When Alistair Edwards was handed the reins at Perth Glory, he announced that he would be seeking to ensure the club was seen as a top development destination for young players, and that fans would see youth talents used for their abilities rather than as a token bench sitter. He followed this up with near-immediate action by signing Daniel De Silva and throwing him into the A-League, later also recruiting young full-backs Matthew Davies and Riley Woodcock and handing them two year senior contracts.
Yet in recent times just a few people have remarked about the signing of $700,000 a year centre back William Gallas, claiming that Edwards' youthful revolution is evidently more spin than reality given he'd sign a 36 year old EPL veteran to run about for a year rather than give that opportunity to one of the club's younger players. Furthermore, if the club was really all about giving young players a go now, then why do we continue to persist with players like Steve Pantelidis, Steven McGarry, and Jacob Burns ahead of younger options Jack Clisby, Brandon O'Neill, and Dean Evans?
On one hand, it's understandable that people may question the club's true plans. Traditionally, the A-League Glory's ability to deliver on what it promises has been sub-par, and I've written before about the 'debt of trust' that the current administration faces an uphill battle to make payments on. It is also hard to deny the simple fact that recruiting Gallas does push a younger central defender down the pecking order; it is, after all, another body to compete with, and a very high quality one at that. Both Brandon O'Neill and Jack Clisby saw game time before Gallas arrived, and with Michael Thwaite and Steve Pantelidis already normally 'first choice' options on the team sheet, it would certainly seem the younger defenders will have a tough time starting games.
But does the arrival of Gallas really
mean that Glory have abandoned their youth promise? What does it mean to have a youth policy, anyway? To consider this, it might help to frame these present questions in the light of previous seasons, something that I've tried to do with the help of the excellent Ultimate A-League
stats pages. To begin with, a couple of notes:
For the purposes of this research I am arbitrarily setting the definition of a 'youth player' to anyone 21 years or younger, a cutoff age which seems reasonable given the average age of an A-League squad seems to vary from anywhere from 24 (Victory) to nearly 28 (Wanderers).
Of course, setting this limit means some 'youngish' players will miss out - Tommy Amphlett and Scott Neville for example back in 2011, Adrian Zahra and Ryo Nagai in the current day - but that's just what has to happen when we draw a line in the sand.
These are the figures that are recorded for the game time given to Glory players aged 21 and under back in 2011/12:
As you can see, there is a clear win here for 19 year old Josh Risdon, who under Ian Ferguson found himself the club's preferred right back over previous incumbent Scott Neville. He started in all 24 games he played, racking up over 2,000 minutes of total game time. This then is a good endorsement for the club playing young WA talent. Beyond Risdon though, an addition five players aged 21 or under could only rack up 225 minutes of game time between them over the course of the season. Not one of these players even managed to reach a sum total of 90 minutes of game time across the whole season.
Season 2012/13 is notable for a couple of things; obviously Alistair Edwards was appointed coach with eight games left to play, but Tony Sage also inadvertently nudged the club in a youthful direction by cutting costs in terms of the players that Ferguson could sign. As a result, we notice more than double the amount of minutes played by players 21 or under. Josh Risdon continued to do what he does best on the right side of defence, but Chris Harold, Ryo Nagai, Adrian Zahra, and Jack Clisby all had decent amounts of game time. There were still some youngsters who only played on the extreme fringes of the squad though, with five players totalling under 50 (though in fairness, two of those players did not spend full seasons at Perth Glory).
Now most of these players are Ferguson signings - so what impact did the recruitment of Edwards really have on the amount of time given to Glory youngsters? Let's compare the two side by side, the 20 game Ferguson period versus the 8 game Edwards era:
First of all, it's clear that Josh Risdon was a nailed on starter for both coaches, no doubt a reflection of the young man's ability to compete at an A-League level. Beyond this, some young players actually received more game time under Ferguson than they did Edwards; perhaps ammunition for the 'what youth policy' argument right up until one realises that Ferguson's sample size of games was nearly three times the size of Edwards'. The clearest point of difference is when you look at those players who are used in the midfield or going forwards. Chris Harold achieved slightly more game time under Ferguson than he did Edwards, but he did so starting only 5 of his 16 games. Once Alistair assumed the head role, Harold started in all 6 of his remaining appearances for the team. Likewise Ryo Nagai was a bit part player under Fergie; he played 9 games, starting in 4, and yet under Edwards managed to play 8, starting in 6, and actually earn more minutes in an 8 game stretch than he had done the entire rest of the season.
There was a clear difference in approaches then between Ian Ferguson and Alistair Edwards when it came to playing youngsters at Perth Glory, one that is made all the more obvious when you average out the game time given to youngsters in their respective periods. Fergie may have given a total of 3,245 minutes to youngsters in 2012/13 compared to Alistair's 2,086 - but when averaged out over the length of their spells, Fergie managed only 162.25 'young minutes' a game compared to Edwards' 260.75. While it should be noted that Ferguson's figures in 2012/13 were much better than those from 2011/12, it seems the fact is that being under Alistair Edwards' charge as a youngster gave you a lot more chance of making the first team. So let's see if that carries over into the present season:
From a youth standpoint, it's been an impressive start to 2013/14 for Perth Glory. The manager's promise to play youngsters seems to be continuing, and while a sample size of six games is very small, it seems like the amount of youth game time (on average) has actually increased. Players like Ryan Edwards and Jamie Maclaren have been regular starters, along with Josh Risdon's unfortunate injury-forced handover to young Matthew Davies at right back - one of those two full backs Edwards signed at the start of 2013. Inevitably, the question of Edwards' own sons being given game time will come up, and admittedly this is a bit of a rod that he's made for his own back if they turn out to flop. Pleasingly for most fans though, that hasn't happened yet and they're performing very much above the bar set by Steve McMahon Jr. The thing is, even without including the game time that Ryan and Cameron have been given this year, there has still been more 'youth' minutes given on average than last season, substantially more than was handed out under the previous regime, and two and half times the level that was set back in 2011/12.
Whatever your opinion of the coach-and-sons situation, it's very hard to argue against the numbers when it comes to asking whether Alistair Edwards has given young players more of a shot since taking charge. Circling back to the original question about signing Gallas, to this author at least a youth policy is not about playing eleven young players on the park. While this might surprise some people given the number of times I've banded about the idea of promoting youth, any competitive side needs to have some balance - the creativity and zest of young players, alongside the cool heads of the experienced. Perhaps this quote from Glory legend Scott Miller in March of this year sums up the situation:
"The more youngsters and home grown WA talent we have the better... And as long as it's mixed well with some experienced lads, like Burns, Miller, Dodd and Thwaite, the young boys can learn a lot."
Glory might not be able to hold up the Miller part of the bargain any longer, and Travis Dodd might be sidelined with a long-term injury, but the arrival of one William Gallas certainly can't hurt that situation. Considering the fights that are being put up to ensure the new National Premier Leagues don't discriminate against older players and thus rob youngsters of development opportunities, one imagines it's very hard indeed to argue that a 36-year old with experience in European Championships, Champions League matches, the Premier League and the World Cup won't be able to help the Glory's youth revolution.