At home with Team Smeltz
The inception of Gold Coast United was a thrilling time...
The level of hype surrounding an A-League club was something that most of its signed players had never experienced in Australia - and the excitement wildly ran through all the football families involved. Talk of private jets, waterfront training grounds, and first class player and family treatment were just some of the perks of being the players in billionaire Clive Palmer's own unique game of football, and everyone was up for the ride.
I first met Shane and Nikki at one of the many family days held in pre- season, where wives would mingle, kids would play and the boys would bond. Shane was one of the key star signings - having just come off an exceptional year at Wellington Phoenix where he scooped up the three most coveted awards of the league - the Johnny Warren Medal, Golden Boot and Goal of the Year awards.
The hypefest that was Gold Coast United meant the club - and its high profile players - received huge attention from the media and club officials. Not only did coach Miron Bleiberg regularly refer to the in-demand striker as his "son" in the change room but it was well known that Clive Palmer had accommodated Shane and his family in a magnificent Sovereign Islands mansion as part of his contract at the fledgling club.
I always believed in Shane and I knew it was only a matter of time before he would show the world what I saw in him
What was fundamentally clear was that "Smeltzy" or "Smeggas" had arrived on the Gold Coast as Football Royalty.
But rewind just four years and you would see Shane and Nikki, then both 23, sitting in Adelaide Parklands contemplating their uncertain future.
"I had just been told by John Kosmina that I wasn't getting re-signed at Adelaide United and of course, while I had held out a bit of hope, I wasn't entirely surprised," revealed Shane.
"I hadn't played all year. So we were pretty much left with a mortgage on our first home and no clue on what to do next."
It was then that they had decided they were going to go to the UK to try their luck and were hopeful it wouldn't be long before Shane found a team.
"We had nothing to losem," Nikki says. "I always believed in Shane and I knew it was only a matter of time before he would show the world what I saw in him."
Shortly after, Shane jumped on a plane to England with no team, no home to go to and no income. It is clear from the way he recounts the story that Nikki's support was part of the inspiration to keep going - that they were in this together, no matter where it led.
"Nikki's support never wavered," said Shane. "She got a job as a Flight Attendant for Qantas in the early weeks of being in England so for a while there she was the only one with an income. "
The next three years saw Shane move between four teams in the UK lower leagues where their English adventure would continue until they went back to Australia to get married. And when a beautiful, minimal fuss wedding was shortly followed by news that a baby was on the way - they decided it was time to come back home permanently.
"I had heard that Wellington was starting an A-League franchise and I knew immediately that's where I wanted to be. Even though I was an All White, I still wasn't really a starting player - so my early discussions with Ricky (Herbert) hadn't led to much."
Shortly after coming back to Australia, they found themselves again contemplating their uncertain future. Nikki was by then in the late stages of pregnancy and Shane was still without a contract. He even made a few phone calls to A-League coaches directly to plead his case.
"I called a few coaches desperate for a chance but wasn't even considered because I was a foreigner," he said. "It was around this time when Nikki and I realised we had to possibly contemplate doing something else, and so I looked into becoming a police officer.
"And then I got the phone call that changed my life."
It was Ricki Herbert on the line. There was an International game against Wales and he wanted Shane to head over as part of the starting line up.
"There were a number of players in the All Whites that were unavailable. He asked me to go over and indicated that this was my chance to win myself a Wellington Phoenix contract. Nikki was 35 weeks pregnant and I was still uncontracted - I knew this was my chance. And so I went."
Shane went on to score both goals that saw the All Whites draw with Wales - a team that included Ryan Giggs - almost scoring a hat trick in the 72nd minute.
I just had this feeling of wanting to do well for my kids - you only feel it when you have had them
It was the game that sealed the future of Shane Smeltz - and just as his daughter Bonnie was born, the Smeltzes were off to Wellington.
While Shane was playing his best football in his career, living in Wellington was challenging for Nikki.
"I was a brand new Mum with no one around to help me or even just to hang out with," she admitted. "There weren't any other families in the team so it was a difficult and lonely time. "
But she got on with it - there isn't really a choice. While the life of a football family is often fun, exciting and spontaneous, as a partner you are often alone - for weekends, weeks and occasionally months on end.
"I was really missing going to Shane's games so I arranged for Mum to look after Bonnie for the first time and went to Melbourne for an away game. And after Shane and I had dinner one night, I felt a familiar queasy feeling in my belly and knew immediately - I was pregnant."
As the two recounted the story, they look at each other knowingly and crack up laughing. Shane and Nikki both recollect what he said at the time and they say in unison, "Holy sh*t! I need a new contract"
Twelves goals and three big awards later, the Smeltzes were off to the Queensland sunshine, with Shane now a different kind of player - no longer desperate but accomplished and sought after.
Both turning points in Shane's career materialised around the time when Nikki was pregnant, the first with Bonnie, now 6, and Scarlett, now 5.
He added: "I just had this feeling of wanting to do well for my kids - you only feel it when you have had them. I felt my focus had shifted when Bonnie came into our lives. I knew I had to do great for them.
"It was a no brainer to sign with Gold Coast United. It was home for us - and travelling to different parts of the world only made that clearer.
"The lifestyle, the beaches, the weather, the feeling we have when we are here. We know one day, when its all over we will live here with our family".
And while Gold Coast residents would be happy he didn't bring the weather from Wellington with him, what he did bring was his incredible form, at one time scoring eight goals in five games. But offers came and it became almost impossible to stay.
"I had a few lucrative offers, some I considered, others I rejected right off the bat. There's always a checklist involved when looking at opportunities abroad, and its obviously not just money."
A move to China that didn't eventuate led to Shane coming back to the Gold Coast where Clive Palmer welcomed him back with open arms. This return was short lived and when opportunity came knocking - again - we saw the Smeltz family en route to Turkey.
"Turkey was not at all what I expected", Nikki explained. "I know there is poverty everywhere but I just didn't expect it to be so blatant in Ankara. There is a big class divide - you either have it and flaunt it, or have nothing - and I mean nothing - at all
"The driving is absolutely insane! I actually refused to drive until Shane said one day 'Well Nik you are going to have to learn to drive or stay in the apartment all day' and so I learnt. But I was always terrified!"
I once woke Shane in the middle of the night panicking that my little blonde haired girls would get kidnapped!
Football families have to do a lot of adjusting. Kids have to leave schools and friends they love and adapt to ever-changing surroundings. For adults you have to ensure your kids are happy and safe and feel as much as home as possible - even if you are on the other side of the world.
"It was important to us that the girls went to Kindy - they missed their school on the Gold Coast and we wanted to find a good one so they can go and mingle and be with other kids. But the tricky thing was to get there!"
A few manic drives later, Nikki found out about the "Kindy Bus" where a private bus would take the girls to Kindy and back and it meant that she didn't have to drive the girls herself.
"They loved it. They loved the bus and the school. But of course being in a foreign country meant I did feel out of my comfort zone - I once woke Shane in the middle of the night panicking that perhaps my little blonde haired girls would get kidnapped!" she laughed. "But we got over it and they were fine and had the best time."
The Culture Shock in Turkey was not only limited to off the field though - including a gruesome ritual sacrifice to bring good luck.
Shane revealed "I had been at the team for about a month and they weren't doing so great.
"I came to training as usual and started kicking the ball around when I saw a goat tied up against a fence with a few older Turkish men near it, digging a hole.
"We got called into a huddle and without warning saw the goat's throat being slit with the blood flowing into the hole.
"I was then told they were sacrificing the goat to bring us luck and before you knew it, other Turkish players were touching the flow of the blood and rubbing their foreheads and their boots for good luck.
"All the foreigners were stunned. But this is their world - this is their culture. You have to accept other culture's beliefs and get on with it. I was there to focus on my football."
Shane and Nikki loved the idea of moving to Perth - it presented a lifestyle not dissimilar to the Gold Coast.
"From a football perspective, Perth Glory had their sights set at achieving the heights they did in the NSL and I wanted to help them get there. It was a great challenge for me, and it was a beautiful place to bring the family."
Shane's first year at Perth saw him win the club's Golden Boot award, with the second year being somewhat marred with injury.
"The last year has been a bit tough injury and health wise. I've just had keyhole surgery in my hip and I was recently diagnosed with Stage 1 melanoma when they found a suspicious mole on my leg."
Nikki adds that earliest stage is zero: "We got it at a good time, but still, it was frightening. We are still waiting on tests just to confirm they got it all and it hasn't spread but so far so good. Fingers crossed."
While Shane Smeltz still remains one of Australia's most in-demand strikers, it hasn't been an easy road and he stays grounded because of what it took to get him where he is.
"Coming through the ranks was difficult for me - I had to earn my place and I haven't forgotten it," he said. "Often players today are put on a pedestal from a young age and you notice it in their attitudes.
"The lows for me have made the highs feel so great and I always remind myself to never get too comfortable.
"One day the beautiful rollercoaster of football will end, so we have started planning"
We got called into a huddle and without warning saw the goat's throat being slit with the blood flowing into the hole.
Take it from experience - while most days you appreciate the great gift of being part of a sporting family, there are others where the erratic hours can get to you - as a partner, as a mother, as a family.
A more "normal "job would mean you could give birth whenever your child felt like entering the world, you could plan birthday's and holidays, and you could get mortgages within your means knowing that your income will probably not significantly change in a few years.
And while Shane and Nikki know that while things are pretty cruisey now, they are well aware it's not forever.
"I'm doing my B-Licence now because football is at the moment the most important thing to me professionally and I'd love to be involved in other capacities down the track," added Shane. "But as a family, we also have plans for the future."
The family could soon move into the property market too, with Shane's family remaining on the Gold Coast while he plays in Perth.
"I have always loved real estate," said Nikki. "We have bought and sold our own properties, loved investing and selling. We want to inject freshness in the industry - give it a more modern vibe.
"And we both thought now would be a great time to complete our licences and start a business on the Gold Coast.
"I have decided to stay on the Gold Coast with the girls. It was a long and arduous decision - literally months of changing my mind every day.
"But it was an opportunity I couldn't pass up. Both the girls are in school now and I felt it was time to do something for myself and my family.
"I had been Mrs Smeltz for so long, I had been in and out of university five times but the constant re-locating just wasn't giving me enough stability to do something on my own.
"I finally feel like I am at a place where I can put my energies into a business - and real estate is a great game.
"I always told Shane that one day he would score at the World Cup.
"And he would say to me 'Yeah right, Nik, whatever.' And I remember when I watched him score that goal, I immediately burst into tears and thought I cannot wait to get him on the phone to tell him "I told you so!"
Shane added: "She did. She was always my biggest supporter. She always believed in me. If anyone came to the crossroads when it got a bit hard, it was me."
And what did that goal mean to him?
"Obviously its every footballers dream to score at the World Cup - for me, it was the icing on the cake. Without question, my career highlight, an unforgettable experience."
And they got there, as Team Smeltz.