2020 has been the year a posse of 20-year-olds have taken their chance at Western United. Here's their story.
On Sunday, Thiel “Thierry” Iradukunda, United’s spiky defensive midfielder, continued his growth with a first start under head coach Mark Rudan.
After getting noticed in pre-season with his fearless displays in training (nipping at the heels of marquee signing Panagiotis Kone), the quietly spoken 20-year-old put his head down, worked hard and waited for his chance.
And he got it.
Iradukunda, a former Brimbank Stallions junior (who moved to Melbourne in 2004 from African nation Burundi) came off the bench in the heat of Newcastle two weeks earlier, then made his starting XI debut in Ballarat.
What’s more, there was plenty to like about the former Victory NYL player’s display against Brisbane Roar.
But it’s not just those in the National Youth League stream, like Iradukunda, who craved a chance to play senior football.
Oskar Dillon, 20, is a perfect example of a player who had already cemented a senior spot.
In his case, in Queensland with NPL outfit Gold Coast Knights.
Dillon had been on Rudan’s radar for about a year as he plied his trade in the semi-pro ranks.
The Coffs Harbour product had the quality to move up into the professional ranks, but like many, just needed a chance.
And after trialling with Western United late last year, and taking his chance, the big central defender has stepped up to the A-League effortlessly (helping United to a clean sheet in a 3-0 win in an assured debut last month).
He’s started ever since.
Add to this, the former Melbourne City duo Josh Cavallo – a 20-year-old skilful attacking midfielder with a peach of a left peg – and pacy wingback Dylan Pierias, who turns 20 in a few days.
Both have made their starting debuts in the last two months, adding enthusiasm and skill to the United side.
This was demonstrated perfectly in a 3-2 loss to City in early January, when the duo came on as second-half subs and helped change the game and almost pull off a miraculous comeback from 3-0 down at the break.
In that same game, former Ajax and Victory player Seb Pasquali, 20, made an assured debut on the right side of a back four for the green and black.
Pasquali is another with a bright future in green and black.
Similarly, pacy striker Apostolos Stamatelopoulos – who has already had A-League experience at Adelaide United where his goalscoring caught the eye – continues to develop with the 20-year-old showing flashes of class this season.
But perhaps the best example of this youth policy at the Green and Black under Rudan has been 19-year-old midfielder Jerry Skotadis.
Unlike the other four players, Skotadis had actually made his senior debut with an A-League club.
In the Asian Champions League, no less.
He was one of a posse of youth players who stepped in to face J-League powerhouse Kawasaki Frontale two days after his then club Sydney FC had played in Perth and won the 2019 A-League Grand Final.
Skotadis debuted for United in a Melbourne Derby against Victory in early December – and since then has been an increasingly important cog in central midfield.
Starting every week, Skotadis has maturity and poise and his elevation shows Rudan’s eye remains as sharp as ever after having first scouted him in the Sydney FC U-18s.
With just 11 professional clubs currently in the Hyundai A-League – of which 10 are Australian-based – getting that opportunity to play first-team football can be challenging when you’re under 21.
In the A-League, younger players are often scrapping and battling for that chance. It’s not easy.
Many go overseas.
Happily, Western United continues to move forward with their youth development mantra under Rudan – a coach who last season oversaw the development of the exciting duo of Libby Cacace and Bayern Munich signing Sarpreet Singh at Wellington Phoenix.
Are there more younger players to look out for this season in the Green and Black side?
Keep an eye on Luke Duzel, the Aussie U-17 midfielder who is growing in confidence each week after signing for United as a scholarship player at the start of the season.
The son of former NSL player Ivan Duzel went to Brazil last October with the Joeys at the FIFA U-17 World Cup and would have taken much from that experience.
He’s been on the bench for the past two games and is edging closer to a debut in the future
“We’re giving a lot of young boys an opportunity. And debuts as well," Rudan told media after Sunday’s game at Mars Stadium.
With a Western United academy structure planned for the future, Rudan added it’ll give teenagers hope when they see young players getting their chance.
“I place a lot of importance on the youth academy and the youth structure. We are working extremely hard to get that right.
“But that’s the goal, to get the young ones in nice and early. And setting up scouting networks around the West and making sure we try to work with the boys from the West.
“Coming out to Ballarat and Geelong, these are the areas we want to try and scout.”
With a number of squad changes and injuries, it’s been a case of stepping up when needed.
“We want to give young players an opportunity to shine,” Rudan added.
“There’s been a lot of talk about the young kid on Friday night [Adelaide United’s Mohamed Toure, who became the youngest ever A-League goalscorer aged just 15] and that’s a fantastic narrative for our game right now.”
But Rudan cautioned: “They have to continue to work hard.”
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
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