Aaron Mooy’s deadline-day move to Mat Ryan’s Brighton and Hove Albion ensured the Socceroos’ English Premier League contingent remained at a measly two for the 2019-20 season.
In Germany, Mat Leckie and Brandon Borello fly the Aussie flag while in Holland we have a handful of Socceroo hopefuls plus Trent Sainsbury, who has been told he can leave PSV.
The waning number of Socceroos in top-flight European leagues is not a new phenomenon.
Australians have struggled to consistently break through in Europe since the days of Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell, Vince Grella, Mark Bresciano et al in the early-to-mid 2000s, despite the Socceroos’ qualification for the 2006, 2010, 2014 and 2018 World Cups.
That alone suggests that the number of players playing in Europe’s best leagues is not the standalone metric by which Australia’s player development should be judged on.
Of more concern is that Australia’s record at the World Cup finals has declined with each qualification, while our youth representative teams continue to falter.
Results are not everything at youth level, but almost every nation which goes on to win a World Cup has enjoyed success at youth-level tournaments, be they FIFA World Cup competitions or within their local confederation.
The A-League has delivered a greater level of professionalism to the sport in Australia at a senior level but has done little to invigorate a stalling youth system.
Football Federation Australia Technical Director Rob Sherman has slammed the current system this week and warns that Australia should not be surprised if it does not qualify for the next two World Cups.
Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald’s Dom Bossi, Sherman said, “Other nations in our region are investing quite heavily in youth development and they’ve gone to centralised models in most cases.
“We need to make sure that we protect and encourage investment in youth development, and competition is fundamental to that, and setting the competition structure to enable that should be something of a priority.”
But hold on a minute…
Did Australia not have one of the most successful centralised football development programs in the world not even 30 years ago?
Were we not producing an incredible amount of football talent despite the unique geographic challenges we face and the intensely competitive sporting landscape?
Were our talented youth footballers not playing ten to 11 out of 12 months a year thanks to regional tournaments, state representation and national youth championships on top of their club commitments?
I am talking, of course, about the now-famous (and famously defunct) AIS program and supporting club and representative infrastructure which helped to identify, train and refine countless talented Australian footballers.
Even before the existence of such a program, youth identification and selection seemed a far more rigorous pursuit.
I was recently chatting to former Socceroo Alan Davidson about his youth football journey in the 1970s.
In his junior days, he had to be one of the best three players in his club team at Altona City to be nominated to trial for regionals.
At those trials, he had to prove himself as one of the best to play in the Western Region team, where he would play against the best kids from the north, south and east regions.
He had to be among the best at the regional tournament in Victoria to be selected to trial for the Victorian team.
Then he needed to survive countless rounds of cuts to make the Victorian team which would compete at National Youth Championship.
He had to repeat this at the under-13, 14, 15 and 16 levels, each year completing the same rigorous process regardless of how well he had performed the year prior.
At the end of the under-16 National Youth Championships, he was selected for the first Young Socceroos team which would attempt to qualify for the World Youth Championships.
He was playing football all year round.
Of course, even this system had its problems.
Davidson himself was cut from the under-16 Victorian team because a coach believed he was too small, only to eventually get recalled due to another player getting injured.
No doubt, other talented players will have suffered similar fates because the coach of the day did not rate them or valued physical attributes more than technical ones and such biases or deficiencies would need to be educated out of the system.
Despite its faults, this system allowed for constant evaluation, identification and tracking of player development year-on-year.
As this evolved into the more centralised AIS which eventually produced the Kewells and Vidukas of our golden generation, Australia had its own central hub where talented players could be refined following their identification as early as possible.
Since the dismantling of this central system, the responsibilities for this critical piece of Australia’s footballing puzzle has laid largely with semi-professional clubs with limited resources.
What’s more, in the rare instances they have succeeded in producing players for A-League clubs or the national team, they have received no financial reward for doing so, limiting the incentive – other than the feel-good notion that this Socceroo or that A-League player started at their club – for clubs to pursue youth development more aggressively.
Don’t get me wrong, a strong club system is vital to Australia’s long-term success in football, and the current state of youth development in our game is a multifaceted issue that needs a multi-pronged approach.
However, the lack of a centralised football development program which focuses on identifying the country’s best talent as early as possible and placing them in elite, nurturing environments that focus on their individual development has been absolutely detrimental to youth development in this country.
The return to such a system will not solve all of Australia’s developmental woes alone but must be a central part of the overall solution.