Depth challenge for aspiring A-Leaguers

Football Superstar Luke Pilkington may have secured his shot at Hyundai A-League glory with a Melbourne Victory contract, but Victory coach Ernie Merrick believes the depth of talent at junior levels has made it harder and harder for younger players to get themselves on the radar of the A-League clubs.

Football Superstar Luke Pilkington may have secured his shot at Hyundai A-League glory with a Melbourne Victory contract, but Victory coach Ernie Merrick believes the depth of talent at junior levels has made it harder and harder for younger players to get themselves on the radar of the A-League clubs.

Merrick worked extensively with emerging young talent at the Victoria Institute of Sport and played a role in the development of current Socceroos Vince Grella, Scott McDonald and Josh Kennedy. He believes the explosion in interest in football in the wake of the implementation of the Hyundai A-League and Australia's 2006 World Cup campaign has only increased the talent pool.

"I think the Institutes in all states do a great job as well as the national Institute (AIS). The state federations are doing a great job. The clubs and the mums and dads are really encouraging the kids. The number of youngsters in this country playing football at grass roots level is enormous and that's now providing more elite players at junior level and many of them come into the system," he said.

While having more talent available is a bonus for both the sport and the Hyundai A-League clubs, the difficulty comes in picking the right players. Pilkington is an example of a player who was not able to secure a contract after trials with Gold Coast and Central Coast.

"There's heaps of players out there that are quality players. They are all looking to further their careers. It's just you have to get a bit of luck with making things and I took the opportunity and tried to make the most of it," Pilkington said.

"I've been up to Gold Coast and Central Coast. I've never been picked up. I've been trying for the last year or so. Trying to get a youth contract somewhere. Last season I played a match with Central Coast. I went through our state side, and Lawrie McKinna had a look at me. I went up for a trial and trained with them a bit."

Pilkington said those who got through to the final few on the program all had their own reasons why they hadn't been picked up by teams, but all agreed that it was a difficult path.

"When we were talking, everyone was coming up with the conclusion that they'd never been picked up for their own reasons. They've all tried to and it's never really happened for them. That's why they look to Football Superstar to go further," he said.

The influx of young talent over the past few years and Merrick's passion for developing that talent, has led Melbourne to implement a junior development program to create better pathways for young players.

"We've embarked on that. We have plans for expansion of junior development down the track. It's something we are working on so we have good feeder systems for all young players in the state," he said.

"It's important for any elite team to look to develop the talent in the state. That's the thing that we've worked on from the beginning and we've got a really good youth program. And it's something we'll develop."

Merrick said that with a growth of young talent plus the return of players from overseas there was more than enough depth to cater for expansion of the Hyundai A-League, which begins with two new teams this season. He predicted that expansion could lead to a second national professional league at some stage down the track.

"(FFA) are on an expansion program and I am very excited about that. I think it's terrific that Gold Coast are coming in this year and the North Queensland Fury. The league seems to be getting stronger and better in getting quality players back. There's three Socceroos who have joined Perth, (Jason) Culina has joined Gold Coast, so there's quality players coming back who aren't over the hill," he said.

"It does look good for the future and the quality of teams, it will allow us to increase the number of teams and perhaps, raise the standard for a second division."

Meanwhile, Melbourne has signed up poultry company La Ionica to be its back-of-shirt sponsor for the upcoming season. Lottery company Intralot is Melbourne's front-of-shirt sponsor.