When the NSL shut down, a generation of Australian talent was stopped in its tracks. Now the A-League is is living up to its billing as a development league.
“Go Connor, now step-over,” instructed a voice in the stands, telepathically aware of his mate-s game as opposed to the 41,000 in attendance.
Right on cue, the Melbourne Victory debutant honoured the command from high in the stands of Etihad Stadium, skating past Matt Thompson and sending a dangerous low cross into Melbourne Heart-s penalty area to announce his arrival in the Hyundai A-League. His name was Connor Pain.
The 19-year-old-s debut that night was the sixth appearance by a Victory youth player under coach Ange Postecoglou this season.
In his 24 games in charge, the two-time A-League championship-winning coach has already given starts to eight players aged 21 and under. Ernie Merrick fielded just 14 A-League debutants in the same age bracket during his six-year tenure.
Postecoglou-s cross-town counterpart, John Aloisi, has also been generous with handing out debuts, graduating seven youth players into match-day squads in the current campaign. Of the seven, only Paolo Retre failed to receive any time on the park.
It-s a similar tale across the A-League, with many coaches placing increasing faith in fledgling talent.
“We’ve sold Rostyn Griffiths, Mustafa Amini, Matt Simon and Alex Wilkinson yet 12 of our 22 players are still under 21,” Mariners coach Graham Arnold remarked at the start of the season.
For decades, the NSL proved to be the country-s platform for unearthing and developing young talent.
Many members of Australia-s Golden Generation – Mark Viduka, Vince Grella and Brett Emerton, to name a few – all received their break in what was then Australia-s premier domestic league. Some of the country-s most gifted players – Ned Zelic, Paul Okon and Frank Farina, for example – also earned their stripes in the 27-year-old national competition.
The Crawford Report-s recommendation to shut the league down and start again consequently halted the conveyor belt carrying the next load of promising local talent, ultimately denying them competitive match time at a high level when their development needed it most.
Many from the Young Socceroos of 2005 never really reached the lofty heights experienced by their predecessors. It begs the question whether their stunted development had anything to do with it.
It would be over 16 months before the new A-League would be up and running; even longer for the next batch of talent to be rolled out.
An aging Socceroos squad coupled with a generation of missed opportunity was fertile ground for breeding panic among many. “Where-s our next Harry Kewell going to come from?”, “who will replace Mark Schwarzer?” and “can we coax Mark Viduka out of retirement?” were the pick of the bunch.
The player vacuum created by the NSL-s demise is now repaired. The amount of talent now being unearthed in the A-League has seen an evident shift from anxiety attacks about a bleak future for the green and gold to desperate calls for Holger Osieck to give youth a go, just as A-League coaches have done with remarkable success.
Over the years, the likes of Robbie Kruse, Nikita Rukavytsya, Tommy Oar, Mitchell Langerak, Mustafa Amini, Michael Zullo, Adam Sarota, Curtis Good and Brendan Hamill have used the A-League as a platform for bigger and better things.
Tomas Rogic and Aziz Behich were among some of the new contingent flying the A-League coop this season; many more from the class of 2012/13 appear set to follow suit in the coming years.
The A-League has lived up to its billing as a development league and played its part in fostering youth. It-s now up to Osieck to feast on the wide and talented selection available to him, hopefully beginning with the crucial 2014 World Cup qualifier against Oman on February 26th.
The Qantas Socceroos face Oman in a FIFA World Cup qualifier Sydney on 26 March. Click here to buy your tickets.