When Ange Postecoglou speaks, you are meant to listen.
There is something intangible about the former Socceroos-cum-Celtic boss that is so captivating. It might be his honesty when answering questions. It might be his personable nature. It might be the prophetic nature of some of his predictions that always seem to age like a fine wine. Ultimately however, there is something about Ange that evokes visceral feelings for most who love football in Australia.
In a fragmented footballing ecosystem where fans of ‘Old Soccer’ and ‘New Football’ continue to clash heads over the best way to advance the domestic game, Ange is the beacon of light who manages to unify football fans of all different shapes and sizes.
He is also unique in that his exploits at Celtic have made him a household name for fans of European football who remain disenfranchised with the A-League often citing its inferior quality to Europe’s top leagues as a decisive factor in their unwillingness to support domestic football.
Postecoglou’s ability to bring together these sets of supporters through his rhetoric is what makes him so special.
Ange’s achievements in the sphere of management speak for themselves and singlehandedly give him authority to speak on the ills and vices of Australian football.
However, the fact that he does not hold any ulterior motives when providing constructive feedback on Australia’s footballing pyramid enhances the need to listen to his opinion. When he makes a suggestion, he is doing so in good faith and with the belief that he can make a genuine impact on the fate of football in Australia.
Speaking exclusively on Kick360’s ‘Pitch to Park’ podcast, Ange Postecoglou revealed some of his thoughts on the current state of Australian football and offered his perspective on how the game can continue to grow domestically.
“In the A-League system, I might have struggled to have a career,” said Postecoglou while speaking on Australia’s youth development pathways.
“I wasn’t an outstanding individual but being at South Melbourne, South Melbourne was one of four or five clubs in the National Soccer League at the time so I got an opportunity at South that if I didn’t get, I could’ve got an opportunity at Heidelberg or Melbourne Knights or there were plenty of opportunities there for talented players.”
For Postecoglou, the early struggles of the A-League to develop youth players to the same extent as the NSL, is directly associated with the lack of opportunities provided to talented youth at a professional level. When the league started in 2005, there were just eight teams in the competition, thus concentrating Australia’s talent pool and leaving many talented youngsters with few other options other than to bide their time at a semi-professional level.
As such, when asked what the A-League can learn from the likes of Japan and Scotland where the former Socceroos boss has been successful in recent years, his answer continues to revolve around the notion of opportunities.
“When I look back at the NSL days, there were a lot of opportunities for young players,” Postecoglou added.
“That’s where I think for a long time the A-League hindered the progress of our youth development because there just wasn’t opportunities for guys to play. And when you have so many limited opportunities, inevitably talent won’t flourish because they won’t get the environment there to develop.”
While the likes of Tom Rogić, Maty Ryan and Trent Sainsbury prove to be an exception to this rule, there is no doubt that during its infancy, the A-League prioritised the lustrous flair of marquee players over enhancing development pathways for talented young Australians.
In recent years, there has been an upward trend of young Australians receiving more opportunities to play at a professional level in the A-League. This has resulted in many of Australia’s hottest prospects being signed up to European clubs while the Olyroos were also competitive in an Olympic campaign that saw them defeat South American powerhouses Argentina.
However, Postecoglou echoes the sentiment raised by many realists in this conversation, as he argues that this upward trend almost came by accident rather than design as COVID-enforced salary cap cuts forced A-League clubs to throw young players in the deep end.
“In the last two or three years because of COVID and the difficulty financially that clubs have had, they’ve played a lot of young players and now we’re seeing a lot of those young players coming through and getting signed overseas,” he said.
“The worry is now you go back to the previous model of just recycling players or not giving young players an opportunity because again clubs have the finances to spend a little bit more money.”
This is a major concern for the A-League at the moment as the league threatens to fall back into its old habits of not producing enough players to sustain Australian football’s future. Concerningly, the data appears to support Ange’s assertions.
In the 2020/21 COVID-affected season, 31.5% of the league’s total minutes and 30% of the league’s total starts were comprised by U23 Australians, while there were 42 U23 Australians who played over 1000 minutes. Alou Kuol, Connor Metcalfe and Nathaniel Atkinson were three clear beneficiaries of that growing shift towards young players as they used the 2020/21 season as a foundation upon which to propel their career in Europe, where all three find themselves currently.
The total minutes and total starts for U23 Australians dropped slightly to 27.3% and 26.3% last season. However, this season’s numbers of 19.7% and 18.3% make for more bleak viewing as the percentage of starts and total minutes have declined dramatically to almost reflect pre-COVID figures.
While Football Australia promise that there will be a proliferation of opportunities provided to youth through the National Second Division (NSD), there remains genuine merit to question why these chances cannot be granted through the A-League. This is made even more pertinent by the fact that the NSD’s creation will still leave Australia behind its rivals in Asia in terms of opportunities for minutes.
“If you talk about Japan, they’ve got great systems, but the one thing it has got is unbelievable opportunities,” Postecoglou explained.
“There’s 18 first division teams, there’s 22 second division teams, there’s a third division, there’s a university system. If you’re a talented player in Japan, there is no chance that you’re not going to get an opportunity somewhere.”
In the past, Postecoglou has proven himself to be a few steps ahead of the pack when speaking on how Australia should present itself on the international stage and how Australian football suffers from cultural cringe.
In a similar vein to how Ange has managed to unite many contrasting sections of the football community, most would agree that enhancing development pathways for youth is crucial for Australian football’s future.
Ange Postecoglou has warned us once again. It is now the prerogative of the A-League clubs to determine whether they heed his message.
Ange Postecoglou, is returning to Australia this November with an exclusive new two show speaking tour: “An Evening with Ange Postecoglou – The Journey So Far” presented by TEG Live.
Tickets are available now via www.TEGLive.com.au