There has been a lot of talk recently about one sprinter turned footballer playing in Oceania. Usain Bolt may be on trial at Central Coast Mariners in Australia but there is another accomplished athlete who already has a contract at a club in New Zealand, albeit he has always had football as his main focus.
“It’s funny because I was always football. Athletics was my second or maybe even third sport growing up. It wasn’t something I took too seriously.”
Those are the words of Liam MacDevitt, one of the newest recruits at New Zealand Premiership side Southern United. Having made headlines back home as a sprinter, he is now hoping to do the same down under playing the game he loves.
Having started off as a full back in the Reading academy, he was released after nearly eight years with his local club. A move further up the pitch saw him then return to professional football with Yeovil Town, a time he still remembers fondly.
“The year I got my move to Yeovil the team were near the bottom of the league but I was top goal scorer – nothing could beat a Wednesday night back then!”
It was after his spell at Yeovil that his attentions would turn to athletics, although it was less of a choice than it sounds.
“Football was the main focus but I got a major injury at 20 when I was playing in Scotland and I couldn’t play for 14 months and subsequently fell out of full time football,” he says.
“I trialled at a few places but wasn’t fit enough nor ready to be back at that level. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to play anymore so took a break and did athletics properly for six or seven months.
“It’s obviously helped with pace but sometimes it’s hard to get away from the stigma. Foremostly, I am and always have been a footballer.”
The 2015 season saw him compete in events across Europe, winning a 400m race in Belgium before recording a personal best time of 11.26 seconds in a 100m in Spain.
It’s now been three years since a competitive race for MacDevitt as the forward has switched his focus back to football and the sport now has his firm attention. After playing for the likes of Gosport Borough and Lewes, last month, his career received a major boost.
“I was looking at options abroad and was in touch with a different team first in New Zealand but then spoke to Paul [O’Reilly, Southern United’s Irish manager] and it seemed like he perfect option. I was heading to NZ anyway for a short while and the opportunity to play football in a national league felt like progression and an experience.”
Southern United are based in Dunedin on the south island of New Zealand. The side finished fifth last season in the ten team Premiership, just missing out on the end of season playoffs.
Despite only being at his new club for just more than a month, MacDevitt has had no problems adjusting to his new surroundings.
“I love it here,” he says. “I’ve been really lucky to find one of the best dressing rooms I’ve been involved in. There’s a really good atmosphere and culture here that’s slightly different to back home.
“It’s a big change from London but it’s a beautiful place and the standard of living here is incredible.”
But exploring the island fully will have to wait as Southern ramp up pre-season preparations with their first league game of the season coming up this weekend.
“Pre-season has been tough! We have been doing eight or nine sessions a week with double sessions on a Tuesday or Wednesday – gym in the mornings then training in the afternoon.
“I was lucky enough to do a degree in journalism that the PFA helped with so I also help the club and federation with some media stuff along with training.”
MacDevitt’s side are starting their campaign with an away match to Canterbury United this Sunday, a side who finished third in the league last season. It’ll be a tough start for the forward’s new side but they have ambitions of surpassing their performance from last season.
“The club had their best finish last year, finishing fifth, and by all accounts, we are hoping to be in as good if not better shape this year.
“Between us, the playoffs are the aim. Get into that top four and there are opportunities to qualify for some big competitions. Finishing in the top four would be fantastic for the club.”
The competitions the 23-year-old is hinting to are the OFC Champions League and FIFA’s showpiece tournament, the Club World Cup. The winners of the regular season and the winners of the playoffs in New Zealand both qualify for the continental tournament. Last year, the OFC tournament was won by Team Wellington who will now be competing in the Club World Cup in the UAE in December, the same tournament Real Madrid have won in the past two seasons.
For Southern to reach Wellington’s heights will be tough. Since the New Zealand Premiership was formed in 2004, only Auckland City and Waitakere United have won the regular season title, with Wellington the only team to win the playoffs, other than the two aforementioned sides.
With his club’s league campaign beginning this weekend, there is still some adjustment to be made for MacDevitt.
“Obviously going into a new league is tough and a summer league where it’s going to be hot is going to be different to a cold Tuesday night.
“I think the toughest thing will be the travel. We are right down at the bottom and the furthest from all the teams so sometimes it will be two flights to get to games.
“The tempo in friendlies so far has been fast and strong and teams like to play. Some of the boys have said the top teams here are very strong and will keep the ball day.
“The heat will be a factor too. I’m not sure if it will be possible to make twenty runs one after another for 90 minutes, it might be about keeping the ball and picking the right time to hurt teams.”
The forward is also keen to stress that the football in the country should not be underestimated.
“In Auckland City, you’ve got a club who missed out on playing Real Madrid in the Club World Cup by one goal in the semi finals [back in 2014] so the standard shouldn’t be overlooked here. We’ve got international players and age group World Cup players in the Southern team.”
New Zealand has already made a big impact on the 23-year-old and he seems genuinely delighted to have found a new home. Despite that, the former Yeovil Town man has a long career ahead of him and he’s not ruling anything out yet.
“I’m really enjoying my time here and love New Zealand. I can see myself here for a while.
“But I’ve always said I would love to see as much of the world as possible and football is a great career to do that. If I could play in four or five countries at national league levels and in Premierships, I could look back and be proud of my career.”