On arriving at Ray Watt Oval to interview Newcastle Jet Kaine Sheppard, their training session was drawing to a close… or so I thought.
Sheppard, Dimi Petratos, Ronnie Vargas and others were completing a shooting drill.
Young goalkeeper Noah James had his work cut out trying to keep the ball out of the onion bag.
An impromptu free kick comp then took place between Sheppard and Vargas. Both players were using both feet to bend the ball over and around the mannequins.
The Venezuelan international Ronnie Vargas eventually won, but only just.
Sheppard’s two misses hit the bar and the post, proving that the beautiful game is literally at times a game of millimetres.
Sheppard then moved to a different part of the training ground to do ‘extras’ as most players headed for the sheds.
Kaine Sheppard hasn’t taken the usual route to A-League professionalism. His journey has been a long one, not only in time and effort but also in sheer kilometres.
From the age of 16, the Northamptonshire native had a scholarship with then-League One outfit Lyeton Orient.
During that time Harry Kane played there on loan, and it’s obvious that the Tottenham star had an influence on his career.
“Even back then people weren’t really sure about Harry and look how far he has come now,” Sheppard says.
At 18 years old he was released by Orient and left Brisbane Road to play in the upper tiers of the English non-league with the likes of Braintree Town and later Histon.
For the young man, this introduction to the rigours of non-league football was “a bit of a shock”, in his own words.
(Photo by Ashley Feder/Getty Images)
“Playing against men, they didn’t care how old you were. It was brutal and I had to grow up pretty quickly, but it was good.”
After two seasons of English football, Histon were looking to offload players due to financial woes.
It was at this point that Sheppard made the decision to have a determined go at breaking into the A-League.
He already had an Australian passport – his mother is from Perth – and knew a little about the A-League from TV.
He talked to his agent and within a matter of days he’d joined Heidelberg in the Victorian NPL.
He knew nothing, though, of the Australian NPL, but Heidelberg were in need of a striker and he fitted the bill.
“I wasn’t meant to start the first few games at Heidelberg but one of the older boys got injured and I’d only just arrived and the coach said well you’ll have to play,” he recalls.
On the differences between English and Aussie football, Sheppard said: “It’s more physical in England still, but a lot more teams over here try to play football.
“They don’t give you time and space that you want. They are very much in your face and people from England don’t realise how tough this league can be.”
After scoring 20 goals in 49 games for Heidelberg, Sheppard moved to Avondale in 2017, again scoring goals for fun.
During his time at Avondale he left to join pro Finnish club SJK.
“I didn’t play there as much as I would have liked but I definitely learnt a lot and ended up bringing that back here.”
Sheppard’s Avondale performances started catching the eye of A-League coaches, particularly as they performed well in the FFA Cup. This eventually led to a trial and contract with the Newcastle Jets.
On life at the Jets, Sheppard points out: “There is that big step up especially in terms of game intensity and fitness.
“I do believe that more NPL players can do it. There is a little bit of transition as well and I’ve been doing plenty of extras in the gym, on the field, shooting, and I still have much to learn.”
Sheppard speaks highly of his team-mates and couldn’t have been welcomed into the Newcastle fold any better.
He spoke of Roy O’Donovan’s assistance in making him become a better striker. He currently rooms with the affable Irishman on away trips too.
“Roy does sing in the shower, but he’s a very good singer and I actually don’t mind it.”
On Newcastle’s chase for a finals spot, Sheppard stated: “There’s still five games left and we’re still there. This weekend is a big game against Wellington. The recent run we’ve had has been good. There’s plenty of confidence in the team and everyone is training hard and well.”
Despite his English heritage, Sheppard aspires to represent the Socceroos.
“I’ve always said I want to play for Australia,” he says.
“Even when I was younger I said that. I think it was my Mum she pushed me towards Australia. I’ve got an Australia shirt at home that I got when I was younger… so yeah we’ll see what happens.”
With a certain Tim Cahill gone, Graham Arnold is continually looking for a goal-scorer.
It’s still early days for Kaine Sheppard, but with continued improvement and more goals, who knows?
As I shake hands with Sheppard thanking him for his time, Ronny calls over to him.
“I lost that free kick comp, I’m buying Ronnie his lunch.”
A game of millimetres indeed!