Managing generational change
Coaches at club level face the same dilemma as the Qantas Socceroos' staff. How do you get the balance right between winning matches and blooding the next generation of players?
We saw a great example with the Qantas Socceroos in the East Asian Cup qualifying tournament in Hong Kong recently of how important it is to bring through the next generation of players.
Sure, the squad would-ve looked a lot different if it had fallen inside a FIFA window, but the likes of Tom Rogic, Michael Marrone, Aziz Behich and Adam Taggart all took the opportunity they were given to have a look at the level they need to acheive to become regular fixtures, alongside established names such as Brett Emerton and Archie Thompson, in the national team set-up.
The same dilemma faces coaches at club level. How do you get the balance right between winning matches and blooding the next generation of players?
Coaches who are either inexperienced or under pressure often fall into the trap of going with established names that they know they can rely on rather than introduce younger players into the team.
It is easy for an armchair pundit to criticise the perceived lack of youth being injected into a side, when the result of fielding an inexperienced team can be a heavy loss and getting the sack.
Contractual security and club culture are the two most important underlying factors which influence a coach-s ability to get the mix right.
Taking the issue of security first, we need to put ourselves in the shoes of the coach.
If you are in the final year of a contract, or have been appointed on a temporary basis, it is very hard to have the confidence to throw new players into a team at the expense of established players. Even if the older guys are not necessarily performing as you want, at least you know they have the capability of doing so as you have seen them do it before.
Contrast this to the young kid with potential who may have dazzled in the NYL. Who knows if he can replicate it alongside the big boys in the A-League? If your gamble backfires, you have egg on your face and angry fans, plus a disgruntled board who begin to question if you are the right man for the job.
This is where the second issue comes in - that of club culture. A strong club with a defined sense of direction and confidence in its decision-making will understand that football is not an exact science, and that experimentation will always be necessary in competitive game situations, as there are some things that just cannot be tested on the training ground or in friendly matches.
How will a young player cope with the pressure of playing in front of a large crowd, or hostile fans? Will he crumble the first time he is criticised by the TV commentators or print journalists?
In light of the above, I think there is one coach in the league who has a unique advantage over all the others in the league.
I-m talking about my former coach at Wellington Phoenix, Ricki Herbert.
Given almost messiah-like status in NZ due to his fantastic achievements with the All-Whites, culminating in their impressive 2010 World Cup performances, Herbert has the unequivocal backing of both the Phoenix board and the NZ Federation.
This allows him to have much more leeway when promoting young players. As the only realistic pathway for Kiwi juniors, given the passport restrictions that restrict other A-League teams from signing them, he has been able to give game time to the likes of Marco Rojas and Louis Fenton, when others may have been more cautious.
He is aware of his key role as a primary stakeholder in the NZ game through his dual roles as national team coach and main man at the country-s only professional team. Perhaps more importantly, the Phoenix board are also acutely aware of their wider responsibility to NZ football.
Despite not being allowed to be part of the National Youth League, the Phoenix have ploughed on undeterred with their Football School of Excellence. This has seen the likes of Luke Rowe and Tom Biss given the opportunity to make their professional debuts this season.
Clubs need to move away from the chop-and-change mentality that has dogged so many of them, and make sure that coaching appointments and club direction and strategy is influenced by experienced football professionals (with input from the accountants upstairs, of course).
Owners should be seen and not heard - they should certainly not be in the media commenting on team performances or individual players. Football Directors in the European sense need to become a greater part of the professional game in Australia to provide a buffer between boards and coaches. This also allows for continuity of approach should the coaching staff change.
In my experience, when a club is struggling to inject youth into its squad, it's usually symptomatic of greater problems behind the scenes which are hampering the coach from tinkering with the squad as he would like.
Perhaps our focus should be on remedying these issues before being too harsh on the coaches - after all, it is their jobs on the line every weekend.