New profile piece from TRUE FAITH’s Sam Dalling – @SamJDalling

Garang Kuol has never started a professional game of league football. That is, for an 18-year-old, not in itself particularly remarkable.

But let’s put that in context. Context, after all, as many outlets often so conveniently forget, is everything.

So yes, despite that, already, Kuol has become an A-League All Star. And despite that, already, Kuo has become the youngest man to represent Australia since Harry Kewell more than 25 years ago. And despite that, already, Kuol has signed for Newcastle United.

Come January, Kuol will leave Central Coast Mariners for Tyneside. In all likelihood, he will depart on loan to further his development. Such a departure may even be necessitated by red-tape. But make no mistake: Kuol is a special talent.

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Kuol was born in Egypt, his family having previously fled South Sudan.  Next stop was Australia where, after some time in St Mary’s, Sydney, they settled in Shepparton, a small city 100 miles north of Melbourne.

In 2014, Goulburn Valley Suns FC was formed; the Kuol’s were involved from inception, as was Craig Carley.  Now the first-team coach, back then Carley was the club’s star centre forward, combining goalscoring with a role as youth team coach:  “I coached his brother Alou in the under 14s, so I was fully aware of the family. There is a brother between them, Teng, who is a year older than Garang. Garang played up an age. He would often play two or three games in one day; he was just that good.”

Kuol’s devotion to his craft was obvious to Carley from an early age. Kuol and his elder siblings – amongst them Alou, now with Bundesliga side VfB Stuttgart, and Teng, recently signed by Western Sydney Wanderers – could often be found at the Suns’ ground, passing the days with balls at their feet.

But there were obstacles. Youth football in Australia does not come cheap. For many – the Kuols included – the cost is prohibitive: “The fees parents have to pay for their kids to play football is just ridiculous to be perfectly honest,” Carley begins. “It’s about $2,000 per kid for the season. And for us, the closest game for us is 2 hours away. So you also have to factor in trips to Melbourne 15 times a season, and expenses to get to training. It is extortionate.  

“They’re a hard working family. Mawien – Garang’s dad – goes out to milk cows before he goes to his regular job to earn extra money. But that’s impossible for almost anyone to pay. With three of them – Alou, Teng and Garang – that’s $6,000 a year.”

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Fortunately, the Suns is not a club driven by finances: “We would never exclude any player who was good enough to play at that level,” explains Carley. “We are very, very different compared to some of these bigger clubs in the State. We are focussed on individual player development. 

“Garang’s Mum washed the kits that the boys played in. It was awesome. The kits always came back smelling delightful. They worked at a big dry cleaning business in town, and that was their way of contributing and fitting into the football community here. They are lovely, lovely people. I’m just so, so happy for them. They are all really successful in their own right.”

Given his recent elevation, it is little surprise to hear that Kuol shone as a bairn. And turning the conversation to on-field matters brings about a change in Carley. The pace of his words shifts, the thoughts clearly evoking the type of memories that bring about the footballing shivers.

“He just makes the hairs on your arms stand up,” Carley tells True Faith. “I remember bringing him into the senior team with us when he was 15. He nutmegged one of our most senior players early in the training session, and that player chased him for the whole session, trying to fold him in half.

 “He’s got that X-Factor where he can just turn a game on its head. If you need something done, Garang is the one to do it. He’s so direct and will just take a game by the horns. Nothing phases him. He plays with no fear. If he gets whacked he just gets up and goes again. I’ve seen that in him since he was very young.”

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And Kuol always operates with a beaming grin: “He just absolutely loves it,” Carley adds. “That shows when plays; he’s exciting.  He can produce something out of nothing. Australia hasn’t seen that since the likes of Harry Kewell. I truly believe Garang can go on to forge a career as good as Harry, if not better.”

If there is one slight sadness in Kuol’s rapid ascension for Carley, it is this: the pandemic robbed the Suns the chance to see him light up their senior side.  Carley speaks of watching Kuol star in pre-season matches, of watching him glide past three or four opponents with ease, of wishing there had been more time.

One memory that sticks in Carley’s mind is a warm-up match against Dandenong City.  Dandenong – then managed by 22-cap Socceroo Saša Ognenovsk – had just finished their first season in the Victorian top flight.

In order to compete, the club had brought in several former A-League professionals, amongst them Adrian Leijer, previously of Fulham and Norwich City.  “Adrian came on for a 20 minute cameo – and I’m not exaggerating – Garang tore him to pieces,” Carley explains. “And after that game I said ‘Sash, you’ve got to help me find a club. This kid is special. He is unbelievable. I see it day in, day out in training. You’ve just seen there for 20 minutes; he is producing that consistently.’ But nothing ever came from that conversation.” 

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Fortunately for Kuol, by then Alou was already a Mariner. Not that Alou’s path had been easy. In the 2018/19 season Alou, then age 18, had won the Victorian NPL 2 Golden Boot with 22 strikes. “I was trying to get every single professional club in Australia to look at him, but no one would touch him with a bar of soap,” says Carley. “They said he was just too raw.” 

An extended trial with Melbourne Victory proved fruitless, likewise a fortnight with newly-formed Western United.  Eventually, the Mariners came calling.

Now hang on, you might be thinking. Newcastle United have signed Garang, not Kuol. Fair point. But you see the brothers’ paths are inextricably linked.

For overseeing Alou’s progress were Nick Mongtomery – he of almost 400 appearances in Sheffield United’s midfield – and Sergio Raimundo. And that, as it transpired, was Garang’s route in: “I was saying Garang was better than Alou,” explains Carley. “And so it was natural, once Nick had taken a gamble on Alou, to take a gamble on Garang.” As Raimundo recalls it: “Alou always said to us ‘you think I am good, wait until you see my brother Garang.’

The fit was natural; the Mariners are renowned Asia-wide for graduating academy players into senior football. Raimundo, though, believes that even at a club built on it’s youth team’s foundations, Kuol’s integration was special:

“At the beginning, we remember him saying he was just so grateful for just training with the first team,” Raimundo tells True Faith. “He came from a very humble background, and grew up in a very humble way. It mirrors who he is as a person. He’s a very humble guy, very grateful for having come to the club. He’s very down to earth.

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“But the reality was the older ones always respected him a lot. Everyone would clap, or say ‘wow, that’s fantastic’ every time he scored in training. That’s not normal; when you’re a young kid coming through every one bangs at you, makes you run, yells at you. But he always had the admiration of the team. That’s quite hard to get as a young kid.”

And by the accounts of both Raimundo and Carley, Kuol is a joy to coach: “His ability to retain information, and take on instructions was phenomenal,” says Carley. “You wouldn’t even have to demonstrate; you could just say ‘look, this is what I want you to do Garang when you are receiving the ball in the wide area’ and he would execute that fantastically straight away. Very, very coachable.” Raimundo, who coached the likes of Bernardo Silva and Cancelo at Benfica’s academy, believes Kuol is “from that top, top level.”

Kuol’s A-League debut came as a substitute against Wellington in April 2022. Within five minutes, he had scored.  In the seven months since, Kuol has become both a You Tube sensation netting six league goals in 295 minutes spread across a dozen substitute appearances, and his country’s youngest international since Kewell in 1996.

While we all know the dangers of placing too much reliance on social media clips (Nacho González anyone?!) Kuol has demonstrated that pressure is not something he feels.  “In training I went up to him and said, ‘I don’t see why people talk to you about pressure, because you don’t feel any,’” begins Raimundo. “He told me ‘pressure is having no food to eat.’”

Oh and then there is Kuol’s now infamous cameo against FC Barcelona.

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May 2022 saw the revival of the A-League’s All-Stars game after an eight season hiatus, the Catalan’s providing the opponents in Sydney.  A 30-man squad included 13 players selected via fan vote, 15 chosen by Dwight Yorke and his coaching staff, and two wildcard picks. Kuol fell in the latter category, called up by A-League commissioner Greg O’Rourke.

In a sparkling 30 minute cameo, Kuol struck the woodwork and put a chip inches wide.“He made them look like an average team,” Raimundo recalls gleefully. “Once he got the ball from half-way and dribbled all the way, and missed a chip to the keeper. I remember watching Dani Alves’ face at that moment and it was likeI can’t believe he is going to score, he can’t score this; if he scores it ruins the world!’” Even Xavi was impressed.

Understandably, for all his strengths, Kuol also has weaknesses. And unsurprisingly such a creative force, the key area for improvement is defending.  “If you are nil all and you need to secure a result, or need to have very strict defending action – like in Serie A in Italy – he has a lot (of room) to grow,” says Raimundo.

When put to Raimundo that Queens Park Rangers won the Championship with Adel Taarabt facing a fine from Neil Warnock if he ventured back into his own half, he chuckles:  “Nicky (Montgomery) was coached by Neil so we told Garang that story.  We actually had a player in the group which we used that strategy with, but it was not Garang.  

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 “I think with Garang you have to do the reverse. You need to say to him ‘first you have to defend deep and touch in your box and then you can go forward’. If you allow him, he will just stay forward. His mindset is all attacking. That’s the reason he’s not doing the full 90. He will grow in terms of physicality and he will understand the discipline of hard defending work. But if you want a maverick, if you want an (Allan) Saint-Maximin, you unleash Garang.”

Kuol is not the most junior player in Qatar; Germany’s Youssoufa Moukoko is two months younger. But if he makes it onto the pitch, he will become the youngest Socceroo to appear at a World Cup.

English fans will remember Sven-Göran Eriksson including a then 17 year old Theo Walcott over the likes of Jermain Defoe for the 2006 World Cup.  At that point Walcott had just half a Championship campaign under his belt, and travelled more to gain experience.

Comparisons to be drawn?

 “I know it sounds…” begins Raimundo. “You don’t want to compare like for like. But the impact he can have in a game is more of the level of Michael Owen than Walcott.  If you unleash him against France, I would have zero surprises if he scores.”

What shines through from both Carley and Raimundo is the affection with which they hold both Garang. There is a sincerity to their words, a delight in Kuol’s progress and a genuine will for him to succeed.

“They are beautiful, beautiful people and it is a wonderful story,” explains Carley. “Garang has the world at his feet. What you see in the interviews, that’s just him. He’s so authentic. He just loves the game. That’s why he will be so good.

 “He just adapts to every situation he is in. Every time we’ve challenged him, he just gets better and better.  He’s got the whole world at his feet now. I do think he will be a star.”

Sam Dalling – @SamJDalling