Is it time to scrap the Australian youth coaching scheme and replace it with what went before or something based on Brazilian or French models as Craig Foster and Les Scheinflug in the their different ways suggest? Foster blames an English coaching mafia, code for the people who have developed the Australian Institute of Sport and various State institute programs. Scheinflug points to his record as coach of the senior and developing squads and argues that the work that he and his predecessors did has been neglected by a current administration consisting of non-soccer people. He complains that the most recent crop of national coaches, Frank Farina and Angelo Postecoglou in particular were appointed too early in their coaching careers and lacked the experience to cope with international tournament pressures.
The recent performances of the Under-17 Joeys and Under-20 Young Socceroos in World Cup tournaments seem to give cause for concern as does the absence of superstars like Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka among the current crop of graduates from these squads. While Frank Lowy castigates Foster for being ill-informed his reply is very short on specifics of what the Football Federation of Australia is doing to address some of the issues identified. At grass roots level coaches and interested parties are concerned that Australia is losing its way in youth development for a variety of reasons not touched upon in the public debate so far.
But before we start turfing baby and bathwater down the sink, or returning to a supposed golden age in the past, lets look more closely at what has happened in the last decade. First, and probably most important, is that countries overseas have begun to take youth development seriously and the international spread of coaching skills, assisted by FIFA and its Confederations, has raised the standard of the teams taking part in all youth tournaments. Secondly, many countries have examined the Australian youth development system, and taken the appropriate bits from it to graft on to their own programs, so that we now find ourselves up against the people we have helped teach. A similar thing has happened with the Australian cricket team and its academy system. The bar has been raised and we need to innovate or go backwards.
On the question of the domestic coaches appointed, how are they to gain the experience sought by Scheinflug if they are not appointed while their playing knowledge of the world game is current and when they have shown that they can manage domestic competitions, as Farina did with the Brisbane Strikers and Postecoglou with South Melbourne, both NSL champions? As to the Institute programs, Ron Smith has wide experience in Asia, where Australia’s future lies while his successor Steve O’Connor is a highly experienced Australian player and coach. He is not an English clone. At state level there is wide variety of experience, not all of it English by any means.
The appointment of Ernie Merrick as coach of the Melbourne Victory is now beginning to be recognised for the inspired choice it was. Merrick is the highest credentialled coach in Australia and he and his back-up team have put together what is generally regarded as the best blend of young talent, backed by experience in the new A-League. His assistant is a young Australian Aaron Healey whose own career at the top level was truncated by injury, but who has imbibed his sports science and acceptance of modern technology from Merrick. The future of Australian football lies with the players like Adrian Leijer, Kristian Sarkies, Michael Ferrante, Vince Lia, Simon Storey and others who are gaining their stripes against the Dwight Yorkes and Brian Deanes of the A-League. Driving them on are players and winners of the calibre of Geoffrey Claeys and Kevin Muscat, whose experience and on-field teaching have proved invaluable.
Having said this there are problems with the current system of talent identification with perhaps too much emphasis on age and physicality rather than skill and talent. The relative age effect which biases selection in favour of players born just after a cut-off date for age-governed tournaments has been shown to be still operative in Australia (and not only in Australia, however). Youngsters drawn from regional areas have greater difficulty in getting into representative teams than their metropolitan counterparts. The tyranny of distance still operates, despite many efforts to overcome it.
So while it is good headline-making stuff to call for a revolution or a return to the golden age, lets hope Frank Lowy and his team keep their nerve and assist the current system to evolve, taking account of new developments around the globe, innovating sensibly and on the basis of tested, scientific methods, and above all drawing on the good qualities which we have in the sport here. Having said that, nothing in this piece is intended to deny Craig Foster and Les Schienflug’s absolute right to criticise what is happening, but the debate needs to be raised a notch and specifics have to replace windy rhetoric.
This article appeared on the Football Federation of Victoria website http://www.footballfedvic.com.au and in Australian and British Soccer Weekly on 4 October 2005, p. 7. © SESA