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Long-range love story – Pieces in place for new Sutton United stopper Dean Bouzanis

Melbourne City FC

Sutton United announced the addition of Dean Bouzanis earlier this month, and after a career so far for the Aussie goalkeeper encompassing many thousands of miles, plus no lack of compromise, this move comes with some vital boxes ticked, both professionally and personally.

“At Melbourne City, I was the lad that had to tap the glass and get the singers going,” explains the new international addition to Sutton’s goalkeeping ranks. “I’m actually ready to sing when I have to do my initiation at Sutton, that’s for sure; I’ve done plenty of them, so I’m experienced in that area.”

“The one that is a go-to for me is ‘Follow Me’ by Uncle Kracker, but I’ve mixed it up, I’ve sang a bit of Spice Girls and all sorts of stuff to get the mood going.”

The years so far have brought ample opportunity for the one-time Liverpool youngster to fine-tune his efforts when it comes to football’s infamous introductory nerve-shredder for new players. The 29-year-old has enjoyed a four-country club career to date, even representing two national teams (at different age groups) along the way.

Like so many of his footballing compatriots from Down Under, the Aussie-Greek stopper left home for Europe as a teenager to start the climb as a professional, though Liverpool is quite the prestigious rung on the ladder to start from. While far from what would qualify as a bona fide ‘journeyman’ in football terms, the ex-Oldham Athletic man arrives at Sutton with firsthand experience of the club game in England, Australia, Greece and the Netherlands.

His career has been one long-distance love story, but then there is also that he shares with girlfriend and fellow professional player Steph Catley. The versatile Australian international was among the stellar names to arrive in the FA Women’s Super League recently as part of an Aussie-dominated and continuing overseas influx.

With the 26-year-old joining Arsenal Women, the Sutton switch for Dean was too good to miss once he heard the south London side’s plans, as he describes.

“Obviously being in this current Coronavirus situation, how it’s impacted everybody, for me it was very important, 29 years of age and being with Steph now for four years – we’ve done three years long distance – if we could be close to each other, it would be ideal for the both of us. I had interest from a couple of clubs in Germany, at a higher level, but nothing concrete then actually came through, and then once Sutton United approached me, and the manager Matt Gray spoke to me, I was 100 per cent interested straight away.

“The way the gaffer spoke about the club, the way he wants to play his football and the ambition that he has, it suited me nicely. I’ve always been an ambitious footballer, I’ve always put myself out there, and the gaffer’s young, he’s hungry and he wants to do well.

“He’s got a mentality that he spoke to me about of being hard to beat, and prides himself on defence and working hard for each other. I know a couple of players there who I’ve played against; Craig Eastmond, I’ve played against him in the FA Youth Cup final, and Wayne Brown actually came to Australia and played for Newcastle Jets, so I could see the quality that the team had.

“Speaking to the gaffer, we believe we can do something special and surprise a few people this year.”

Just prior to our conversation, Dean had returned from a trip to the bookshop with Steph having bought Steven Gerrard’s autobiography, with Steph’s journey to San Sebastián for Arsenal’s Champions League quarter-final with Paris Saint-Germain meaning some extra hours for him to fill. He also cited his status as a big Liverpool fan for that particular choice of purchase, although not too many Reds supporters around the globe have actually experienced joining the club.

Even fewer, it’s fair to say, have done so having just started Year 11 at school, and as is routinely referred to when Dean’s backstory is mentioned, subsequently been called ‘the best goalkeeper in the world for his age’ by Rafa Benítez. Teenage recognition is every bit a part of Steph’s career too, with the Melbourne native capped by Australia’s Matildas at 18.

Like a clutch of her national team colleagues of a similar age, she is by now a long-established name in women’s football after that early elevation to international football. At club level, the Matildas vice-captain has split the last few years between the US and Australia’s domestic seasons, with the latter often the favoured destination for US-based players looking to continue playing the year round.

With Dean and Steph representing Melbourne City’s respective A-League and W-League sides in recent years, they have had opportunities to be reunited when the schedules have fallen their way. Typically, though, those times are considerably more sparse, as Dean explains.

“Last season was the best one out of the three-and-a-half that we’ve been together, because we got eight months together, because Steph came home for the W-League. Then due to the circumstances, football back in America didn’t start up, so she stayed home for longer than expected.

“Before that, it was difficult; I was in Holland and I think I saw her two or three times through the year. The first two years, she would go to America for seven months and come home for the rest.

“I’d probably see her about half of the year, on and off.”

His loan spell with top-flight Dutch side PEC Zwolle led into last summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup, where Dean was able to join the Catley support in France. The Matildas were strongly tipped as one of the precious few teams who could quite conceivably challenge the US for the trophy, though it wasn’t to be.

The Aussies’ last-16 tie with Norway went the distance, and ultimately, the Scandinavians’ way in the shootout (Steph the sole Matildas scorer). For Dean, the tournament meant not just rooting for your country to excel on the biggest stage but willing a loved one to prosper at the same time.

For someone who was thrust into life at a global powerhouse of a club at a young age, with some high-stakes cup encounters along the way in his 13-year career since, how did the nerves compare when he could suddenly no longer affect the outcome?

“Being there and watching her, I know how good she is and the professional she is, so there was nerves and then there wasn’t nerves, it was a weird feeling. You want them to win so much, you know how hard she’s worked to get there and you know she’s prepared, but there were definitely times when there were nerves, because you just want them to do well and progress.

“I was in Holland for that season and I was there for the first three games (of the World Cup) because I had to be recalled to Melbourne City and start pre-season.”

A football career is a life on tour, where the only true constant is change, and you just hope for the bandmates you can feel enough chemistry with and a manager who won’t ruin the show before it starts! As a professional performer, blocking out distraction becomes somewhat pivotal, but the person behind that laser-focused, poker-faced competitor is the one who has to take the hardest hits along the way.

The Liverpool move for Dean was the opportunity of a lifetime – ‘unbelievable’ he said at the time, as a starry-eyed 16-year-old blown away by the sudden avalanche of interest – but what about the human side of a young Cronulla kid packing up to head over 10,000 miles away from home?

“I signed at Liverpool but then went back on loan to Sydney FC for six months to try and finish my last year of school. Then once I flew back to England, it was on my own.

“It was difficult at the time because I was so young, I was 16, I was leaving friends, family, but I knew I had a job to do and I might never get this opportunity again. So as hard as it was, it was a privilege to go to such a big club and do what I love most.

“The first year, I was with a host family, then once I turned 17, I got an apartment in Liverpool. It was good but it had its pros and cons, because I had to grow up quickly, I had to pay bills and do all that stuff.

“It became a bit lonely, missing family, homesickness etc.”

A loan spell at Accrington Stanley while still a teenager meant an authentic slab of League Two life; nothing quite says ‘no airs and graces’ like having to wash your own kit. A little older, and a league higher, his 2011 move to Oldham Athletic after leaving Liverpool brought the same sense of grounded North West reality as the Stanley stint, but with some unforgettable flashes of the limelight to fall the Latics’ way.

Still relatively new to the club, Dean was on the bench at Anfield when Oldham took the lead through Robbie Simpson in their third round FA Cup clash with Liverpool in 2012, before going on to lose 5-1. The following season, though, they would meet again.

Having gone to Championship Nottingham Forest in round three and triumphed 3-2, Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool were the visitors to Boundary Park for the televised fourth round encounter, with Dean starting again. With Oldham struggling in the third tier that season, and Paul Dickov losing a number of his staff weeks before the game, the Latics overcame Luis Suárez (a goalscorer on the day), Steven Gerrard, Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and company. A Matt Smith double and one from Reece Wabara were ultimately enough, despite a late consolation from Joe Allen, for a memorable Sunday in OL1.

Frontman Smith would grab a 95th-minute equaliser to earn a 2-2 draw and a replay with Everton in round five. The run ended with that replay (3-1 to Everton) but the memories of Dean’s Oldham spell come to the fore as he’s asked of the most enjoyable, most complete time he has had in his career to date.

“Obviously signing for Liverpool was massive for me and being in that environment, but playing first-team football, I can say Oldham Athletic. I had two fantastic years there, we went on a fantastic FA Cup run, we beat Nottingham Forest, Liverpool, and then drew Everton in the fifth round, where we earned a draw and played at Goodison in the replay.

“That was a highlight of my career, playing 60-odd games there, so that’s what stands out for me.”

Internationally, meanwhile, he has represented both Australia (U17-23) and Greece (U19), ultimately committing to the Socceroos. For Dean, whose younger brother and fellow keeper Anthony was called up for Paul Okon’s Young Socceroos at the 2013 FIFA U20 World Cup, making a choice was a multi-layered dilemma in his early career.

“Yeah, it was difficult, because I was born in Australia but my grandparents don’t even speak English, they just speak Greek. My mother and father were young when they came to Australia, but Australia gave me everything, so it was a difficult decision.

“I’ve only been on the bench for the Australian national team but I’ve played in the Under-20s and 23s, and the Under-19s for Greece. It’s a very hard decision; I ended up choosing Australia at the time, but they’re both close to home.”

The current boss of Euro 2004 winners Greece actually ranks as the manager Dean feels he has learned the most from. He recalls a ‘fantastic relationship’ with the ex-Dutch international in question during their time at Melbourne City.

“John van 't Schip, and Michael Valkanis, who’s the assistant, they were my manager and assistant coach when we won the FFA Cup. They had a brilliant style of play and their detail in their structure and how they wanted to do things was fantastic.

“They’re two that I hold in very high regard.”

On the subject of that FFA Cup win, a 1-0 over Sydney FC in November 2016, the man who headed (does that give it away?) the winner that night came up when Dean was asked here about criticism of goalkeepers from pundits, many of whom haven’t played the position themselves.

“The only thing that sticks in my mind was when (David) de Gea first came to the Premier League. I think the criticism was a bit harsh on de Gea, because he was young, he was still a bit raw.

“I’m actually a good friend of Tim Cahill’s, so with him getting into punditry, it’ll be interesting to see what he says. If he says something about goalkeepers that I disagree with, I’ll be the first one to tell him!”

Cahill’s pomp at Everton coincided with Rafa Benítez being in charge across Stanley Park. Having unequivocally hailed Dean’s talent and potential, but also being a manager somewhat renowned for keeping distance from players in terms of a personal rapport, what was the level of interaction Dean had with the Champions League winner?

“I dealt with Rafa quite a bit. He was the one that signed me and moved me from the reserves to the first-team changing room and gave me my first-team number, 43, after a year there.

“I can only speak very highly of Rafa; he gave me my opportunity and made my dream become a reality. The way he was tactically, I guess for me being a youngster and trying to learn every day, rather than being a senior pro who’s played x amount of games, it’s a bit different.

“I’m there just trying to learn and do everything he says, whereas the more senior pros are a bit more influential, so obviously their relationship would be a bit different.”

Dean tells of his preference for watching his games back and being self-analytical. However, that and just about every other fragment of professional routine was of course taken away for a sizeable chunk of this year, with only parts of what we recognise truly returning so far.

In the midst of lockdown, Dean and Steph got creative with videos on TikTok. He recalls the overall efforts to formulate some semblance of a productive routine in that time period.

“Being in Melbourne, it was difficult to see the family, but we had Steph’s family and I’m close with Steph’s brother. We had a bit of fun on TikTok – you had to keep occupied – we were training together, but with the restrictions, there’s only so much you can do.

“We watched a few Netflix documentaries but what we did was a few podcasts with people that we know. Obviously there was no football, so there was other content, and we jumped on a few podcasts and were talking about our experiences together and our careers.

"I also jumped on a few sessions with kids to help them in regards to their mindset and so forth.”

If ever there was a time to find solace in other interests, 2020 has certainly been that. Asked first about his previous involvement in a fashion brand, Dean shares some of his premier passions (away from marshalling defenders...).

“A couple of years ago, I was doing a thing with a few friends in regards to a clothing label called The Life of A, but being overseas, it became a bit difficult, so I put that on hold. I’m into real estate as well; my family’s in real estate and I’ve got a lot of friends in it, so I’ve just been picking their brains in regards to that for maybe after football.

“I like to play a bit of tennis in my downtime; I play a lot of tennis actually, so that’s a hobby of mine. A very good friend of mine, Harry Manaras, he’s connected in the tennis world, and we’ve come across Stefanos Tsitsipas (current number 6 in the world), he’s Greek and I’ve met him a few times.

“There’s an interest there, definitely, because I love my tennis.”

While Arsenal fans can most likely look forward to some Steph Catley surges down the left (Joe Montemurro’s tactical preferences depending), chief among the hopes for the new season for Dean is that Sutton will be strong beneficiaries of that mindset he alluded to. The circumstances are still far from familiar, but with a new season, comes the brilliance of possibility.

With the capital link to Steph’s club career, it is a move with undoubted convenience, but he is eager to make an impact down at Gander Green Lane and help The U’s on their way to an EFL he got personally acquainted with long ago. Will this keeper with an FA Cup past find himself in perfect sync with a club who might just know a thing or two themselves about making those sorts of headlines?

It may still be a few weeks out from Dean’s 30th birthday, but on the cusp of that milestone, what final wisdom does he have to impart here from his colourful path so far?

“I feel over the years with playing, and being in different cultures, every manager can give you something different. Not every manager plays the same style or does things the same, so one thing I’ve learned is if you pick something from each manager, or each goalkeeper coach, and you build different aspects of the goalkeeper you become, I think that’s very important.

“Rather than being a closed book to a manager that has a different idea to the way you play personally, because you can always learn from different people. For me, I’ve had a decent career, I’ve been around the world and experienced different things, so I’m happy with where I’m at.

“You form bonds through doing the right things and being a professional, and the rest takes care of itself really.”

Interview/article by @chris_brookes

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