Saturday, January 10, 2009


Newcastle's Demons

Watching yet another eager but painfully disjointed performance from the Newcastle Jets last night, it was hard not to feel that this was a team of kids playing among men. Gary van Egmond has had a hard time with injuries, of course, exacerbated by a number of boardroom blunders. But the Jesse Pinto substitution towards the end of the game, within minutes of his arrival, suggested that things really have gone off the rails.

And it was the appearance of Pinto that reminded me why the scene - a young team thrashing around with no real cohesion, and no idea of how to break down a determined opposition - looked so familiar. This was the Blacktown City Demons, in the 2008 NSW state league, all over again.

A bit of background. Following their 2007 title success, almost Blacktown's entire first eleven jumped ship, partly due to the departure of coach Aytek Genc to Sydney FC. Due to financial problems, the Blacktown team that took part in the 2008 competition was virtually a youth team (including, incidentally, one Jesse Pinto). And they flopped.

They often played some nice football, individually. A couple of their players gained plaudits from the NSWPL great and good. But as a team, they looked callow. There was no-one to take control in midfield, no-one to really orchestrate the attacks. A classic case in point was their 4-0 loss to Manly United at home, when they probably had most of the possession, and definitely played the more "pretty" football, but were undone by the clever, experienced Robbie Cattanach on many occasions.

Last night, of course, Newcastle were undone (initially, at least) by a gem of a goal from Fabian Barbiero. And that brings me to the real point of this piece.

One of the effects of the new National Youth League has been to oblige the A-League teams (Wellington excepted, of course) to dip into the youth squad for replacements in case of injuries and suspensions. The hope was, presumably, that some youthful stars might blossom when exposed to proper professional football.

It was a reasonable hope. But has it hamstrung the clubs a little, in comparison with previous seasons?

Before now, clubs have been able to sign players onto short-term contracts from the state leagues (or, more generally, elsewhere) to fill up the squad when the treatment table starts becoming crowded. Players like Fabian Barbiero, in fact, who was plucked from the South Australian state league to become one of Adelaide's most consistent players.

Sometimes, admittedly, these short-term wonders have been flops. But at other times, they have provided some important nous and experience at a vital period of the season.

The short-term contract business was certainly cumbersome, and one could argue that the youth league "option" has rid the A-League of a lot of red tape. But in the case of Newcastle, and to a lesser extent Sydney FC, one could also argue that the change has led to the team relying on kids at a critical stage of the season.

Nice from a broader developmental point of view, but I'm not sure how the clubs feel about it right now.

Hi Mike
I think it has exposed the clubs that haven't been fostering youth - or are paying the price for a small population base.

Having said that, it is losing the generation gap players 20 to 30 years old who haven't been given a chance yet and who don't make the youth over age.
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