In the past few seasons, no side has prioritised opportunities for Australian men’s youth more than the Central Coast Mariners.
During the past couple of games in the A-League Men, the Mariners’ average age for their starting eleven has sat at 24.27, with those matches being consecutive 2-0 wins against Sydney FC and Western Sydney Wanderers respectively.
Youth has been at the forefront of recent success in the Central Coast, with the likes of Alou Kuol and Gianni Stensness impressing immensely last campaign, and gaining offseason moves as a result.
Prior to the start of this season, Shaun Mielekamp spoke to Kick360 about the Mariners’ heavy focus and strategy on the development of younger players.
“This is a core part of the Mariners. We say we give youth a chance, and this is fundamentally what we try to bring to the A-League”, he said.
“We haven’t always got it right, we haven’t always been developing players and that has been at times in parallel with the on-field performance.
“An important part of youth development is being in a successful team, and that’s something we saw from (Nick) Montgomery in the NPL2 when we won that league.
“Gianni Stensness, Jing Reec and Alou Kuol, who was an absolute shining light for us last campaign all headed off to Europe.”
But the Mariners most certainly have got it right this campaign, and currently face their first final in nine years, having made the last stage of the FFA Cup for the first time in their history under new head coach Nick Montgomery.
Despite a sequence of departures in the offseason, Montgomery has played his hand perfectly both in foreign recruitment and the promotion of youth to bolster the squad.
The introduction of 19-year-old left-back Jacob Farrell into the first team has proved genius, while the backline, also consisting of Kye Rowles, Daniel Hall and Lewis Miller that has started three of their last four games has an average age of just 21.25 years old.
“For us, at times, it’s a necessity”, said Montgomery when speaking about the club’s faith in younger players.
“We don’t have the funds to bring players in and that’s not a complaint, I think that’s what makes this club unique.
“We’re the underdog, and we know we’ve got to do things a little bit differently, and that’s why we put a lot of time, effort and resources into scouting and bringing players in from Australia and overseas.
“We are showing the youth that there is a pathway into the first team and overseas – that pathway has been shown last year.
“For us, it’s about trying to accelerate their development – that’s what myself and Sergio Raimundo did last year and the year before in the academy, and we’re seeing boys come through now who know the expectations of first-team football.”
One of the biggest success stories in recent times for the Mariners has been the development of Kye Rowles.
Having first joined the Mariners from Brisbane Roar having played just 31 minutes of A-League Men football, Rowles has gone on to make 83 appearances in the league at the time of writing.
He has been the experienced leader within a young Mariners backline, which he has taken in his long stride.
“To stand up in such a young backline, it’s kind of been a bit weird, because you look around and you try and lean on people for experience and then realise that you’re probably the most experienced here”, said Rowles.
“Those boys have played so well this season and it’s good to see so much confidence in them – the way they’ve grown from pre-season to now is just amazing.
“It’s good to see, and it just shows that the local kids have a lot of talent.”
Rowles’ consistently outstanding form has been rewarded with one of the best honours for a young Australian player, with the Mariners leader receiving a phone call from Graham Arnold on Wednesday afternoon about his selection in the Socceroos squad for the next two FIFA World Cup qualifier fixtures.
“It took me by surprise to be honest, I was just lost for words, Rowles humbly stated.
“It’s pretty crazy, and I’m really humbled and appreciative to have that opportunity.”
Meanwhile, Montgomery was quick to single out and praise the dominating defender.
“I think it’s been a long time coming – for me no one deserves it more in the league than Kye Rowles”, he said.
“He’s been outstanding all season and last, and when you’re picking players on current form, for me he is right up the top.”
Rowles’ form this season has been replicated by the Mariners as a whole, and they could either go outright top or second by one point if they are to win their two games in hand, depending on the result of Macarthur FC.
But Montgomery isn’t focused on the league table, having only played five games this campaign, and is currently taking it on a game by game basis.
“We’ve only played five games – to be honest, we don’t look at the league table, we just look at the next game”, he said.
“I said at the start of the season to the boys, ‘we’re in the FFA Cup, we’re in the A-League Men – if anyone comes into it not wanting to win it they’re in the wrong job’.
“Everybody wrote us off, which was fine, and again, we’re in the FFA Cup final now because we deserve to be there.
“If we perform and stay consistent then hopefully we can win games and be in the top six, and from there have a chance of competing in the grand final.”