Western Sydney Wanderers full-back Tate Russell is a rare individual – an Indigenous professional footballer who is also the son of a former rugby league star. After debuting in the A-League two years ago, the Olyroo wants to encourage more Aboriginal youth to take up the beautiful game.
Football has the lowest Indigenous representation of all the Australian sporting codes. Only a handful of players have represented the Socceroos or ever made it into the A-League, including the likes of James Brown, Travis Dodd, Jade North and David Williams.
But Russell wants to help change that trend.
“One reason I think is just accessibility of the sport,” Russell told The World Game.
“AFL and NRL seem to dominate the country at the moment, and football, in general, is still continuing to build.
"There’s still a lot of culture in the A-League, even if you go back into the NSL where clubs were associated with the Italians, or clubs were tied to a specific ethnic group.
“I think it’s just accessibility for remote communities and it needs to be pushed more and more because 100 percent there’s more talent out there going to be discovered.
“I’m only 21 and this is my third year as a professional footballer. I have to say my first few years I was thinking more about the football side.
“But the more I get into the professionalism and learn why football isn’t reaching these communities, and where I come from, my mob, it’s definitely a driving factor in what I want to do – not just in football but after football as well.”
Rugby league is a sport with strong Indigenous representation and Russell’s father Ian starred for the Illawarra Steelers and the North Queensland Cowboys in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as playing in Europe.
But the 55-year-old ex-lock forward was also always passionate about football and passed that love on to his son.
“It was always football for me,” Russell explained.
“My dad played football until he was 18, I think. So he always loved it and from what I can remember we were always up early to watch the Premier League games as well. Football’s always been in my family.
“He went all right in rugby league I’ve heard. Actually he keeps it a bit under wraps, it’s everyone else who tells me. I think the big thing for Dad was the toll that rugby league took on his body.
“So that was his biggest message he passed on to me, that’s for sure, why he didn’t put me in rugby league and put me in football instead.”
Russell grew up in Wollongong and came through the Wollongong Olympic and South Coast Wolves junior teams before joining the Wanderers as teenager. The defender has started both of Western Sydney’s A-League games this season and scored a stunning goal in the victory over Newcastle Jets.
“I was scouted and invited by Trevor Morgan to come and have a trial with the Western Sydney Wanderers when I was 16,” he said.
“Ever since, I’ve just worked my way up at the club. I don’t think I can complain about that finish or goal [against the Jets] at all. It was definitely a step in the right direction in the way we want to play and hopefully we take another step this Saturday.”
This weekend the Wanderers will take on defending champions Sydney FC in the first Sydney derby of the year.
“I think myself and all the boys included are really keen to get into the derby,” Russell said.
“Coming off the back of a win it’s good momentum for us to go into and we’ve just been improved each week on our game and the way we want to play and the way the gaffer wants to play. It’s looking good and we’re all excited.
“I was lucky enough to play in two of last year’s derbies. I got a little bit of experience of them, but it’s always an unreal and daunting experience at the same time because the atmosphere is always top-notch.”
Russell, who has represented Australia at both Under-20 and Under-23 level, is enjoying the fresh approach of new Western Sydney boss Carl Robinson.
“It’s really good,” he said. “He’s a coach that believes in young players and a coach that believes in me, and has given me a lot of self-confidence to not just play in the system he wants but play in the way I want to play in that final third – take players on and have that freedom in the final third.
“So it’s been good to play under him and even from the start when he first came in, he was a coach who took me aside and told me his plans, what he want from me and it was something I really appreciated. It made me feel, not just like a young boy anymore, but as a first-team player.”
The full-back has already earned two caps for the Olyroos and is hoping his performances in the A-League this season can win him a place in the squad for Tokyo and, at some point in the future, eventually break into the senior national team.
“That’s definitely the end goal for this season,” he admitted.
“Obviously winning the league is up there, but for myself and a couple of the other young boys in the squad is to make that Olympic team. There’s not a lot of positions, and there’s a lot of quality players that can be put in and do the job.
“Hopefully by the end of the season I can get selected. Any footballer wants to play for their country and I’m no different.
"And also any footballer would love to play in Europe and get to the best leagues in the world. Especially myself, I want to push myself and see how far I can go.
"This could potentially be a really big year for me, and the next few years coming, so I’m definitely pushing myself trying to get better and work on things that I’m not good at and things I’m already good at.
“That’s definitely something I want to achieve in my lifetime.”