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Rising Nations: Australia, the A-League and Ange

Australia

Australia has long suffered a lowly status among European football discussions. The domestic league, plus a high profile manager, are doing everything to change that.

A momentous A-League final brought the curtain down on one of the best seasons in A-League history last week. Melbourne City completed the double as the recently crowned Premiers saw off their long term rivals, and defending champions, Sydney FC. 

That victory brought an end to an arduous seven year wait for a first piece of silverware. A youthful starting eleven finally getting the nearly men of Australia over the finish line. 

Despite the significance of the occasion and the experience of the opposition, rookie coach Paddy Kisnorbo named five players aged 23 and under in the side tasked with preventing the Sky Blues from achieving a record ‘Three-peat’. 

With Olyroos shoo-in Tom Glover between the sticks and homegrown hero Stefan Colakovski leading the line, the Cityzens blew away their opposition, as they had done to so many sides during the regular season. 

But this was no ‘one off.’ 

New kids on the block 

Heading into the current A-League season, the beautiful game in Australia was enduring one of it’s lowest ebbs in recent years. 

Interest and attendances were dwindling. On-going disagreements between Football Australia and team ownerships had seen the league breakaway from the governing body. The long-term love affair between inaugural broadcaster FOX Sports and the A-League was headed for a bitter divorce. 

Compounding these issues; a global pandemic.

The A-League clubs certainly felt the strain of financial hardships and strict travel restrictions. Both of which were effecting their ability to recruit talent. 

With closed borders, restricted inter-state travel and mandatory quarantines in place, clubs were forced to look internally. This created a host of new opportunities for young, homegrown Australian talent to make their breakthrough on Australia’s biggest stage.

During the 2020/21 season, A-League teams fielded 107 different players aged 21 or under. Many would go on to play key roles in their respective club campaigns. 

In Queensland, Warren Moon turned to a host of young talents in his first season. He unearthed hidden gems like Dylan Wenzel Halls, Japanese loanee Riku Danzaki and NPL prospect Alex Parsons. 

Perennial strugglers, the Central Coast Mariners, enjoyed a fairytale season. They secured finals football for the first time in seven years with a team overflowing with young stars like Josh Nisbet, Kye Rowles, Ruon Tongyik and, of course, Alou Kuol.

Adelaide’s young goalkeeping duo Delianov and Gaucci caught the headlines for stellar performances between the sticks. Up front, the skills of the Toure brothers and the brazen ‘shithousery’ of Kusini Yengi were the envy of many a side. 

At Western Sydney Wanderers, former Wales international Carl Robinson placed his faith in Academy graduates Mark Natta, Daniel Wilmering and Thomas Aquilina. Across the city, Sydney FC had their own defensive wunderkind, in the form of Young Player of the Year Joel King.

From Western Australia to Wellington (albeit in Wollongong), every side seemed to have at least one exciting young prospect in their ranks.

In the aftermath of a season that saw the retirement of Mark Milligan, the final member of Australia’s lauded Golden Generation, FTF sat down with Arthur Diles, one of the country’s most well regarded youth coaches, to analyse the current explosion of young talent Down Under. 

Accessibility the answer for Australia

Australia may not be seen as a “traditional” footballing nation to many. However the country has an incredible record when it comes to consistently producing talented footballers. From early icons like Mark Bosnich and Harry Kewell to modern day prospects like Southampton’s Caleb Watts and recent Fulham debutant Tyrese Francois. The Premier League alone has had over 50 Aussies on their books. 

For Diles, accessibility plays a key role in this.

“Kids here love football, and there’s a lot of access to training and academies, institute programmes and development programmes. And because the climate is so good, it allows you to play all year round! 

Even in the off seasons, you’d be playing futsal or six a side on synthetic. There’s constantly opportunities for kids to be playing.”

During his time coaching within the New South Wales Institute of Sport, Diles witnessed first hand the importance these state development programmes has in the identification and nurturing of young talent.

“Back then football NSW was probably a market leader. They were running their state programmes all year round, and playing in competitions, which no other states were doing.

“We had U13, 14s, 15s and 16s… What we used to do was play up a year to balance it out, because if they were playing in their own age groups they would have just won 10 – 0 every game. That programme was hugely successful. 

During his time as Football NSW’s state coach, Diles had the opportunity to work with many of today’s ‘stars of tomorrow’,

“If you look at the ’97 born players. Lachy Wales is a ’97, and a few boys in his group kicked on. 99’s, which was the age group that I was directly coaching, had [Daniel] Arzani, [Ben] Folami. 2000s borns were [Ramy] Najjarine, Nick Suman. 01s were Luka Prso, Marco Tilio. They all came through that programme.”

Many of those names directly benefited from the current restrictions. Wales, Folami, Najjarine, Prso and Tilio made a combined 95 appearances for their respective A-League clubs this season. 21 year old ‘keeper Suman acted as understudy to former Socceroo Adam Federici at Macarthur, while Arzani remains one of Australia’s most exciting prospects, despite a number of injury impacted loan spells from Manchester City.

“[due to the restrictions] clubs have had no choice but to give these youngsters a chance. That’s been a blessing in disguise for the young players, because a lot of them wouldn’t have had a go. The salary cap dropping significantly too has forced them to have squads of younger players. So when injury replacements are needed, they’re getting a go. 

“These kids have thrived on that, because a lot of them have taken these opportunities.”

Melbourne City’s Marco Tilio is one player singled out by his former youth coach.

The NSW native joined Melbourne City last year, frustrated by the lack of opportunities at Sydney FC. When given his chance by Paddy Kisnorbo, the young Aussie grasped it with both hands. His excellent maiden season was capped off by a truly sublime Grand Final performance.

“Tilio is a great example, as I’ve known him since he was 13. He just missed out on the Institute, then went to [Sydney] Olympic. Then when I went to the [Western Sydney] Wanderers, Sydney had already picked him up for their academy. But he was one of those kids that never made the Institute, never made the Joeys, and only now has started to be looked at for young Socceroos on the back of his A-League contributions. 

“He was one kid you could say wasn’t “in the system”… and that was one thing people had to realise. Kids that were already in the system generally had more opportunities to be seen. But there were always kids out there who were just as good or better that were missed.

“Between Newcastle Jets, Central Coast, Sydney FC, Wanderers and now Macarthur, you’ve now got five teams in NSW alone. That’s 100 top kids per age group that have the potential to be identified. 

“That’s a lot of good players. Someone is always going to be missed, but now there are so many more opportunities for players to be seen and identified. That’s what’s making things a little bit better… These A-League academies make others [NPL clubs} raise the bar. All of a sudden, they have to step up too, or they’re going to get belted. That makes it better for everybody.”

“Australians are looked as second class football citizens in Europe. No one really respects Australian coaches.”

Arthur Diles on the status of Australian coaches in Europe

The emergence of Alou Kuol

One player who certainly fell through the gaps was Alou Kuol. 

Born in Karthoum, South Sudan, Kuol and his family arrived in Australia as refugees. They lived in Sydney before moving to the rural Victorian city of Shepparton. 

It was here that the young striker got his first taste of senior football, catching the eye of A-League clubs as he scored goals for fun for NPL2 side Goulburn Valley Suns. 

After being passed over by Victorian clubs like Melbourne Victory and Western United, a move up the coast to Gosford would prove life-changing. 

“He’s somebody that we haven’t seen a lot of in New South Wales…” says Diles

“He only came here a year and a half ago to the Mariners. He came straight in to the Mariners A-League set up from Goulbourn Valley Suns, and he showed that he was dynamic, exciting, direct. Athletically, he was a competitor and you could see, this kid has got something.”

Kuol’s emergence instantly excited Mariners fans. Thanks in part to his now famous, albeit mildly controversial, post debut interview, that enthusiasm quickly spread across Australia and beyond. 

His direct attacking play, lack of fear and infectious charisma saw him quickly become a fan favourite. Early season goalscoring efforts played a pivotal role in kickstarting the Mariners fairytale run to the finals. 

The breakout star quickly caught the attention of Bundesliga outfit VfB Stuttgart. The 19 year old pencilled a deal with the former German champions before the season’s end. While undoubtedly still incredibly raw, Kuol will benefit greatly from the coaching and development opportunities within one of the Bundesliga’s most prolific youth set-ups.

If Sporting Director ‘Diamond Eye’ Sven Mislintat can polish this ‘diamond in the rough’, Kuol has all the trappings of the prototypical modern day centre forward.

“Now they’ve just got to polish him up a bit. Improve him technically, help him tactically, which he will get in that professional environment there in Germany. Once he’s got that, he’s got really good physical attributes that modern footballers need.”

Can Postecoglou put Australia on the map?

Alou Kuol is the latest in the long line of Australian players to have headed for Europe in search of fame and fortune. However Australian coaches have not enjoyed the same opportunities. 

For many, Ange Postecoglou’s arrival at Celtic represents an opportunity for change. A chance to finally open the door for other immensely talented coaches to make the leap from the domestic game in Australia to bigger and better things overseas.

It is not a completely untrodden path. Harry Kewell has had a mixed coaching career in England’s lower leagues so far, while former Melbourne Victory coach Kevin Muscat lasted just six months in his spell at Sint Truden. Postecoglou’s appointment however, if successful, could be a game changer. 

For Diles, the stakes are incredibly high.

“I think Ange is our last opportunity to put our country on the map. At the moment, and I don’t know why, but Australians are looked as second class football citizens in Europe. No one really respects Australian coaches. They respect Aussie players, to a certain level, but no one really has any respect for Aussie coaches. 

“It tells you everything, when UEFA don’t recognise our AFC licences. They don’t even respect our qualifications, how are they going to respect us as coaches. It’s really difficult. 

“I think the hardest thing for us is that we are in a privileged position here where there’s no promotion and relegation. You’re going in to Europe where it is on from the first minute you step in to the club. Every result is so significant and every point you can pick up is so important. Sometimes that’s something that can be difficult for Australian coaches to adapt to, because Europe won’t give you the luxury of time to implement your philosophy or your style of play. They want results and they want them yesterday.”

As one of the few Australian coaches given an opportunity to work in Europe, he has first hand experience of the difficulties that await those who leave the security of the “closed shop” Australian set up. 

Diles left his role at the Western Sydney Wanderers Academy to join outgoing Perth Glory manager Tony Popovic at Greek Super League 2 side, Xanthi. Despite the outfit being under the ownership of Australian Bill Papas, Popa would be dismissed after just nine games at the helm.

“We were under enormous pressure at Xanthi when we drew one all in the first game of the season. We battered the team in the first half. One nil up and cruising, and then we concede a 93rd minute own goal from a corner and draw. It was like the end of the world. You look at Muscat. He had no time to see out his season in Belgium! 

“At least in Japan, Ange was given time. In the first season, he just avoided relegation. But he did that with his team playing a really good style of football. Exciting to watch, scoring a lot of goals, but conceding a lot of goals. He only just avoided relegation but he was in a culture and a country where they gave him time. They saw the work he was doing and the progress and knew next season would be better. Next season, he wins the league.”

In his experience, he worries Postecoglou will not receive that same level of patience at Parkhead.

“I don’t see that same thing happening at Celtic. I can’t see him being that patient and understanding. I’d like to think he’ll be really successful there and do it in a way their fans will love watching their team play. Every team he has ever coached have been exciting to watch.”

For the Xanthi assistant, there remains a stigma surrounding Australian coaches ability.

“I’ve seen in the last ten years in my travels to Europe, just because someone has a UEFA Pro License or is coaching in Europe, it doesn’t mean they are a good coach. They are just recognised  as a good coach because they are European and they have a license. I’ve seen people who have the UEFA pro license who wouldn’t last two weeks in NPL 3. That’s the brush you get tarred with because you’re an Aussie with an AFC license, which UEFA doesn’t even recognise. What hope do we have…” 

Should Postecoglou buck the trend, there are a host of hugely talented coaches working in Australia, many of whom played their club football across Europe, waiting to follow him through the door. 

Former Leicester and Wolves midfielder Steve Corica has worked wonders in his first role at Sydney FC, guiding them to three back to back Grand Finals. Coach of the Year Patrick Kisnorbo has the choice of City Football Group’s portfolio with which to continue his development. At the other end of the spectrum, Brisbane Roar’s Warren Moon enjoyed a stellar maiden campaign in senior management, having worked his way up from coaching U11s to the A-League finals. 

The game Down Under has come through one of the toughest periods in recent memory, coming back from the brink of disaster to deliver, what is widely regarded as, one of the best A-League seasons in its short but storied history. 

While not totally out of the woods yet, the emergence of a plethora of exciting young playing talent and a ‘golden generation’ of gifted coaches represent a hope for a brighter future for the game in Australia.

These ’Green and Gold’ shoots of recovery demonstrate new life; a beginning of an exciting new era that cements without a doubt. Australia are a Rising Nation.

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