Coaches mentality to young brigade needs to change
Does the fact that four rookies snatched some praise (and some headlines) on the same weekend suggest A-League clubs have reached a turning point in their approach towards promoting their own youngsters?
If necessity truly is the mother of invention, then maybe we shouldn't read too much into Jordan Elsey's match-winner, Dylan Murnane's assured performance at left back, Daniel Alessi's starting debut, or Dylan Caton's late cameo as a replacement for the Hyundai A-League's biggest star, Alessandro del Piero.
In a period when fixture congestion is compounded by injuries and suspension (a situation aggravated this festive season by the absence of 17 A-League players on Olyroos duty) you could argue Josep Gombau, Kevin Muscat, Tony Popovic and Frank Farina had little choice but to delve into the ranks of their youth teams to bolster their squads.
Does the fact that four rookies snatched some praise (and some headlines) on the same weekend suggest A-League clubs have reached a turning point in their approach towards promoting their own youngsters? Unlikely.
But at the very least the rare confluence of events in Brisbane, Newcastle and Parramatta does sharpen the focus on a fundamental issue: After six-and-a-half seasons, how much value is the game getting from the Foxtel National Youth League?
It's a subject, not surprisingly, dear to the heart of the FFA's technical department, headed by Han Berger and Kelly Cross. The NYL was meant to become a key pillar of the development pathway when it was established in 2008 - bridging the gap between the elite state-based junior programs and the professional ranks of the A-League. Yet by most measures, it hasn't worked out that way.
There have been many, varied, explanations for the muted impact of the NYL. Berger's own frustration has been clear, and he's campaigned strongly and passionately for a suite of legislative changes to try and cajole clubs to play more youngsters.
Berger's biggest gripe has been the ability of each club to sign five foreigners - a quota he believes blocks the progress of Australian kids. It's a view which has plenty of currency, but not where it counts. Last year the owners roundly rejected Berger's recommendation to reduce the quota to three.
My own view is that it's not the foreign quota, or the regulations, which need to change. It's the attitude of the coaches. Until they see their NYL squad as a quasi-reserve team, no amount of tinkering with the rule book will make a difference. I don't sense too many of them have had that epiphany.
Different clubs have taken different approaches to the NYL. Some have picked players at the lower end of the 16-21 years spectrum, others have done the opposite. But what is universal is that most coaches believe the gap between the NYL and first grade remains a gulf, which explains why they're so reluctant to dip into the well. Except, as we've seen recently, in extreme circumstances.
Elsey, for instance, was almost shipped out on loan to Hong Kong just a few weeks ago - Gombau clearly believing he was unlikely to figure in his plans. Caton, a 17-year-old from Sutherland Shire, is just the second youth player called up by Farina this season, and the Sky Blues are topping the NYL table. Popovic had only used one NYL player (Jaushua Sotirio) before throwing Alessi into the cauldron of a Sydney derby.
Indeed by my reckoning, only 14 NYL players - Brandon Borrello and Kwame Yeboah (Brisbane Roar), Dylan Murnane (Melbourne Victory), Jordan Elsey, Anthony Costa and Ryan Kitto (Adelaide United), Matthew Davies and Riley Woodcock (Perth Glory), Stefan Mauk and Paulo Retre (Melbourne Heart), Chris Naumoff and Dylan Caton (Sydney FC) and Jaushua Sotirio and Daniel Alessi (Western Sydney Wanderers) - have been given a shot as we head into the second half of the A-League season. Most of those appearances have been fleeting - only Murnane, Yeboah, Alessi, Naumoff, Davies, Woodcock and Retre have been given the chance to start a match.
Given so many coaches have been complaining about the handicaps of a 23-man roster lately, you have to wonder. That they're often so quick to utilise the injury-replacement option further proves how they're missing the point.
The fact is - when injuries, suspensions and call-ups test their depth - the solution is right under their nose. The challenge is to make the NYL more relevant, or clubs will eventually start to question why they're spending around $500,000 per year on a youth team. The only way to do that is to persuade the coaches that the kids deserve consideration.
Popovic seems to have joined the ranks of the true believers, based on his post-game comments at Parramatta: ''I believe in every one of our players in our squad, and I believe in our youth team as well. If we feel they're good enough, we'll give them an opportunity. If we feel they're right for that game they will play. It won't always turn out they play great, but you have to start somewhere.''
And yet this is the same coach who last season waited until the final round to use his first NYL player (Yianni Perkatis). Maybe 'Poppa' has softened his views. Let's hope so, because the way I see it we have plenty of emerging talent. Of course these youngsters have to be good enough, but often they are. What they lack is the opportunity.