No shame in a feeder league

Joe Gorman Columnist

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Central Coast Mariners goal keeper Mark Bosnich fails to stop a direct penalty. AAP Image/Dave Hunt

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As news broke last week that Central Coast Mariners’ star pair Tom Rogić and Mat Ryan would be moving overseas in the January transfer window, the debate over when is the right time for young players to leave the A-League reignited.

It now appears that both Ryan and Rogić are destined for Glasgow to trial with Rangers and Celtic respectively, whilst teammate Bernie Ibini-Isei will trial with Belgian outfit Brugge.

The trio follow a well-worn path set out by Australian footballers who have made the move overseas. Since the rapid globalisation of football in the 1990s, Australia has become a consistent exporter of talent.

It’s a role that still rankles for some.

In the days of the National Soccer League, the reasons for young players to look abroad were self-evident. The quality, management and professionalism of the competition hardly gave young Australian footballers an attractive career path, and the NSL was basically invisible in a crowded sports marketplace.

Securing an overseas contract was the only way to avoid the purgatory of semi-professionalism and obscurity.

Times have certainly changed. The introduction of the youth league and the growing trend towards young Australian talent has made a career in the A-League an increasingly appealing prospect. This is evident in the fact that many young players, including Aaron Mooy, Mark Milligan and David Williams have all returned to Australia from overseas contracts to ply their trade.

Still, our best young talent will, at least for the foreseeable future, continue to look abroad for opportunities. And so they should.

While few Australians enjoy watching their favourite players leave before their prime, the truth is that the A-League remains a stepping stone on the path to more lucrative offers in Europe and Asia.

Many football fans find the ‘itchy feet’ syndrome of young players frustrating.

However, there should be no shame in being a feeder league. In fact, it is a role that A-League clubs would be wise to embrace.

One of the difficulties for football in Australia is that the other codes are untroubled by such issues. Up and coming Australian Rules and rugby league players are rarely poached by overseas clubs, meaning that both codes are able to retain their best talent and build traditions.

While parochialism may be one of the best ways to market domestic sporting competitions, that the A-League can provide a platform for young Australian sportsmen to expand their horizons is something to be proud of.

Graham Arnold has already stated his satisfaction in helping five young Mariners make the move abroad. Arnold’s attitude is healthy, logical and necessary.

With many owners still struggling to balance the books, A-League clubs simply can’t compete with cashed-up European and Asian clubs.

In fact, the Central Coast Mariners have made it explicitly clear that selling young players is part of their financial strategy.

It’s hard to argue with that.

Clubs should only sell players if they receive a healthy offer from the prospective buyer. There is no use in becoming a bargain basement to the financial detriment of the league as a whole.

Though there are more than just financial reasons for clubs to sell players.

Properly managed, it can also be a wise decision for the on-field performance of A-League clubs, and for the development of the Australian talent pool as a whole.

While this may seem strange logic, it is at this stage healthy for clubs to act as a conveyor belt for a line of young players. With squad restrictions and only ten clubs, opportunties for young players remain few and far between.

The situation in Gosford illustrates the point. As Danny Vukovic, Matt Simon, Mustafa Amini and Alex Wilkinson all left for overseas clubs, opportunities opened up for Mat Ryan, Bernie Ibini-Isei, Tom Rogić and Trent Sainsbury.

Meanwhile, the alumni (barring Vukovic, whose move to Turkey was aborted at the last minute) benefit enormously from high-intensity training and match experiences overseas, in turn increasing their chances of Socceroo selection.

Indeed, the Central Coast have seemingly adapted best to the reality of the transfer market, even if the timing is far from ideal. If Rogić, Ryan and Ibini-Isei all leave this month, the Mariners title hopes will be dealt a severe blow.

There are, of course, several issues at play here. One of these is where, rather than when these players go, and at whose benefit. Player agents, inevitably, are after the best financial deal.

Melbourne Victory coach Ange Postecoglu commented that moving overseas early can be risky business when financial gain is prioritised over development.

Too often, we see A-League players squeezed out of the competition for purely financial reasons.

Commenting upon Rogić’s proposed move to Reading, Paul Johnson queried whether the rough and tumble nature of English football is the best place for a player whose skill set seems better suited to a less physical league.

In typical fashion, Mark Bosnich candidly questioned whether Mat Ryan is best served by moving to Glasgow Rangers, who languish in the fourth-tier of Scottish football.

In an ideal world, our young players would leave Australia for development purposes rather than financial reasons, and would only move to clubs that utilise them in their appropriate role.

The J-League, perhaps, has the balance right in this regard. But whether we like it or not, we are at least a decade behind the Japanese.

Still, at present, there is very little that club administrators and coaches can do to stem the tide. The salary cap and the long off-season are not conducive to retaining all of our best talent.

The reality is that the A-League is going to be a development league for many years to come. Get used to it.

We should work towards guiding young players to make the best career decisions, but let’s not get carried away with illusions of grandeur about the A-League.

Australian football will be best served by the national competition finding its place in the world game, not trying to quarantine itself from it.

Joe Gorman is a football journalist with a particular interest in sports history. After completing his thesis on football in Australia, Joe started with The Roar in October 2012. He tweets from @JoeGorman_89.

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