Where is the next generation of stars?

There is some talk that Adelaide United is having difficulty sourcing suitable young players from the local leagues. What has happened to the fountain of talented young players? Has it dried up? Is it only a drought or is there something structurally wrong with South Australian football?

In the past South Australia has produced an abundance of young quality footballers. Many of them are household names – Alex Tobin, Aurelio Vidmar, Tony Vidmar, Paul Agostino, John Aloisi and John Kosmina spring to mind. For every household name there was always another dozen of almost equally capable players who just did not quite make it for whatever reasons. These almost stars underwrote the quality of Adelaide City, West Adelaide and the local leagues.

At the time any youngster that was any good went in one of two directions. They went to Adelaide City or West Adelaide. Adelaide City and West Adelaide had junior setups that were streets ahead of anyone else in the state and, some would argue, better than what is in existence today. If a player was selected to go to SASI these clubs would discourage them from going. Adelaide City and West Adelaide strongly believed they were superior at developing players and they had the track record to prove it.

Those youngsters outside the junior ranks of these two clubs that showed promise would eventually gravitate to the same place – Adelaide City and West Adelaide. For these two clubs had the best post junior setup with their youth teams competing in the national youth league. Most obviously these clubs were the pathway to playing in the national league.

Adelaide City and West Adelaide churned out players with high levels of personal skills, strong fundamental technical knowledge, a good tactical understanding of the game and, very importantly, the right attitude.

It all started to go astray in the late 1980’s. Zoran Matic took charge of Adelaide City. The club was near bankrupt and Matic had no option but persist with the side of very promising players developed by predecessor Edmund Kreft. There was no money in the kitty to buy players. Matic went on to create the most powerful club in Australian football winning three national titles and providing the backbone for the Socceroos.

Yet Matic has one major flaw which is obvious with the benefit of hindsight. Matic was unable to develop young players. He was too impatient, too methodical and could not nurture young players. Very few would get through the Matic machine intact and those few that did were not the most talented. As Adelaide City got stronger Matic would repeatedly turn to buying low risk ready made players while his talented youngsters stayed on the fringes.

At the time these players had alternatives – some went to West Adelaide – players like Paul Agostino, Nathan Day and Mark Brazzale to name only a few. The competitiveness between the two clubs kept each on its toes because if it didnt play a youngster then its rival would quickly snap them up and possibly get all the fruits of a big overseas transfer.

Some players dropped down to the local league while a very few, like John Aloisi, headed straight overseas.

Then West Adelaide went bankrupt and one of the major generators of good quality footballers was gone. Overnight Adelaide City had a monopoly on junior football in SA and , as we are all taught, a monopoly is bad for business.

Matic increasingly turned his back on talented local players forcing them to move interstate. Players like Travis Dodd, Lucas Pantelis, Louis Brain, David Terminello, Dino Menillo, Nick Sabljak and Michael Cartwright headed interstate. At one stage in the NSL there were more ex Adelaide City players playing interstate than at Adelaide City itself.

Fast forward a few more years and it is Adelaide City’s turn to fall on its knees. The club survived but its junior setup is not what it used to be though they are trying to rebuild it. The two major generators of quality players during the 80’s and 90’s are effectively gone along with the national youth league.

Today we have a sort of equilibrium of mediocrity in youth development. The role performed by the old Adelaide City and West Adelaide junior setups has been filled by the Super League clubs and SASI. But, with all due respect to the efforts made by these clubs, their junior setups are not a patch on those of the old Adelaide City and West Adelaide. These two former giants pumped resources into their junior setups and wanted to produce players that would go on to bigger and better things – representing Australia, playing overseas and attracting those big international transfer fees. In contrast a super league club of today is more likely to plunder their junior clubs to keep their senior team going. Their focus is on producing players who can feed into their senior side – not on producing Socceroos.

A lot of emphasis, responsibility and some of the finger pointing has been directed at SASI. But this is wrong. SASI is only a tool and not the solution. SASI is not a club and it cannot offer the pathway itself to first team senior football.

So why is Adelaide United having difficulty sourcing young players from our local leagues? The players do exist – they are just not as obvious. They have raw talent but are less well developed as footballers. Jason Spagnuolo is a classic example of that.

Adelaide United must be prepared to take on players with raw talent and develop them into senior players. The problem for Adelaide United is it is not geared to develop young players. It is a one senior team football club with no youth development program. It needs ready made players.

There is a huge gap between the A-league and the Super League. The gap is larger for SA than NSW and Victoria. The NSW and Victorian domestic leagues are of a higher standard and their junior development programas have been less impacted by the demise of the NSL.

Someone, Adelaide United, the FFSA or the FFA, needs to bridge the gap. There are many suggestions being put forward to solve this problem and none is worse than doing nothing. Otherwise there will remain no obvious domestic path for talented youngsters. The drought will continue in SA along with the increasing trend of talented youngsters looking overseas for the answer.

For a barometer of the situation you only have to look at Adelaide United. Its two most promising youngsters are Nathan Burns and Bruce Djite. Both come from interstate. From all reports Adelaide United is looking in the same direction for its next batch of youngsters.

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