Twenty years on, can Young Socceroos rekindle glory?
Watching the Young Socceroos just about take out the Asian under 19s championship on Sunday night, it was hard not to take a trip down memory lane to the halcyon days of youth football in Australia throughout the early 1990s.
I’m referring of course to days when our youth teams were coached by the man the players called “The Boss”, Les Scheinflug.
He finished fourth in consecutive world youth championships in 1991 and 1993, introducing us to players that would later become green and gold greats – Paul Okon, Steve Corica, Mark Bosnich, Tony Popovic, Zeljko Kalac, Kevin Muscat, Craig Moore and Paul Agostino.
These were indeed memorable days in the history of Australian football, and the hope is that Jan Versleijen’s latest batch can emulate their feats with big run in Colombia next year.
Who knows, with a bit of luck at the draw, plenty of work on the defence (more on that later) and some level heads, the Class of 2011 might set Australia on the path to becoming a power in youth football once again.
Certainly, on the evidence of their display in the AFC final, this is arguable the most promising batch since that successful decade, when Scheinflug followed his two semi final appearances with a quarter final in 1995 (when Mark Viduka and Josip Skoko emerged) and a round of 16 in 1997 (which featured Brett Emerton, Vince Grella and Lucas Neill), before taking the Joeys to the final of Under 17s tournament in New Zealand in 1999.
But it is the two teams of the early 90s that are most worth reflecting on.
The ’91 team, with Bosnich in goal (keeping Kalac on the bench), Okon running the show with his adept distribution and cultured forward thrusts and Adem Poric and Lorenz Kindtner driving out of midfield in support of livewire number nine David Seal was arguably the best of the lot, taking it to hosts Portugal in a memorable semi final in front of 112,000 boisterous fans at the Estadio da Luz.
The Portuguese team, coached by Carlos Queiroz and featuring such luminaries as Luis Figo, Rui Costa and Joao Pinto, went on to beat Brazil in the final, so it was no mean feat for the Young Socceroos to lose the semi 1-0 after a thrilling quarter final penalty shootout win over Syria.
The Class of ‘91 was choc-full of names that would go on to feature either in the national team or in the national league. Apart from Bosnich, Kalac, Poric, Kindtner and Seal, others to feature included Mark Babic, Matt Bingley, Brad ‘Bugsy’ Maloney, Robert Stanton, Steve ‘Bimbi’ Corica and Kris Trajanovski, not to mention the baby of the squad in Muscat.
Fast forward to 1993, the tournament held at home, and there was Muscat again, this time with the captain’s armband, sitting at right back alongside his now best mate Craig Moore, who was at right stopper in a team that showed great character to make the semis after finishing second in their group.
With average crowds of just under 15,000, and featuring some bumper gates at the SFS (Australia’s base in the group stage) and beyond, this enthusiastic young observer at Moore Park for the tournament’s duration, it was a wonderful few weeks, and featured some cracking attacking play from the two finalists, Brazil and Ghana.
After Ante Milicic made a great impression in the opener against Colombia, who can ever forget Paul Agostino’s thrilling headed equaliser against Uruguay in the quarter final in Brisbane, where he seemed to hang in the air for an eternity, or Anthony Carbone’s injury time winner in the same game?
They were the days of dodgy mullet hairstyles, with the likes of Muscat, Peter and Jim Tsekenis (no relation), Carbone and left back Marc Wingell setting the trend, but they were also the days when elegant ball playing central defenders carried the ball out from the back.
While the ’91 side featured Okon, the ’93 side introduced us to another ball-playing libero in Ante Juric, who went on to have a stellar career at national league level and was one of numerous central defenders infamously played in the holding midfield by then national coach Frank Farina.
With Moore, Muscat and left back Wingell alongside Juric, the one endearing feature of that side was its ability to play out from the back, with the integration provided by fullbacks Muscat and Wingell particularly good.
When I cast an eye over the latest batch of Young Socceroos, this is the one feature missing.
Often, the back four, and especially the fullbacks, failed to integrate with the rest of the unit, the impressive front six. While Marc Warren ventured forward on a couple of occasions, and even played a pass in the build up to Kerem Bulut’s first, often it was left to Tommy Oar and Mathew Leckie, left and right attackers respectively, to strut their stuff one-out.
There was nothing coming from behind, often allowing the North Koreans to double-up on the speedsters. The fact Oar, in particular, was able to find the solutions here shouldn’t hide the fact that work needs to be done ahead of Colombia to get the defence integrating with the attack.
Right now the two look detached.
It was a similar tale 12 months ago at the most recent Under 20s World Cup in Egypt, where Versleijen’s men were exposed by his decision to use a central defender, in Matthew Jurman, at left back, and Daniel Mullen’s poor tournament on the other side.
Meanwhile, back to the latest crop, the evidence is that the manager needs to find a solution or two in central defence, where Sam Gallagher and Dylan McGowan appeared to struggle.
With most nations taking youth football seriously these days, the reality is it is more competitive than ever, with few easy games. Indeed, any weakness will be exposed, as the Czechs and Ticos demonstrated last year.
The encouraging thing is that it looks like Versleijen will take an exciting front third to South America, with Bulut and Mustafa Amini developing just nicely in the ‘nine’ and ‘ten’ roles respectively.
Twelve months ago Oar and Kofi Danning were the Young Socceroos wide men but really struggled to make an impression against some very powerful defenders, often running into cul-de-sacs, but the evidence is that Versleijen has more wide answers this time around. Certainly in attack.
What has been really refreshing to see is that Oar, via games in A-League last season and his early life in Europe, has developed his attacking game and is starting to find solutions when he runs into traffic.
Leckie invariably looks likely, and their combination with Amini and Bulut offers plenty, especially with the cultured prompting from Ben Kantarovski and Terry Antonis from behind.
If Versleijen can sort things out at the back, then maybe, just maybe, these Young Roos can create their own history next year.
Follow Tony on Twitter @TonyTannousTRBA
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