The Kids are alright (part I)

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This is the first part of a two-part look at the younger players Australia has coming through and how they compare to previous generations as well as looking at how the times have changed. Part one looks at how the times have evolved over the last 20 years and what this means for the players and youth development.

Australia’s recent performances on the international stage have caused many questions to be asked of where Australian football is and where it is heading. While it is understandable for fans and pundits alike to be disappointed in the recent results our senior team has achieved, it is hardly fair to point the finger at our younger generation for not being good enough.

Many claim that we just don’t have the talent coming through that we did 10 to 15 years ago. Heads are continually being scratched as to what we should do about our failing youth development system. Fortunately, these concerns are based more on fallacies and lack of true understanding of our countries football history.

The truth is we do have as much talent as ever if not more coming through, and the need for structured pathways is way overblown.

Yes, we failed to qualify for the Olympics without scoring or winning a match. Yes, the Young Socceroos and Joeys have suffered disappointing losses to supposedly weaker regional rivals. If we just look at these results alone then the alarm bells should be ringing, which some factions in our game are more than happy to set off, but if you dig a little deeper then the situation doesn’t seem so bad.

The coaches of the youth teams are not that concerned with results in tour matches and friendlies as they are really just getting players accustomed to the system they are preaching in a competitive environment. So the real focus is not now but when the younger players are ready for the step up to international tournaments and senior football.

Also, was the Olympic team really the strongest we could’ve put out on the pitch? Not when for the majority of the campaign there were no overseas players and no more than 2 players could be chosen from an A-League team. It shouldn’t be surprising that we struggled against nations that were able to put their strongest teams out on the park.

We do have to be wary of the Asian countries and all their investment into football catching up to Australia, with Korea and Japan maybe already ahead of us. But let’s not push the panic buttons yet. We have scores of young players who could make the step up to being future stars for our national team. All we need to do is look at the situation we are in and compare it to the past.

This myth that the FFA needs to do something drastic to improve the development of our young players needs urgent debunking. The FFA only need to encourage the participation of youngsters in our sport and invoke passion and love for the game. The first step to this is making sure it is affordable for the parents to have their kids take part in the first place. The second part, would be to have a national competition and players who the younger kids can look up and aspire to. This last thing needs to be done in conjunction with the clubs and through free-to-air coverage of the national team and domestic league.

The pathways for players and their training should, as it does in most countries and has in Australia previously, fall on the clubs. Was Mark Viduka developed by the AIS or Melbourne Knights? I’d argue that it was the Knights. Other examples are Brett Emerton (Sydney Olympic), Paul Okon (Marconi), Tim Cahill (Sydney United & Millwall), Harry Kewell (Leeds United) and the list goes on of some of Australia’s greatest players in the last 20 years that have been brought through by clubs either here or abroad.

Of course some of the players like Mark Viduka, Luke Wilkshire, and Josip Skoko spent time at the AIS and sure it helped to introduce them to world-class sports scientists and so on, but whether it really helped to make them the success stories they became is questionable. First team football is where a young player’s natural talent is really honed into what it takes to be a professional footballer. This is the opportunity players like Viduka, Emerton, Okon, Zelic and so on at a young age were given in the NSL. The A-League clubs are just now starting to realise the benefit of exposing younger players to the demands of senior football. Who knows maybe we will see more 17 and 18 year olds running in the near future so when they go on to sign for bigger clubs overseas it as potential starters instead of academy players.

Expectations too need to be lowered as to what a club or system can produce. Leeds some 15 years later are still trying to produce their next Harry Kewell. How many Mark Vidukas have come through the Knights since the original V-Bomber? Even massive clubs like Barcelona can’t replicate Messi because if they could he wouldn’t be worth an estimated £125 million but instead closer to £125,000. If Manchester United had the secret recipe of making world-class players, Giggs (38) and Scholes (37) would be in Mallorca sipping on Sangarias right now.

Truly gifted footballers are not developed, they are discovered. Messi wasn’t just a random 11 year old that Barcelona picked up from Argentina. He was an amazing young talent that caught their eye. Of course these child prodigies are not the finished articles but this is where a top club excels in nurturing their raw talent. The best that we can hope for in most cases though is that clubs produce good, solid professionals like a Jamie Carragher, or Phil Neville.

At national team level, the opportunities for the Golden Generation and the generation before that, which I like to call the Diamond Generation (as in “diamonds in the rough”), culminated in much quicker introductions into the Socceroos. Mark Viduka was introduced into the Australian set up while still at the Knights, Ned Zelic was given his introduction while at Sydney Olympic, Brett Emerton was also at Olympic when given his first caps. This rarely happens now especially for players under 21. Gone are the days of throwing young talent into the deep end to see if they sink or swim. Nowadays we wouldn’t have seen Viduka in the national team until he was 23 years old, playing for Celtic.

Time has seen the progression of the Golden and Diamond Generations get blown out of proportion when comparing them to today’s younger players coming through. With the exception of say Harry Kewell and John Aloisi, most of the great players of these times were not playing at the highest level until they were over 21 and some not until they were as old as 25. Let’s look at some notable examples, Tim Cahill (25), Mark Viduka (25), Lucas Neill (23), and Brett Emerton (24)  who were all approaching or in their mid-20s when they reached the EPL. Emerton and Viduka to be fair were at big European clubs before in Feyenoord and Celtic respectively.

But this does give Mustafa Amini (19), Massimo Luongo (19), Matthew Leckie (21), Jackson Irvine (19), Tommy Oar (20) amongst others a few years before we can write them off as failures. Fifteen years ago a kid who had played Bundesliga or come on in a European match against Liverpool would’ve been given a few runs in the national team. Now even amassing over 25 appearances for a Premier League team doesn’t guarantee anything.

Another challenge thrown down to the young players today is they have to force the older players out. This is based on another myth of the Golden Generation who actual didn’t force the  Diamond Generation players out like some would have you believe. It was more a case of the older players stepping aside when they were ready which can be seen in their ages when they played their last Socceroos games Okon (31), Aurelio Vidmar (34), Lazaridis (34), Slater (33), Foster (31), Arnold (34).

The players nowadays are not as willing to step aside for the next generation possibly because they have had that taste of the World Cup and they want more which is understandable. In any case, it isn’t really up to the players to select squads but the coaching staff. If a player wants to kick on until they are 40 its fine as long as they can do the job better than anyone else available. If they want to but can’t play to the level they did before, then it is up to a manager with the intestinal fortitude to make the brave call of replacing the ageing star.

Without doubt a dependence on the older generation and failure to blood younger players will result in the Next Generation becoming the Lost Generation. One only needs to look at the state of Australian cricket to see the problems this leads to and how long it can take to correct.

Tomorrow the second part of this feature will focus on some of the players coming through, who will still be under 30 come 2018, that have the potential to become important players for Australia. Some names may already have been thrown around for the senior team and some may be unheard of. It may just surprise the number of players we have both domestically and abroad.

Adam Howard

Adam is one of the founders of Football Central and the creator of OSAussies.com.  He has followed the career paths of Australian footballers playing in leagues all over the world.  Born in Adelaide and currently residing in Hiroshima, Adam brings a unique perspective to Australian football.  He is an ardent supporter of Australia's domestic competition and national team.

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