‘Age doesn’t matter’: Kids shining in Sydney FC’s changing of the guard

The past five years have been as good as it gets for Sydney FC. Six trophies in all competitions, repeat participation in the Asian Champions League and near-complete dominance against city rivals Western Sydney Wanderers.

Behind the accolades, however, there has long been the lingering gripe that the Sky Blues failed to produce a single player throughout their era of dominance. Youth was sacrificed for trophies as Sydney FC relied on experience to stay at the top. This season, though, they are bucking that trend. Already on the cusp of the minor premiership with a 13-point lead at the summit, the Sky Blues are beginning to show they can marry success with youth development.

Sydney FC youngsters Joel King, Jordi Swibel, Harry van der Saag, Luke Ivanovic and Marco Tilio are shining out of the academy.Credit:Kate Geraghty

That was on display last Sunday evening when Sydeny FC had two of their academy products to thank for icing a win away to Central Coast Mariners, with youngsters Marco Tilio and Harry van der Saag scoring. As surprising as it was, that moment was years in the making.

While former coach Graham Arnold was criticised for not playing youngsters in the A-League, he built the blueprint for what would become a successful philosophy at the club's youth academy. As far as frameworks go, it's pretty simple.

"It’s good coming through the academy because they are set up like the first team, play like the first team so it’s easy coming up to the same system. We base our academy of the first team," van der Saag said.

Each age group plays the same 4-2-2-2 system as Sydney's A-League squad. Each position is tailored to mimic the individual roles and tactics of the academy team's A-League equivalents and the Sky Blues' youth video analysis sessions are focused largely around how the A-Leage team plays.

For fullback Joel King, that meant years of in-depth tactical meetings with assistant coach Rob Stanton, learning the fine details of his superiors' game.

"We would go to the board and he would show me how Rhyan Grant and Michael Zullo would play as fullbacks. When I came into the first team, it wasn’t different," King said.

It's taken years but it's an approach that is now starting to bear fruit. Six players have graduated from the academy to the A-League – Luke Ivanovic, Jordi Swibel, King, Tilio, van der Saag and Ryan Teague. The latter was sold to Portuguese club Famalicao last month.

"It makes it easy for the players that come up to the first team because they know their roles, they know their responsibilities and what they have to do," coach Steve Corica said. "That is how a football club should be, even to the academy down."

As in years gone by, Corica could easily have ignored the blossoming youth this season. He had the money to recruit bigger names but opted for a smaller squad. He signed only four visa-players instead of the full quota of five and when first-team midfielder Brandon O'Neill left for Pohang Steelers in January, Corica had no interest in dipping into the transfer market for a replacement. Instead, he gave the kids a chance.

"It doesn’t matter what age they are. If they are ready to play at 16, they are ready to play," Corica said.

"If you see with this crop of young boys, it comes down to opportunity. We had a lot of experienced players in our squad and we won a lot of trophies but I like having young players come through. It spices things up a bit for the older boys and it brings enthusiasm to training and games."

That faith is already paying dividends. Teague's sale earned the club close to $200,000. Ivanovic is becoming an A-League regular while King has been the rising star of their season, plastering over what could have been a gaping crack in the Sky Blues defence caused by repeated injuries to Michael Zullo.

On Friday night, King is set to start his first ever derby, having been deemed not ready to play the Wanderers when the teams met four months ago. Now Corica hasn't the slightest hesitation about fielding the 19-year-old in his side's biggest home game of the season.

"No. Not at all. Joel has proved to myself, players, everyone that he can do a great job under pressure," he said.

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