'King' Kenny takes another step in transition to A-League regular

'King' Kenny takes another step in transition to A-League regular

The gulf between highly competitive semi-professional competition and full time sport can seem insurmountable to players attempting to make the transition.

Many have tried to make that jump in the A-League, with even the bigger clubs like Melbourne Victory taking a chance on promising players from the second-tier NPL to round out their squads.

Vote of confidence: Kenny Athiu started alongside Ola Toivonen against the Jets on Saturday night.

Vote of confidence: Kenny Athiu started alongside Ola Toivonen against the Jets on Saturday night.Credit:AAP

It's been a hit and miss proposition, but as top tier teams refine their approach and second tier clubs increase their professionalism - hoping sooner rather than later for a second division - more players are succeeding in making the leap.

Kenny Athiu, the gangling striker who signed for Melbourne Victory some 18 months ago, is a perfect example.


The striker known as ''King Kenny" came to the biggest club in the league ''cooked'' after a stellar season in the NPL with Heidelberg.

The South Sudanese refugee - Athiu arrived in Melbourne aged 11 after spending seven years in a Kenyan refugee camp - took a long time to settle in and get used to the discipline and structure of a full time professional soccer environment.

He had to get up to the fitness levels required, improve his tactical awareness and match sharpness and learn how to fit into a title-chasing team, one where he would, at least initially, be used more off the bench than as a starter.

He made some cameo appearances but got his first real chances in the Asian Champions League last year as coach Kevin Muscat rotated his squad.


Athiu was rewarded with a two-year deal in June of last year, but his progress was stymied by injury in the offseason.

A measure of how far he has come was the fact that Muscat had no hesitation in starting him up front alongside Swedish World Cup star Ola Toivonen after opting to rest regular attacker Kosta Barbarouses in Saturday night's game against Newcastle, which Victory won 2-1 - in no small part thanks to Athiu.

Because of his size - he is around two metres tall - most people expect Athiu's strength to be his aerial ability.

But his touch and technique has improved, he is able to use his body better and play with his back to goal and his neat volleyed flick to set up Terry Antonis' opening goal was excellent.

Certainly his coach, Kevin Muscat, believes the 26-year-old still has plenty of upside.

"If you recall back to some of his performances last year, particularly in the Champions League, he showed that side of the game, he performed really well,'' Muscat reflected after the win over the Jets.

''He had a major setback for him in his first full pre-season as a professional because at that point he was looking really, really good and that set him back a little bit, but he's come back and he contributed enormously.

''In the second half, it was a totally different story, we made some adjustments with Kenny's starting position in attack and then Elvis [Kamsoba's] starting position in attack and it gave us a lot of ascendancy through getting the balls into areas on the ground and causing them problems, big problems."

Kamsoba is another African refugee who is now starting to make his mark at A-League level.

He came off the bench on Saturday night but had made his Victory debut in the loss to Adelaide last Wednesday after signing this month.

Kamsoba had impressed in the NPL with Avondale and won the Mike Cockerill Medal as the best non A-League player in the FFA Cup last year.

Michael Lynch is The Age's chief soccer reporter and also reports on motor sport and horseracing

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