Joey Gibbs is understating things when he says it was “probably” the most interesting year of his career.
Over the course of the 2009/10 season, a 17-year-old Gibbs spent six weeks unable to walk, two games starting up front for Sydney FC’s youth team and, not even a month after the first Y-League start, five glorious minutes on the park in a victorious A-League Grand Final.
Having spent the first 16 rounds of the youth league season either wheelchair-bound due to stress fractures in both his ankles or bench-bound due to the form of Kerem Bulut, not even an oracular octopus could’ve predicted Gibbs’ rise in 2010.
Yes, he admits it was “pretty sad”, but there were silver linings to Gibbs’ spell on the sidelines – and they weren’t just “the time off school”.
“It made me more grateful for the game and just the ability to walk,” the now 29-year-old told the Where Do We Begin podcast and Kick360.”
“It was a good introduction to my career. The worst injury I’ve ever had and one of the biggest moments I’ve ever had [both] happened in the space of six or seven months.”
With 30 remaining minutes against Adelaide United in the final game of 2009, coach Steve O’Connor granted Gibbs his first appearance of the Y-League season; eight more games off the bench followed before, in the season’s penultimate round, he finally got his starting debut.
A couple of starts and a solitary goal were all that stood against Gibbs’ name at the conclusion of the Y-League season, but he’d soon be putting a major addition onto his CV.
After an extra-time loss to Melbourne Victory in a two-legged semi-final, Sydney’s senior team found themselves fixtured against Wellington in a home preliminary final. They won 4-2, but marquee John Aloisi succumbed to an injury of his own. A spot in the squad had just opened up.
Until 20 March 2010, he’d only ever watched A-League games from the stands – never from the bench, never from the pitch. That clear March night was the night Joey Gibbs became the youngest player to take part in an A-League Grand Final.
The initiation song had been sung (Kelis’ “Milkshake”), the excitement was building and, in the 116th minute, the moment came: Alex Brosque came off, Joey Gibbs came on.
Sydney and Melbourne Victory – the two table-leading teams at the regular season’s end – were locked at a goal apiece, and Gibbs, much to a particular opponent’s displeasure, wanted to make an impact.
“I went to the touch the ball and Kevin Muscat said, ‘don’t touch the ball, you little c-word’.”
Minutes later, Muscat himself ended up making himself part of Sydney FC folklore; the Victory legend hit the post with the first spot-kick in the first-ever Grand Final shoot-out and, after another seven penalties, Sky Blue full-back Byun Sung-Hwan converted to ensure Gibbs and co. went to the post-game nightclub with medals in tow.
And for Gibbs himself, the good times looked set to continue long after the hangover had faded away.
Olympic Charleroi of the Belgian Third Division came calling before the next A-League season began, having recently been bought out by a consortium of agents, one of whom was Australian.
“They wanted to bring this club up as a feeder club for bigger teams in Europe,” Gibbs reflected.
“The idea was to be there for four years to get [my] Euro passport, [making] moves across Europe easier.”
Joining him on “fully professional contracts” was a smorgasbord of young, foreign talent – the delightfully named Prince Bobby, Samuel Dog and Yohan M’Vila, brother of ex-Sunderland man Yann, to name but three.
In what Gibbs calls a “funny turn of fate” though, Olympic Charleroi’s backers backed out.
“It all fell through. The club ran into financial trouble and I didn’t get paid for three or four months, so I had to come back home.”
The situation upon his return wasn’t exactly ideal.
“I came back to the NPL and had to start again in the Sydney youth team. New boys had come in, done well and got first-team spots. They weren’t happy about a player leaving and coming back, so I had to gain the reputation back again.”
Gibbs never added to his five first-team minutes on harbourside and spent the next two seasons in NPL NSW. A state-league Championship was earned with Marconi Stallions in 2012 on 1 October and just two days later, Western Sydney Wanderers announced the striker as the final acquisition of its inaugural transfer window.
With assistants including Ante Milicic, coach Tony Popovic led the newcomers to a surprise Premiership that season.
“They got so much out of every player,” Gibbs explained.
“The level of the motivation and the level of detail was the most I’ve ever been involved in.”
Gibbs featured in almost half of the team’s games that season but, to his disappointment, didn’t have his one-year contract renewed.
“I was so stressed [about] doing everything right.”
“I was too busy trying to win every fitness test and get all the running done instead of going out and showing what I could do as a player and being a bit more relaxed about things.”
“A lot of young players probably go through that too, but it takes a few years at that level to go out and do your thing and trust that you can do it.”
A season-long stint with Emile Heskey in Newcastle and a “rushed” move to Hong Kong’s Tai Po FC followed, but it was back in the NPL where Gibbs found his mojo.
In 2015, he fired Blacktown City to its first NPL title, bagging 16 goals in the NSW division before earning the John Kosmina Medal for player of the Grand Final thanks to his brace in a 3-1 win against Western Australia’s Bayswater City.
The Demons gave Gibbs “some of his best footballing memories” – memories so good that, despite living on the Central Coast when in Australia, he still trains in Blacktown.
After 113 Blacktown games on fire in the relative heat of Sydney, Gibbs decided to take on an entirely different challenge. Again, Europe beckoned.
The coach of Keflavik IF, a side then of the Icelandic second division, had a connection to Australia, needed a striker and started his search for recommendations.
“An agent sent my name through, then it all happened like that,” Gibbs said.
“If you’re coming from an NPL setup to anywhere in Europe, you have to trial, but [this] was just a straight-out contract.”
His league-topping 21 goals in 19 games powered Keflavik to the second division title in 2020 and, this season, his importance to the newly promoted team didn’t wane in the top tier, a league which Gibbs says is between the NPL and A-League quality-wise.
Thanks to his “timing of movements”, “hold-up play” and a knack for netting headers that even surprised him, Gibbs scored 10 goals this season to help Keflavik avoid relegation by just one point.
One year remains on his contract in Iceland and, if he comes close to carrying the current momentum into 2022, he might well become the new surprise sharpshooter at an even higher level.
“I feel like I’m not at my peak yet. Sometimes it’s limiting in the profession being 29 or 30 because people think you’re going to be [heading] downhill soon. Not for me. I’m still really ambitious,” Gibbs stated.
“I’d love to make a move to a better Nordic country.”
Now that’s not something Joey Gibbs thought he’d be saying when he was stuck in a wheelchair in 2009.
Listen to the full interview with Joey Gibbs via Where Do We Begin? On any major podcast platform or right here: