Ryall - From boy to man
In the seven games Sebastian Ryall has played this season, Melbourne fans have seen him go from boy to man.
When Sebastian Ryall made his debut with Melbourne Victory in the 2007/08 season, there was a sense that a boy, albeit a highly-talented one, was making his first big steps to take on the men. Baby-faced and quietly spoken, Ryall didn't seem an automatic fit in a defensive line-up alongside Kevin Muscat or Rody Vargas.
But in the seven games he has played this season, Melbourne fans have seen Ryall go from boy to man. Having spent much of the early part of the season on international duty trying to lead the Young Socceroos into the World Cup, Ryall has returned a bigger, stronger and tougher player who has now won a permanent spot in Victory's best XI.
That's no mean feat for a player who is yet to celebrate his 20th birthday. But Ryall's physical and mental growth over the past 12 months has tuned him into one of the rising stars of the Hyundai A-League.
"Sebastian was heavily committed to the Under-20 qualifying campaign, which was successful. He missed most of our pre-season and he missed five or six games out of the first XI," coach Ernie Merrick explained this week.
"Then he had to fight for his place in the team. When we went through that run of six of eight away from home, some boys didn't perform under that pressure, he got a chance. He virtually hasn't been out of the team since then."
Ryall's inclusion in the side has coincided with Melbourne's return to form. Of the seven games he has started in this season, Melbourne has won six.
"Every time he walks off the pitch, he says, 'we've played the last seven and we've won six of them.' He's got a great attitude, I can see why he was captain if the Under 20s," Merrick said.
The next challenge for Ryall in the Finals Series, which begins against Adelaide on Saturday week, something he is very much looking forward to.
"It's very exciting. We've worked very hard on this all year. I just can't wait for it. We'll give everything we have and hopefully we'll get the home Grand Final. I'm really looking forward to it," he said.
"It's a finals game and anything can happen. We have beaten them three times this year, but that doesn't mean anything now. In the finals series, anything can happen and we're just taking it one day at a time."
Ryall said the Victory's season turned on after the win against Sydney on December 27, when they trailed 2-0 after just four minutes only to fight back and win 3-2.
"It really came down to that crunch game against Sydney, we had to come back. We were coming off three losses. We really wanted to challenge for the Premiership. We started working really hard on the training pitch. It wasn't a massive change, it's just the hard work we've done was starting to reward us," he said.
Ryall believes to most significant aspect of his development over the past 12 months has been the influence that the likes of Vargas and Muscat have had on him.
"It's extremely good for my development. With the experience of Kevin, always in my ear telling me what to do, it makes my job so much easier. I learn things every day from him. Every part of the game. I've really enjoyed playing with him. He's such a good player. I've learned a lot from him," he said.
Merrick agrees that the stability of the middle of defence with Muscat and Vargas has been conducive to Ryall's growth as a player.
"Last year we struggled with the core of the team, down the spine. This year, with (goalkeeper Michael) Theoklitos, the two centre backs, Vargas and Muscat, Billy Celeski, Dan, Archie, there are just always (helpers) there," he said. "We've got some really good depth and that just benefits the youngsters coming in because they have got some experience and leadership around."
This season will be Ryall's last with the Victory with Sydney snapping the talented youngster up. It would appear to be a smart investment, with the teenager's Socceroo prospects growing with every match.
Ryall was inspired to see his Melbourne team-mates represent the Socceroos in Jakarta this week. Having already skippered the Under 20 side, he would love to make the next step at some time in the future.
"It was great to watch them last night. It was a good result last night. They've not played together that much. To see those guys getting games for the Socceroos playing for the A-League, I know what it takes to get to that level. Hopefully one day I get my opportunity," he said.