The A-League conundrum: “development league” or not?

Time for a snap poll: is the A-League a development league or not?

Arzani, Arnold, Mooy

(L-R) Arzani, Arnold, Mooy Source: AAP, Getty Images

Here’s Sydney FC coach Graham Arnold: “I don't see the A-League as a development league. It's a meaningful competition in which clubs expect to win trophies.”

And here’s Perth Glory chief executive Peter Filopoulos: “According to some the A-League is not a development league. If that’s a common school of thought, therein lies the problem.”

The “development” tag carries a huge stigma. It implies the league itself is no more than a stepping stone to something else. And historically, Australians won’t watch anything that isn’t the best.

The A-League is clearly a provider to other leagues; rarely do the top domestic players stay for more than a few seasons before a big money offer comes in from elsewhere.

But does that demote the A-League to the status of being a mere conveyor belt for other leagues? No.

By that logic, almost every league in the world is a development league, save for England's Premier League and La Liga in Spain – and there are plenty of “selling” clubs in both countries.

Given that some of the best young talents in the Bundesliga (Toni Kroos, Leroy Sane, Julian Draxler, Roberto Firmino, Antonio Rudiger, Marc-Andre ter Stegen) and Serie A (Paul Pogba, Philippe Coutinho, Javier Pastore, Mateo Kovačić, Marquinhos) have been sold, does that make them development leagues? Clearly not.

We need to cease arguing between the “development” and “competitive” silos because the nature of the sport means you are eternally juggling the two.

We’ve seen what can happen when you correctly identify and properly educate youth – which Arnold did at Central Coast Mariners. Look what he did with virtually no operating budget.

He spotted and/or nurtured Tom Rogic, Mat Ryan, Trent Sainsbury, Bernie Ibini, Mitch Duke, Mustafa Amini and Oliver Bozanic from the youth team to the Socceroos. He didn’t just develop players. He raised champions. Maybe that's why he doesn't call it a development league.

You might recall the dying days of Gold Coast United, when Clive Palmer only allowed the club to sign young players.

You’d never want that scenario repeated, but crisis and opportunity intersected for Mike Mulvey’s youth team: Jerrad Tyson, Zac Anderson, Daniel Bowles, Joshua Brillante, Ben Halloran, Mitch Cooper, Golgol Mebrahtu, Chris Harold and James Brown all gained careers out of it.

The fact that so few elite players have been developed in the past five years is the real stain on this league.

Maybe that’s why we’re looking at Daniel Arzani, Nathaniel Atkinson, Jacob Italiano and Connor O’Toole as though we're desert wanderers who just found an oasis. It’s a shame that each is surrounded by premature hype – but we’re just so starved of talent.

So let’s simplify the discussion: we simply need to create better domestic players. The A-League will become more competitive as a result, thus ticking both boxes. Crowds will be eager to see brilliant young local talent taking the A-League by storm.

But let’s be clear. Calling for increased development focus does not equate to automatically handing out starting spots to young players. Time and again I see clear deficits in skill and match awareness in young Australian players; no wonder senior coaches get nervous.

We need to give coaches the opposite problem – to feel they can’t hold the wall of talent back. To do this, we need to follow the lead of countries like France and Germany, who have become obsessed with finding and developing talent.

Curiously, Germany’s youth development is well-chronicled but they doubled-down on their youth investment in the early 2000’s through necessity as much as planning.

The collapse of TV company Kirch meant clubs suffered major revenue holes and couldn’t afford big wages. Clubs soon found that moulding elite talent at junior level was not only cheaper but more effective than over-paying a 28-year-old journeyman.

A culture change soon took hold. Now the Bundesliga is filled with 18, 19 and 20-year-old players. A focus on youth development has only enhanced the Bundesliga’s standing as a highly competitive league.

Which leads us back to Australia. Yes, the A-League must be a stage for players to grow – but this should be entirely consistent with the A-League being prestigious, competitive and among the best in Asia. The champion team is our national champion.

The challenge now is to make sure those teams are filled with the next batch of Socceroos, not a collection of handy veterans hopping between contracts. Now that’s development.

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5 min read
Published 11 January 2018 at 2:54pm
By Sebastian Hassett