JOHNNY Koutroumbis arrived at the Newcastle Jets in October hoping for an opportunity but expecting to do little more than make up the numbers.
The unheralded Adelaide teenager, signed as an injury replacement for rookie defender Daniel Alessi, made his A-League debut two weeks later in a 2-0 loss to Sydney FC.
On Thursday, the 18-year-old utility inked a two-year deal with the Jets and shapes as an important block in the club’s rebuild.
Until the life-changing call from Jets coach Mark Jones, Koutroumbis earned “pocket money”, cleaning dishes at Louca’s Seafood Grill in downtown Adelaide, all the while dreaming of becoming a professional footballer.
“It is overwhelming actually,” Koutoumbis said. “Jonesy has given me an opportunity for the next two years and I have to make the most of it. I didn’t expect to play as many games as I have played. I knew if I got an opportunity, I had to make the most of it. Show everyone I am a good player and deserve a contract.”
Jones first coached Koutroumbis in the Adelaide United youth team in the South Australian National Premier League last winter.
On bringing Koutroumbis into the squad, Jones described him as “a leader, a winner” and a player who did “some special things”.
The coach had no hesitation in thrusting Koutroumbis into the starting side at centre back – a position he had played three times – against Wellington and has continued to back him despite a couple of early errors.
“I was disappointed with the mistakes I made early on but Jonesy told me to keep my head up and that everyone makes mistakes,” Koutroumbis said.
“I wiped it out of my mind the next week and tried not to make any mistakes.”
Saturday’s battle against Perth at nib Stadium will be Koutroumbis’s 15th appearance, the past three off the bench have been in his preferred role as a holding midfielder.
“That is my natural position,” he said. “I know the aspects of playing midfield and I like to run with the ball. At centreback I was limited in pushing forward. I feel much more comfortable and confident in midfield.”
Koutroumbis’ signature follows contract extensions to Lachy Jackson, Steve Ugarkovic and Wayne Brown.
Meteoric rise aside, Koutroumbis’s path was set early.
Like most football-mad youngsters, his bedroom walls were a tribute to his heroes, Manchester United players, led by Ryan Giggs.
He followed his father, Alex, a former player and coach, to West Adelaide, starting in the under-sevens.
Afternoons were spent in the backyard with a ball at his feet.
Each Saturday he would sit in the stands watching – idolising – the Hellas. At 15, the diminutive midfielder was plucked from the juniors to make his first-team debut.
“I had a great coach there Paul Pezos, he believed in me the same as Jonesy does,” Koutroumbis said.
This is where his story differs from most. Rather than head to an institute program, Koutroumbis’, under the instruction of his dad, did his apprenticeship at West Adelaide and by-passed representative teams.
“I always wanted to be in those state teams, but my dad was a player and a coach and he knew what was best for me,” Koutroumbis said. “Deep down, I did believe in him, but I didn’t always show it.”
The A-League will celebrate the “Play Football” round this weekend which is aimed at promoting participation at grassroots level.
As well as Koutroumbis, recently signed utility Joel Allwright and keeper Tomislav Arcaba also came to the Jets via the National Premier League. Home-grown products Nick Cowburn and Kristian Brymora graduated through the club’s youth system.
“As a young boy playing 15s and jumping straight into the first team helped me a lot,” Koutroumbis said. “It changed the way I saw the game. It toughened me up. I got a few knocks but I always had to get up.”