Mateo Poljak begins his quest for a Hyundai A-League return in a familiar part of the world: western Sydney.
The former Western Sydney Wanderers midfielder is set to debut with Marconi Stallions in the NSW NPL this weekend.
And it’s a big derby too, as Marconi host local rivals Sydney United in the season opener.
“My ambition is to win wherever I go. And that’s the same at Marconi,” he told www.a-league.com.au.
“I want to win the NPL title with Marconi. I want to go as far as we can go in the FFA Cup and cause some Cup upsets.
"Then my ambition is to come back into the A-League after that and to have that fresh start again.
“There is no better place for me to be in this league [NPL] than Marconi.
“And I believe my best years at 28 are ahead of me," Poljak said.
"SOMETHING BIG IS WAITING"
Poljak’s greatest sporting memories happened in western Sydney with Wanderers.
In 2012, after signing from Croatia with a club and a league he knew little about, Poljak enjoyed a dream run in Australia.
In his first season, he won the Hyundai A-League Premiership and, astonishingly, in 2014 an Asian Champions League.
Those were heady days for club and player.
Under coach Tony Popovic, Wanderers' historic Champions League campaign remains Poljak's highlight.
The unforgettable return from Riyadh to Sydney International airport still brings a smile.
The arrival terminal was effectively shut down by around 2000 fans along with a huge media presence and security.
“After the final in Riyadh, we went to the Australian embassy,” he recalls. “That’s where we could feel safe.
“We weren’t aware of the significance of what we’d achieved because we were just by ourselves. It was a long flight back to Sydney; we were tired emotionally and physically.
“My best memory was coming back to Sydney airport. They were ushering us through.
"You don’t think about bags, you don’t think about anything. We could hear this noise coming through the terminal. Amazing this noise...
“It was like we were in a tunnel going out to play and something big is waiting for you. You could actually feel it.
“Once they opened the arrival doors you just wanted to go crazy with the fans, go nuts with them and be happy.”
The victory, two-and-a-half years after the club was formed, remains one of the greatest achievements in Australian sports history.
To have played quarter-finals and semi-finals during an A-League off-season is an achievement in itself.
But to have beaten some of the biggest clubs in the region, such as Guangzhou Evergrande in the semis; FC Seoul in the last eight and Saudi Arabia's Al Hilal in the final, remain the stuff of folklore.
What's more, the journey to the final saw them encounter some extraordinary gamesmanship with their transport in Guangzhou colliding with another vehicle in what appeared a staged act by locals.
And in the final at a packed King Fahd Stadium in Riyadh, lasers were shone in the face of keeper Ante Covic.
Against all odds, the men from Sydney's west reached Asia's summit.
“That group was amazing. Everything fell into place," recalls Poljak.
"'Popa' [coach Tony Popovic] used to say that every single detail, every one per cent matters. Whatever you put in, you’ll get it back to you.
"We worked extremely hard from the moment the club began, and it paid off. And we had self-belief.
“The ACL win, it was definitely the greatest moment of my career.”
After he left Wanderland, Poljak signed for Newcastle in 2015 and departed the club after two seasons.
After a brief spell in Romania, the former Croatian youth international returned to Sydney’s west last September.
Poljak is one of the big names in the NPL across Australia this season.
Wollongong Wolves have signed Japanese goal scorer and J-League favourite, Takuya Nozawa.
Former Socceroo and A-League defender Jon McKain is playing in the QLD NPL while one-time Dutch World Cup defender Kew Jaliens has signed with Weston Bears in the Northern NSW NPL.
And in Victoria, Melbourne Knights' new coach is former Croatian international Aljosa Asanovic who won 62 caps for his country before moving into coaching alongside former West Ham manager Slaven Bilic.
But for Wanderers fans, one of their former favourites is now playing in their backyard in the NPL.
Marconi train four nights a week and some of the players get together during the day and do extras.
It's the sort of attitude Poljak likes.
“The boys here are very dedicated. There are boys here who’ve played A-League and some young boys whose ambition is to play A-League.
“So there’s a high level of professionalism at this semi-professional club under coach Peter Tsekenis and assistant coach “Flea” [Peter Papoythis].
"[Former Wanderer] Michael Beauchamp is also here. Some great young players and a good attitude from all the players," Poljak says.
Poljak is an Australian resident and is poised to finally get his Aussie citizenship rubber-stamped.
After things got ugly in Romania, Poljak is just happy to be in a place he calls “home” with citizenship allowing him to play in the Hyundai A-League as a local and not an import.
“I have to be honest, after that experience in Romania, a lot of things go through your head and you don’t feel that passion for football anymore.
“But I’m grateful for what football gave me and I can say I’m enjoying my football again.
“It’s an NPL level but there are great players there and great coaches, and I am enjoying it.
“I have a home not far from here [in western Sydney]. The family is happy.
“Now, this is where I can see my future, here in Australia.”