The Winning Balance with Ben Kantarovski
Edging on close to 200 appearances for the club, the Newcastle local sat down to chat about what it's like to play for his home team, juggling a professional football career and uni, and how the spirit of community has kept him going through the years.
You’re a born and bred Novocastrian. What makes you want to stay in Newcastle with football?
I don’t think there’s any better feeling than being able to play for your hometown or home club. I think many players grow up dreaming of playing for their hometown, without actually having a team to play for, so I find myself very fortunate to have that opportunity available and to have done it for so long. Now it’s the icing on the cake and gives me that drive to keep doing well. Getting to play for your hometown gives you that little bit more passion and desire than someone who’s not local. It gives you that extra connection to the club and the town and the people. It makes it more special.
If you were offered the same deal at Newcastle and any other club in the A-League, where would you choose to go?
Newcastle. I think my career so far answers that because I’ve been here for 12 seasons. We were actually laughing today about it with my coach. This is my twelfth year in the A-League. There have been times that for whatever reason Newcastle has had its ups and downs, but at the end of the day I play for this shirt and want to be a part of this club. I have been fortunate enough to do this for 12 seasons now and hopefully many more to come. But like I said, you have to keep doing your job on the field to make sure that you’re warranted and give yourself every opportunity to stay.
If you had to choose between Newcastle and Manchester United?
[Laughs] I think that’s an easy decision – Man United! But look, I’ve always had dreams of playing overseas so I’d be foolish to say that I wouldn’t take up that opportunity, but so far that opportunity hasn’t come across for me. In saying that, it has always been my first choice to stay here in Newcastle and I think that I’ve always seen Newcastle as my first choice regardless of what offer I’ve had come in. But if the right opportunity came up, I’d like to challenge myself overseas and I’m not getting any younger so hopefully that comes soon. Although if I go on playing for Newcastle for the rest of my career, I will count myself very lucky.
Tell me about your family and upbringing.
So, I’m first generation Australian. My family came over from Macedonia and both of my grandfathers worked at BHP for 50 years. They’re both retired now and living it up as retirees, but they worked through that industrial boom in Newcastle so hard work is in my blood. I think you get that everywhere in Newcastle, not just my family. There were a lot of immigrants who came out here in those days and it makes Newcastle what it is. I always say to new players who join our team that if they sign here and stay for more than two years, they’ll end up living here forever. So far, I’ve done pretty well, because most of the boys have either married up with someone from Newcastle or they have literally just fallen in love with the place and moved out here. It’s such a beautiful town and a beautiful place to live. To be able to have such a close-knit community and to be able to play football within that community is just really good. We have also produced some great players and have a history of football here, so it’s no coincidence that we have a great team.
I think that any diversity is character building and anything that makes you different is really a tool and an asset – at least that’s how I see it. I was brought up in a traditional Macedonian home and Macedonian was my first language. I went to school and couldn’t speak English, but I look back now and wouldn’t have it any other way. Now I can speak two languages and I count myself lucky that I was brought up like that. Your heritage and upbringing make you who you are. I was fortunate enough to have a Macedonian and Orthodox upbringing which cemented some great values in me which make me a good person and good footballer. It has made me never want to give up and to always do my best, and I think that ties in with the same mentality you get across Newcastle.
What does Newcastle mean to you as a town and community?
I think the old-school blue-collar mentality shapes our core beliefs and characteristics. I remember when I first started playing football and watching KB United and Newcastle United. They were so hardworking and very hard to beat and there was always quality in the team. We have always had that in the Jets – and I think you need those traits to be successful. The people in Newcastle have those traits in abundance. The more we connect with the people, the more we are part of the community and you can feel that transcend into football.
How do you think the Newcastle community impacts you on game days?
We really need them, so I think it’s a matter of making sure we play well, and that the community is happy. Having lots of people come to games creates a great atmosphere. When we are playing well the whole town is buzzing. To be able to create that buzz is great and leads to more of those good performances on the field. You want to put smiles on the faces of kids who come to the games every week and shake their hands.
What was it like to be a 16-year-old and signed to a professional club?
I started training during the holidays at the end of year 10 and going into year 11. The club came in and sat down with my school to work out what days I could miss in the morning for training. I would come back to school after training for the rest of the day. It was all a bit of a juggle, but the school was really good and so were the coaches.
My mates were just typical school friends. If we lost, they were like ‘you’re shit’, but if you did good, they didn’t really say much. Most of my friends were more rugby league players and Newcastle has a strong league following, but I converted a few of them into following the soccer. Now a few of them still come to games or are season ticket holders.
While I was at school it was weird cause I was just another school kid, but it was the best thing ever and I had so much fun, especially in year 11 and 12. I missed all my school formals and ceremonies for the whole last terms in year 11 and 12. I actually sat some of my HSC exams overseas. I did one in Saudi Arabia. I also had to study two subjects at TAFE to allow me to train during the day. So, I did physics at TAFE in year 11 and sat the exam that year, and the following year I did chemistry. I only did maths, English and PE at school for my HSC.
Why did you choose to study at the University of Newcastle?
When I signed my first professional contract, one of the conditions was that I finished high school. The owner at the time said if I didn’t finish school, he would tear my contract up on the spot. I was a 16-year-old scared little boy and was like ‘Oh no, please don’t do that!’. I believed him, but he probably couldn’t have done that…who knows. Because I was made to finish school, I just went straight into University. I count my blessings for that because without uni I would have had so much down time and probably wouldn’t have utilised my time as well as I did because I also had to study. I think people take University for granted, but I used my only days free from training studying. As I got older, I started to use my time more wisely and could afford to take a little more time for my degree.
With my contract in Newcastle, it was easy to choose studying at The University of Newcastle. With the training base here on campus it made it easy to go between lectures and training. It was like I had been dealt a royal flush and I was ready to play my hand.
Why did you decide to study psychological science?
I actually looked into studying architecture, but as it was a hands-on course it was too hard to juggle study with football. I spoke to a couple of course coordinators and found out it was going to be really difficult to study certain degrees because of the practical components. I also really liked midwifery which people thought was weird, but it was going to be too hard to finish that degree while playing professional football, so I had to try and find something that could work around training. There were times when I would leave training to go straight to class. Once I left training to go and do an oral French exam and came back without the coach even knowing. The convenience of being able to train and study on campus made life so much easier for me. Everything I had to do was here.
I ended up choosing psych because the psychology program had a really good name and was really well established in Australia and around the world. I actually also have a qualified trade in scaffolding and now I have a bachelor’s degree, but with football I feel like I have never worked a day in my life.
Do you think you’d ever go back to study anything else?
Yeah, I’ve actually contemplated coming back a few times. I was thinking of going back to do a teaching degree – Master of Teaching – in maths. My undergrad had a lot of maths and stats which I quite enjoyed, so something like that would be good.
Is education important to you?
I think it’s very important. Personally, it has helped me with learning a lot of life skills you need as an adult, and I think University is the best place for that. I think a lot of people come out of school and realise it’s a big change. There’s a lot of self-directed learning and you have to do a lot for yourself. It’s like with football, you have to be on the ball every day. It’s quite cutthroat. It you can’t be bothered one day, someone else might take your position. And you can carry that over to your education. You need to always keep learning and keep trying. We have about 10 or 11 players in the team who are currently studying so I think that it is no coincidence that we play well, and we are switched on. We know how to manage our time effectively and I think that comes from having studied and having a good education.
Do you see yourself as a mentor to the less experienced players on the team?
Yeah, I think it helps you remember yourself when you were in their shoes, and what you wanted to learn. I loved being around the older players when I was younger because I wanted to learn as much as I could. I think getting involved as much as you can gives you that opportunity to learn and pass on knowledge which keeps you on your toes. It’s a great feeling to give back and help coach the other players.
What are your favourite memories from your playing career?
I think the two grand finals that we made are up there, but the thing I’ll miss most when I stop playing football is the comradery with my teammates and the environment around the changeroom. The memories I have with players and the team are unforgettable. Sometimes on a down day you think back and remember when so-and-so did this or whatever, whether it was on the field or in the changeroom, and it really picks you up. The best memories aren’t always from the football field.
What is on the cards once your playing career is over?
I’m not too sure! We laugh about it because it can happen at any time, but I think that’s why it’s important to study and get a good education. It gives you a steppingstone to what comes next. I’ve thought about it a little, but I don’t think I’ll be able to make that decision until it comes to it. If I was fortunate enough to still be involved in football as a coach or sports psychologist that’d be great, but who knows. If that’s meant to be, then I’ll work really hard at achieving that, but until that day comes, I’m still concentrating on playing.
Ben Kantarovski, Bachelor of Psychology 2018
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