When Jacob Tratt left the Wellington Phoenix due to “personal reasons” in 2017, he doubted he’d ever play professional football again.
The then 22-year-old had been at the club for less than one season before the distance from his family, and the pressure he was putting on himself, began to take its toll.
Speaking candidly to the Daily Liberal this week, Tratt revealed an ankle injury he suffered at the time was “more of a cover-up, to be honest”.
"I couldn't really understand what was actually happening but … I came up against some mental health issues,” Tratt has revealed.
“It’s really tough to understand – even now. I think … it was a combination of things, the internal pressure I was putting on myself to perform. I was obsessed, but too obsessed in a way and I lost track of life off the field. If you let it consume you it can be devastating.
“I couldn't really understand what was happening at the time but I was lucky that I had my mum, who had been through something similar and was able to guide me through those eight months, which was the toughest time of my life.”
Tratt cut short his contract with the Phoenix after what had been a breakout season – he was considered a contender for the NAB Young Footballer of the Year Award – and returned home to Dubbo.
READ MORE: Tratt the A-League's most effective defender
Here, the young man who had captained Sydney FC to a premiership in the National Youth League found solace helping the next generation of Dubbo juniors.
“I got a lot of support from so many people,” Tratt said.
“But going back to Dubbo, I started doing a bit of coaching of the younger kids back there when I was struggling and that's how I got back into football.
“I saw the joy they got playing and I started playing around with them and it got me want to get back playing again.”
After close to eight months out of the game, Orana Spurs stalwart Robert ‘Bobby’ Hughes encouraged Tratt to join Dubbo’s seven-a-side competition.
He was also invited to join local side Dhubu Dinawans FC at the 2017 Australian Indigenous Football Championships.
That summer, Tratt found football again.
“I realised I probably could make my way back to Sydney,” Tratt said.
“I took that mentality of enjoying my football and applying the stuff that I've learned.”
He rejoined the National Premier League 1’s Sutherland Sharks – who he played with from 2013-15 – and before long was made captain of the side.
It wasn’t the first time Tratt had rebuilt in the National Premier League; he spent a season with Sydney United in 2016, prior to joining the Wellington Phoenix, after his 2015-16 season at Sydney FC failed to yield in an A-League appearance.
This time, though, Tratt was older and wiser.
He enjoyed a successful 2018 with Sutherland and secured another trial at Wellington, but he was unsuccessful.
Unperturbed, he returned to Sydney, where Sydney FC general manager of football operations Terry McFlynn called out of the blue to offer him a trial.
The trial yielded a short-term injury replacement contract, and Tratt finally made his A-League debut for the sky blues five years after he captained the youth side to a premiership.
“It obviously means a lot,” he said.
“The journey that I've been on over the last few years, having the opportunity to come back to Sydney FC and perform for my home club, I couldn't be happier not only to get the opportunity but to perform, make the most of it, score a couple of goals – very, very happy with how everything's played out.
“But coming through it has made me such a more understanding person and I can relate to people a lot more and I think it's given me a lot of clarity about why I play the game and the type of person I want to be, so as much as it was hard, I'm very grateful for it as well.”
Now 24, Tratt is certainly making the most of his second chance.
He scored on debut in the sky blues’ derby win over the Western Sydney Wanderers in December, and scored the match-winner in his first full, 90-minute performance against Adelaide just last week.
The derby goal in particular was an “amazing feeling”.
“Not only to score the goal, but to win the derby – it was a pretty special feeling,” Tratt said.
“It was such a good feeling to see everyone that had just been on the journey with me on the eight months prior, it was very rewarding to me and so many people.”
With his contract now extended to the rest of the season, he plans to learn as much as he can and “make the most of my opportunities”.
At the moment that’s at right-back, with Rhyan Grant in action for the Socceroos at the Asian Cup.
But he’d love to push for his preferred centre-back position upon Grant’s return.
“At the moment I’m just enjoying my football and whatever opportunity comes around I just want to put my best foot forward and make the most of it,” he said.
“Me and Miloš Ninković, we get on very well and we stay back after training a lot to just work on his first touches because he says your first touch is everything.
“Working alongside him and learning off everyone at the same time, just aspects you can adapt to your game, it's definitely helping me to grow as a player.”
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Back home, his family and friends couldn’t be prouder.
“We’re extremely proud of what he’s been through,” father John said.
“I was proud of Jacob as soon as he was born – to be a footballer is just a bonus!
“But he’s just a good young man, he’s got empathy, he’s just a decent young man and his mother and I are extremely proud of him.
“When he came back from Wellington after the business there, I said to him ‘mate, if you don’t play football again I don’t care, because that’s not what it’s about’.
“’It’s about you being my son and having you about’.”
But he admitted it was heartwarming to see his son “find that drive again”.
“And he found that drive with the Orana Spurs … and when those Aboriginal boys asked him to play in the knockout down in Nowra,” John continued.
“Those boys play for enjoyment and that’s what it’s all about.
“He’s forever grateful for them, and so are Lisa and I.”
Hughes, who has known the whole Tratt family “for a long time”, said he was “really proud” of the former Dubbo Devil.
“He’s a good footballer … [and] a great guy – one of the best.
“He’s done well for what he’s done and he’ll go good.”
Ultimately Tratt is grateful for the journey he’s been on – and his family who were there through the highs and lows.
”I think through all the tough times, [your family] are the ones that are always going to be on your side and help you through the difficult times,” he said.
“You play your best football when you have that balance … of life whether it's family, your work, hobbies, enjoying life as much as possible and doing what you want to do as a person.
“I just want to say a big thank you to everyone along the path that I've taken that has helped me to not only get back playing football, but enjoying it and playing for the right reasons.
“Without everyone that's helped contribute, I couldn't be where I am at the moment so I'm very thankful for everyone who has helped me to get to where I am.
“So thank you.”
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