Massimo Luongo has been groomed for great things since he was just a boy. We caught up with him in the UK for the January issue of Australian FourFourTwo magazine before he burst into the spotlight with the Socceroos at the Asian Cup, where he was named the player of the tournament!
Swindon Town manager Mark Cooper is living out his own personal Groundhog Day every Saturday afternoon in the west of England – and rising Socceroos star Massimo Luongo is the cause.
Whenever full-time blows, regardless of who his promotion-chasing side have just played – or the outcome of the match – every single opposition boss, to a man, tells him the same thing: Luongo is too good for League One.
“They’re like clockwork,” laughs Cooper, candidly. “They all say he’s way too good for this level by far, and they’re right.”
League One managers are starting to discover what Swindon fans, and Cooper himself, have been thinking since the young midfielder joined the club, firstly on loan as the 2012/13 season came to an end – extended to the end of the 2013/14 season – and then on a permanent basis from the start of the current campaign.
And this time around, the Sydney-born international appears to have taken his game to another level entirely.
Possibly inspired by his World Cup experience in Brazil, or perhaps in the knowledge that scouts from higher divisions are beginning to form an orderly queue at the County Ground, Luongo is the most consistent performer in the Swindon side.
And he’s getting better all the time.
In his first two spells with the Wiltshire club, Luongo displayed flashes of brilliance and oozed class, but also showed signs of inconsistency and inexperience.
Take May 2013, for example, when he quickly learned the harsh realities of competitive football. After scoring the opening goal of a play-off semi-final first leg against Brentford, an impressive finish from 20 yards with the game on a knife-edge, he gave away the penalty that saw the Bees level in the dying moments.
Fast forward to 2013/14 and star performances – he scored a belter against Port Vale, another with a cross-come-shot against Crewe, and dominated as Swindon knocked out of the League Cup by Championship league leaders QPR at Loftus Road – were sandwiched by a sprinkling of profligacy. When he was good, he was unplayable, but when he wasn’t firing on all cylinders, games could pass him by.
“He has that ability to drive into the box and play a killer pass. He’s always looking for holes and if he finds them it’s game over.”
Not any more. Now, Cooper knows he can expect energy and creativity every week, home and away and at either end of the pitch, and any fears the Swindon supremo might have had about post-World Cup burnout were quashed inside three minutes.
His smart finish from team-mate Nathan Byrne’s cutback suggested Luongo had returned hungrier than ever and with the desire to add more goals to his armoury. The 22 year old is yet to add to his tally (at the time of writing), but he continues to be Swindon’s orchestrator in chief, with three assists and many more incisive passes.
Even when not victorious – Swindon dropped points against Oldham, Yeovil and Rochdale in September – Luongo still shone despite opposing teams trying to stifle Swindon’s unique passing approach; a lone ranger pickpocketing defences with perfectly weighted through balls.
Not all of them come to fruition, but his ability is such that he lifts bums off seats in anticipation. Moreover, he appears to have developed what local Swindon Link Sport journalist Sam Morshead describes as “a telepathic understanding” with some of his Robins teammates.
“His link-up play is remarkable, particularly with Byrne,” says Morshead. “It’s hard to pinpoint specific individual moments of brilliance because he’s so consistent at a very high level.”
Cooper agrees: “His greatest strength is attacking the right areas. He has that ability to drive into the box and play a killer pass. He’s always looking for holes and if he finds them, it’s game over.
“He’s also good with the ball in tight areas, probably the best I’ve seen. He can wriggle his way out of any situation. Sometimes he’ll twist and turn and you don’t know how he’s managed it.”
Arguably Swindon’s greatest success this season has been their ability to keep Luongo. A host of Championship clubs courted his services in the summer, including Rotherham United and Wigan Athletic, and with his increasing experience at international level, there’s a growing feeling he could move at the end of the season.
The question is, how did A-League clubs and teams from a higher level miss out on securing his services at an early stage?
Luongo’s journey begins in Sydney. “I always loved football,” he explains. “I played other sports at school, of course, but my mum and dad pushed me more towards soccer. My dad grew up in a poor part of town back in Italy and he would play football on the streets. He loved the game, so was always keen for me to try to succeed.”
David Magrone, his coach from an early age and now his agent, influenced Luongo. “We trained every morning before school together - that was a big factor in my development,” says Luongo. Magrone was his coach at St George Saints and Apia Leichhardt in Sydney. After spotting his potential, Magrone hatched big plans...
“When you’re growing up in Australia and keen to succeed in soccer, there are two routes,” Luongo explains. “You can develop via the Australian Institute of Sport, which is the biggest stage you can reach as a youngster and which gives players a more natural path into the A-League.
“When I was playing, I had offers to play at youth level for some of the A-League teams, but my coach (Magrone) wanted me to continue playing state level at higher age groups. He felt that if I was patient I could find a quicker development path. Then, when I was 17, he got me a trial at Spurs.”
Luongo headed to the north London giants, but while Magrone managed to open the door in England, the hard work was just beginning.
“Coming to England was difficult,” explains Luongo. “There weren’t many foreign players in the Spurs youth team at that stage. In fact, the only other guy was Scottish! Away from the pitch I was in digs by myself. At the weekends I didn’t really know what to do, so the first ten months were really hard.”
Luongo impressed and enjoyed a spell of games for the U18s in 2010/11. In September 2011 he made his first-team debut, coming on as a 71st-minute substitute for Sandro against Stoke City in the League Cup. He impressed in his cameo role and was later commended by both Harry Redknapp and Tony Pulis for taking a penalty, even though he missed the decisive spot kick in a 7-6-shootout thriller.
The Australian was sent on loan to Championship side Ipswich Town at the beginning of 2012/13. However, with manager Chris Hutchings sacked as a result of the club’s poor start to the season, Luongo’s spell was cut short in November.
Four months later, he joined a Swindon side eyeing automatic promotion under new boss Kevin McDonald and then assistant Cooper.
“Straight away you could tell he had been given an exceptional grasp of the basics,” explains Cooper. “He had some very good teachers at Spurs learning under Chris Ramsey, Les Ferdinand and Tim Sherwood, and because we took on a couple of the boys who grew up playing together (Luongo joined alongside fellow Tottenham youngsters Dean Parrett and Nathan Byrne), they had an incredible understanding.
“We knew he had been out on loan before and for whatever reason, it didn’t really work out for him, but his style of football was and is ideally suited to the way we play at Swindon, which is to get the ball down, attack with pace and pass and move.”
Luongo was quickly thrust into the Swindon side and despite not winning any of his first four matches – he would have been forgiven for thinking he was an unlucky omen – he quickly settled into the heart of the Robins’ engine room.
“Moving to Swindon has proved to be an excellent decision for me. In my first full season I played 53 games, which isn’t something I would be saying if I had stayed at Spurs.”
“Going on loan can be a difficult experience,” explains Luongo. “When I went to Ipswich I hadn’t played in front of a big crowd before and the team was struggling. The club was down at the bottom of the table and the manager was sacked. That’s really hard for a loan player to experience, but ultimately I knew I’d be going back to Spurs.
“Joining Swindon was a complete 360 because the team was going for promotion and that experience changed my perception of the whole loan experience. Because of the young nature of the team, I was immediately closer to the players and I could see what it meant to them.
“I might only have been there for a short period, but I knew they’d been working towards promotion all season.
“Now that I’ve joined the club on a permanent basis I can now see when some of our loan players’ hearts aren’t in it. This is our livelihood, so I’ll always try and get across what it means to us for anyone coming in. We’re a tight group.
“The average age is probably one of the biggest factors. There isn’t anyone over the age of 24 and we all share similar hobbies and interests. We all have the same goals and because none of us are from the Swindon area, we spend a lot of time together away from the club.”
Ultimately, Town fell short in the play-offs in Luongo’s first season and missed out on the top six in his second, but his form was such that he caught the eye of Australia head coach Ange Postecoglou. After training with the national team at their European camp, Luongo made his debut in London during a 4-3 defeat against Ecuador in March.
“My first experience training with the national team was intense,” he explains. “Getting the call up in the build up to the World Cup was interesting because everyone was so desperate to get into that final squad.
“Everyone was trying to prove themselves and that meant the intensity was through the roof. At Swindon, a lot of the training sessions can be low in intensity because there are so many games.
“You end up working more on shape or recovery, but this was something else. Ange and rest of the Australian coaching staff were definitely trying to create that intensity and I think I adapted quickly, but it was a real eye opener.”
Luongo relished his first taste of international football and recalled the tutelage of Lagrone to tweak his game in an attempt to secure an unlikely spot in Postecoglou’s 23-man World Cup squad.
Magrone compiled videos of Luongo in action and pointed out that he was sometimes guilty of being rushed in possession. He suggested Luongo try to turn players and be more adventurous.
It worked, of course, and he became only the third player in Swindon Town’s history to represent their country at football’s top table (after Jan Aage Fjortoft and Alan McLoughlin).
He featured in some of Australia’s warm-up games, most notably against a local Brazilian club, and while he didn’t get any game time against Chile, Spain or Holland, he has obviously learned from the experience.
“When he came back from the World Cup it was a seamless transition. We needn’t have worried about him being tired, he scored our first goal of the season and has been one of the standout performers ever since.”
He has subsequently come off the bench against Belgium and more recently, in September, he impressed against Saudi Arabia in his first full match. He enjoyed a number of forays into the opposing and set up one goal for Cahill before coming off after 77 minutes.
“He looks really assured and comfortable and I can see him really growing as an international footballer,” said Postecoglou after the 3-2 win. “We’ve just got to keep giving him opportunities – I think he can be a really good player for us.”
Not only that, but he returned to England a more confident player.
“I can only benefit from training with world-class players,” Luongo continues. “Mark Bresciano, Tim Cahill and Mile Jedinak are all world class and when you’re training with them you can get found out pretty quickly. They train at such a high intensity and treat every session as if it’s their last.
“Watching the World Cup matches from the sidelines was another experience entirely. I really wanted to experience one game just to see how good I really am at first hand.
“When you see you’re up against teams like Holland and Spain, it’s easy to think you’re going to get massacred, but we proved we’re not that far away as a nation and as a group of players.”
Australia’s development is increasingly likely to be placed in the hands of players like Luongo, particularly in the Asia Cup next month, but for now he is simply hoping to help his side win promotion from League One.
“Swindon are a decent side,” Luongo explains. “Last year many people wrote us off because there were a lot of new players and people weren’t sure what style we’d play. It’s the same this season.
“Some people didn’t know how we’d play or if we could continue the passing style that almost got us into the play-offs, but we’ve shown we’re a very good team.
“Moving to Swindon has proved to be an excellent decision for me. In my first full season I played 53 games, which isn’t something I would be saying if I had stayed at Spurs. Swindon have given many young players a chance to play and even though it was a tough decision (to leave Tottenham), it was the right one.”
And it’s not just the number of games he’s playing, but also the quality of coaching.
“The coaches here say you’re never wrong. Things might need working on, but we’re never wrong. We’re encouraged to try things.
“I personally think he can play at the highest possible level. He can do everything. I watch some Premiership matches and think all of my midfielders can play at that level, but Mass’s technical ability, his ability to run with the ball and his general understanding of the game are exceptional.”
“I used to be a box-to-box player but Swindon see my strength as more of an attacking player. When I went to Spurs I found it hard to excel in the no.10 role. The coaches moved me back to a holding midfielder and the only thing I could do was tackle and put myself about.
“Here at Swindon I still like to combine both roles but I like to try and influence the game going forward as much as possible.”
Cooper adds: “Massimo is exceptional and he’s really blossoming this season. He has very high standards and expects everyone to compete at the same level and in that way he polices the dressing room for us.”
The hardest thing for Cooper, it seems, is managing Luongo’s schedule around his growing presence on the international stage.
“He’s fit for his schedule, but then he has to be,” responds Cooper. “When he came back from the World Cup it was a seamless transition. We needn’t have worried about him being tired, he scored our first goal of the season and has been one of the standout performers ever since. He has been tired in patches around international matches, but it’s our job to manage that, not his.”
Cooper’s second challenge is to keep Luongo away from the clutches of a growing number of admirers. “Will we miss Mass in January (if he plays for Australia)? Absolutely. We‘ll lose him for a few games and that’s unfortunate for us, but footballers have short careers and we want the best for him.
“We want him to play at the highest level, so if that means international football and a subsequent move (to a higher level) then so be it. I hope we can take him to the Championship, but if we sell him for a couple of million, we’ve done our job.”
Perhaps most encouraging for would-be suitors, is that Cooper and Magrone believe he can get even better.
“Of course he can improve further,” says Cooper. “He’s still young and he knows what his weaknesses are. There aren’t many, to be fair, but he knows he’s switched off defensively at times. He works his socks off in training. He’s the kind of player who just gets his head down.
“I think he can play at the highest level. He can do everything. I watch some Premiership matches and think all of my midfielders can play (at that level), but Mass’s technical ability, his ability to run with the ball and his general understanding of the game are exceptional.”
Magrone adds: “The final piece is to become a double-figures goalscorer. He certainly has that capacity. He can play as a No.10 or as a holding midfielder. He’s the engine to do it.”
So, can Luongo see himself playing Premier League football?
“Eventually I want to play at the highest level in England but I’m patient. I feel I’m doing the right things.
“I’ve been playing well for Swindon and if I can keep getting the call-ups to the national team then I think I’ll get there.
“When you hear other clubs are interested [in you] it can be a distraction and at a club like ours, with so many young players, you know there’s always going to be someone watching. I try not to worry about it. I’m happy where I am.
“It’s been a decent season so far. I wanted to be involved in more goals and while I haven’t scored as many as I would have liked, I’ve been involved in more assists and build-up play. The main thing for me is to keep playing, performing and staying patient.”
And if Groundhog Day taught us anything, it’s that the best things come to those who wait... but we may not have to wait much longer to see him hit new heights.