It may have been four years in the making but Kaine Sheppard’s dream of securing an A-League contract finally came true in September when he was offered a one-year deal by Newcastle Jets. It was a journey which had taken him through the regional leagues and as well as jobs as varied as a gym receptionist and delivery driver. It even included queuing up for financial help from the state.
But that all seemed a long way away after the 25-year-old scored his first A-League goal earlier this month.
“A-league teams have always been around and looking [at me] but I was fortunate that Newcastle took a punt on me and offered me a trial,” he says. “I played in a game and scored a goal, then was offered my contract in the A-league which had been my goal since arriving in Australia.”
Sheppard had had a solid career in England previous to his first taste of football in Australia four years ago. Having started at Leyton Orient, he went on to make over 70 appearances across the National League and National League North/South for the likes of Braintree Town and Histon. It was a period of his career which laid solid foundations for what was to come.
“Playing in the Conference was a great experience; playing against experienced grown men. I had a great trial period in pre-season [with Braintree] scoring eight goals in eight games gaining a contract. At the time I was only 18 and had to really grow up fast and learn lots quickly so I didn’t get bullied.
“I scored on my debut, which was a great feeling, playing more games after that and definitely learned a lot. It’s a lot different to youth team football, a lot more physical and a lot more on the line in terms of points and getting paid.”
But there would come a time a few years later when the young forward wanted more than the National League could offer and off the back of a full season with Histon, his family roots would pave the way to a new opportunity for him.
“I was playing at Histon in the Conference North and at the time I wasn’t really enjoying my football,” he says. “I had access to my Australian Passport because my mum was born there and I asked my agent if he had any contacts and any clubs looking for a striker.
“Luckily for me Heidelberg United were interested and within five days of me finding out, they wanted me I left and played my first game. At first when I arrived I was very nervous as I didn’t know anyone or anything in Melbourne but the longer I stayed the more I enjoyed it.”
Sheppard’s first club abroad would be Heidelberg United, a team a based in the suburbs of Melbourne who competed in the National Premier League Victoria, the second tier of Australian football.
His time at the club was a big success on a personal front. Regular football meant the goals were flowing for the former Leyton Orient youngster and he fired 20 goals during his two year spell at the club. However, the second tier of football in Australia is only semi-professional which meant the talented forward would have to find work elsewhere as well. This would lead to one his lowest moments whilst playing abroad.
“I have had a few jobs [in Australia] and was unfortunate with injury so needed to work. I did painting, football coaching for kids and worked on a gym reception. I also worked for Harvey Norman delivering fridges, washing machines among other things.
“It even got to one point where I was struggling a lot I went to Centrelink, which is basically like benefits in England. I remember standing in the line and then walking out.
“It was a very tough time that I had to get through.”
However, the forward continued to peruse his dream of a professional deal and after a short spell with league rivals Avondale at the start of 2017, he secured a move back to Europe and his first taste of top flight football would soon follow.
“Moving to Finland was a big decision. I knew the assistant coach and they were after a striker and said I could trial. I paid for my own flight and trained for two weeks.”
Sheppard’s faith in his ability saw him pay his own way to Finnish club SJK. The Veikkausliiga side have recruited several Englishmen in recent years and the Wellingborough-born man would be the latest to join after impressing on trial.
“I gained a contract, settled in well and learned a lot,” he says. “Unfortunately, I did not play as much as I would have liked but learnt a lot to bring back to Australia with.
“I had to change something which was my mindset and that has changed my whole career.”
He managed seven appearances, five of which were starts before he returned to Australia where a familiar face would be there to greet him. Zoran Makovski had been assistant manager at Avondale during the English forward’s first spell at the club but a year on, he was now in charge and was keen to bring Sheppard back to Melbourne.
“Zoran brought me back to the team and I came back a changed man from Finland, I just wanted to score goals and win.
And score goals he did. He fired a remarkable 20 goals in 26 games this year for Avondale as they reached the final of the grand final of National Premier League Victoria and also reached the quarter-finals of the FFA Cup, their equivalent of the FA Cup, before losing to A-League side Sydney in extra time. In all, it was a remarkable season for Sheppard who was no longer looking over his shoulder at the Centrelink queue but into a future of professional football.
The subsequent trial and contract from Newcastle Jets followed and he has made an instant impact, scoring once and providing two assists in eight appearances.
“I am very happy to have signed with the Newcastle Jets. The club have been fantastic with me and the players very welcoming. They have great experienced players that I can learn a lot off, being back in a full time environment again at a great level.
“My goals for the season are to play as many games as possible and help the team achieve something and score goals. [I want to] push myself as far as I can go and test myself.”
He now has back-to-back league starts and you’ll be able to see a lot of the former delivery driver on your TVs with BT Sport broadcasting most A-League matches on weekend mornings.
This is just the beginning of the 25-year-old’s A-League adventure and he doesn’t intend on it ending any time soon.