In November 2019, Melbourne City players Lachlan Wales and Nathaniel Atkinson, as well as then-Perth, now-Wellington Phoenix player Brandon Wilson and Adelaide United midfielder Riley McGree were suspended by the FFA for ‘unprofessional conduct’ following an incident whilst with the Olyroos in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, earlier in the year.
Whilst McGree’s suspension will last until April 1, 2020, Wales, Atkinson and Wilson all face lengthier bans which will be in effect until August 10, 2020, preventing them from playing for Australia at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Whilst the details of the events leading to the ban have been well documented, there are factors beyond the immediate incident that the public wouldn’t have considered, including the effects that this public scrutiny can have on a young man and how his personal relationships and his mental wellbeing may be affected.
Talking City recently sat down with Lachlan Wales for an episode of their Beyond Football podcast.
“I think it was hugely disappointing, what happened,” Wales starts, “Me and a couple of the boys were the first to put our hands up and say we were in the wrong but there’s a lot more to the story than people read in the paper.
“One day a lot more will come out; what actually happened and the truth.”
As tends to happen in sport, and as Wales alludes to, it seems that the full story lies below the surface.
To that end, much of the story – an entirely different, though just as important, aspect – also lies within the enduring effects that such an incident can have on the mentality of a young footballer such as himself – a footballer whose recent form has been disappointing by his own admission.
“It was heartbreaking and I don’t think many people understand that this has been going on for [almost a year] now so at the back end of last season, me and Nate (Atkinson) were on the bench a lot and it affected us a lot mentally.
“It’s been a big emotional toll for the last eight months for myself and it’s probably showing a bit in my form this season, I haven’t been quite as good as I was last year.”
As per the title of the podcast series, the conversation then sways towards how the incident and its enduring repercussions impacted Wales beyond football:
“The situation was pretty serious and we expended a lot of energy outside of football to kind of deal with it.
“It’s obviously tough to go through with your family and at the time I had a partner as well, so it was a difficult experience and obviously something you can learn from.”
It’s a significant admission from Wales about his then-partner; perhaps an admission that helps him to come to terms with the consequences of what occurred, helping him to look forward rather than backward.
And whilst the up-and-coming winger is doing his best to focus on his own football at club level, watching his Melbourne City teammates during the Olyroos’ successful AFC U23 Championship campaign in Thailand earlier this year was difficult, an experience which served as a constant reminder of what could have been, he admits:
“Watching the boys, still some of my teammates are there (in Thailand with the Olyroos) like Connor (Metcalfe), Ramy (Najjarine) and (Tom) Glover, so I was just supporting them and a little bit of you wishes you were there but you kind of have to swallow your pride.”
Neither Wales or Nathaniel Atkinson have been shy to remind Australian fans of their role in helping the Olyroos to qualify in the first place, with the youngsters taking to Instagram to post highlights from an earlier qualification match where the two lit up the field for Australia.
“In the end though, we did help them get there. There was a game against South Korea where I think if you watch the highlights, me and Nate (Atkinson) tore them down the right side with Riley (McGree)"
With the chance to represent his country on the international stage now gone, Wales’ focus must now be firmly placed on his performances at club level, and whilst he admits that his form has been a far cry from his potential, he knows what he has to do to pick himself back up:
“Re-evaluate and reset; hopefully towards the back end of the season I can start finishing some of the chances I’m getting. I just feel that maybe if one goes in that the floodgates are going to open.”