It’s a problem with a million solutions: how does Australian football produce enough talented young players to propel both the Socceroos and A-League to new heights?
There are numerous resourcing, behavioural and cultural issues at play – and beware of the individual claiming to have a silver bullet that will fix everything – but there’s one key systemic factor that serves as a perhaps the greatest anchor on the next generation.
They don’t play enough games.
Talk to any young player about making the leap from youth to the senior ranks and one observation will be almost universally relayed back to you: there is a marked increase in the pace of the game.
To some extent, there is no meaningful way that players can properly prepare for this – it’s a case of learning on the job.
But until things click into place, the consequences of the lack of games for Australian youth frequently rears its ugly head as, denied the thinking time that being the best at a junior level consistently provides, youngsters pirouette to raw instinct.
This means that all too often their identification of open space to occupy is limited, split-second windows for a line-breaking pass close unused, a momentary avenue to goal provided by a defender is ignored and recognition of attacking runs by the man they are marking are missed.
If instincts have been refined by good coaching and healthy amounts of real-world application, these situations are fleeting and A-League staff will entrust youngsters with increased minutes moving forward.
— Brisbane Roar Academy (@AcademyBRFC) January 1, 2020
But in Australia, the opportunities provided for young prospects to play games and develop good behaviours against the best of their age group, inexplicably shrink as they get closer and closer to senior football.
Instead, many players still rely on habits developed in their early teens; where the games can be more frequent but are often determined not by football acumen but instead by which side has more pace and power (which also plays into which young players are recognised and funnelled into elite pathways).
Australia’s premier youth competition, the Y-League, lasts a total of eight games. Nominally, it’s supplemented by A-League clubs entering their academy side in local NPL, 25-30 game seasons.
Yet, frequently called up to serve on A-League benches during the Y-League campaign and when the NPL and A-League seasons overlap, talented youngsters often miss the chance to see the field or have only received cursory cameos.
Across the 2018/19 Y-League and 2019 NPL VIC seasons, Olyroo and Melbourne City winger Ramy Najjarine played in just 15 games. This was supplemented by the 19-year-old playing 179 minutes of football at senior level.
Sydney FC starlet Luke Ivanovic made 14 appearances across the Y-League and NPL NSW, complimented by just 294 minutes at senior level.
And while there are exceptions that can immediately excel despite a lack of preparatory minutes – Daniel Arzani springs to mind – such players are rare.
What a pass from Daniel Arzani in the lead up to our match-winning goal 👌
— Socceroos (@Socceroos) June 9, 2018
One possible solution may be the creation of a more comprehensive reserve-grade competition – where youth attached to A-League clubs will compete in a longer season.
“For me, what needs to happen as quickly as possible, to start a new wave for the junior players in Australia… is that a reserve grade competition has to happen ASAP,” Socceroos and Olyroos’ Graham Arnold said in December.
“Because still, there are too many kids sitting in the grandstands in suits watching games.
Another fix may very well lie in the implementation of a professional National Second Division – greatly increasing the number of playing opportunities in full-time environments that can be hoovered up by young prospects.
With transfer fees providing one of the cornerstones of club financing for second division clubs around the world, the incentive would also be there for lower-tier clubs to play and develop youth.
Opportunities for loan moves between the tiers – which Socceroo Harry Souttar has benefited from as part of his development in England – would also arise.
Ultimately, Australian youth do have to eventually make that leap and ‘earn’ the right to senior minutes.
However, they have the talent to do so and Australian football can do better to prepare them for that jump.