Connor Chapman debuts on song

JETS teenager Connor Chapman was a nervous wreck.

He hardly touched his dinner. Butterflies were doing circle work in his stomach, his face shone redder than the sun setting over the Western Australia coast, his legs shook like a washing machine on spin cycle, his voice quivered.

For the next three minutes he belted out – well, at least attempted to – the words to country rock song Follow Me by Uncle Kracker.

Somehow, over the laughter and barbs of teammates, he got through it.

Making his A-League debut 24 hours later against Perth Glory was a walk in the park compared to his ‘‘Singstar’’ initiation at the team hotel.

Indeed, Chapman appeared every bit an A-League player in his 12 minutes off the bench and was one of a few positives from the Jets’ trip west.

The 17-year-old centre half, who doesn’t have a driver’s licence and has to catch a lift to training, was anything but overawed.

He was calm on the ball, always looked to play forward and appeared to possess the precious commodities of time and space.

All this playing out of position as a midfielder.

‘‘As a centre back you can watch the game in front of you,’’ he said.

‘‘In midfield it is a 360 [degree] game.

‘‘I think that was the hardest part, having to sprint after every ball.’’

Admittedly, the sting had well and truly gone out of the game by his introduction in the 79th minute with the home team up 2-0.

But still there was plenty to like about the performance.

‘‘He didn’t look out of place,’’ Jets coach Gary van Egmond said of his star graduate from the Australian Institute of Sport.

‘‘It was a good time for him to come into the game; the pace had gone.

‘‘Although it was not his preferred position, he has experience as a defensive midfielder.

‘‘He was very comfortable, was finding space, and the players around him were not shy in giving him the ball.’’

Chapman, who joined the Jets from the AIS in late December, travelled to Perth in the 16 man squad but was unaware of his inclusion on the bench until arriving at the ground on Saturday.

‘‘Having only been here six weeks or so, to get into the [travelling] squad was a big thing for me,’’ he said.

‘‘When we went into the change rooms and I saw my jersey hanging up, I was very happy.’’

The teenager experienced a different mix of emotions the previous night.

It is a ritual for new Jets – players and coaching staff – to give a karaoke performance, minus backing music, on their first road trip.

‘‘We get new players to tell the group about themselves as well as sing a song,’’ van Egmond said.

‘‘Hopefully there are not too many YouTube clips about.’’

Friday night was Chapman’s turn to take centre stage.

‘‘I’m not very good at singing in front of people but I thought I did all right,’’ he said, seemingly trying to convince himself of the fact.

‘‘There was a lot of laughter and sledging.

‘‘I was more nervous singing that song than when I found out I was on the bench.’’

After hearing Chapman sing, van Egmond joked, ‘‘I hope he makes a career out of football.’’

The early signs on that front are promising.

Chapman arrived in Newcastle with an impressive resume.

He captained Australia to the last 16 of the FIFA under-17 World Cup in Mexico in June and July and then was one of of 72 Asian Football Confederation players invited to attend the Nike All-Asia Camp in Seoul.

In Seoul he was under the eye of youth coaches from Manchester United, Barcelona, Inter Milan and Corinthians.

Offers from overseas clubs soon rolled in, but after long consideration the former Westfield Sports High student opted to stay in Australia and follow his AIS coach to the Jets.

‘‘It was a big decision,’’ he said.

‘‘If I took the option of going overseas, I could have trained with the youth teams but would have had to wait until I was 18 to [sign a senior contract and] play competition games.

‘‘I decided it would be better to stay here and get as much experience in a men’s competition at a young age.’’

Chapman knew he would not get a walk-up start despite his association with the coach.

‘‘At the AIS you are a big fish in a small pond. Coming here you are a small fish in a big pond,’’ he said.

‘‘You have to start again and make your way up.

‘‘I struggled for the first few weeks with the intensity and the game speed, training with older boys.

‘‘Obviously, I wanted to get into the first-team squad as early as possible, and worked really hard to do so.

‘‘If it wasn’t to be this year, I was looking at next year to be my year in the A-League.

‘‘I got my chance with Jobe [Wheelhouse] being injured. Gary said to me before the game that these chances don’t come through luck, they come from hard work.’’

Signed on a 2-year deal as a project player, Chapman is fourth in the pecking order of centre halves behind senior duo Nikolai Topor Stanley and Tiago and home-grown talent Taylor Regan.

‘‘Initially I probably didn’t look at playing him this year,’’ van Egmond said.

‘‘I wanted him to train with men on a full-time basis and get him in that environment.

‘‘But the signs he was showing at training, we had no hesitation in bringing him into the squad and will keep on using him in instalments.

‘‘He is obviously a talented player. You don’t get identified by the FIFA technical staff at a World Cup if you are not talented.

‘‘The most important thing for him is to keep his feet on the ground, keep on chasing success on the football field, keeping on working hard and listening to his peers.’’

From Liverpool in Sydney’s South West, Chapman is the latest in a production line of Westfield Sports High A-League players that include Terry Antonis at Sydney FC, Mustafa Amini and Bernie Ibini-Isei at Central Coast Mariners and Brendan Hamill at Melbourne Heart.

Top of the honour board at his Alma Mater are superstars Harry Kewell, Brett Emerton and Jason Cullina.

Chapman hopes to follow in their footsteps to Europe.

‘‘It depends how I go in the A-League, but the German Bundesliga is the big league I’d love to go to,’’ he said.

‘‘I think my style of game would suit that league.

‘‘I have been to Germany – I trained at a small club for two weeks after the World Cup – and love the league and lifestyle.’’

Van Egmond had Chapman under his tutelage at the AIS for two years.

‘‘He is very ambitious, which is a good thing,’’ van Egmond said.

‘‘But he is also pretty a level-headed boy.

‘‘He is well grounded and is not getting too far ahead of himself.

‘‘He is still learning new things, especially on the defensive side of things.

‘‘We are trying to provide an environment for him to give him every possibility of reaching his goals.’’

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