FIVE games, two goals, and the cognoscenti have been purring. Tom Rogic, overnight sensation. Wrong.
When 2011 became 2012, nobody wanted him. Now he's one of the hottest properties on the market, and Central Coast Mariners will struggle to keep him. A lot can happen in a short time. But there's more to the story than meets the eye. A lot more.
What were you doing on Christmas morning last year? Sleeping in? Eating chocolate? Lazing around the pool? Rogic was being put to the test.
Andrew Bernal is a hard marker. Former Socceroo, long-time professional in England with Reading, ex-player agent who was in the inner circle at Real Madrid at the height of the Galacticos era. Zidane, Beckham, Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Luis Figo. They all took his calls. And now he's a fitness guru, a strength and conditioner in his home town of Canberra, where most recently he has been preparing boxing hopefuls for this year's Olympics and training mixed martial arts professionals. Hard, tough, fit athletes. The sort that have ''no mercy'' tattooed on their back.
This was the world Rogic was inhabiting as he chased his big breakthrough as rejection piled upon rejection. Several months earlier, Bernal had been approached by his father, Peter, and asked one question, ''What do we have to do?'' Bernal's response? ''We need to take him to hell.'' And, hopefully, back.
Last Christmas morning that breakthrough arrived. Rogic had just returned from England, where his failure to gain a work permit scuppered a contract offer from Reading. ''We were all pretty deflated,'' Bernal remembers. Down, but not out.
There's a hill behind Government House at Yarralumla, not steep, but long. Bernal's challenge to his athletes is to run up and down nine times before you can challenge for the record. The stopwatch only starts on the 10th circuit. Christmas Day wasn't on the schedule. ''I called a run and made about 20 calls,'' Bernal says. ''In my head, it was a test. It's Christmas morning, you live five minutes away, can you give me half an hour? If you can't do that, I'm starting to have second thoughts. How much to you want it? Tommy was the first to arrive and that's the day he broke the record.''
Hill running, flipping tractor tyres, working the pads, lifting weights, climbing ropes. Normal for MMA fighters and boxers. Not usual for 19-year-old would-be footballers. But that's the point. ''I wanted to take his mind to places where footballers don't normally go,'' Bernal says.
It was the former Australian Institute of Sports head coach, Ron Smith, who ''discovered'' Rogic. Fresh out of the ACT Academy, unwanted by the AIS, knocking around in the local league with the Australian National University, and playing more futsal than 11-a-side. This was last year. Smith rang Bernal, a former protege, and asked for a second opinion. ''I took Ned Zelic with me and we went down to watch him play futsal,'' Bernal says. ''Within one minute he did this unbelievable turn. Ned and I looked at each other. 'Did you see that?'''
Bernal is too world-weary, too experienced, to get carried away. ''But, honestly, the only other player I've seen at close range who has the grace on the ball that Tommy does is Zidane.'' Massive rap but with strings attached.
''All the technical ability in the world means nothing unless you become a great athlete. When I first saw him, I turned up at this oval and there he was out in the middle, juggling a ball, and he's doing stuff I can only dream of. But then I said 'put the ball down' and we're going to do an 800 metre run. At the end of it, he was gassed. That's where he started, and six or seven months later, he's the guy with the record.''
Now the rewards are coming. A-League coaches who didn't reply to emails last year are dusting off their chequebooks. Overseas offers are coming in. What his British-based manager, Daniel Berman, settles on remains to be seen but Bernal would rather Rogic ''set the A-League on fire'' before heading abroad.
''Come to me after 50 or 60 games of Tommy Rogic, and then I'll tell you how good he is,'' he says. ''He's on his way but he's got a long way to go.''