Nick D'Agostino has gone from being criticised for his professionalism by Tony Popovic at Perth Glory to being the equal top goal scorer of the league, and current Perth coach Richard Garcia believes it's down to a change in his mentality.
A former member of the Centre of Excellence (CoE) squad at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) and a standout performer in the academy side of Brisbane Roar, D’Agostino has consistently loomed large as one of Australia’s most promising striking prospects: making his A-League debut at just 17-years-old in 2015/16.
Turning that senior breakthrough into consistent minutes, however, subsequently proved a challenge for the Gold Coast-born attacker; his best season in Orange coming in 2018-19 when he made 11 substitute appearances and six starts for a single goal under John Aloisi and Darren Davies.
Having found himself on the outer following the appointment of Robbie Fowler, he moved to Perth ahead of the 2019-20 season and while on-field signs were promising - scoring three goals in seven appearances after eventually forcing his way into the side post-Olympics qualification - he also earned a public rebuke from then-Glory boss Tony Popovic for letting his standards slip during the league’s COVID-enforced lockdown.
Flash forward to 2020-21, though, and the early signs for now 22-year-old D’Agostino under new Glory boss Richard Garcia certainly appear more promising.
Coming to the end of a week-long roadshow against Victorian opposition, D'Agostino was on the scoresheet again on Sunday evening when he popped up with an 84th-minute header that drove a stake through any hopes that Melbourne City would have had of staging a comeback in their eventual 3-1 loss.
The goal was his fourth in as many appearances, moving him alongside Brisbane Roar and fellow Olyroo-eligible striker Dylan Wenzel-Halls atop the A-League’s Golden Boot race after just a month of competition. Those four strikes also eclipse his highest ever single-season mark of goals in an entire A-League campaign - just 296 minutes in.
“It’s down to him and his mentality,” Garcia said of D’Agostino’s form. “It’s down to the hard work that he’s putting and the focus he’s putting in on the training ground. It’s good to see that he’s found that focus.
“I think he’s matured a bit. Sometimes that’s what it is. We expect young players to be mature and they’re not quite there. This might be the year that Nick focuses on the right things and makes sure that he does everything in his power to be at his best.”
For his part, D’Agostino told SBS The World Game that the influence of Garcia was having a big effect on him and the group during what has, logistically and mentally, been a difficult time for Glory early in the season.
“It’s confidence,” D’Agostino said. “That’s a big one. The gaffer has a lot of belief in me to go out there and score some goals and that’s my job, being an attacker.
“You want to score goals and there’s hopefully the Olympics this year to go ahead and I’m fighting for that spot to get in that team.”
“I’ve had some troubles in previous years doing that with consistent game time but I’m getting that now and the confidence is high and I’m scoring goals. So I can’t be happier.”
It was just over a year ago, of course, that D’Agostino was the talk of the Australian footballing town after he played a key role in helping the Olyroos secure a place at the Olympic Games for the first time since 2008; scoring the only goal of the game as Australian downed Uzbekistan in the third-place playoff at the AFC U23 Championships in Thailand.
While West Australian border restrictions prevented him from taking part in the only games that Australia’s U23s have played since - pre-season games against Sydney FC and Macarthur FC - his absence in those games was still apparent: Arnold bemoaning the lack of he and Wenzel-Halls in his squad as forcing him to play without a true number nine.
“Thailand was a long time ago now,” the striker reflected. “I need to keep playing, playing well and scoring goals and hopefully it goes ahead, with everything going on around the world.”
Responding to reports that the Japanese Government had conceded in private that the Tokyo Olympics would have to be abandoned in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) came out forcefully last week declaring that the Games, even if they took place under heavily modified conditions, would still be going ahead in 2021.
For D’Agostino, this means that his dream of becoming an Olympian - and capturing an elusive medal - is still very much on the agenda.
“Every young Australian wants to play in an Olympics,” he said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve been there. Arnie wants to go there and win a medal as well. That’s our aim, that’s our belief and we want to go there and do Australia proud.
“He said that from day one - even before we went to Thailand - he said ‘we’re going to the Olympics and we’re going to win a medal’.
“Him constantly repeating it and saying it to the group that we’re going to go and do that. That’s our aim, that’s our goal and hopefully, when we get there we can put the ball in the back of the net and get to that medal stage.”
Even if they do go ahead, though, the Perth attacker knows that the battle for a place on the plane to Tokyo will be fierce.
Squads are restricted to just 18 players at the Olympic Games and, with the sudden explosion of young players playing in the A-League in 2020-21, more and more players are putting their hand up.
Add to that those overseas-based players that may come under consideration, as well as possible overage ringers, and Arnold suddenly might find himself into some very, very difficult decisions at the selection table.
“You see other people at the top of the leaderboard and you want to edge in front of them every chance you get,” D’Agostino told The World Game of the competition. “[I had a] little cameo off the bench, one goal tonight. So, very happy.
“I’m just trying to stay in front of Carlo Armiento at the moment! He’s got me pipped with the assists but I’ve got him with the goal.”