Coming off the back of a highly successful season as a left wingback for Western United, Connor Pain has the chance to reflect on his career thus far as he prepares to face his old club, Melbourne Victory, in the opening round of the 2021/22 A-League Men’s season.
Initially, Pain broke into the Melbourne Victory first-team in the 2012-13 season as a fresh-faced 18-year-old academy product who supplied an injection of direct pace into a strong Victory attack, which included a 20-year-old Marco Rojas, and Socceroos Andrew Nabbout and Archie Thompson.
Pain’s form at club level earned him a ticket to the 2013 U20 World Cup as a member of the ‘Young Socceroos’, as well as serious praise from then Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers.
The tournament was a huge success for Pain, who appeared in all three games, including 2 starts, and saw him capture an assist for Daniel De Silva’s goal against a Colombian outfit which sported the likes of Jhon Córdoba and Juan Fernando Quintero.
Pain’s performances, both at club and youth international level, caught the eye of then Socceroos manager Holger Osieck, and earned him a spot in the senior squad for the 2013 EAFF East Asian Cup; an opportunity that he continues to cherish.
“It was interesting because I was away for the U20s World Cup and I think they sort of took a few of the boys from that competition, who they thought did relatively well and sort of blood them in and it was just really cool to be a part of” he told Kick360.
The tournament saw Pain capture his first and only international cap as a second-half substitute in Australia’s 4-3 loss to China. While it is every young Australians dream to pull on the green and gold, Pain admits that the opportunity may have come prematurely.
“[The Socceroos call up] probably came a little bit early for me… I was not necessarily ready I don’t think but it was still great to be amongst [the squad]”, he explained.
“It was pretty early on in Aaron Mooy’s international career as well and a few of the other boys that were there are still in the national team now and the chance to rub shoulder with them and try and learn off so that was a good experience”
While Pain’s journey at Victory began well, with 26 appearances, including 15 starts and five goal contributions to his name before his 20th birthday, an attacking revitalisation heading into the champion 2014-15 season oftentimes left him out in the cold.
The acquisitions of A-League superstar Besart Berisha and 2014/15 Johnny Warren winner Fahid Ben Khalfallah, alongside the steady production of Archie Thompson and the emergence of Kosta Barbarouses, left opportunities few and far between for Pain in 2014/15, with 13 appearances and no starts.
Things only got worse for Pain in 15/16, with the Victory’s stellar attack limiting him to just 12 appearances (including one start).
However, no journey is complete without trials and perseverance, and in the case of Connor Pain, this is undoubtedly true. Ahead of the 15/16 season, now 22-years-old, Pain moved to the Central Coast Mariners to obtain more playing time.
“I had a great time up on the coast and went there and started a fair few games. The reason I went there in the first place was to get more minutes under my belt when I was a bit young”.
After two disappointing campaigns at Victory in terms of opportunity, Pain’s move certainly got him the playing time he was searching for. In his three years playing for the Mariners, Pain made 73 appearances (including 65 starts) and contributed 18 goal involvements.
While Pain’s move to Central Coast was a fruitful one, seeing him obtain more playing time than ever before, the opportunity to return home to Melbourne after the 2018/19 season, this time in the Black and Green of expansion club Western United, was simply too good to turn down.
In particular, Pain cites the club’s project, alongside his love for his native Melbourne, as the main attraction for his return to Victoria.
“The project was a big part of coming back. Any excuse to come home to Melbourne is great but all the pieces fell at the right time. You know building the club from the ground up and its identity really appealed to me as well.”
The move to Central Coast, and his subsequent transfer to Western United, would begin one of the biggest transitions of his professional footballing career; his move to left wingback.
While primarily operating as a centre-forward or left-winger throughout both his youth career and his young A-League career, Pain had been deployed as a wingback on occasion during his time at Central Coast, such as in the Mariners 2-1 win against Melbourne City in 2019.
At Western United Pain was managed by Mark Rudan, who throughout his tenure at the club was bound to a back-three system of play. In this system, Pain was developed into a strong left wingback, starting 50 games for Rudan’s side between 2019 and 2021, bagging three goals and nine assists in the process.
As Connor Pain himself notes, however, the transition from out and out attacker to wingback is not always straightforward.
“I obviously knew I needed to get fitter, that was the main thing given that in that role you have to get up and down doing 12 to 13 kilometres in a game pretty consistently. Obviously, the defending side of things I hadn’t really done much before”
Despite the learning curve associated with the change in role, Pain now relishes the opportunities he is afforded as a wingback.
“It was really good to learn from the people that wanted me to play in that role. I really enjoyed playing there it was a bit of both, you know, getting forward and help the attack but also the defence as well.”
Heading into the 2021/22 A-League Men’s season, Pain is once again in a new situation, this time caused by Rudan’s departure and the arrival of Socceroos legend John Aloisi as his replacement.
Pain, however, is very positive about the upcoming season, as well as Aloisi’s early impact.
“John’s been great. It’s been really positive, and all the boys are enjoying training and every day has a purpose. You know we come into the training ground knowing we’re going to work hard for a reason”.
In a matchup that is almost poetic for Connor Pain, his Western United side will open their 2021/22 A-League Men’s campaign against the new-look Melbourne Victory.
Pain’s former club suffered a first ever ‘wooden spoon’ last season; a result which saw the club bring about wholesale change, including the appointment of AFC Champions League and A-League winning manager Tony Popović and the acquisitions of experienced Europeans Roderick Miranda and Francesco Margiotta.
The off-season transfer spree has also included the signing of Australians Joshua Brillante (a former ‘Young Socceroos’ team-mate), Jason Geria and Jason Davidson.
As always, Connor Pain is looking forward to the opening round, not just for a chance to play against his former club, but also for the return to a seemingly COVID interruption-free A-League Men’s season.
“Every season is different, [The Victory] have gone under a bit of change as well. It’s a bit of an unknown going into this one, obviously it’s as exciting as ever to be back playing the real stuff so we’re all just really looking forward to it”.
Image Supplied: Western United