Short sighted recruitment hurting the A-League

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It was a family affair in the transfer market this week with two of the three Griffiths brothers returning to the A-League from spells in China. Joel signed for the Newcastle Jets for the remainder of the season, and Ryan signed a similar deal with Adelaide United. But should clubs be going after ageing players, and why are they doing so? Young Australian players are continually finding their chances at first team football suffocated with signings like these.

While the news that Ryan Griffiths has signed for Adelaide for the remainder of the season was received well by many fans, there are also a great number questioning the decision to sign a 32-year-old journeyman. While Griffiths’ goalscoring record of 19 goals from 56 appearances for the Jets was a decent return, there are doubts about the wisdom of the signing.

It always going to be difficult to get by with only two strikers for an entire season, so there must be questions asked about why this wasn’t addressed before the campaign began. Adelaide United went into the season with only Jeronimo Neumann and Bruce Djite on their books, and with coach Josep Gombau talking up his desire to give youth players their chance. So why is a 32-year-old all of a sudden the answer to the injury crisis that has struck the reds?

Griffiths signing will limit the chances of Anthony Costa, as well as any other young striker or winger hoping to break through. It is yet another example of an obstacle being placed in front of a young player in this country.

The same conclusions can be drawn from the Jets’ signing of Joel Griffiths. The 34-year-old striker has scored just 12 goals since leaving Beijing Guoan in 2011, and his place in the team could yet again be at the expense of a young Australian player. Adam Taggart started this season on fire, playing well before scoring six goals in three games.

He is currently away on international duty at the AFC U-22 Championships in Oman and cover may be needed with his absence, but the signing of local hero Joel makes it very difficult for Taggart to get back into the side upon his return.

This is an especially disappointing signing given that the Jets are renowned for their willingness to give first team football to young players. One has to wonder why there has been a sudden shift in recruitment philosophy.

From day one the Melbourne Heart stated that they were going to be a club that developed young talent. Interesting then that last off-season the Heart signed two 34-year-olds (Harry Kewell and Rob Wielaert), a 33-year-old (Orlando Engelaar) and two 32-year-olds in Patrick Kisnorbo and Michael Mifsud. So much for the youth policy then.

While these players are under performing, the likes of David Vrankovic, Ben Garuccio and Sam Mitchinson have all yet to play this season. While the talented Stefan Mauk has made seven appearances, each one has come from the bench, not playing more than 22 minutes in any game. He has played just 84 minutes this season. Again, one is left wondering as to why the club has gone in the direction that they have, favouring experience over youthfulness to such an extreme.

Sydney FC have also gone the way of old over young. The sky blues regularly take to the pitch with the likes of Brett Emerton (age 34), Nicky Carle (32), Matt Thompson (31) and Ranko Despotovic (30). Unfortunate injures to Rhyan Grant and Corey Gameiro have not helped, but even so there is a scattergun approach to Sydney’s recruitment and there is clearly little focus on youth development.

This is not helped by the fact that Sydney’s recruiting department appears to be heavily influenced by defender Nikola Petkovic, having recommended the signings of both Despotovic and recent arrival Milos Dimitrijevic. Whilst each club must maximise its knowledge of the transfer market through any means available, publicly revealing that a player has recommended signings reflects poorly upon Sydney’s football department.

So why are clubs not promoting their young players? When the National Youth League was setup there were a few aims of the competition, including giving young players a competitive environment to thrive in. But the main purpose of the NYL was to act as a reserve squad for the first teams of each club. Ergo, when clubs had injuries and needed cover, the idea was to call up a youth player. What has happened to this mentality? Why are clubs reacting to injuries by signing stop-gaps rather than promoting their young talent?

Perhaps it is because clubs don’t believe there are benefits to giving their young kids a chance on the A-League stage. Perhaps it’s due to a belief that youngsters can’t contribute to a winning side. These are both myths, with huge plus points for sides that do take the gamble with youth teamers.

The financial benefits of youth development have been seen by clubs such as Central Coast who sold Mat Ryan, Bernie Ibini, Oliver Bozanic, Tom Rogic, Mustafa Amini and Alex Wilkinson to sides in Asia and Europe.

Brisbane Roar’s production line nurtured and then sold players such as Kwame Yeboah, Erik Paartalu, Tommy Oar, Michael Zullo and Adam Sarota, who have all gone on to sign for European or Asian sides.

Melbourne Victory were also financially rewarded with the sales of Mitch Langerak, Robbie Kruse, and New Zealand international Marco Rojas.

Ryan, Langerak, Kruse and Oar are all likely to be at the World Cup in Brazil. Zullo, Rogic and Bozanic also have a chance of being there which highlights not just the benefits for the clubs, but also how crucial player development in the A-League is for the national team.

That covers the financial benefits, but what about the benefits on the field? The enthusiasm that a young player desperate to grasp his chance in the first team brings cannot be matched. Yes, young players will make mistakes, but they will also work hard and give everything they have to prove that they belong on the pitch. The same cannot be said of many of the ageing players in the league, both current and past.

The other competitive advantage that can be gained through youth is winning. Look at that list of players above and you’ll notice something. Each of those players contributed to a successful team. Every Central Coast player won silverware, as did Langerak and Paartalu for the Victory and Roar respectively. The others all played finals football for strong sides.

Even Sydney FC’s double winning side of 09/10 featured a few youngsters, with Seb Ryall (20) and Chris Payne (19) playing in their grand final win. Brendan Gan (21) also made a big contribution throughout the season.

The vast array of silverware won and success achieved with young players shows just what a positive boost their presence can provide. Success both on and off the field for A-League clubs comes through developing young players. It’s right there for all to see.

There has been a lot of talk recently in the media about implementing further restrictions on foreign imports in a bid to increase game time for players who are products of the NYL. The restrictions proposed by some include a ‘technical panel’ run by the FFA, which would assess the quality of any import and compare the player with a young player, whose game time could be diminished by the signing. Whilst in theory this may seem a sound idea, there a few flaws with this approach.

Firstly, if an individual can definitively determine whether a relatively unknown footballer will be a better signing than a young player with no experience, then they should be working for a club as a scout or technical director. I would suggest that the FFA has bigger issues to attend to than the quality of potential signings.

Keep in mind that imports have to adapt to different climate, food, culture, training regimes and travel demands. Nobody can definitively judge how the player will adapt to these changes in his everyday life. There is also the style of football that can be vastly different to what an import is used to.

Remember ‘Super’ Mario Jardel signing for the Jets? I’m sure the proposed FFA panel would have taken one look at his goalscoring record in Europe and rubber stamped his signing. He was a spectacular flop though, and a panel of FFA coaches and technical directors couldn’t have predicted that with any certainty.

Would they have allowed Besart Berisha to be signed? A player with a poor goalscoring record before arriving on Australian shores, he was the definition of a journeyman having played for seven clubs in nine years. But the Albanian found his home at the Roar and his quality has not only helped Brisbane win trophies, it has helped the A-League as a whole.

Secondly, and this is something we tend to forget in this country, clubs need to learn for themselves. You cannot have the FFA making the call on whether to sign a player or not, that is a decision for the clubs’ football department to make. Clubs have to make their own mistakes and see what works for them.

If those in charge of scouting and recruitment can’t see the correlation between youth and success, they probably shouldn’t be employed in that capacity. But you cannot force a club to play young players, because if results don’t come immediately the coach and fans blame the FFA, whereas clubs should be encouraged and perhaps even rewarded for developing and playing young talent.

As I have said, clubs need to learn for themselves. But we can always give them a push in the right direction, so here’s what I propose: we ditch the unnecessary FFA panel and have a discount on home grown players.

There is no better way to encourage clubs to give youth a chance than through the promise of financial incentives, especially in a league where a few clubs are being run on the smell of an oily rag.

If a player comes through the clubs NYL side and starts a certain amount of first team games, his contract should be partially payed for by the FFA. This could be applied through a refund at the end of the season, or as a discount for the next season.

The clubs then have more cap space to spend on building their squads, meaning we could potentially see ‘marquee’ quality players in the league but not as designated marquees. If this were to happen it would increase the quality of the league as a whole, as well as the skill and ability of the young players who are up against or playing with better players.

Other positives are that the FFA gets a step closer to a stronger national team with more young players playing, the fans don’t get frustrated with ageing journeyman doing nothing but picking up a cheque, and the clubs are rewarded for their ability to coach and develop young players.

The other major benefit of this proposed system is that we could potentially put an end to the trend of players moving abroad too soon because they can’t get a game here. Fans want to see young, exciting Australian players playing in the A-League, not moving to Europe when they’re sixteen.

Every Australian football fan also wants to see the national teams do well at all levels, and this is a way to strengthen through all age groups, as well as improve the A-League.

Andrew Cussen

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