17. BRENDON SANTALAB | Western Sydney Wanderers
A-League apps: 23 (Sydney FC), 75 (WSW)
A-League goals: 4 (Sydney FC), 31 (WSW)
Other clubs: Parramatta Power (Australia), Sydney United (Australia), Geyland United (Singapore), Oostende (Belgium), Sint-Truiden (Belgium), Ujpest (Hungary), Chengdu (China), Chongqing (China)
Achievements: AFC Champions League (2014), Wanderers Player of the Year (2016-17)
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW
Brendon Santalab could hardly keep his emotions in check.
It was the middle of April when players, coaches and members of the Western Sydney Wanderers ditched their trackies for suits, coming together to relive a season in which they had underachieved.
But there was more to it than that. It was an opportunity for the club to recognise one of their most loyal servants, and one of their underrated players amongst their ranks too.
Having secured a reputation as the ‘super-sub of super-subs’ in previous seasons for his knack of scoring goals when the club needed him most, last season proved to be different.
No longer was he a collateral forward, he was Tony Popovic’s main man, and the club’s best.
"I have to hold my emotions in at the moment. This is the biggest achievement in my career. To be coached by the best, to have all the support from home, this is a dream come true,” he said after being crowned as the Wanderers' best player last term.
Indeed, the stats tell a tale of a man who only seems to be getting better by the season.
The 35-year-old set a new record for the most goals in a single season at the Wanderers where he found the back of the net 14 times, overtaking Mark Bridge as the club’s leading goalscorer in the process.
One of those came in the 26th minute of the Sydney Derby in late February where his goal saw the Red and Blacks snap the Sky Blues’ 19-match unbeaten streak, handing Popovic’s side their first derby win in over three years.
Santalab’s journey to Wanderers stardom has been anything but simple.
The Wollongong-born striker made his name as a prodigious talent in the now defunct National Soccer League, starring for Parramatta Power, Sydney United and Geylang United before securing moves to Europe with spells with Belgian First Division clubs Oostende and Sint-Truiden.
But following an unsuccessful spell in Hungary with Ujpest FC, where he failed to make an appearance, he was handed a lifeline by Sydney FC where he stayed for two seasons before moving to China’s Chengdu Blades, that is, despite having reached an agreement to join North Queensland Fury.
He would later move to Chongquing Lifan before opting to return to Australia once again, with the striker later admitting it was Besart Berisha's scintillating performances that inspired him to create his own legacy.
Now that he has done so, and in emphatic fashion too, Santalab will be hoping that he can improve on an outstanding season where he averaged a goal every 70 minutes.
Standing in his way of a regular starting berth is former La Masia graduate Oriol Riera who, despite joining the Red and Blacks a little over two months ago, has already made a blistering start to life in Western Sydney, most notably snatching a late winner in the club’s narrow 1-0 win over Wellington Phoenix in the FFA Cup round of 32.
Cult hero Mark Bridge is also expected to challenge the 35-year-old for game-time after returning to the club following a nightmarish spell at Thailand’s Chiangrai United.
As for now, though Santalab is feeling right at home and relishing his role as a senior figure.
“I’ve always wanted to be a leader on and off the park. At the moment I think I’m playing that role really well and I’ll continue to do so," he said.
"As the next couple of years roll by I’d like to lead by example, as I have been to the younger players at the Wanderers."
Goal A-League 20:
No.16 in Goal's Top 20 A-League players will be named on Friday.