South Wales schoolboys competitively, approximately when Olsen was in year six, that he was first invited to join a programme with the Sutherland Sharks. The club would go on to raise the footballer we know today.

"The guy who took that (the schoolboys) was Paul Smith from Sharks, and he said while I was training with him, 'where are you playing? What are you doing? Why don't you come down to Sharks, come for a trial, and we'll see what happens from there.' That was how I got to Sutherland, and pretty much stayed from [under] 13s all the way up to the first grade," Olsen told Front Page Football in an exclusive interview.

Olsen plying his trade for boyhood club Sutherland Sharks in 2018. (Football NSW)

Olsen had made steady progress with his career. Although Sutherland was always home, a much larger opportunity arose throughout his teenage years. In 2012 he was approached by the newly formed Western Sydney Wanderers after playing age-group football with New South Wales at under 14s level.

"A coach said he was being involved with the Wanderers youth set-up and asked if I would be interested in going for a trial. I ended up going for a trial, and after a couple of days, I ended up signing with them for the inaugural season," Olsen said.

This brief period even progressed to the point where Olsen participated in first-team training sessions.

"Within six to seven months, I trained with the first team, and Popa (Tony Popovic) took a liking to me. Pretty much when the season finished, I was training with them full-time," he said.

However, things can change quickly in football, and it wasn't long before Olsen called Sutherland home again.

"They (Western Sydney) said to me, go back and play with the Sharks, we'll keep tabs on you, we want you to be there in the pre-season. Things evolved quickly; I had signed my first professional contract with them for two years, but as we know, things change so quickly in football and in six months, after playing with the Young Socceroos, I came back and I wasn't in the plans for the Wanderers," Olsen explained.

Nothing in life lasts forever, and eventually, following a change in management, Olsen's boyhood club became his former in 2015. APIA Leichhardt came calling, the story behind the move equally as fascinating.

"It was an interesting way that I got to APIA; I knew Billy McColl, who was involved with APIA [for] a long, long time. He stepped away and came back when they were in need, he lived down the road from me, and when I was about 11, I was training at my local park, and he drove past, saw me kicking the ball around, he asked where I was playing and so on. He eventually would coach me, take time out of his day, for around a year," Olsen said.

"Eventually, I would see him around when we played against APIA and in the neighbourhood. When I had issues with Sutherland, I knocked on his door, came in and said, 'this is what I was looking for, and I wouldn't mind playing with APIA.'

After three seasons, Olsen became part of one of the most famous names in the Australian game, Sydney United 58. In what was a poor year for him, Olsen understood the decent support the club produced.

Olsen in action for Sydney United. (FTBL)

"I had played in the NPL since I was 16 and was [at] home in the league. It was good at Sydney United knowing that people were always coming to support you. Mentally I didn't have a good season and wasn't in the right place; the positives were what I could take from it and what I could get through," Olsen said.

Olsen eventually wound up with home comforts at Sutherland, but the journey was yet to begin genuinely. As they say in Arabic, 'Al Rihla' was well on its way to somewhere memorable. That somewhere special was Kuwait. It was at this point that a period of excitement and uncertainty dawned.

"I had that feeling. I want[ed] more, and I didn't have that option to go to the A-League. For whatever reason, so many players don't have that opportunity to go, and one has to ask questions as to why. At that moment, I had no idea why, and my agent called me while I was at Sutherland four months prior and said, 'there's an opportunity to go to Kuwait. What are your thoughts?' Olsen explained.

"I said I'd take anything I can get, not because I'm desperate [but] because I'm willing to give something a go outside of here, whether in Asia or a lower division in Europe. At the end of the day, I can always come back to the NPL."

Olsen played in Kuwait for two seasons. (Twitter: @nicholas_olsen)

The lifestyle in the Arab world may come with a culture shock. But as Olsen explains, you are well accommodated and less criticised than one may think.

"In terms of a culture shock, I didn't really feel it in terms of the living and the food and these types of things. It is quite Americanised, and they're quite open. I've got tattoos, I was worried about wearing a short sleeve shirt, but as soon as I got there, I realised people understand, 'okay, he's a foreigner, and he's here for work.' They don't bother you and worry about [you] breaking any rules," he said.

Historical records do us no favours on the pitch, with minimal archived results on global databases. But Olsen had insights into how teams in Kuwait play and what style they want to implement, especially as a foreign player and an attacking one.

"The football wasn't of the highest quality, but every league has its positives and negatives. In this league (Kuwait Premier League), they would have foreigners who were relied on individually, just do a job that the locals cannot do," he explained.

"If you have a striker come in and he doesn't score, a midfielder comes in, and they don't keep the ball or provide assists, a defender doesn't help to stop goals, it's his fault. This (pressure) was one of the toughest parts; obviously, it is a team sport, but in Kuwait, you have to focus on your part of the game. Just make sure you do your job well."

From Kuwait came the move Olsen had long awaited, to make it in the A-League as a professional within his home country. Again, the transfer's circumstances proved fortuitous, notwithstanding a two to three-month window following his departure from the Middle Eastern nation.

"My agent got in contact with the (Brisbane Roar) conditioning coach, Nathan Sherlock. I played with Nathan when I was at Sydney United, and we knew Brisbane were looking for players. He called me directly because we knew each other and said, 'what are you looking to do? I'd love to help you, and I think you would fit well in the team.' Things eventuated from there," Olsen said.

Olsen's Brisbane Roar stint was powered by a desire to play A-League level football. (Twitter: @brisbaneroar)

There was one item on the agenda we could not ignore when getting into the meat and drink of Olsen's time with the Brisbane Roar—coping in a professional environment whilst training as far south as the Gold Coast and playing home fixtures as far north as Redcliffe.

"Coming from Kuwait, there's good and bad wherever you go, [but] the training and facilities were a step above compared with Kuwait in the A-League, and for me coming home was always a positive. In the beginning, it was beautiful to live and train on the Gold Coast, and okay, we have to travel an hour and thirty minutes to games, which was tough, but for me, it was just good to be home," Olsen said.

One must appreciate that there was an element of nuance around this time; Olsen undoubtedly acknowledges the circumstances around the Roar and how they were and have been a huge talking point. But as someone finally living the A-League dream, he was concentrated on the greater goal.

"I'm back home; I have got my chance now; I was focused on training and making sure I was being put in the squad. Of course, as time goes on and the longer you're in an environment, you [find] out that things aren't always rosy. But in a sense, and after being overseas, I think we've got it good in the A-League. But I know that in progressing forward, there is so much work to do," Olsen said.

We also chatted about Warren Moon and what Olsen thought about the man still leading Brisbane's premier club.

"I got along with him; I thought he was a good coach; I haven't really got anything bad to say about him. The environment can sometimes help the players, and sometimes it won't. With what he has been given and what he [can] do with what he is given, I think he is doing quite well," Olsen said.

"When I was there, we got quite unfortunate. For whatever reason, we just could not put results together, and we struggled to score goals. In that sense, we did not create enough opportunities. But I liked him (Moon) as a coach. He had a really good idea of what he wanted, and I got along with him well. He really gave me a chance in the A-League, helped me in my career, [and] he did well by me."

With a bucket list season in the A-League done and a journey still belaying him, Olsen would yet broaden his horizons further, not before a spot of doubt and home comforts on the mind.

"I finished with Brisbane, and I was sort of at a crossroads. When playing in Asia, I was a right winger and attacking midfielder, then I came to the A-League and was a left-back. It sort of came to a stage where I could have stayed in the A-League. But I will always be seen at left back, which I was fine with, so I was waiting to see if an opportunity would come from any club really, and I would have stayed in the A-League trying to be the best possible left back that I could have been," Olsen said.

Though waiting his turn, nothing had come to fruition, and it was here that another connection made itself available in South-East Asia.

"Everything happened in 24 hours. I was waiting and reaching out to agents that I knew in Asia who were trying to help me make a deal. Nothing was grabbing me to say it was the place I should go. But I had been in contact with someone in Indonesia, and he wanted me to play in Indonesia. He had been messaging me for three years, though it was never the right time in my career. He ended up calling me at four in the morning; I said to my wife, 'I wonder what is going on here?' Olsen explained.

"I messaged him back later in the morning and asked; he said, 'do you want to go to Vietnam?' I thought, okay, I'm open; Vietnam is a strong league. He said to send over [my] conditions, and he will speak with the agents over there.

"Within an hour, I was contacted by him and the agents. He introduced me, and eventually, one of the agents called me and asked me to be in Vietnam by the next day. I chatted with my wife and thought, 'what have I got to lose?'

Olsen in action for Saigon FC in Vietnam. (Lao Dong Media)

Olsen's first season in the V-League 1 was with Saigon FC, a club that appeared steady and on the rise. He told FPF about how the journey unfolded, with a touch of luck in the initial stages.

"I went to the first session, and it was pouring with rain; I couldn't train much, and I was told it was a bit of a done deal. When I got there, I figured this wasn't the case, and they (Saigon) wanted to see me train, but as it turns out, it was the last day of the transfer window. I was told that the coach wanted to see me for another session, but the agent [went] back into the room, came back 10 minutes later and said [that] we're ready to sign the contract," he said.

Straight off the bat, things were going great. Olsen scores on debut and puts in many impressive performances. However, an underlying issue within Saigon resulted in a turn of fate for the worst.

"The agent knew the club was being taken over by billionaires, a company that owned 60-70% of the property in Vietnam. Novaland (the company) had other things, Nova Gym, Nova Medical, you name it. When they took over, obviously, the club was in a bad place. All of a sudden, they gave us new buses, we were staying in nicer hotels, and they provided five thousand dollar bonuses for every game we won," Olsen said.

"I had played with a player in Vietnam who had been in the league for 13 years. He [told] me [that] he hadn't seen bonuses paid like this before by a company, just for one win. Everyone was thinking, if we keep the team up, they will improve the contracts, do up the field, improve the kitchen staff, and so on."

But it eventually turned on its head. Articles were coming out about Novaland and their accounts being frozen. The turn of events resulted in the company gaining so much trust from the big banks in Vietnam that two ladies tried to take out five billion dollars and run off with it.

"We questioned what was happening with salaries, bonuses, and the club. Things had taken a massive turn, people saw that there wasn't a future in Saigon, and no one was giving the players any answers. This (uncertainty) is how we finished the season, on our own accord, because we wanted to," Olsen said.

And so, after what transpired at Saigon, Nick Olsen is now at a new club for the 2023 season, with a bright future ahead to continue his status as a trailblazer in Vietnam, following a helpful hand from local agents.

Olsen is full of hope heading into his second season in Vietnam. (Zing News)

But what does the move to SHB Da Nang, and the expectations, have in store for the Australian? In his own words, the days ahead are of promise and a continuation of positive form in attack.

"I think we can do well this season. This league in Vietnam is all about momentum; we have the first four games and then the international break. If we can do well in the first four games, I'm hopeful we will do very well this year. We also have a good mix of old and young players, with a very good youth system. If we all gel well together, we will do very well; we can aim for the top five and, if not, the top seven," Olsen said.

Time will indeed be the verdict on the next tale in the life and times of Nicholas Olsen and his football journey. However, one thing is sure for him and his Da Nang squad, for the man that made the journey from Sutherland to the desert of Kuwait or even to Warren Moon and the Brisbane Roar. Olsen's story must be one to cherish.

I thank Nick for his time, and I can't wait to see the next chapter unfold as the V-League season begins.

Click here to read more of our interviews with Australians plying their trade abroad!


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