The youth developers and showcasers of A League Men

The Central Coast Mariners and Adelaide United have deployed different strategies integrating youth into their first team sides (Images: Instagram Dan Hall, Mohamed Toure)

The Central Coast Mariners and Adelaide United are two clubs that have been lauded as top exposers of young Australian talent to professional football but with contrasting plans. The two clubs take on each other in the first week of finals hoping their strategy prevails.

The Football Observatory of the International Centre for Sports Studies (CIES) recently released statistics from the AFC region reporting the percentage of minutes played by club-trained players. It was pleasing to see an A-League side ranked above any other side in Australia, Japan or South Korea.

In the report, the Central Coast Mariners were by far and away the strongest side when it came to giving their club-trained players minutes, with the Brisbane Roar following closely by design, and Perth Glory was a bit further back in the top 10 due to the circumstances of their injury and COVID-19-hit season. The Wellington Phoenix also snuck into the top 10 because of their development of young New Zealanders.

Once you limit the data to just A-League Men sides, it makes for some intriguing reading that reinforces which sides work hard to find a balance between youth and experience while trying to remain successful. Numbers alone though do not paint the whole picture.

The Australian table of % minutes played by club-trained players in Season 2021/22 (Data by CIES Football Observatory)

The Central Coast Mariners and Adelaide United may find themselves on opposite ends of the spectrum, but both clubs have developed their own, contrasting systems of utilising their young players which have landed each of them coveted finals spots.

It is important to note that clubs with considerably larger budgets such as Sydney FC, Macarthur FC and the Western Sydney Wanderers find themselves out of finals and below the Mariners and the Reds.

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Central Coast Mariners – The Developers

Nick Montgomery has been on the receiving end of plaudits in his first year of coaching the Mariners and they have all been well deserved. Not only has he been able to turn around what seemed like a season lost to misfortune, but he has done it with a team that consists of a foundation of stars of the future.

You have to look no further than the Mariners’ backline to see the next generation emerge as regular first-team footballers, with Jacob Farrell (19 years old), Kye Rowles (23 years old), Dan Hall (22 years old) and Lewis Miller (21 years old) starting week in and week out.

This is quite unique, with only a quick glance around the rest of the league and its backlines making it evident that it is where most teams feel comfortable with experienced campaigners.

It is logical, that experienced players make fewer mistakes, but the Mariners have conceded the fifth least goals in the competition, en route to making the finals. That is an admirable statistic for a side fielding such an inexperienced backline, a clear outlier.

It does not end there for the Mariners, with Josh Nisbett and Max Ballard also starting 11 regulars in the midfield, while Garang Kuol, Matt Hatch and Harrison Steele have been entrusted with first-team minutes, mainly through the bench.

PlayerAppearancesStarts Minutes per game
Jacob Farrell242487
Kye Rowles232390
Dan Hall232079
Lewis Miller201567
Josh Nisbett242278
Max Ballard191356
Garang Kuol7018
Matt Hatch14228
Harrison Steele21737
Statistics collected from SofaScore and accurate as of 06/05/2022

This abundance of youth compliments experienced players like Béni N’Kololo, Nicolai Müller, Marco Ureña, Mark Birightitti, Jason Cummings, and Oliver Bozanic (who has been unsighted for a while) and gives them a good platform to develop into stars of the future while learning alongside experienced professionals.

Adelaide United – The Showcasers

Before discussing Adelaide United, it is important to acknowledge that the numbers do not quite do them justice. As United is a club without a youth academy, the “club-trained” tag is a bit harder to achieve.

Players who appeared for the South Australian National Talent Centre side were not employed by Adelaide United until they were signed for its NPL side, thus many are not considered club-trained as they did not spend three years at the club between the ages of 15-21. This makes the Football Observatory’s graph slightly misleading.

Despite that, when looking at Adelaide United’s young players that have come through the ranks of South Australian football (club-trained or not), it is clear that the Reds do not provide the same consistent opportunity the Mariners do, rather, they take a different approach.

PlayerAppearancesStartsMinutes per game
Bernardo19949
Mohamed Toure18526
Nestory Irankunda11018
Alex Popovic6580
Lachlan Brook (resigned on loan in January)151256
Jonny Yull2015
Yaya Dukuly4129
Louis D’Arrigo19941
Statistics collected from SofaScore and accurate as of 06/05/2022 (Note: Kusini Yengi not included as a result of missing the majority of the season to injury)

Despite blooding an array of youngsters to the league, the Reds utilise their youth stocks a lot differently than the Mariners. Carl Veart’s men are by far and away the best comeback team in the competition, salvaging countless results that seemed lost, mainly in the last 10 minutes of games. There is a reason for that.

When his side is trying to work its way back into the game, Veart releases the shackles of his youngsters and gives them free rein to try and claw back a result alongside the team’s experienced players and the proof is in the pudding.

The majority of the league can attest to the impact players like Mohamed Toure, Nestory Irankunda and Bernardo have made off the bench in their brief, but memorable cameos.

The “showcasers” nickname is appropriate because despite being dazzled by the impact of these young players, they remain unseen until the final stanza of the game, and just when you are left wanting more, the experienced players overwhelmingly receive the nod in the next game’s starting lineup.

The Verdict

Despite both Montgomery and Veart taking different approaches to youth development, both the developers and the showcasers of A-League Men have had successful seasons while relying on youth that is culminating with finals appearances.

When deciding to play a young player, a lot of factors come into play such as squad construction, tactics, fitness, player ability, and aptitude. The Mariners must be applauded for constructing a balanced squad that has given their young players opportunities to flourish in Australia’s top league, they are the poster child of what A-League Men’s squads should look like.

The Reds do not afford the same amount of trust to their young players and that comes down to squad construction and the manager’s belief in his experienced players. In saying that, Carl Veart backs his young players to make an impact when the game is on the line, and in big moments they have embraced the stage and taken their opportunities with both hands.

Earlier this year, we published a piece discussing how exposing a young player to professional football does not mean they will automatically develop and fulfil their potential. It is important that clubs do not just play young players for the sake of it, but that they develop whole-club approaches that make pathways available for their best and brightest talent to receive well-earned opportunities in situations they can succeed in.

It is pleasing to see that both the Mariners and the Reds have leaned on youth in different ways to achieve finals football. Some of the sides that have finished the season outside the top six, despite having bigger budgets can observe and learn.

Backing young players to do a job may not be easy, but it is necessary if Australian football is to advance and reach the heights it is capable of reaching. The Mariners and Reds have proven you can succeed in the A Leagues while also giving the next generation a proper go.

The first week of finals will see the two different philosophies clashing in a tantalising matchup.

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About Antonis Pagonis 54 Articles
A teacher from Adelaide who enjoys all things football.

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