It’s been a long road to Adelaide United for Cameron Watson – especially when you’re taking detours to Porto!
In the unforgiving competitive world of football, talented players are often overlooked on a regular basis, but when a young Australian such as Adelaide United midfielder Cameron Watson – once a member of Portuguese champions FC Porto – goes unnoticed in his home country, it’s astonishing.
Although most could be forgiven for failing to recognise Watson alongside some of the more popular names in the Hyundai A-League, the 24-year-old has long carved out a name for himself beyond Australian shores.
At just 14, Watson caught the attention of German Bundesliga side Werder Bremen but rejected their advances after having his doubts over the move.
Watson’s stock continued to rise in Australia, however, as he donned the green and gold for the Under-17 Joeys and joined the Australian Institute of Sport in 2004 before European giants Celtic and Porto came knocking a year later.
Watson had the chance with Celtic to emulate his father, who once played for Scottish first division side Stirling Albion, but chose to trial with Porto instead, citing Portugal’s technical and memorising style of football as the defining reason.
It took just one DVD and three days of training for Watson to convince the 2003-04 UEFA Champions League winners to sign him.
“I was supposed to go to Porto for two weeks, but I only had three training sessions and signed after the third day,” Watson recalled.
“It was pretty surreal and amazing at the time to be at the same place training with the likes of Lucho Gonzalez, Raul Meireles and Ricardo Quaresma.
“I enjoyed my time over there, the style of play suited me and I wish I could have stayed for another couple of years, but the club got rid of the reserve set up which was unfortunate.”
With Porto terminating their reserve system, Watson’s European dreams were dashed after only 18 months abroad, although only temporarily.
Having returned home to join the Australian Under-20 squad for a training camp ahead of their inaugural 2006 AFC Youth Championship campaign, Watson was offered the chance to join his former AIS coach Ernie Merrick at Melbourne Victory.
Watson trained with the Victory but missed out as the Victorian side chose to sign English-born midfielder James Robinson, until his European ambition was reignited by an approach from Dutch club VVV-Venlo.
Watson signed to the Dutch first division side with a two-year option but left after one season and only a handful of senior appearances, keen to return to Australia and forge a name for himself on home soil.
“I wasn-t playing as much as expected to nor was I developing the way I wanted to,” Watson felt reflecting on his short stint with Venlo.
“Venlo got promoted to the Eredivisie (first division) that season and I knew it was going to be much of the same, especially as they were planning to sign four or five more players.
“I gathered I wasn-t going to be playing so I decided to come back home to Melbourne and start from scratch again.”
But upon his return in 2007 and unlike so many other of Australia’s overseas exports, Watson had nowhere to go.
He was eventually offered trials with Victory and Sydney FC, much to the bemusement of those well aware of the right-footer’s ability and foreign experience, but not to a humble Watson.
“When I did come back to Australia I wanted an A-League gig straight away but I didn-t expect to get one, because no one had seen me in awhile and it was pretty hard to get footage from over there (Europe) as well,” Watson said.
Although another trial with Melbourne was unsuccessful for Watson, who was told to sharpen his match fitness in the Victorian Premier League with Melbourne Knights, he was given reassurances over a future in the ‘Big V’ guernsey.
However while the Victory pondered over Watson’s signature Sydney FC, offered him a way out.
Former Sydney FC coach Branko Culina, along with experienced senior figureheads Steve Corica, Alex Brosque and Tony Popovic, were impressed immediately by Watson, tipping the midfielder for a long future with the Sky Blues.
But even after playing a full 90 minutes in a friendly for Culina’s men against Wellington Phoenix, Watson was again overlooked in scandalous circumstances.
“During the week, after the game, I got a call from my management saying they (Sydney) had signed two Sydney boys,” Watson said.
“It was shattering after feeling quietly confident that something was going to happen given the trial I had and all the positive feedback I received.”
Watson’s disappointment was compounded with a move to the Victory also failing to materialise.
Despite back-to-back setbacks Watson knew that it wasn-t the end of the world and ensured that the quiet confidence that had driven him throughout his career remained in his quest for a Hyundai A-League contract – a contract that was only around the corner.
Watson spent close to four years plying his trade in the Victorian Premier League with the Melbourne Knights and later Oakleigh Cannons while the likes of Gold Coast United, Adelaide United and the newly-formed Melbourne Heart looked into his services.
But disaster struck just as Watson was preparing for a second attempt to break into the A-League in 2008-09.
“I got an invitation for a trial at Gold Coast and about two weeks before I went, I tore a muscle behind my knee and it kept me out for 12 weeks,” Watson said.
“It was also at the same time Adelaide first came to have a look at me.”
It only got worse a year later when his knee gave once more.
“The injury happened again for the second year in a row and it was almost as if every time someone would come out to look at me I was injured,” Watson said.
“It was frustrating sitting injured and not being able to trial or have people come watch me play.”
It was during this period that Watson set himself a ‘timeline’ to find a Hyundai A-League club or move on and take a different career path as he began to study International Trade and Logistics at University in Melbourne.
“I gave myself a timeline until 24 or 25 to have a career at the highest level, because I would have been finished university around that time and had to start looking for a job,” Watson said.
“Deep down though I knew something was going to happen eventually and that’s why I kept up the hard work and never stopped training until eventually it came up.”
That ‘it’ came in the form of Adelaide United, who after scouting Watson for close to two years, offered him a trial at the beginning of the 2010-11 Hyundai A-League season.
A change in coach threatened to derail Watson’s opportunity but Adelaide assistant coach at the time Phil Stubbins stayed true to his word and kept tabs on him until a rare slice of luck in the form of a long-term injury to midfielder Fabian Barbiero opened the door for the Victorian to sign on as an injury replacement loan.
Watson continued to extend his short-term deal as his impressive form grew until finally, in January 2011, he signed a two-year permanent deal to cap off a ‘rollercoaster ride’ for the 24-year-old.
It was relief more than anything.
“Once I signed my two-year deal with Adelaide that was the biggest relief especially after having all those weekly contract extensions that kept me questioning how long I’d be there for,” Watson said.
“I could relax and I knew where I was going to be, but I realise I still have to make most of it and work hard every day because it (football career) doesn-t last long.”
“It had been a rollercoaster ride but I enjoyed it.”
Now an integral member and regular starter for the Reds, Watson has proven a point to those who overlooked him in the past.
More importantly he finally feels settled and at peace with his football.
“From when I signed originally with Adelaide United, I wanted to prove a point and show – but not in an aggressive way – that I was always good enough to play in the A-League,” Watson said.
“It had been turbulent for a couple years with the injuries and knockbacks but everything has finally settled down and I’m not worrying about anything else.”