Maclaren raves about Rovers
Written by Craig MacKenzie /
IS JAMIE Maclaren the next big thing in Australian football? He’s 16, he’s scored a hat-trick against Manchester United and in July he starts a two-year contract with Blackburn Rovers.
The Sunbury teenager has taken to the professional stage with aplomb and a few short weeks after playing for Blackburn’s under-16s he was promoted to become the youngest member of the club’s youth team. He’s already caught the eye of the Rovers’ coaching staff and has trained with the reserves and the seniors.
He’s also attracted the attention of both Scotland and England. He qualifies for Scotland through his father and for Malta through his mother. The Scottish FA has been in contact with Rovers while England’s under-17s head coach, John Peacock, ended his interest abruptly when told that Maclaren had a Scottish background.
So are we about to see yet another tug of war between countries vying for a prodigious Aussie-born talent?
“I’m obviously Australian and would love to play for Australia but since I’ve been at Blackburn no-one from Australia has contacted me,” said Maclaren, speaking exclusively to Goal! Weekly.
But there’s not even a hint of disappointment in his voice.
“Right now I’m concentrating on developing my club career. I’ve spoken to Blackburn about the situation and I’m quite happy to concentrate on scoring goals there.”
Another club happy to see him scoring regularly is Victorian Premier League powerhouse Green Gully where he made his mark as a junior. Gully’s treasurer already has banked close to $10,000 in compensation since Maclaren’s move to Rovers.
The youngster’s trial last September with the Lancashire-based English Premier League outfit was arranged by former Dandenong Thunder coach Toby Paterson. Initially Maclaren was due to trial with Aston Villa then Birmingham City then Celtic but Paterson later told the family that Blackburn was really keen so he went there and has never looked back.
We can only imagine what scouts from those other three clubs were thinking after Maclaren’s first outing for Blackburn’s under-16s against Man U. He played on the wing in the first half, as central striker in the second half and trudged off the ground with a hat-trick to his name.
He then banged in a double against Derby County. Blackburn didn’t muck about, telling him then and there that they wanted him to sign.
His international clearance came through in January and after being elevated to the youths as part of Blackburn’s elite academy squad he scored on debut in a 1–1 draw with Stoke.
But there’s nothing new about this goalscoring phenomenon. He’s been hitting the back of the net on a regular basis for the past few seasons, edging ever closer to his dream of cementing his status as a first-class professional player, a dream that took root around 12 years ago down the back of a two-and-a-half-acre property just past Melbourne Airport.
“I got dad to put up a set of goals and I practised every single day. I started playing with Sunbury United’s under-8s when I was about four years old. I might have been five, but when I was 10 I switched to Green Gully’s under-12s.”
The Gully junior sides that Maclaren represented from under-13s to under-15s were likened to a tsunami sweeping through Victorian junior ranks. His dad was the coach and the all-conquering Gully kids saw Maclaren playing as a holding midfielder then finally switching to the wings.
“For three years we were the best team in Victoria. We didn’t lose for about 50 games. We just kept winning. The team didn’t change much but we just kept moving on and winning everything.
“Dad was a big part of that. I guess you could say that he was the most successful junior coach in Victoria during that time.”
And throughout that time Jamie Maclaren played in a higher age bracket. Is that part of the reason he slotted in so smoothly among the older teens in Blackburn’s academy squad?
“Yes, that’s part of it. I think you learn quicker. You’re playing with better players and you have to adjust. If you can’t adjust then you’re not going to get there. You’re not going to make it.”
There are other reasons that Maclaren was able to make that adjustment. His father Don is one. A former pro himself (ex-Hearts and Dunfermline Athletic) who came to Australia in the late 1970s to play with Canberra City in the national league, he has played a pivotal role as coach and mentor to his son.
The rapport between the pair is obvious. The banter’s good and there’s no way that Jamie Maclaren will, as they say, get too far ahead of himself with dad around.
“He’s the better player of the two,” says Don Maclaren bluntly, pointing to Jamie’s twin brother Donald, who plays with VPL club Richmond.
“Technically, that is. But there’s more than that that makes a player.”
Indeed. A few seasons back then VIS head coach Ian Greener and now head coach of Victoria’s National Training Centre saw a talent that could not escape his clutches.
“I guess you could say that I got into the system at under-12 level when I first played for Victoria,” said Jamie Maclaren.
That was in the Victorian junior side that won the national under-12 title in Canberra under coach Darryl Spiteri.
The one major setback Maclaren suffered came during the 2008 national titles at Coff’s Harbour when the then under-15 star was injured. But that didn’t stop Greener’s pursuit of one of Victoria’s finest talents.
“I ended up on crutches with a cyst on my knee. Ian Greener rang dad and said that he knew I was injured but that once I got fit he wanted to offer me a full (VIS) scholarship.
“The two years I had with the VIS were great. I really, really enjoyed them. Ian Greener and Harry Bingham were quality. They were very, very good.
“It was great to hear someone else’s opinion of me because up until then I’d always had dad as my coach at club level.”
The VIS program gave the youngster a taste of what professional football was about. He found himself involved in recovery sessions, taking ice baths, swimming pool sessions, doing weights and other gym work, even judo as part of a cross-training regime that had been carefully mapped out.
He also switched from playing out wide to a central striker’s role and a slight grin emerges when he recounts the circumstances of that move.
“I was a winger at the VIS at first but one time our centre forward got injured so Ian asked me if I minded playing centre forward. I told him I’d play anywhere just to get on the pitch. I went okay that game. I scored a hat-trick and Ian came up to me after the match and said he might just keep me up front.”
Right now Blackburn’s pretty happy with Greener’s decision.
And if the Maclaren family had any doubts about their son acclimatising to life in Lancashire, fellow Rovers pro and Socceroo star Vinnie Grella is one reason no doubts remain.
“Me and Vinnie have become good buddies,” said Maclaren.
“I’ve had lunch with him and we’ve had a few chats. He’s also come through the VIS program and he knows Ian Greener so there’s a connection there.”
But the biggest factors in the ease in which he has slipped into a striker’s role at Rovers are his unbending confidence in his own ability and what he describes as the supportive atmosphere at the club’s Brockhall training complex.
When asked to describe his strengths as a footballer he responds in a forthright fashion: “Scoring goals. That’s my main job now and that’s what I work on. My pace is an asset. A lot of the other guys in the academy are 18 or 19 years old but over the first five yards I can leave them.
“It’s a really friendly environment there. The club’s really good and they look after you really well.
“Brockhall’s absolute quality. There’s the senior training complex up the road then there’s the academy area with a village in between. If you get called up to the seniors to help out you’re just a couple of minutes’ walk away. It’s brilliant.”
And what of his weaknesses as a player? Has Blackburn identified any?
“I guess you could say the physical side of things. The other players are bigger and stronger but I do a lot of work in the gym and I’m getting stronger.”
He’s got his favourites among Blackburn’s senior squad, players he really looks up to. Apart from his mate Vinnie, he singles out Norwegian international Morton Gamst Pedersen and another Socceroo, Brett Emerton.
“I’ve always liked Pedersen. Always. Even when I wasn’t at Blackburn. It’s his technique. When he takes a corner it’s unbelievable. But for sheer professionalism you can’t go past Brett Emerton. Not just because he’s Australian but because of the way he goes about things.”
And Maclaren knows that he’s going to have to apply himself ever bit as diligently when he returns to Blackburn in a few weeks’ time. He knows that there’s a lot of work ahead but there’s a calm resolve about this young man. You just know that he knows he’s good even though there’s not the slightest hint of arrogance about him.
He even showed his shy side when GW’s Anita Milas turned up to the scene of our interview to conduct a photo shoot. Maclaren chose to hold it at the back of Richmond’s clubrooms out of sight of the spectators watching a junior game.
But it remains to be seen whether he can escape the spotlight for much longer.
For the moment he prefers to let his goals do the talking and right now they are making a compelling argument to say that this teenager could be on the brink of something special.