By Joey Lynch

John Maisano is candid about the demons that prevented him from reaching the professional highs his potential offered during his nine-year career.

“I look back – in hindsight – and it’s only myself that I have to blame, because people were saying things to me and people were trying to guide me in the right direction. I just chose not to listen – as many young players probably have done in the past – but for me it was very detrimental to my career and I’m probably still suffering for it now,” said Maisano.

“You go through depression your whole life and you don’t realise what it actually is until you dig deep and you think, and it’s just a lot of regret. I tried to run away from it for many, many years and it’s only now starting to come good when I’m back involved with the game, back involved with all my friends, back involved with coaching and have a higher aspiration now to make it to the elite level as a coach. With all the life lessons that I’ve learned.”

Maisano, now 38 years old, was a part of Australian footballs “Golden Generation” – a member of Australian U17 and U20 squads that also featured the likes of Brett Emerton, Jason Culina, Vince Grella, Mark Bresciano, Simon Colosimo and Mile Sterjovski.

Playing his junior football in the Melbourne suburb of Springvale, he impressed enough at the junior level to secure a spot at the prestigious Australian Institute of Sport, leaving Melbourne for Canberra at just 16-year-old.

Living away from home for the first time, without the support of his family, Maisano had a challenging time adjusting to factors off the park.

“I struggled the first year in the AIS because, as a person, I wasn’t as mentally strong or developed enough as a young 16-17-year-old as I could have been. I was very much a kid in a bubble of football and all I had was my god given talent. I really struggled with many different things and I think it did stunt my development as a player.”

However, these early challenges were not the roadblock that they would turn into later in his career, and Maisano continued at the AIS – also serving as a part of the team that represented Australia in the 1999 U20 World Cup in Nigeria.

Upon departing from the AIS, Maisano headed straight for one of the top footballing countries in the world – Italy – where he was briefly signed with Serie A side Atalanta B.C.

However, personal demons had begun to hamper the development of one of Australia’s most promising footballers.

“From a talent point of view, I had the world at my feet. From a personal point of view – from the mental point of view – I was very, very far away from achieving anything that I could have actually achieved in the football world.”

“I wasn’t mentally equipped. I was living a dream. I probably thought I was better than I actually was. I probably believed I was at that level before I actually was.”

“I thought that I had arrived – and stopped doing all the things that had actually got me there in the first place. I probably thought that I was at that level before I actually was and I was in a rush, I was in a massive rush.”

Leaving Italy – Maisano never ended up playing a game for Atalanta – he found himself in Belgium, signing and playing with Belgium Pro League side K.V.C Westerlo.

However, his own off the field issues again served to hamper his playing career, with Maisano identifying his attitude – not his talent levels – as the reason for his eventual release from the Belgian club.

“I was still 18, I hadn’t even turned 19 yet, and I was playing regularly in the first team in the top division. But it still wasn’t good enough – it still wasn’t good enough for me. I thought I should have been playing the best club in the world.”

“Westerlo was very difficult. It shouldn’t have been difficult – it should have been the best time of my football career – but it ended up being very difficult.”

“I was released from Westerlo purely because they saw my attitude wasn’t right. Talent wise there was no doubt – there was a game we played against Club Brugge that was televised and I was one of the best players on the park – so talentwise there was no question.”

Exiled from the Belgian Pro League, Maisano spent a few months out of the game, before he eventually returned to Australia – signing with Marconi during the dying days of the National Soccer League.

“I was pretty well know back in Australia and I was lucky enough to sign with Marconi. They were doing well – outside of Perth Glory they were probably the best club.”

“But I had aspirations. I only came back to Australia to get me back over there [Europe].”

“My best friends are Simon Colosimo, Vince Grella and Mark Bresciano. We all grew up together. We all had the same aspirations, we all wanted to be the best, we all wanted to play in the top leagues. I’m watching them play in the top leagues of the world and there’s going to be no way I’m going to be stuck [playing in the NSL].”

After spending two years at Marconi, Maisano once again left Australia’s shores for Europe, pursuing several opportunities in the Scottish Premier League and Scottish Championship before eventually being offered a one year deal with Scottish Premier League Side Kilmarnock.

“I have no doubt I could have played there with my eyes closed – but they weren’t offering big money. At the time I thought ‘I’m kind of a well-known player in Australia, I’m established’ and I wasn’t really keen on that”

“But then this lower league club, Greenock Morton, told me ‘Hey – we’re really a first division club’ and asked me to sign with them. They said I’d be in the shop window and they offered me a three year contract worth more than any other player outside the Old Firm. I weighed up my options and I figured that at least I’d be in the shop window.”

“But then, I wasn’t in the shop window. I wasn’t in the shop window in Scotland and I wasn’t in the shop window in Australia – and it really took the wind out of me.”

“By the time I finished there I was 28 years old and all the love of the game was gone. It all amounted for nothing. I was lost in the Australian market, they’d forgotten.”

“It took the wind out of me. And I called it quits. And I regret it every single day of my life. It’s demons now that I have to fight – and it’s not easy – and I’m thankful for my family, for my wife that has to put up with me.”

“I’ve since then I started up a couple of businesses; because I’m a competitive person with drive. But deep down I know it’s not who I really am – football is who I really am.”

“It’s been hard, it’s been really difficult. People say you shouldn’t be defined by anything in particular. But how can you say that when all that you’ve ever done and all you’ve ever known is one thing since you were six years old. How do you turn around and say that’s not who I am?”

“It’s all of my experiences now that that I’ve had outside of football have made me a more complete person than football ever could on its own – ever.”

Maisano now owns a chain of gyms – Alien Fitness – in the Rosebud region of Victoria. However, this burgeoning gym empire wasn’t something that he had ever planned on.

“It [the fitness industry] was something I had to find on my own. I had no plans. For me I was going to be a multi-millionaire football player playing at the top level and not having to worry about anything after the age of 35.”

“Stopping football was a massive reality check. I had a house that’s mortgage was based on my football wages and suddenly you go into the real world and you’re on a minimum wage. You just don’t know what to do.”

Being interviewed whilst attending the PFA’s induction ceremony for young footballers at the Stamford Plaza Hotel in Melbourne, Maisano offered some frank advice to the next generation of Australian talent.

“If you want to be a football player you need to give it everything you have and aim to be the best as whatever level you want to play at. Give it 100% to be at that level but do not stop, as a person, do not stop learning. Keep on developing yourself. Personal development is massive. And you’ve got to implement it – it’s pointless learning something and not implementing it.”

“Ultimately we are, first and foremost, human beings so we need to know how to handle any sort of situation. Be 100% committed to things that will develop you as a sportsman and as a person.”