Is the love for Kenny Athiu gone?

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“King Kenny” has enjoyed a cult status amongst Melbourne Victory fans since joining the club in 2017.

Skepticism about the NPL starlet’s capability remained after his first season at the club, despite Victory’s championship win. On the end of what has been a dire season for Athiu, has the King finally been dethroned – by himself?

Athiu’s tall (2.1 metres), fast, and conducts himself with a bulldog like approach on the pitch. You would expect Athiu to put his gifted traits as a striker to good use in the physically-centric A-League.

Throw in Melbourne Victory’s heavy presence in the AFC Champions League, then 24-year-old Athiu was the perfect candidate to take up the mantle as a young, promising backup striker.

Image credit : Ngau Kai Yan

His return of 21 goals in 28 matches in his penultimate year at NPL side Heidelberg United caught the eyes of Victory’s scouts, who moved quickly to beat Perth Glory to the South Sudanese’s loan signature.

Everything went swimmingly well for Athiu. Gone were the days of the former furniture store warehouse employee, Athiu was now a professional player for the biggest club in Australia, and found himself under the tutorship of the great Besart Berisha.

His fitness, touch, decision on the ball was constantly criticised in his slow start to the season with Victory. But the skepticism surrounding Athiu’s suitability to this team and league flitted away when the AFC Champions League swung rounds. His gangly build terrorised defences in Asia, and he became someone Kevin Muscat could throw on in late game scenarios.

A goal in 105 minutes of game time in the A-League regular season and a similar tally in five AFC Champions League games was nothing to shout about on paper, but the club saw all it needed to see in him, and signed him permanently in 2018.

Riding off a historic championship win high, many fans were swung by Kenny’s potential, and the performance showed in his first season as a professional footballer. But a certain section remain unconvinced by Kenny, and that crowd only seems to be growing.

To be honest I’ve been doing absolutely nothing,” Athiu said to the Daily Football Show  on how his 2018 off-season unfolded. Lucky for him, he won’t have to repeat the same quote if asked about his performance at this point in the final quarter of the 2018/19 season.

Kenny has offered Victory close to nothing when he takes on to the pitch. Forget the promise he showed last year, forget his free-scoring Heidelberg reign, it’s becoming hard to convince a non football fan that this guy kicks a ball around for a living.

He has played three times more minutes in the A-League this season (643 minutes) than last year, but has scored none and assisted one. He nowhere near matched his 2018 record, and while stats isn’t everything, he seems to have gone backwards in terms of player development and performance.

Gone were the days that Kenny tapped onto his aggressive nature and natural physical prowess to dominate defences. On the off chance that he displayed that side of his game, it was only in defence.

Kenny used to be the spark, the surprise package, Muscat’s mandatory substitute, especially in the AFC Champions League. But across all competitions, gone was that tingling feeling of hope of getting that extra goal, or bagging the winner when Kenny laced up his boots in the 70th minute.

When he steps onto the turf now, he looks lost, scared, and bereft of all confidence. Even Victory players looked hesitant playing the ball to Kenny in matches, preferring to slow down the momentum going forward, rather than losing the ball completely. He gets marshalled too easily by smaller built opposition defenders, consistently makes poorly timed runs, and looks lethargic for a player who’s only just come off the bench.

Kenny knew it was going to be a long season when Muscat favoured playing Kosta Barbarouses as the makeshift striker rather than give Kenny some run out, at the start of the season.

A nearly month long injury that befell upon Kenny didn’t helped, as Toivonen took center stage to tear teams apart. It’s no secret that Kenny only got his place in this squad thanks to the whopping budget that Victory blew on their four big name internationals. But he should, if anything, build on the presence of them to improve himself, try to stake a claim of any sort to prove his worth at Victory.

Kenny was one of those who could’ve stripped off the title of the NPL as a “dead-end. league”, but it all but seems likely now. Thankfully for us, many others have came through. Kaine Sheppard, Dylan Wenzel-Halls, and Jordan Murray are other strikers who have made the step up in shorter time-frames to shine on the highest platform’s Australia has got to offer – among players of lesser quality and clubs of smaller statures.

Under the mentorship of Besart Berisha and Ola Toivonen, you’re hard pressed not to learn from league’s all time top scorer, and a only recently retired international striker who’s played at the very highest levels of for club and country.

With a year left on his contract, Kenny’s left with mountains to climb if he is to convince Muscat (or other A-League clubs) to keep him playing at this level. He will be 27 this year, and has crossed the threshold for being in that “fortunate” frame where a player’s potential ceiling can still be considered.

Anthony Lesiotis and Elvis Kambosa have had more visible impact on the pitch, and what’s to say Muscat will start to accommodate other young guns while seeking for results. It’s looking even more likely after the longstanding Lawrence Thomas was dropped in a warning to under-performing players despite a win over Brisbane Roar.

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Another poor AFC Champions League campaign likely means Keisuke Honda will be searching for his next club, and a major reshuffling at Victory is all but possible given the departure of the three million dollar man frees up more space in the wages department.

Given that Toivonen is consistently bugged by mysterious bouts of flu and niggling injuries, a back up striker will be among the highest of priorities come the next transfer window. One that can be relied to start the 10 odd games, and perhaps fits the complete striker mould that Toivonen is.

There’s four more games in the Champions League games to salvage, five more regular season league games to cement next year’s continental spot, and the final series rounds to go. Kenny can start nailing the lyrics to “auld lang syne”, or pucker up on the pitch, and win back the love from the Victory terraces.

Feature image credit: Ngau Kai Yan

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Ngau Kai Yan
Ngau Kai Yanhttp://ngaukaiyan.com
Journalism undergrad at Monash University, Kai is a multimedia journalist covering Melbourne Victory. Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund. Once "stole" Shinji Kagawa's plane ticket.

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