With an A-League season in which youngsters are tipped to take a starring role on the horizon, Australia’s hopes of a new Golden Generation, according to Socceroo and Olyroos' boss Graham Arnold, rest on its ability to consistently provide its youth with enough games to turn their potential into reality.
Arnold, alongside FFA senior technical analyst Doug Kors and academies and youth men's national team’s manager James Duvcevski, recently spearheaded new Football Australia research into the foibles of Australian youth development, the findings of which were released in early November.
Reinforcing conclusions previously found by groups such as Professional Footballers Australia, it determined that not only was the A-League’s average age one of the oldest in the world pre-COVID, but that there also existed a number of structural barriers below the Australian top-tier that hampered the development of the next generation of Socceroos.
Players at all levels, it was stated, weren't exposed to enough competitive minutes during their most important formative years to foster their growth.
Furthermore, not only did a dearth of minutes blunt their ability to impress enough to earn senior selection in training but, in the rare occasions they did earn a shot, it robbed them of the physical and mental preparedness required to take advantage of that rare opportunity.
Combined with a lack of a national second tier and a deficiently short Y-League, youngsters are seemingly fighting to achieve their professional dreams with one arm tied behind their back.
Planning and negotiations remain ongoing amongst various stakeholder groups surrounding reforms to the NPL, as well as player contracting and registrations, recommended by the FA in the wake of the report.
“I believe that we do not play enough football in this country,” Arnold said on Thursday.
“It’s crazy. For a start, the elite side of our game is completely not in line with our junior development side of the game, but also, 26 rounds… I’m sorry. There are 12 teams. Why isn’t there 33 rounds?
“With NPL, a lot of states are only playing 22 rounds. Why can’t they play 34 or 36? A lot of those clubs have their own stadiums. So, we’re only practising our trade for six months of the year, and the other six months we’re not doing it.
"So the kids, they’re doing six months of no activity, and the crazy thing is, the kids between the age of nine and 12 are doing SAP programs for 40 weeks.
“And when they turn 13 they go back to 22 [weeks]. Then by the time they’re 17 they’re playing five or six games [in the Y-League] or they’re playing 22 rounds [in the NPL] instead of going to 40.
“If those kids start playing 40 rounds a year, you’ll see a Golden Generation come. You’ll see them in spades. But they don’t play enough football.”
Nonetheless, despite the structural issues still yet to be overcome, Arnold has taken heart from the likely increase in opportunities available for youth in the coming A-League season - and what it bodes for their development.
Brief hints as to what might possibly lie ahead have already been seen in the closing stages of the 2019/20 season and, even more recently, at 2020 Asian Champions League; Gianluca Iannucci, Calem Nieuwenhof and Luke Bodnar all announcing their presence with eye-catching performances for Melbourne Victory, Sydney FC and Perth Glory respectively.
Inevitably, of course, minutes will become slightly more difficult to come by as more senior players begin to properly find match fitness, last-minute signings are added and coaches revert to familiarity and pragmatism at the selection table in their pursuit of a place in the top-six.
But with the demographics of the league having undergone so much upheaval due to COVID, it’s seemingly fait accompli that young players will see more of the field come 2020/21.
“At the end of the day, the coaches have a job to do and they will play the best players in each team that the club has,” Arnold said.
“But there will be, I do believe, more opportunities for the kids this season. A lot of that has obviously been due to the drop in the salary cap but also an increase in talent.
“I would look at that, with an increase in talent, [that the landscape is set to] have an exciting A-league. I think there will be a lot of good names that the fans won’t know that will come through, and they could be household names by the end of the A-League season.
“Obviously, moving forward to the international side of things it’s important that those kids do get the games and do get game time but, again, it’s going to be down to the performance of the players.”
Should the young players thrive in the manner he believes they can, and A-League coaches are willing to embrace the risk and reward that comes with their deployment, Arnold says that the regular football, as well as the coming Olympics, will set the scene for them to one day go on to make the kind of impact with European clubs that came to define the Golden Generation - as well as Aussie trailblazers such as Eddie Krncevic, Frank Farina and even Arnold himself.
“We can’t just rely on the COVID situation to correct this,” he said.
“It needs to be systematic and it needs to be done with intentions and not just by luck. That’s the benefit to this COVID crisis, that we can fix our crisis.
“A lot of [Golden Generation] guys played in the old NSL and played probably two to three seasons in the before they made their move overseas.
"Now I can envisage that happening again, with these kids playing a lot of football this year, 24 to 25 rounds.
"They will get an opportunity to go the Olympics and, as I said to the kids in camp, COVID has been life changing for these kids because it’s given them the opportunity to play and get more match minutes.
“Playing at the Olympics is a life-changing experience. There’s only ever been 65 men’s Olympian footballers that have taken the field. Out of that, 59 went on to play for the Socceroos. And 56 got signed overseas.
"So the clubs will benefit from that, in terms of transfers, the players, the individuals, will benefit from that.
"They could get a life-changing move to Europe or to Asia that will change their whole life. This is an exciting part of it.”