Youth development stands out like an open goal miss as one of the most passionate topics in Australian football.
It underpins the many grievances stakeholders have with the game, be it the performance of national teams, lack of player movement overseas or even the purpose of the nine member federations – sooner or later the discussion reverts to developing players.
There was a time when, as ex-FFA technical director Rob Sherman would tell you, Australia ‘led the way’ in this space – producing players capable of making an immediate impact overseas.
‘’I remember doing some research in the late 90’s and looking at how many players Australia had playing top football around the world and it was phenomenal,’’ Sherman told FNR.
‘’But if you look at the AIS, in essence, it was a finishing school. Prior to them going to the AIS that [development in the NSL] world has gone and this is what we need to look to.’’
While the days of the much celebrated Mark Viduka type rise – from the lower-leagues to the top – feel like something lost in ‘old soccer’, Sherman believes the A-League presents itself as a great competition for youth to lay strong foundations.
‘’The A-League is a perfect vehicle and you could probably name a few players who graduated overseas after one season and have often come back. Across all leagues in the world, if you look at the top players, they’ve played something like 60-95 games at a lower level.
‘’I think the A-League is the perfect league to accumulate 70-100 games and when you’re then bought by an overseas club you’re bought to go into the team to fill a need rather than someone who might graduate into the first team.’’
Aaron Mooy (107 A-League appearances), Mat Ryan (80 appearances) and Awer Mabil (52 appearances) are among the select few to graduate from the A-League and become critical cogs for their overseas clubs.
Liberato Cacace is the latest to follow this path, joining Belgian Pro side Sint Truiden – coached by Kevin Muscat – after building a strong foundation in his 60 appearances for the Wellington Phoenix.
So where does it all go wrong?
According to Sherman, the biggest hurdle many young players in the A-League face is after turning 21.
‘’If you look at the data and I’m talking about leagues comparable to the A-league, the A-League in minutes for 15-18-year-old players is right at the top,’’ he said.
‘’They give debuts to young players more than most other leagues, now this may be because these players fall outside the salary cap for instance. At 18-21 they are second behind the Netherlands but the falloff between 21 and 24 is alarming, they’re the lowest.’’
‘’I believe there are a few reasons for this, one is the under-21 rule – you have to have three on your roster. So, if I’m 21 who’s not quite punching into the first team, then the club has to sign someone else and then you’re gone.
‘’The other one is the minimum wage that the PFA set…maybe you’d suggest all players under-23 fall outside the salary cap and the national minimum wage is the line and the market dictates.’’
Last season saw 20 players aged 18 or younger get minutes in the A-League with Louis D’Arrigo (24 appearances) and Gabriel Popovic (15 appearances) acquiring the most game time out of the youth brigade.
Meanwhile, 17 players out of the 39 aged between 21 and 23 played more than 15 games in last season, with Lachlan Wales (27 appearances), Johnny Koutroumbis (25 appearances) and Riley McGree (23 appearances) among the few to play near-full seasons for their respective sides.
Younger players, as well as those within this age bracket, could be set for more game-time in the new season with an agreement between the clubs and players looking imminent.
Unlike previous seasons, most clubs have re-signed a bulk of their squads – albeit on reduced wages – due to significant cuts made to the salary cap.
Featured Image – Melbourne Victory