Kelly Cross’s appointment as Sydney FC’s Academy Director this week has shone an interesting spotlight on youth development programs in the A-League.
Understandably, in the competition’s early years of existence, this was by and large an overlooked area, with many clubs focusing on financial survival and developing the profile of the new teams. It was difficult enough to generate support for senior sides, and so youth were barely on the agenda.
As the A-League has evolved and matured, however, the priorities have changed. Speaking more generally, the most obvious example of this is in the expectations towards style of play, with Ange Postecoglou’s success at Brisbane Roar in not only winning, but winning with an entertaining style of football raising the benchmark for what is expected of the clubs. Postecoglou’s achievements saw a raft of coaches appointed across the league primarily for their promise to develop a coherent, distinctive style of play.
This has proved important in relation to the next step that has been taken – that is, the expectation of clubs developing their own talent. While the sustainability of some clubs is questionable, broadly speaking the ten A-League clubs have become established in their respective regions. The onus has shifted from short-term thinking towards a more long-term vision.
In this regard, Cross’s appointment is an important marker. He will lead what Sydney FC are describing as “Australia’s leading elite football academy”, and formalises a pathway from youth development to senior football that has otherwise been non-existent. While the creation of the National Youth League in 2008 did address this issue, it only caters for the 16-21 age group. Sydney FC’s project, rather, is a bottom-up program designed to capture players from as young as 10.
Genuine youth development starts from a very young age, and the NYL is insufficient in relation to capturing talented players as early as possible. Instead, the pathway have previously been for young players in Australia to compete in National Premier League clubs, with a view to earning a youth contract at an A-League club in the latter part of adolescence. Therefore, these A-League clubs are only receiving players at the ‘end stage’ of their development, whereas the preference would be to coach and train them in the formative years of skill development.
The FFA’s National Curriculum, for example, identifies the 8-11 year age group as being the primary time for the development of four “Core Skills” – first touch, striking the ball (which incorporates passing and shooting), running with the ball and 1v1s. The Curriculum recommends players in this Skill Acquisition phase be trained primarily in these four aspects, with a view to developing the specific tenets of positional and team play in the 13-17 year age block.
Therefore, the current pathways for youth development sees players only entering the “professional” stream towards the very end of the opportune years for youth development. Academies that work with younger age groups, rather than just the late teens, should theoretically produce better players, as they would be exposed to the higher standards of coaching demanded by the Curriculum. Furthermore, academies allow coaches and clubs to deliver consistent, meaningful training programs to players across a number of years, so they become accustomed to the specific demands, expectations and desires of these clubs.
Certainly, in Sydney FC’s case, to have someone like Cross, who was vital in the development of the Curriculum and integral to the delivery of coaching courses under the revamped system, represents a significant step forward in the cliub’s youth development programs. It is safe to assume Cross will implement something similar to the Curriculum system with Sydney FC’s academy. As Technical Director, he will ensure the Academy works with 10-12 year olds in skill training, before moving onto specific game training elements with the Youth League sides.
He is clear in his missive. “The club’s plans to develop Australia’s leading elite football academy are second to none and I’m looking forward to getting started,” he said. “Sydney FC will lead the way in providing talented young players with an elite pathway to aspire to become professional footballers, and hopefully future Socceroos.”
This is not a first in the A-League, however. Newcastle Jets have already implemented something similar, with former first team coach Gary Van Egmond overseeing the implementation of the Emerging Jets program. This has several teams across U10s to NYL level, with the 10-12 age group working in pure development (so no competitive matches), and the 13s-22s playing in the local NPL Youth competitions. Finally, at the top tier of the program is the NYL side, representing a “First Grade Emerging Jets” and competing in both the NYL and the Newcastle NPL.
Adelaide United, too, have recently appointed a Technical Director – Guillermo Amor, who may prove to be the club’s most important ever signing. Amor’s appointment also represents that aforementioned shift towards clubs being expected to have a discernible playing identity. Gombau’s appointment, of course, was all about giving Adelaide a “Barcelona-like” identity, both in terms of the first-team system – possession based and an emphasis on short passing football – and the overall structure of the club, with all youth teams playing the same style across all age groups to ensure a consistent pathway as the players age and develop.
These “identities” are enormously significant in helping youth development programs to be successful. If a club’s “philosophy” is dictated by the first-team coach, then if he moves on or is sacked, the foundations upon which has underpinned the youth player’s development will change according to the successor’s principles. Therefore, the lofty ideal is to have the style of play transcend the Head Coach, so that there is a consistency in times of transition and in the youth development program.
The lofty ideal is to have the style of play transcend the coach, so that there is a consistency in times of transition and in the youth development program
The most obvious example of this is Barcelona, who encourage the possession style across all age groups, and even when their first team coach is changed (and they’ve gone through three in four years) there remains a consistency in the way they play and train. That is why, of course, Adelaide are looking to implement their model.
Elsewhere, Melbourne City’s new owners have pledged to create an Academy program similar to the one being created at Manchester City, which includes the construction of a campus to house all their youth players. Brian Marwood, head of that Academy, is keen to implement similar plans in Melbourne, referring to the Barcelona example as a model. “It’s not about just the first team, football clubs needs to have a depth about them,” he said. “Certainly with the development of young players in the Melbourne area and beyond, it’s important we work very hard on that aspect. It’s a model that was very successful at Barcelona.”
Central Coast Mariners are another example of the A-League’s burgeoning youth development programs. Their Academy, established in 2012 to identify and develop elite local players and importantly, provide a clear, obvious pathway for these players to enter the first-team program (although currently mired in local politics). Ultimately, that is the point of these academies, and what has driven Sydney FC’s recruitment of Cross.
Current Mariners coach Phil Moss summed this up nicely, suggesting that “the whole thing is geared towards making sure before a youth team player comes into the first-team environment, they know exactly what’s expected of them as a footballer and as a person.”
Cross has similar thoughts. “If you’re merely picking players, you know, from the AIS and the NPL at 17 or 18 [years of age], that’s not a development pathway, that’s not an academy,” he said. “For the academy to work, you’ve taught them your way, your football language and they’ve developed your own club’s DNA over the period of time and we hope to be the best at doing that.”
As we approach the A-League’s tenth season, it is a fitting time to look back over its evolution. We have seen clubs become more professional in all facets of the game, and the introduction of clear, region-based pathways of youth development is the next logical step. Cross acknowledges as much in a column for Goal.com. “[Youth development is] the missing frontier…it’s the logical extension of what a modern, professional club should look like,” Cross told Goal.
Quite rightly, as Cross both points out and represents, youth development appears to be the next most logical and important step in the A-League’s evolution.