Vince Grella, Socceroos hero who is nowadays involved in player scouting, and I had a conversation at a recent A-League game.
We spoke about Panos Armenakas, young Australian starlet at Udinese, mutually admired by both of us. I lamented that at 18 the young man of immense technical talents should surely be promoted out of the Primavera and into the senior team at Udine.
I added for extra ammunition that Pelé won the World Cup at 17.
"Yes, but those days are gone," said Vince.
And indeed they are. Compared to past eras coaches, especially at the higher level professional clubs of Europe, just don’t give the kids a chance any more.
Occasionally they break through as teenagers but more often than not they then disappear, usually somewhere on loan.
Like Adnan Januzaj who burst through at Manchester United at age 18 with his quick turn of speed and wonderful technique. By age 19 he was a Belgian international. Remember him?
Now, at 22, he is in his second loan spell, first at Borussia Dortmund and then at Sunderland.
Another is, or was, Alen Halilovic, a brilliant, deflty creative midfielder who came through at Dinamo Zagreb at age 16 and was signed with big wraps by Barcelona two years later.
Within a year he was loaned out to Sporting Gijon, then signed by Hamburg and now, at just 20, he is again on loan, back in Spain at Las Palmas.
This stuff makes distressing reading. There are few worse downers for a football fan than getting all excited at the sight of a thrilling youngster only to see the kid wither on the vine even before he ripens.
There are a number of reasons for this in the modern game, the first of them being an aversion to risk-taking by today’s coaches.
Today coaches are far more influential than ever before in selecting their teams and how they set them up. Forever terrorised by the prospect of getting the sack they tend to play it safe and they consider it safer to select experienced players.
When Pelé was a mere child he was already scoring wonder goals at Santos. Brazil boss Vicente Feola simply had no way to leave him out of the national team even if he wanted to. The big difference is that now Pelé would still be in the youth team. Too young.
The second main reason is economic. Vast numbers of young players are given their chance at first team football in the developing world, especially South America and Africa.
The strategy is to place them in the shopwindow, give them a bit of valuable experience and then sell them in Europe.
Not all of them make it of course but many do and become superstars. Neymar, Kaká, Ronaldinho, Robinho, Luis Suarez, Samuel Eto’o come to mind.
But my conviction is that if they were Europeans they would never have been promoted.
The point being that these players went to Europe as young men but already with a good volume of experience at first team football, months and years playing against men.
Is there a lesson here for Australian players? Is there some advice for their parents and managers?
I believe there is.
Many Aussie kids go to Europe as children joining the youth squads of reputable clubs. Some break through eventually, like Massimo Luongo, Brad Smith and Chris Ikonomidis.
But not before spending seasons parked in the youth team waiting for a rare chance at promotion. Frustrated, they go out on loan as these three have done.
Would it be better for them to wait, break into an A-League team and get some senior games under their belt before making their move?
Alex Gersbach, the young left back now at Rosenborg in Norway, is a good example of a smarter route. Before he was 18 he was already a seasoned senior player, tallying up 32 games for Sydney FC.
Now in Norway in his first season he has made 22 appearances for the Rosenborg first team. He is a seasoned European professional waiting for his next move.
But he got lucky in that his coach at Sydney FC, Graham Arnold, believed in him.
Of course for this practice to work Australian coaches have to be a bit more generous in promoting the young ones. Our club coaches are no saints either, as Ange Postecoglou often laments.
It’s wonderful to see the odd kid break through, like Riley McGree at Adelaide or Lachlan Scott at the Wanderers. But they are far too few and rare.
The technical bosses at Football Federation Australia (FFA) have often moaned about this and tried to engineer youth promotion with quotas. But the clubs wouldn’t have it. Go figure. Promoting youngsters that you can then sell overseas makes eminent business sense to me.
In my view there definitely should be a quota system in the A-League that is more generous to the kids. Left to their own devices, the coaches simply won’t give them a chance.