Perseverance and dedication in the footballing world often leads to the greatest achievements, and the Joeys, Australia's Under 17's men's national football team, embodies this spirit.
Recently, they competed in the Asian Football Confederation U-17 Asian Cup 2023 in Thailand, displaying admirable determination despite facing significant hurdles. Although the Subway Joeys narrowly missed out on qualifying for this year’s FIFA U-17 World Cup, being defeated 3-1 by eventual champions Japan in the quarterfinals, the team's performance was nothing short of commendable.
Subway Joeys’ Head Coach Brad Maloney praised the players' unwavering work ethic during the tournament, despite facing adversity from the start. The team had minimal opportunities to train together, assembling just twice to prepare before departing for the competition, where they would face the best teams in Asia.
Following October’s qualifiers, the team’s preparation comprised of the Antalya Youth Cup, a four nations tournament in Turkey during February, and April’s four-day camp in Sydney.
Reflecting on the tournament, Coach Brad Maloney remarked: "I thought our overall tournament result was a good achievement from the group, not forgetting that Japan is a powerhouse of Asian football and went on to win the whole thing.
"We were on the toughest side of the draw, but the players gave everything they had, and I can't fault them for that.
“On limited preparation and against countries who invest heavily in youth development, we look back on our performance in Thailand with a sense of pride.”
Reflecting on the past six months, Maloney pinpoints the importance of international exposure and experience at a higher level and highlights the tournament in Turkey as a real learning curve for the young Australians.
“Playing matches every 72 hours, contending with extreme weather conditions, and facing diverse opponents provided valuable lessons.
“These are the types of opportunities we need more of to accelerate skill development but also maturity and understanding of the sport.
"It was the first time some of the boys have ever been overseas, and then you're playing against nations that are full-time in their own environments.
"To have that kind of opposition for me was invaluable, and the players, I think, learned a lot from that tournament, realising that the opposition are full-time, street-smart, athletic, well-developed, mature young players. For me, that international experience is vital, it's imperative that the players get it as much as possible."
CommBank Joeys’ captain Anthony Pavlesic emerged as a shining light from the tournament in Turkey, landing a contract with European giants, Bayern Munich.
Maloney sees great potential in these rising stars and believes that they can become integral players in the senior national team, representing Australia at major international tournaments with the right opportunities and guidance.
"This is the foundation of the Subway Socceroos. My role here is to work with these players for two years or so and during that period, prepare them as best we can for the next step.
"Someone like Pav (Anthony Pavlesic), for example, I think it's a fantastic achievement for him to get that offer from Bayern Munich. Other players including Mitch Glasson, Zac De Jesus, Daniel Bennie and Nathan Amanatidis have signed an A-League contract on their return from the Asian Cup and I’ve no doubt others will follow.
"These opportunities to play on the international stage are really giving these players a platform to show what they can do. It's really pleasing to see that they've been rewarded on their return with first-team contracts."
But before a training cone is placed or a football inflated, Maloney faces challenges in identifying talent across the vastness of Australia. The geographic disadvantage brings extensive travel to scout players from every corner of the continent.
Meeting players in person and assessing their character, attitude, and desire to work hard are essential aspects of the selection process.
"I went to pretty much every state and territory to look at the players, watch league matches and meet the players in person.
"Then once we bring them into a centralised camp, you get to know their playing ability but of course you want see a lad with a good character and attitude. We look for their desire to work hard, to achieve what he wants to achieve and represent the country.
"We would like to think that we're putting good networks in place so that players don't slip through the net."
Part of this process centres around the annual National Youth Championships, which plays a pivotal role in Football Australia's talent identification program. Many current CommBank Matildas and Subway Socceroos have emerged from this crucial stepping-stone.
Maloney is excited for the Championships, considering them the starting point for assembling the next Joeys’ squad.
"I'm really looking forward to seeing all those states and territories get together with what should be the best of the best in the under 15 and under 16 boys age groups, and that's the starting point for putting together the next Joeys’ squad.
"If we could have more of those tournaments where the players can be centralised in one area, where not only myself but my staff, and technical directors from around the country can look at all the different players on show, that, for me, would be the ideal scenario to identifying future talent for our junior national teams,” Maloney concluded.
Taking place over 12 days in October, this year's National Youth Championships will be held at the home of Football NSW, Valentine Sports Park at Glenwood for the Under 15 and 16 Boys (2 – 6 October), and WIN Stadium plus John Crehan Park, Wollongong for the Under 14 and 16 Girls (9 – 13 October).