Before this season, 21-year-old Thomas Deng had never played in an A-League final and hadn’t established himself in Melbourne Victory’s match day line up. It’s funny how quickly things can change.
Since the start of the 2017-18 A-League season, the centre-back has played in 23 fixtures including two cutthroat finals against Victory’s arch rivals Adelaide United and Sydney FC.
Right now, he is one win away from helping Victory claim its fourth A-League Championship.
Born in Nairobi, Kenya, Deng and his family moved to Adelaide when he was six-years-old. There he started his junior football career at the Adelaide Blue Eagles with his older brother Peter, someone Deng always viewed as a mentor.
“You always want to do what your older brother does,” he told upstart.
“He was probably my biggest role model. He was always looking out for me and making sure I was doing the right things.
“We started playing off in Adelaide at a club called the Adelaide Blue Eagles, that was my first club when we moved to Australia and I’ve loved the game ever since.”
Eventually the Deng family relocated from Adelaide to Melbourne in search of greater opportunities and a fresh start.
Despite the move, Deng’s love for the game was still as strong as ever, as he spent his teenage years with Albion based club the Western Eagles for two seasons before one year at Green Gully.
There he was scouted by former Victory assistant coach Darren Davies and was recruited to the Youth Team at the A-League powerhouse.
“I played I think one season with the youth team and then I was promoted to the first team the year after,” Deng said.
He struggled to break into Victory’s starting 11 in the early days of his professional career, but this season he has been a mainstay down back, crediting his time in Holland as the reason for his new found confidence.
“I think my time overseas, the year that I spent in Holland, I was on loan at PSV for the year, experiencing some difficulties and some good times which helped me mature as a player,” Deng said.
“Not only on the field but off the field as well. I think I improved a lot in my game and now that I’m back, I’m trying to prove to people that I’m good enough to play and I’ve got my opportunities this season so I’m very happy with that.”
Such was his improvement since his return to Melbourne Victory, Deng was nominated for A-League NAB Young Footballer of the Year before eventually missing out on the award to Melbourne City’s Daniel Arzani.
Victory coach Kevin Muscat even described Deng as one of “the best [players] on the park” during Victory’s stunning semi-final win against Sydney FC.
As well as being a professional football player, Deng is also an ambassador for Youth Activating Youth. Being an ambassador can be overwhelming due to the responsibilities involved but it doesn’t faze Deng at all.
“I don’t think there’s really any pressure. I’m enjoying what I’m doing,” he said.
“I think it’s a positive thing for the African community as you can see sometimes the media portrays a negative outlook on them. So yeah, when someone’s doing well it’s great for the community and its people.
“We do a few programs during the school holidays, a few indoor tournaments, also some appearances and stuff, so yeah I’ve enjoyed it.”
Even with all the training and coaching Deng has undertaken over the years, it is still his family who has had the biggest impact over his young and rising career.
“They’ve been with me ever since I was young, taking me to training and always helping me out with things,” he said.
“We get a lot of time [off] after training and [it] depends if we play at home, which makes it a bit easier [as] you get a few days off to see your family and catch up with some friends.
“I think it’s good to have a balance and not just always focus on football. You need to have a balance, take your mind off things sometimes.
“I think that’s the most important thing, spending time with family and friends and so on.”
Deng’s rise has been meteoric.
He is playing at the highest level of domestic football in the country and has even represented the Olyroos in the Under 20s and Under 23s. He’s come a long way since being that young six-year-old boy playing for the Adelaide Blue Eagles to playing for the country’s largest football club in Melbourne Victory.
This Saturday night at McDonald Jones Stadium against the Newcastle Jets, Deng once again has the opportunity to show that he is one of the nation’s finest talents on the biggest stage and that a Socceroos call up isn’t that far away.
Nicholas Galea is a third year Bachelor of Media and Communications (Sport Journalism) student at La Trobe University. You can follow him on Twitter @NickGalea1617