City’s title charge under the spotlight; Mariners flying and Roar making things fun

Central Coast Mariners and Brisbane Roar are flying, Melbourne City aren’t, there are questions of legacy and the kids are failing … in a good way. Confused? Don’t worry, the ESPN Australia and New Zealand football wrap is here to take you through a big week in football.

Kids being given a chance

In the 38th minute of Perth Glory’s insane 5-4 loss to Western United, Glory boss Richard Garcia decided to sub out struggling midfielder Daniel Stynes after 38 minutes. A few days later, 16-year-old defender Joshua Rawlins gave away a 90th minute penalty that saw Melbourne Victory secure a 2-1 win over the Western Australians.

In years gone by, that would have been the last we’d have seen of the pair for several weeks but in 2021, for economic and logistical reasons now widely established, the pair started for Garcia against Melbourne City the following Sunday, with Stynes promptly netting his first-ever A-League goal and Glory running out 3-1 victors.

It’s not exactly glamorous but, from a footballing perspective, the decision made by Garcia to stick with his kids, as other coaches around the A-League and W-League have done in 2020-21, might be just as beneficial for Australian football as Alou Kuol’s next goal, Kyra Cooney-Cross’ latest assist or a Daniel Margush clean sheet.

“With young kids, you don’t know what you’re going to get,” interim-Australian National Technical Director Trevor Morgan told ESPN. “They could be fantastic, they could have highs and lows a bit more. But by playing them regularly and playing them several matches in a row, I think that the kids go into those games with less fear and more confidence.

“It was only mentioned in a podcast [the Fox Football Podcast] the other day where Robbie Slater talked about getting a start with Frank Arok [with NSL side St George] and he told him ‘listen, you’re going to make your debut and, by the way, you’re going to play the next five or six, so don’t worry’ and that led to that type of performance.

“They’re getting those match minutes, they’re getting to have highs and lows in games and still get another chance next week. And I think that’s important for a player to grow. If your chance is only once every eight or 10 weeks there’s a lot more pressure for that to be great or outstanding.”

While every coach’s patience must have its limits, a chance for a young player to make an error, learn from it and refrain from repeating it at a senior level without disappearing to the bench, Y-League or NPL is a critical aspect of their development. This counts doubly for players whose promise has been built on an ability to improvise, be assertive and embrace risk, lest those traits be drummed out of them by a fear of failure.

“As a young player that’s always what you want: game time,” Macarthur FC’s Denis Genreau explained to ESPN. “It’s always hard because you’ve got to fight the older players that are more established in our league and it’s hard to cement a spot as a young player.”

A regular Olyroos, the 21-year-old played 534 minutes in two seasons with City (2016-17 and 2019-20), sandwiched around a year-long loan spell with Eredivise side PEC Zwolle where he played 507 minutes in the Dutch top flight. But with league demographics shifting in 2020-21, he’s already set a new record for minutes played in an A-League season and is on pace to eclipse his career league minutes total against Western Sydney on Saturday night.

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“That was a big thing for me coming to Macarthur,” Genreau said. “I was speaking to Ante and speaking to the coaching staff, they said to me ‘look, you’re coming in as a starting player and it’s up to you to keep your spot. We’ll give you a chance and it’s up to you to put in the performances to keep that spot.’ You take a lot of confidence and a lot of trust and want to repay that. You’ve got nobody to blame but yourself if you can’t keep that spot.”

At Brisbane Roar, rapidly improving former Australian U17 representative Rahmat Akbari has played in 97% of the 360 minutes available to him so far this season and if he plays more than 76 against Melbourne Victory on Saturday night, his 2020-21 total will have already surpassed his career mark of 425.

“My confidence is sky high right now,” the Brisbane Roar youngster told ESPN. “[Coach Warren Moon is] always talking to me: ‘keep moving, keep doing well, keep doing what you’re doing’. He’s always taking positives with me and even with the boys, all of the senior boys have trust in me and are telling me how good I am and what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. Telling me to keep going.”

Leaving a legacy

It was six years ago last week that the Socceroos triumphed over South Korea in the final of the 2017 Asian Cup and it remains the finest footballing achievement ever accomplished by an Australian men’s side.

Four years on, however, and the near-universal consensus is that, on a macro level, the tournament had little to no lasting impact on Australian football’s overall trajectory. Not exactly a good omen for the Australia and New Zealand 2023 Women’s World Cup.

Leaving a lasting mark on Australia will ultimately be the biggest criteria upon which the success of the World Cup is judged in 2023. But what does this look like? The unbundling of the W-League from Football Australia adds another wrinkle, with the separate teams now in charge of both, ostensibly, carrying divergent goals and strategies when it comes to leveraging the impact the women’s football showcase will have in the decades ahead.

“[The legacy needs to be] to get more kids coming in at five, six, seven and eight into clubs,” Deb Nichols, a former Matilda, Football Victoria Hall of Famer and NPLW developmental coach at Southern United, told ESPN. “We as a club need to develop our Miniroos, our SAP program. But if we can get kids in at six and seven into those types of programs then we have them for 10 years to work with them before they hit 16 and they’re being looked at by the likes of City and that to play W-League.

“The opportunities are going to be there for the kids from that generation coming through, they’re going to have an opportunity to develop at one place.”

For the newly independent W-League, a small player in an exploding global women’s football marketplace, an even more existential question likely needs to be answered first.

“I think as a league we’ve got to work out what we are and what we’re trying to be,” Melbourne Victory W-League coach Jeff Hopkins said. “Are we turning into a developmental league? Are we a stepping stone or do we want to go ahead and try to build this league into a real strong and tough league that is a destination?

“We need to make that decision. It’s going to be difficult for us. Europe is so strong, how do we compete with that? I guess whatever we do, we need to make our mind up and try to do that as best we possibly can.

“If that means we are a development league itself, we need to look at how we are going to best develop our local talent and that comes down to academies, top development programs and moving those players into our W-League and then move them on. And then it won’t be far off we’re maybe letting players move overseas as well.”

Stories to tell

Last week, ESPN took note of how Central Coast Mariners’ emergence in 2020-21 was a shining example of how the A-League is, even in the face of technical shortcomings, perfectly capable of tapping into the psyche of the nation with enthralling storylines, emerging heroes and exciting games. And if you needed any further evidence, observe Alen Stajcic’s side’s come-from-behind, 3-2 win over Melbourne City.

Between ‘The Wizard of Woy Woy’ Matt Simon’s milestone performance and beloved reception from the Mariners’ faithful, the for-sale Coasties storming back against a cashed-up CFG, the Danny De Silvanaissance, Alou Kuol’s waving, or the sudden, harsh spotlight Patrick Kisnorbo and City find themselves under, there was something for everyone to be found in Gosford on Wednesday evening.

Soon set to head out into the market seeking a new broadcasting deal, the newly independent leagues’ — who have emphasised the digital space — mission to convince broadcasters to come on board will likely rest on its ability to sell a vision of an A-League and W-League that can tell these stories week in and week out. As Roy Masters recently observed in The Age, the average time fans watch NRL or AFL content on Kayo is only 10 minutes, compared to 55 minutes on traditional broadcasters — so you have to have a hook.

In truth, captivating stories have always been plentiful in Australian football, they’ve just often been ignored, not considered mainstream enough or, sometimes, suppressed due to not fighting with the prevailing vision for the sport.

But heading into the future, here’s to finding even more tales to tell.

City’s title charge under the spotlight

As good as the yellow and blue vibes were on Wednesday night, City’s performance in their 3-2 loss certainly didn’t carry the air of a club expected to compete for an A-League title in 2020-21.

Though the CFG style of dominating games and playing through their foes has been hardwired into the club’s vocabulary at this point, the Mariners had no fear of City: zeroing in on their attempts to play the ball out from the back as the most opportune moment to drive the visitors back into a hole.

Forced to knock the ball around in the 14th minute of the contest, City’s inability to work through their midfield resulted in an easy turnover when the Mariners’ press suddenly sprang shut on Curtis Good: allowing Simon to create a chance in transition for Danny De Silva. Minutes later, City’s inability to play through the Mariners press again allowed Gianni Stensness to nip in and allow Simon to create another chance for De Silva — this effort forcing a save from Tom Glover.

These foibles in possession weren’t simply the product of a 0-0 scoreline, either, with Michał Janota’s pressure on Florin Berenguer as the Mariners boxed City — now defending a 2-1 lead — in the 49th minute of the contest one misstep away from the Pole from busting City’s defence wide open.

Of course, as demonstrated in their two goals, there is perhaps no other side in the A-League that is as lethal as City when they’re able to get out in space and leverage the skill of Craig Noone, Adrian Luna, Florin Berenguer and Jamie Maclaren. Yet, while injuries and a reduction to 10 men didn’t help, it eventually took until the 85th minute for City to get a shot away in the second half as they watched their 2-1 lead slip away to a 3-2 deficit, and none of their eventual efforts that half were on target.

For a club who carry the expectations of title contenders this season, there’s going to be a higher standard placed on City than most other A-League sides. Kisnorbo’s ability to get his group to create penetration and good — not just speculative — chances against foes that sit back and make them take the initiative remains an area to watch.

Roar making things fun

Hard as it may be to tear one’s gaze from Gosford, the Mariners’ fine start to the season isn’t the only example of good, sellable vibes across the A-League.

Up North, Warren Moon’s start to life as Brisbane Roar’s full-time boss has been highly encouraging; his side playing an aesthetically pleasing and adaptable style of play on their way to second-place on the A-league table with three wins and a single loss.

Playing at a community stadium featuring a bouncing atmosphere, with a sprinkling of talented youth such as Akbari and Dylan Wenzel-Halls in their XI and locals in the dugout, things look fun.

Wenzel-Halls’ athleticism, drive and enthusiasm carries comparisons with Sam Kerr — both are liable at any moment to suddenly decide to turn on the jets and give their marker a nightmare. McDonald, in contrast, probably has too much mileage on his legs to do all that, but his intelligence, ability to see the game, work to find his teammates and manipulate his foes with and without the ball has been well covered by ESPN in the past, and it’s a skillset that works incredibly well
with his younger strike partner.

“I think Scotty is good at coming to feet, he holds the ball up really well and he’s phenomenal in every aspect,” Wenzel-Halls told ESPN. “He sees the game so well and differently, he looks to combine and play things around the corner and in behind.

“For me, I’d rather go in behind, so if he comes short and I’ll get in behind. I think we just seem to be doing well together at the moment and I got an assist to him, he’s given me one back and we’re all enjoying our football — we’re playing well as a team is the most important thing.”