“I don’t see the A-League as a development league,” were the words uttered by then Sydney FC manager and current Socceroos boss Graham Arnold in 2018 when the league came under scrutiny for its lack of opportunities provided to Australian youngsters.
At the time, it was difficult to disagree with him.
Sydney FC were dominating the league with the experienced duo of Alex Wilkinson and Dutchman Jordy Buijs at the back while European maestros Miloš Ninković and Adrian Mierzejewski were amongst the league’s best players in supplying the side’s Brazilian marksman Bobô.
The average A-League player was 27.6 years old and talented Aussie youngsters were made to bide their team on the bench behind older foreigners.
Graham Arnold’s words are often a topic of hot debate when discussing youth development in the A-League and they are often mis-contextualised, however, the point at which it becomes difficult to agree with Arnold’s sentiment is the point at which one interprets his words to mean that the A-League should not be a league that prioritises development.
This notion directly contravenes some of the great sentiments of the A-League. If being a ‘development league’ means prioritising young talent and giving homegrown youngsters opportunities to succeed in their own country, is it not good to be a development league?
It is difficult to know the exact meaning behind Arnold’s infamous statement, however, the implication that Australia’s top division should prioritise competition and winning over the need to develop young Australians to play for the Socceroos is a flawed sentiment on many levels.
Fortunately, the last two seasons have seen a stark shift towards youth development from A-League clubs as well as a changed rhetoric with regards to the importance of promoting young talent.
In fact, over the last two seasons the average age of players in the A-League has drastically changed from 27.6 years of age to 25.1 years of age while Melbourne City won the league with a team that had an average age of 23.7.
Promoting young talent is no longer seen as a barrier to team success as it was in the past.
Pleasingly, the establishment and funding of A-League youth academies have resulted in clubs being more likely to give their own talent a chance.
Players who have been brought up under the guidance of an A-League club are more likely to receive a chance to play in the senior team due to the time and resources that clubs have injected into these academies.
Increasing the amount of youth academies in Australia is an important step to ensuring that talented youngsters are exposed to a professional environment from a young age in a pathway that directly leads to the A-League.
Most importantly, A-League’s potential has only scratched the surface, with opportunities provided to young talents to play in the Socceroos.
The likes of Connor Metcalfe, Denis Genreau and Riley McGree are beneficiaries of this shifted rhetoric and have recently made their Socceroos debuts at the ages of 21 and 22 years old respectively.
Creating talents like these in the A-League is the league’s ultimate purpose and it is something that we should embrace rather than look down upon like we have in the past.
This is a view shared by former Head of National Performance at Football Australia Luke Casserly Kick360 shared his thoughts on the need to embrace the A-League’s ability to develop young players to play for the Socceroos.
“The number one thing when we talk about our youth development, which we saw at the Olympics and you start to see now is that players get the opportunity to play first team football,” he said, citing the success of right-back Nathaniel Atkinson and the aforementioned Metcalfe as players who have solidified their place in the A-League as youngsters.
Ensuring that young players can solidify regular appearances in the A-League is of the utmost importance for developing youth in Australia. Despite the potential lure of jetting off overseas as soon as a European club comes calling, recent examples have demonstrated the need for young players to establish themselves as A-League regulars before accepting a dream move overseas.
“You have the Arzani example, [Kwame] Yeboah was similar and Daniel De Silva hadn’t really established themselves as starting players in the A-League before getting the opportunity to go overseas, but when Roma come knocking it’s hard to say no.
“When Arzani was signed by Manchester City, depending on the options he had then maybe it was best to stay another year in the A-League where he could get a full season as a starting player under his belt before he went.”
However, Casserly equally acknowledges the importance of ensuring that players are left with no regrets and conceded that the lure of moving prematurely overseas is often too great to turn down.
“It’s a really difficult one to answer, I don’t think there is a magic formula, though if I look at the players like Maty Ryan and Aaron Mooy… he established himself here before he went away, Maty Ryan was established here before he went away, Trent Sainsbury was established here before he went away, Jedinak and Rogić as well.
“It seems to be a better platform for success that they do establish themselves here, maybe start to get some senior international caps before they go and then they’re getting signed as first-team players, not as fringe players,” Casserly posits.
In illustrating these clear examples of young Australians solidifying their place in the A-League before playing regularly in Europe, it is clear that the A-League has done a good job of developing young talent in the past.
The primary issue over the past few years has been the lack of minutes afforded to youth in the A-League which has inhibited players’ ability to get opportunities overseas and thus grow the national team.
The former FA Head of National Performance echoes this sentiment by highlighting the need for A-League youth to play minutes at a senior level before demonstrating their talents on a world stage where overseas scouts are likely to notice them.
While the establishment of a National Second Division remains a hotly contested topic in the realms of Australian football, currently the only option for young players to play professionally in Australia is to ply their trade in the A-League.
They are far more likely to develop within Australia’s professional tier than while playing at the semi-professional level of the National Premier Leagues (NPL), with Australian youth academies often playing at NPL2 or 3 level in both NSW and Victoria.
“If you’re playing senior football every week and then go to an underage tournament, then you’re really well equipped to handle it, you do well at that tournament which then means that players get the opportunity to move to Europe.
“We now have to qualify [for these tournaments] through Asia and it’s really really difficult.
“When we go with teams where a number of players are playing regularly in the A-League, it shows and we qualify for tournaments and it’s when we qualify for tournaments that our players get exposure and it opens up opportunities for these players to get moves to European clubs.
“Once this happens, they then go onto the next level which helps the Socceroos and the national teams in the future,” explained Casserly.
Olympians Denis Genreau and Cameron Devlin have demonstrated this approach in practice by solidifying their places in Macarthur and Wellington’s starting XIs before moving to FC Toulouse and Heart of Midlothian respectively after the Olympics.
Ensuring that Australian young talent gets the opportunity to move to Europe and further develop their careers is the most important function of the A-League.
Whether this makes the A-League a ‘development league’ or not is irrelevant but it certainly means that clubs must acknowledge that the primary function of the league should be to prioritise first-team opportunities for young Australian players.
Debate will continue to ravage regarding the need to place a stricter cap on the amount of foreigners able to be signed to A-League clubs but the ultimate priority should be maximising minutes for Australian youngsters, regardless of how this occurs.
The primary reason for adopting this approach is to grow the Socceroos, both as a football team and as a brand. That is the biggest benefit of recognising the A-League as a development league.
There is no mistaking the fact that the Socceroos is what brings contemporary Australian society together. They have the largest viewing audience and greatest amount of general interest of any entity in Australian football, alongside the Matildas
It is often easy to forget that Australia’s first game at the 2018 World Cup against France drew a peak TV audience of over 3 million people when broadcast at a favourable time on Free-To-Air television.
It is an irrefutable fact that Australians (non-football fans included) will always support the Socceroos and Australia’s national teams across all sports in general.
“All Australians love all of our national teams! I don’t watch cricket but I’ll watch the Ashes, I don’t follow Rugby Union but I’ll watch the Wallabies…it’s what we do, we love our national teams,” said Casserly.
“The Socceroos are the biggest football brand that we have here in Australia, a lot of people that don’t normally follow football will watch the Socceroos.”
With this in mind, the greatest value of producing youth in the A-League is that it provides a direct pathway to the Socceroos, thus strengthening the depth of the national team and allowing them to be more competitive on a world stage, leading to a greater perception of the Socceroos and the A-League.
“There’s nothing that’s gonna benefit our national team more than our young Australian players getting to establish themselves,” firmly stated Casserly.
By growing the strength of the national team, more Australians become interested in football and the A-League is also then perceived to be at a higher standard due to the quality of the national team.
The A-League must capitalise on the popularity of the Socceroos and ensure that casual viewers of the national team can become convinced to give the A-League a chance, this thought accentuated taking into account the monumental Viacom/CBS partnership across both Football Australia and APL stables.
In the past, we have seen a direct correlation between the Socceroos’ success and A-League attendances. Typically, when the Socceroos perform well, the A-League receives more attention. This was none more obvious than when the national team won the Asian Cup on home soil in 2015.
Australia’s top division rode the wave of the football mania catalysed by the Asian Cup in that the 2014/15 and 2015/16 seasons of the A-League were two of the three most supported seasons in terms of average attendance per game.
COVID-related issues have undeniably played a part in the faltering attendances that we’ve seen over the past two seasons – there is a case to be made that the lack of Socceroos fixtures over the past two years has contributed to this downturn in attendances.
Perhaps most importantly, however, the Socceroos being successful results in Australia being taken more seriously as a football nation on a world stage.
Young A-League players might then receive more opportunities to play overseas with European clubs more willing to take a gamble on an Australian prospect by virtue of the national team being of higher quality. This is an approach which represents a holistic growth of the game in Australia by focusing our attention on the national team.
“If we want to grow our game here and grow our credibility here (internationally) then it’s through our national teams,” Casserly said.
Most pleasingly, this approach to youth development is not a unique and untested proposition, rather it is common in leagues outside Europe’s top six (England, Spain, Italy, Germany, Portugal and France).
In fact, this approach is most poignantly recognised in the Netherlands’ Eredivisie where strong competition is not compromised by the league’s prioritisation of youth development aimed at strengthening the Dutch national team.
Australians are not unfamiliar to Dutch ways of doing things with regards to football, particularly given Australia’s model of youth development being described as the ‘Dutch model’ – a notion that Casserly largely refutes.
“Personally, I don’t view it as a Dutch model, it’s a philosophy to play football where you want to dominate the game with the ball and with technically proficient players and position-specific players and the curriculum was developed around that,” he explained.
“Obviously the Dutch are very famous for it but the Belgians use the same philosophy, Germany use the same philosophy, Spain use the same philosophy, Japan use the same philosophy.
“Han Berger was the key influencer and he’s obviously a Dutch technical director that delivered it so it was delivered by the Dutch and has Dutch influence but I don’t view it as purely a Dutch-only system.”
Instead of looking so intently towards the development model that has been described as Dutch, Australian football should instead cast its eyes towards the Netherlands as an example of how the A-League should properly run itself as a competition where the primary purpose is to develop homegrown talent.
The importance, of course, is to ensure that there exists a balance between giving youngsters opportunities and maintaining the quality and integrity of the competition.
This looms as one of Australian football’s great conundrums for the next few years as the APL look to build on the success of last season and the array of youth talent now at Australia’s disposal.
Three years after those much-maligned words from Graham Arnold, it just might be the perfect time to embrace the A-League as a development league.