FFA’s new technical director Rob Sherman has warned that “unless urgent and immediate action is taken” the decline in Australia’s ability to produce top talent will become irreversible.
The size of the task facing Sherman as he bids to spearhead a resurgence in paving pathways for emerging generations was laid bare on Monday as Australia’s U-15s crashed out of the AFC Championship at the group stage.
A 3-0 loss to Malaysia and a 1-1 draw with hosts Thailand demonstrated how south-east Asia is now able to eclipse Australia thanks to a level of financial investment Sherman can only dream of.
While coach Trevor Morgan’s Joeys have qualified for November’s U-17 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, lack of international and club exposure for Australian kids over the past decade, coupled with funding failures, has turned the talent pipeline into a trickle.
Just over two months into the role, Welshman Sherman - who helped develop his country’s golden generation stars Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Ledley - is looking for a radical shift of focus to tackle what he’s identified as the most pressing issue facing the Australian game.
“If our clubs are prepared to invest in youth development (through their academy systems) then we need to do everything possible as a game to help them make the best of that investment,” Sherman told The World Game.
“My perspective hasn’t changed since I took the role on - youth development is the biggest priority.
“Things have fallen behind and there’s a real need to address that.
“Unless urgent and immediate action is taken we won’t be able to reverse the decline.
“There is data that the PFA put together about the number of players from Australia in the early 2000‘s who were playing in the higher leagues around the world.
“You compare that to the today and the numbers have diminished quite significantly.
“There’s been a hiatus here for quite some time whilst the traditional countries and the emerging nations have been accelerating.
“Countries like Malaysia, and others in that region, are making up ground fast which we saw with the result against us the other week.
“South-east Asia, in particular, is investing and improving and we also need to invest and improve, even if we don’t go the exact same route.”
Lack of game time from the crucial age of 17 and upwards is seen by Sherman as a critical flaw in Australia’s development structure, with the eight games at NYL level light years away from being adequate.
He’s in favour of a second tier competition, in whatever form it might ultimately take, providing a credible stepping stone to the A-League.
“Players of 17 and above need to accrue senior games and be part of a competition structure that allows that to happen,” he added.
“That would preferably be within the club systems where they have been developed.
“The data shows that players in those age groups (elsewhere) accrue up to 75 games at a lower level (before higher tier opportunities).
“The A-League itself is a fantastic steppingstone and a second tier could be a fantastic means to provide a steppingstone for clubs to aspire to and also to expose players to that senior level.”
Starved of resources, Australia’s underage teams have been bereft of the domestic camps and tournament competition Sherman says would provide an X-factor in their development.
“In essence; you don’t want to build international programs around the cycles of qualification,” he added. “You want them playing every year regardless of the cycle.
It’s an expensive operation in Australia because of the travel component.
“In Wales, for instance, I’d have the U-15s and 16s travel 100km and I had still enough money left over to play 10 games.
“If you look at the perspective of Australia Inc, there must be ways in which the business community and the government could look at leveraging football with youth tournaments and the like as a means to encourage business opportunities.
“Asia speaks the language of football and we might be able to create some partnerships and tie-ups with our Asian neighbours (to deliver competition football outside recognised AFC tournaments).
“If all the ducks can be put in the right row for the benefit of the nation I can see round of 16 or quarter-finals for the men at World Cups and finals for the women.
“Just think what that would do for the game generally!
“The reality though is that I will probably be sipping through a straw before we see many other benefits.
"That’s the problem with youth development: it’s a long-term project.
“People sometimes look at something two years after its initiation and say ‘oh it doesn’t work’ but the real beneficiaries are still relatively young and it takes time.
“That's where you have to be really clever and determined in what you’re doing. And to see things through.
“We need to get everybody going the same direction. That’s possibly the biggest challenge.”