The morning after Han Berger released the new version of our national curriculum, I ventured to Jensen Park to see what all the fuss was about.
The morning after Han Berger released the new version of our national curriculum, I ventured to Jensen Park to see what all the fuss was about. Depending on who you talk to, 13-year-old John Roberts either typifies the problem, or represents a solution, to the issue which our technical director believes requires a ‘fundamental transformation’ – how to find a smarter, better, way to develop our best young players. Without a sea change in ‘culture and mentality’ Berger maintains Australia will quickly fall behind in the ongoing challenge to remain relevant in the world game.
More than anything, Berger hopes his updated curriculum – a 300-page document which outlines both the philosophy and the detail of his roadmap to reform – will hit the mark at grassroots level. It’s here where Berger believes a ‘win-at-all-costs mentality’ has entrenched itself at the cost of creating the sort of good habits, and good techniques, which underpin the successful football nations. It’s why, after great internal debate, Berger opted to make the curriculum available free-of-charge (via this website) rather than protect the IP. If the new blueprint is to make a genuine difference, then those at the coalface – essentially junior coaches – need to have access to the detail. A brave move, but the right one. We must all hope it works.
So where does this leave Roberts, an African-born refugee who plays for Mt Druitt Town Rangers in the second-tier of the NSW junior system? As a prime example of a player over-used in the quest for results at a level where results should not matter? Or as another example of the sort of player our game will ultimately benefit from thanks to the recent influx of African refugees – provided he’s handled the right way? I went down to the second division grand finals day to find out for myself.
Roberts is quick, strong, direct, good with both feet, and adept at rolling his defender. It’s why he scores so many goals. But as a 13-year-old playing up a division, his physical advantage is slightly diminished. And technically, he still has much work to do. Yet for all that, he’s clearly got a future. It’s what happens from here on which will decide his fate.
If you listen to the gossip, Roberts may be the hottest prospect in NSW junior football. One seasoned observer at the grand final, where Roberts scored the first goal in a comfortable win over Fraser Park, told me: ”There’s 500 people here today, and there’s only one player they’re talking about.” Listening to the chatter among the parents in the grandstand, it’s clear there’s admiration and jealousy in equal measure. The task of nurturing his talent has fallen to Mt Druitt Town’s technical director Stewart Montgomery. It’s a task he takes seriously.
The envy, of course, comes from the fact that Roberts – like many of our African immigrants – has the physique to dominate football at this level. In his case that’s not necessarily about bulk – more about speed and power. The end result is that his goals have helped Rangers win the club championship, and earn promotion to the top tier of the NSW junior system, where – among others – they’ll join their local rivals Blacktown City and Blacktown Spartans at the head table for the first time.
That’s a big deal for this small club from one of Sydney’s most maligned suburbs, and the fact Roberts started the season playing three grades in one day (under-13s, under-14s and under-15s) has led to accusations of overloading. In other words, Mt Druitt have flogged him to achieve results – exactly what Berger argues against. It’s a charge Montgomery vehemently, and convincingly, denies.
”What we did at the start of the season was play him for 10-15 minutes in the 13s, probably 40-50 minutes in the 14s, and then another 10-15 minutes in the 15s,” says Montgomery. ”The issue as we saw it was the cumulative effect of that game time, and we believed we were on the right path in terms of his development. But then I had a chat with ‘Crookie’ (NSW assistant technical director Ian Crook), and his view that we needed to look at the mental fatigue of having him at the ground from 8am right through to one o’clock. So we listened, and for 99 percent of the season he’s played the bulk of his football in the 14s. If we do use him for the 13s, we get him a rub down between games, fluid him up, and make sure he gets his rest. Put it this way, we’ve become very conscious of his workload. We keep a very close eye on his loading.”
This story is not about villifying Roberts, or his club. It was the Rangers who found him playing local park football 18 months ago, recognised his talent, and scooped him up from under the noses of the Spartans and the Demons, who historically get first pick of the best players from the Blacktown district. It’s the Rangers who have picked him up and dropped him off at the local Housing Commission for training and games, fed him, treated him, and helped his family where possible. That’s a good news story for a kid born in Guinea and raised in a refugee camp in Sierre Leone before he arrived in Australia four years ago. If football can give him a better future, and Mt Druitt Town play a part in that, then everyone wins. My instinct is that the Rangers, and Montgomery, are a good fit for Roberts at this delicate stage of his development. But there are issues which need to be addressed.
As you read this, Roberts will be in Europe on tour with a private academy. There is talk Stoke City will have a look at him. Locally, the bigger clubs are queuing up to try and prise him away from Mt Druitt Town. If Rangers have their way, he’ll stick around until at least next April, when they’ve been invited to Portugal to play in an under-15s tournament alongside Sporting Lisbon, Benfica, Sevilla and Porto. Yes, that’s right, the modest Rangers are off to play against the best. It’s all thanks to the connections of the club’s under-15s coach, Paul Ribeiro, a former Benfica player.
What it all adds up to, of course, is pressure. Too much pressure? That’s the key.
”There’s the pressure the kid puts on himself, and he does have high expectations, but the real pressure comes from the sidelines,” says Montgomery.
It’s that environment Berger wants the new curriculum to change. Coach education is a key, but parents, and officials, can also help. ”In a perfect world, if the structures were different, there might not be as much pressure,” says Montgomery. ”As a concept, I think we’d all agree with that.”
To change attitudes will take time, but the new curriculum does provide the weaponry to help achieve Berger’s mission of ‘fundamental transformation’. In the meantime Roberts – like any promising youngster – dreams of becoming a professional.
It’s how he gets there which will tell us whether we’re heading the right way. I’ll leave the final word to Montgomery: ‘We don’t keep them (players), we don’t collect them. If he does make it, nobody will be more chuffed than me.”