The Australian goalkeeper is finding his feet in Romania and loving the journey so far.
By Nick Boffa
The bright and sunny apartment in Bucharest is the perfect backdrop for the bubbly and smiling chap looking down the camera as the call connects. Harrison Devenish-Meares is a long way from home but as we dissect his footballing odyssey so far, you instantly feel his passion for the journey he has committed himself to.
Commitment is certainly a key part of the story so far.
A product of Killara High School in northern Sydney, the longhaired Devenish-Meares is equal parts laidback Aussie larrikin and steely determination as he guides us through his journey as a footballer and his future ambitions. With Uruguayan heritage through his maternal side, football quickly became a huge part of his life. He reminisces about the experience of being in the stadium in 2005 as Australia qualified for the World Cup at the expense of his mother’s beloved Uruguay. “I was about 10 years old and my mum just dressed me in blue”, he laughs. “But it was a great experience to be there, it’s such a huge moment in Australian sport.” Now aged 23, the Sydneysider made the move to goalkeeper at 16 with Northern Tigers and hasn’t looked back, although it didn’t prove a popular move with his Uruguayan grandfather. “He’s really South American, he can’t understand why you’d play football if you’re not scoring goals.”
The determination to achieve his best in the position is evident early and so it was as a youngster too. “At 16 and 17, I was learning so much and growing and I knew I needed to be doing more than training twice a week to get better. To get where I wanted to go, I knew that wasn’t enough.”, he explains. After a season in the Under 20s, his search for first team football in the National Premier League (NPL) took him to Rochdale City and back to Northern Tigers. After discussions about his prospects of regular first team action, he decided to plot another course. “I knew that I was good enough and I wanted to be playing seniors but I understood they wanted a more experienced ‘keeper at that time.”, he explains with a maturity beyond his years. Devenish-Meares was introduced to Dylan Murphy, a former Newcastle Jets player now helping connect Australians with US college sides. After producing a homemade highlight reel distributed by Murphy, the youngster was off to the University of Southern Florida.
“I made a highlight reel and Dylan sent it off. Within a weeks, I was on my way to USF.”
The move proved to be the step up that Devenish-Meares was craving back home in Sydney as he adapted to several new experiences in Florida. Training was now daily with a new and diverse coaching staff, with and against quality players who quickly helped the 190cm shot-stopper raise his game. “We had some really good players at USF, guys who’d played in youth sides like FC Utrecht, RC Strasbourg, Atletico Madrid, Union Berlin and Palmeiras. There was a lot more speed and dribbling with guys who could put shots into the corners more regularly.” The new experience and regular games before large crowds, also a novelty, fostered some rapid development in his preparation and routines before matches. Devenish-Meares credits much of this to goalkeeping coach Ryan Thompson, who boasts international experience with Jamaica and played Europa League with Shamrock Rovers. His experience in big games and hostile environments, always amplified for a goalkeeper, was crucial in helping the young Aussie adjust and adapt to dealing with opposition crowds. “From the warm up, I’d be really friendly and build a good rapport with crowd, bring a good energy.” NCAA games were also the first time he’d been scouted by opposition sides, further motivating Devenish-Meares to work on perceived weaknesses in his game. The pressure of the college game in the US means athletes are constantly striving to make their scholarship count as they progress to professional sport or a career via their degree. Devenish-Meares embodied this philosophy as he explored avenues such as meditation, veganism and sports psychology to gain an edge on the field. Off the field, he threw himself into academia and extra-curricular avenues, emerging as the President of the Student Athlete Body. He maintained a focus on balancing his life between success on the pitch and happiness and fulfilment away from football.
“I made every effort to improve myself on and off the pitch. I just threw the kicthen sink at it.”
As his time at USF drew to a close, the young custodian between the sticks was assessing his next move amid interest from professional sides in the US. However, with the ultimate goal to play in the Champions League, a move to Europe was a long-held dream – and it materialised in unlikely circumstances. “I met my girlfriend, Evelyne, at college and she’s Romanian. Her step-dad was visiting and saw me play. He had some contacts in Romania and encouraged me to have a go as he thought the level would be a good step up for me.” European football was on the horizon and Romania was the destination. In late 2019, with a Bachelor of Health Science under his belt, Devenish-Meares continued on his footballing odyssey.
There is often a lot of uncertainty in the world of professional football but even by those standards, Devenish-Meares was rolling the dice to achieve his goal. A meeting with club officials from Rapid Bucharest, a top tier team in Romania, was enough to earn a spot on a training camp to Turkey in January 2020. “I remember the president of the club had played with Ryan Griffiths at Nacional (Bucharest) and had a really high opinion of him and Australian players. I reckon that helped”, he laughs. The goalie impressed in games during the trip and signed a contract with Rapid whilst still in camp. But the joy of signing with a top side didn’t last long, as Fifa blocked his transfer due to issues arising from previous signings, seemingly unknown to Rapid Bucharest. “They (Rapid) were really apologetic and they wanted to sign me once the issue was cleared up so I just needed to stay in Romania and find a club until the next window.” Fortune favours the brave, as they say, and Bucharest United emerged as a late suitor in the 4th division. Owned by an Australian and looking for a goalkeeper, Devenish-Meares was playing in Europe until Covid-19 stopped football in the country. Devenish-Meares, who models himself on past keepers like Edwin van der Sar, is a student of the game and constantly watches his contemporaries for improvements he can incorporate into his own game. “I’m constantly on Transfermarkt, tracking goalkeepers and watching stuff. (Andre) Onana is someone that I really respect, his distribution is next level. He’s a quality footballer in general, not just a goalkeeper.” He’s quick to mention Matthew Nemes as a source of learning early on as they played together at Northern Tigers. On his own strengths as a goalkeeper, Devenish-Meares is equally steadfast. “My mentality is my biggest asset for sure. I love the physical side of goalkeeping and I am very determined. I was never capped at youth level but I hung in. I was never one of the best along my journey but my staying power got me opportunities.”
“My mentality is my biggest asset for sure.”
As football globally prepares to re-start, Devenish-Meares is focused on the play-offs, success in which would propel Bucharest United into the third division, which is fully professional in Romania. These nationally televised games will be another stepping stone to navigate but our conversation drifts back to Australia and the tough choices for the game back home. Devenish-Meares has great insight into this from his own experiences and those he’s witnessed. “In Europe, training from a young age is daily with a focus on technique and tactics. I couldn’t access that (in Sydney).” He is adamant this needs to be the case in Australia to best utilise the high quality of the coaches. “In Australia, we have great coaches who are passionate, organised and knowledgeable but daily access to the players is the issue.” Devenish-Meares is active in trying to remedy this issue for future goalkeepers, starting his own academy to increase their access to training*.
“In Australia, we have great coaches…great communicators and educators.”
Whilst the young custodian is determined to achieve his goal of playing in the Champions League, he remains attracted to plying his trade back home in the A-League. He is bullish about the future prospects of the A-League and sees the Australian lifestyle as a huge attraction for European players if salaries and conditions can be raised by some degree. “You can’t separate the football economy from the actual (Australian) economy. They’re intertwined.” Devenish-Meares is referring to the cost to clubs of housing players, particularly in Melbourne and Sydney, as these costs are usually covered by clubs outside of player wages in Europe. According to the young Australian, most professionals in Romania would have an apartment, and possibly also a car, provided in addition to their wages. While it’s clear that Devenish-Meares is a staunch advocate for the Australian game, he adds his voice to the chorus arguing for transfer fees to be introduced to the league. “Why would clubs (outside the A-league) spend money developing young players with significant investment if they leave for no fee when an A-League team comes knocking?” The 23 year-old is not alone as many with the Australian football community feel this is a serious issue for the development of young local talent.
Meanwhile in Bucharest, this young Australian talent continues chasing his dream of playing at the highest level.
*Harrison Devenish-Meares operates The Keepers Union (TKU) in Sydney.