When the Hyundai A-League first launched, fans chastised the FFA for the shortsightedness of setting squad sizes at just a paltry 20 players within the salary cap. What was lauded however was the U-23 rule, in which three players under the age of 23 in the squad had to be signed on to a professional contract.
When you consider that with a starting line-up of 11 on the field and 4 on the bench, that left you with 5 possible replacements for any injured players. If none of your U-23?s were in the matchday squad, you had three out of five of your possible replacements being young players champing at the bit to be given a start.
But with the implementation of the National Youth League, extended 23 man squads and rules that allow for injury replacement players to come in from both Australia and overseas, unless your manager has a youth-oriented policy, the U-23 requirement becomes irrelevant in the discovery of youth talent in Australia.
Take Perth Glory, for example. The three home grown players that they’ve nominated as their U-23?s are Brandon O’Neill, Ndumba Makeche and Jesse Makarounas – all of which have barely seen any game time outside of the National Youth League, hamstrung by the fact that coach Ian Ferguson refuses to play his younger charges given the depth of experience in his senior players.
This became unstuck in their match against Adelaide United on Friday where Dean Heffernan, a naturally right-sided player, was preferred as a central defender, despite the shared belief that central players such as Jacob Burns and Steve Pantelidis would have been more suited to the role.
Should they have gone with Burns, whom has played central defence in the past despite his short stature? It would have opened the door for young defensive midfielder Brandon O’Neill to play, who in his four appearances for the Glory, has managed to show great potential. His slick passing and ability to man-mark a player out of a game (as he did in the 4-0 win over Melbourne Victory last season) has seen O’Neill rise to be a future key defensive midfielder for the Perth Glory. However, his opportunities have been limited.
On Friday, Heffernan looked out of his comfort zone as a central defender, making a disastrous mistake that eventually cost the Glory the opening goal of the match as they went on to go down 3-2 to the high-flying Reds, despite an injury time fight back where they scored two goals in five minutes. It is these glaring oversights that give the Perth Glory a bad name when it comes to youth development, with players such as Scott Neville, Eli Babalj and Sam Mitchinson all finding new homes on the eastern seaboard and beyond in an effort to play regular football.
In fairness, the Glory did find a class right back in the form of Joshua Risdon last season. However, this was only after Ferguson’s hand was forced with then-regular right back Scott Neville out with injury, and injury replacement player Trent McClenahan’s contract expiring.
Add to this the fact that Dean Evans, a former two-time Most Glorious Youth Player for the best and fairest Perth Glory player in the National Youth League, has been cast aside from the club. Evans dominated in a central defensive role in his games in the youth league, and could have been a class backup for central defence in the seniors – once again showing the shortsightedness the club has when it comes to youth policy.
Perth Glory are not the only culprit, however, with their most distant rivals – the Wellington Phoenix – also earning that honour, again with injury forcing the hand of manager Ricki Herbert. Had that not happened, we may not have managed to catch a glimpse of young talent such as Louis Fenton and Tyler Boyd. On the other hand, they are not afforded the same luxury that the Australian A-League teams have in that they don’t have a genuine youth team. They can’t just pluck young players out to promote them to the senior team – they have to sign them within the bounds of the squad rules as set by the FFA.
In regards to the squad rules, if we want to look to grow the game, as a country we need to put more emphasis on the youth of the competition and look at expanding that number of required U-23 contracts. Whilst the advent of the junior marquee position has been taken up by some clubs, the truth of the matter is that it hasn’t been taken up by the majority.
There is a bright light in all of this, however, and that is that some clubs are taking the lead in promoting youth – namely Brisbane Roar and Central Coast Mariners.
This was highlighted by the transfer merry-go-round that’s occuring right now in the A-League, with Julius Davies making the move from Melbourne Victory to Brisbane Roar and Nick Fitzgerald linked with a jump from Brisbane Roar to Central Coast Mariners. Both players may not be a fit with their previous clubs, but fit into the ideologies of their new managers Mike Mulvey and Graham Arnold – both renowned for their advocacy of youth in the A-League.
FFA Head of Operations Damien de Bohun has also come out on Twitter recently to state that the league would investigate an MLS-style ‘superdraft’ for unseen talent, after being questioned about such a proposal by a fan during a Q&A session.
But is that the answer? Whilst the MLS has succeeded in that respect, there is no real reasoning that the A-League clubs will accept this system any more than the current system. And the current system, whilst flawed, has still brought us Socceroos talent like Nikita Rukavytsya and Thomas Oar, for example.
Before the FFA looks at any visa changes, as also proposed by de Bohun during the Twitter Q&A, they should look closer to home and address the current youth contract policies.
Only then will Australia succeed in consistent growth at a youth level.