The young stars breaking through in a COVID-ravaged season

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In what is becoming an increasingly unorthodox and suboptimal season of A-League Men’s football, beacons of positivity have been sporadic bordering on non-existent.

The abundance of COVID-19 cases bringing recurring and tiresome postponements has massively hit the brakes on an intriguing start to the season. Melbourne City v Macarthur FC at AAMI park will make it 17 postponed matches for the season.

The incredibly thin silver-lining to the dark COVID cloud cast over sport since 2020 has been the opportunity it has provided to players who would otherwise have a far greater mountain to climb to claim a spot in their teams.

Even just on the day of writing, Usman Khawaja’s COVID-induced inclusion at the Sydney Cricket Ground ended with a top scoring 137. In the Big Bash League match that followed, the Brisbane Heat fielded eight debutants in their starting 11 against the Melbourne Renegades due to the impact of the coronavirus on their squad and the competition as a whole.

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Such is the shape of Australian football that if and when a team is struck with a mass unavailability, the back-up brigade is far more likely to come in the form of unproven academy prospects than former starters.

As a result of COVID-caused depletion or otherwise, here are some of the best youngsters breaking into the A-League Men in this peculiar season.

Jacob Farrell

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The full-back whose graduation from the Central Coast Mariners academy was announced just weeks before his 19th birthday in November last year, has started in all five of the Mariners’ games this season.

He would burst into the fans’ hearts with a fierce, diving header on debut, thundering what would ultimately be the winner into the roof of the net.

Farrell’s slotting in at left-back has nicely filled the boots of the experienced Jack Clisby, who left for Perth Glory in the off-season. Last season in his third year with the club, Clisby played the equal-most games, starting in each of his 27 appearances.

Farrell has made it abruptly clear that he offers an abundance of ability in both defensive and offensive areas. He tops the list for fouls drawn for the Mariners this season, and emphatically leaves behind the rest of his teammates with his 20 interceptions thus far. Kye Rowles has the second most with just seven.

Central Coast have won three and lost two of their opening fixtures. Keeping two clean sheets in back to back victories against Sydney FC and Western Sydney Wanderers. Not just because of his long hair whipping on his oversized shirt, Farrell has been fun to watch, and is a solid and exciting addition to the A-League Men.

Lachlan Rose

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It could certainly be argued that Rose is a product of the 2020/21 season rather than this one, but given his new found significance in Macarthur’s starting line-up, this campaign smells more like a breakout season.

Of his 25 league appearances last season, 14 came as a substitute, which meant that he was on the pitch for 47.7% of football played by Macarthur. This season, that figure has risen to 92.4%.

Off the back of his brace in Macarthur’s FFA Cup opener, Rose is another that has started every one of his club’s games thus far. With new faces Tomi Juric and Al Hassan Toure struggling to find full fitness, the 22 year-old has needed to step into the role of lone striker. For what little it is worth at this stage, his two goals in six games make him the Bulls’ top scorer.

He too is filling the void left by the exit of an experienced campaigner. Matt Derbyshire scored over 42% of Macarthur’s goals last season. His tally of 14 dwarfs the second highest of just five, held by Markel Susaeta. Whilst the plan was surely for Juric and Toure to replace those goals this season, their poor fitness and the overwhelming capability of Rose up front has made him one of the first names on Milicic’s team list.

Bernardo

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Born in March 2004, Bernardo has been thrown into a steep amount of action in his debut season. Featuring in every game bar one and with his level of inclusion appearing to be on the rise, the 17-year-old is one to watch over the course of this campaign.

After short stints of roughly 25 minutes on average across four of Adelaide United’s first five games, Bernardo’s first start of the season brought about Adelaide’s first victory. His 72-minute appearance helping them to a 4-0 win against Wellington Phoenix. He kept his spot in their next and most recent game, a 1-1 draw with league leaders Melbourne Victory.

The Brazilian-Australian has drawn the second most fouls for Adelaide this season, and whilst he is on the pitch, his side has a goal difference of three. This is tied best with three others.

He has also scored three goals in his nine appearances for the Australian U-17’s team, and will be hoping to follow in the footsteps of his dad, Ćassio Oliveira, who turned out 158 times for Adelaide United in his eight years at the club.

Ben Old

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Wellington Phoenix have the youngest squad in the A-League Men this season, but as we are shown with the frequent inclusion of Ben Old in their midfield, the youth is not there to sit on the sidelines.

Old has appeared in every Phoenix game this season, which is stunning given he only turned out once for the New Zealanders last season. He is also one of only two players in their ranks to record an assist in the competition this campaign.

He has started half of Wellington’s games, playing 90, 45 and 90 minutes respectively. He set-up Ben Waine’s consolation goal in their 2-1 loss at home to Sydney in round 5.

With the added context of the experience and leadership lost with Steven Taylor and Ulises Dávila’s departures after last season, consistent performances from young players like Old are even more admirable. He will need to continue playing his part if Wellington are to lift themselves up from their current position of second bottom.

Statistics sourced from FBref and Ultimate A-League.

Feature Image Credit: Central Coast Mariners

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Tom Macraehttp://medium.com/@macraetomr23
Communications undergrad at Western Sydney University covering Macarthur FC in the 2021/22 season. Newcastle United. Jack Grealish fangirl.

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