'I was surprised how good he really was': Graham Arnold runs the rule over NAB Young Footballer of the Year nominees
We are just days away from finding out the winner of this year’s NAB Young Footballer of the Year Award, with six sensational youngsters in contention.
Chris Ikonomidis (Perth Glory), Sarpeet Singh (Wellington Phoenix), Lachlan Wales (Melbourne City, Thomas Deng (Melbourne Victory), Keanu Baccus (Western Sydney Wanderers) and Riley McGree (Melbourne City) are in the running for this year’s prize, which will be announced at Monday night’s Dolan Warren Awards ceremony.
Ahead of the announcement, Fox Sports commentator Simon Hill sat down with Caltex Socceroos boss Graham Arnold to get his thoughts on each of the contenders (see video above).
Chris Ikonomidis (Perth Glory)
The speedy attacker, who turned 24 on Saturday, made a blistering start to life at Glory, dominating the early rounds of the campaign.
Ikonomidis scored four goals and had an assist in his first five appearances to not only be November’s nominee, but also ultimately win selection for Arnold’s 2019 AFC Asian Cup squad.
“What impressed me about him especially early on was that (Tony Popovic) played a completely different system than what Chris was probably used to,” Arnold said.
“He played more as a winger and coming inside as a No.10 so he’s very, very flexible. I was a little bit surprised how good he really was in the Asian Cup.”
Sarpreet Singh (Wellington Phoenix)
Singh has always had plenty of potential but he started to live up to it in the Hyundai A-League during a dream December for the Phoenix playmaker.
The month included a mesmeric display in the 4-1 home win against Brisbane Roar to become one of the key players in the Wellington revolution in 2018/19.
“Another player that really started the season red-hot,” Arnold said.
“He’s got a lot of great value with the ball and he’s created a lot of chances with them this year, scored goals and been one of the stars of Wellington’s season.”
Lachlan Wales (Melbourne City)
Speed, versatility, skill and fearlessness. Wales has so many exciting attributes and they were all on display in January especially.
The youngster played a key role in the Bruno Fornaroli-less City side, eventually going on to record three goals and five assists for the campaign.
“Going down to Melbourne City he’s done a great job. He’s been moved around the frontline quite a bit,” Arnold said.
“He’s played on the right, he played through the middle when (Bruno) Fornaroli wasn’t playing, and he’s played on the left. He did exceptionally well for myself and the Olyroos over in Cambodia as well.”
In a field oozing with midfielders and attackers, Deng’s class in defence for Victory made him a worthy nominee for February.
Whether playing at right-back or in the middle, the former PSV starlet excelled for Kevin Muscat’s side in the Hyundai A-League and AFC Champions League.
“He’s had a great season. He’s done exceptionally well for Victory in the backline,” Arnold said.
“It’s great to be able to have someone in the squad that can play two or three positions and be more of a utility player when you select a squad. He’s one of them.”
In a frustrating campaign for the Wanderers, the form of Baccus was one of the few bright spots.
The technically astute youngster found a home in the heart of the Wanderers midfield, scoring three goals over the course of the season, including a belter against Newcastle Jets in Round 24.
“Markus Babbel’s had a lot of faith in him, he’s played in a lot of games and he’s developed a lot over the season,” Arnold said.
“He’s so tidy on the ball, his vision is very good, his passing range is very good.
“He’s got a real good football brain and that’s very important when you’re playing in that role.”
Despite scoring the winner in the Melbourne Derby in Round 1, McGree took a while to get going in 2018/19 – but his end to the campaign was simply sensational.
He was clearly a worthy nominee in April for his eye-catching displays, including a double against Wellington in Round 26 and a classy chipped goal against Brisbane a fortnight earlier.
“He’s had a very consistent season, more consistent towards the back end of the season, but he’s a very good talent,” Arnold said.
“He’s a player that can make something out of nothing and they are the type of players you look for.”