To say that Shannon Cole’s career has been unique is a bit of an understatement.
After all, his youth days spanned three continents, he was a part of the most remarkable Asian Champions League victory and he experienced the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic whilst coaching in the United States.
However, that’s not how Cole sees it.
“It was a bit of a different pathway, but in saying that when you speak to footballers, every pathway is unique,” he tells Kick360
It is a testament to his determination and perseverance, qualities that defined him as a player.
This mindset is something that Cole had from an early age.
“For me, it was about being super laser focused on what I wanted out of the game, and making the decision in my late teens that everything else career wise was gonna have to come second, to give myself every chance of fulfilling that dream.”
To achieve that dream, Cole took the scenic route. He jetted off to the USA to play in their college system, while he also undertook trials in England and Israel. A brief stint in New Zealand was followed by Cole returning to Australia.
Cole says it was in the NSW State League where he began to grow and mature as a footballer.
“That was a huge stepping stone moment for me, because it was filled with some very good and very experienced players – just as it is now – but it was the first time I really had to prove myself as a man playing the game.
“[It was] the first time I was exposed to senior football and what that meant. I had experiences like getting an elbow to the face in a training session because I was being a bit too energetic and making one of the older boys look bad. He didn’t like it so he dropped me there and then, and that was a big wake up call.”
At Sydney Olympic, Cole caught the eye of Sydney FC, and at the late age of 23, he was finally offered a professional deal for the 2008-09 season. Having worked for this opportunity for so long, he was not going to let it go to waste.
“That [first] year for me was all about me having to prove that I belonged, because I saw that a lot of players – and we still see a lot of players – get an opportunity, play a handful of games, and then after a year or so we don’t see them anymore and they disappear back into the lower leagues.”
However, Cole was able to ensure that this wouldn’t happen to him. The fullback played in 20 games in his debut season under John Kosmina, and under his successor Vítězslav Lavička, he would play in every regular season game as a Sydney team packed full of experience and star power won the Minor Premiership.
Playing alongside such esteemed players proved invaluable.
“It was amazing. I used to bug them a lot, I used to talk to them all the time. I used to sit next to Stevie Corica on the plane and ask him for stories, I just wanted to listen.
“When you stand in a lineup and you see Bridge, Brosque, Aloisi, Colosimo, Popovic… it was truly a team of Australian football icons. So if I had any nerves going into the game, standing in the tunnel and reading their names, I grew two feet taller because in my mind, I was in the strongest team in the league.”
Sydney would reach the Grand Final, travelling to face arch rivals Melbourne Victory. Cole would come on as a substitute as the game went to penalties. Cole stepped up to take one in the shootout, but was unable to convert.
“Saved, the penalty was saved,” Cole was quick to point out. “ I could strike a dead ball pretty well, so in a penalty shoot-out I was 100% confident that I could hit the ball well. I hit it very well, Langerak saved it, great save.
“I remember running back to halfway and thinking ‘damn, that’s the best save he’s ever gonna pull in his life, why against me?’”
However, Kevin Muscat and Marvin Angulo also failed to convert for the home side, ensuring that the title would return to Sydney. Cole could be forgiven for feeling a great sense of relief, however, this wasn’t the case.
“No relief, no relief at all. I remember the joy and being able to share it with that group of players. The penalty shootout wins are always great moments because you can take a photo of 10 players running towards their teammates, so seeing that kind of photo is still special to this day.”
Cole spent a further two seasons at Sydney, winning a cap for the Socceroos in that time, before swapping Sky Blue for Red and Black, joining the Western Sydney Wanderers for their inaugural season.
They would take the nation by storm, winning the Minor Premiership in their first season and reaching three Grand Finals in their first four seasons. However it would be their achievements in the Asian Champions League that would immortalise them.
Being the underdog’s was a huge benefit to the team.
“In terms of building morale and building team spirit, being underdogs is a huge factor. It adds to the romance of the whole story and the dream and the players really rode that. It wasn’t like we were robotic and ‘let’s just do our job day in day out’, it was building with belief every step we went.”
Cole would be a crucial cog in the team, playing in all but one match and scoring some crucial goals. Firstly in the Round of 16 comeback against Sanfrecce Hiroshima, and most notably the clincher in the second leg of the semi-final against FC Seoul.
“I’ll never get sick of talking about it. I remember the feeling of laying there and my teammates running and jumping on top of me. It was really special.”
Cole would start both legs of the final, as the Wanderers pulled off the impossible in defeating Al-Hilal and winning the trophy at their first attempt.
Cole vividly recalls the emotions he experienced at full time.
“I thought about my whole footballing journey in that moment. I thought about my family that weren’t able to be there, my parents that watched me from when I was little… in that moment I thought about all the sacrifices that my family made, the things that I missed in their lives. All of that had led to this impossible achievement.
“I imagined what everyone must have been feeling in Australia watching that. I know that my family all got together to watch it, I know all the fans got together watching it. That’s what I thought of, I thought ‘what has this made everyone feel right now?’ It’s pretty special.”
Cole would make 74 appearances for the Wanderers, and his contributions to the club were recognised, as he was voted into their Team of the Decade by fans.
“It’s very touching. I think that the early success, people in the club remember how they felt, they remember a team that represented the people of the area, that truly recognised what the culture of the community was, and we represented that culture on the field.”
When Cole departed in 2017, he took up coaching, something he had always been keen on.
“I was always really obsessed with the tactical side of the game; my time in the A-League was fantastic for that because the coaches put such an effort into tactical analysis, we’d do a couple of those sessions a week.
“I wanted to answer every question, predict what was going to happen, I just had an obsession with it.”
To sate this thirst, after a stint coaching locally in Sydney, he went abroad. Considering his wife is American, it was a natural choice to settle in Arizona.
“I played most of my career in my home city, so once that was finished, I needed to do something else, I needed to take some time away from Australia and discover who I am in the next phase of my life and career.”
“Living in Arizona was amazing, it’s a proper desert. It was really cool to live somewhere so different, and to live there long enough that it felt like home. I worked with semi-professional players all the way down to kids, and I made some fantastic connections at all levels, and people that I will stay friends with forever.”
While coaching at FC Arizona, a club in the third division, he lived through the COVID-19 pandemic that gripped the country.
“COVID over there was crazy. There were times where we went into lockdown and there were really questions like ‘is this about to change life forever? Are we gonna live in fear, gonna have to hide forever?’
“It got to the point where the leaders of the state, and a lot of the people, almost got impatient with it and said let us get back to work and let us get on with things. The truth is a lot of people died, and a lot of people are still dying, that’s the harsh reality.”
“COVID sort of made my wife and I assess a little bit ‘what do we want?’ for the next phase of our life, Sydney was that, and it’s why we came back.”
He has since joined a recruitment agency called Athelete2Business. Started by former professional basketballer Alex Opacic, it aims to help athletes who haven’t made the cut or who are finishing their careers the opportunities to transition into the business world.
“[Alex] realised all of the lessons he learned in sport, helped him become successful in business. So he thought ‘why can’t I do this for everyone who comes from sport and learns those things?’
“The attributes that an athlete has, growth mindset, resilience, being goal driven, quick learners, ability to work in a team; all of these attributes transfer really well into the business world. It’s just a matter of athletes landing in an environment where their experiences and strengths will be valued by an organisation.”
Cole says he was spurred on to join this industry by his own personal experiences during the COVID-19, when he was unable to carry out his coaching job in lockdown.
“When COVID hit, there was no more football, everything had shut down. So I felt like, ‘hang on a sec, the thing I have been doing my whole life and the thing that I feel an expert at doesn’t exist anymore’.
“I was like ‘I have a lot of attributes and skills; I’m really good at building relationships, goal driven and resilient. There must be another way to become an expert at something else.’ So that became a mission of mine to not put all of my eggs in the sporting bowl.
“The other side of it is helping players who have struggled in the transition; maybe they found themselves in a role or job where they aren’t valued, or if they’ve had a couple years experience and maybe they don’t feel inspired by what they are doing. But given their sporting experience and with a little bit of experience in the business world, they may be more equipped for success than they realise.”
It is all about broadening horizons, something Cole did when he decided to write a sci-fi novel, The Secrets of Varillien, published in 2014.
“It started when I was at Sydney FC and I was talking to my good mate Brendan Gan, and I was like ‘I’ve got this cool idea for a story or a cool movie’. And I kept talking about it, and one day he said ‘can you stop telling me about this story and write it’?
“I was just gonna do this in my downtime when I’m on the plane or in my hotel and can’t go anywhere. So that’s what I did, I just sat on my laptop or even on my IPad and plugged away at the story. I did it for a year and a half.”
“It was always just a passion or something to give it a crack.”
Giving it a crack is certainly something Cole has done throughout his career, and it has taken him to highs that many can only dream of.
Image Source: Western Sydney Wanderers