Why an exodus of top talent is good for the A-Leagues

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Despair tends to be the default emotion for anyone who becomes emotionally invested in Australian football – particularly at domestic level. But there is more reason than usual to feel glum at the moment.

Pretty much everything good about the A-Leagues last season is gone. Or going.

Nick Montgomery and Jason Cummings have left the A-League.Credit: Getty

Nick Montgomery, the mastermind behind the Central Coast Mariners fairytale? Gone. He’s the new manager at Hibernian, arguably the biggest club in Scotland outside the big two in Glasgow.

This one hurts. Montgomery is the ultimate exemplar of what foreign players can contribute to the Aussie game. He was 30 when he left Sheffield United for the Mariners. He went on to captain the club, got his citizenship, transitioned into coaching, got his hands dirty in the academy – then, when he got the opportunity to become their head coach, he used everything he’d learnt here and in England to improve the club, its community and, by extension, the competition. And he did it with the league’s smallest budget.

Some of his best players are gone, too.

Jason Cummings, the larger-than-life larrikin striker who turned his career around under Montgomery in Gosford? Gone. He’s cashing in at Indian club Mohun Bagan.

Sam Silvera and Nectar Triantis, the Mariners’ two most impressive young Aussies? Gone to Middlesbrough and Sunderland in England’s second tier.

Craig Goodwin, the reigning Johnny Warren medallist and Adelaide United’s hometown hero who starred for the Socceroos at the World Cup? Gone. He’s taken up a “life-changing” offer to play in Saudi Arabia, along with seemingly half of Europe.

Marco Tilio and Jordan Bos, the two rising Melbourne City stars? Gone. Sold to Celtic and Belgian club KVC Westerlo.

Garang Kuol, the headline-stealing teenage winger from the Mariners? Gone. He’s playing for Dutch club Volendam, on loan from Newcastle United.

Craig Goodwin is off to Saudi Arabia again.Credit: Getty

Calem Nieuwenhof, the silky smooth Western Sydney Wanderers midfielder, and Kusini Yengi, their derby-winning striker? Gone to Heart of Midlothian and Portsmouth.

Adrian Segecic, the Sydney FC academy product who fans have been looking forward to seeing break into their first team? Gone on loan to Dutch outfit FC Dordrect, with an option to buy at the end of the season. He probably won’t be back.

Nestory Irankunda, that kid from Adelaide who Alan Partridge might describe as having a foot like a traction engine? He’s still here, but not for long – he turns 18 on February 9, and will probably move to Bayern Munich once the transfer window re-opens.

The women’s game is not immune, either. And sure, some veteran Matildas stars are coming home to see out their playing days, which is great. But what about the ones on the rise, like Clare Hunt, the new cornerstone of Australia’s defence? She’s reportedly off to Paris Saint-Germain on a three-year deal.

Clare Hunt appears to be bound for PSG.Credit: Getty

What are we to make of all this? Well, like most things in life, it depends on how you look at it.

Yes, these players will be sorely missed. Characters like Cummings, for instance, don’t grow on trees. Nor do players like Goodwin. The APL’s marketing department will be flat out finding new ways to promote the men’s competition in their absence.

On the other hand, this turnover of talent is perhaps the biggest endorsement imaginable for Australian football.

And it shouldn’t be a surprise. The Socceroos and Matildas are both coming off their best World Cup performances. Ange Postecoglou is busy shifting perceptions in the UK, and creating a pathway for other coaches like Montgomery to follow. Naturally, overseas clubs have begun to cast a curious eye in this direction to see what’s really going on over here – and while the A-Leagues are still obviously struggling to attract an audience at home, those abroad clearly like what they see.

And it seems, finally, A-Leagues clubs are accepting of their position in football’s food chain. Their shrinking budgets have given them no real alternative but to play the kids. But doing that will help them keep the lights on: clubs have reaped more than $7 million in transfer fees this pre-season.

That’s loose change in global terms, but for the A-Leagues, it’s much-needed financial sustenance.

Every sale means an opportunity for another young player to step up, and a chance for the cycle to start anew. And every graduate who plays at a good level abroad helps build Australia’s reputation as a rich and reliable source of talent, which helps build the A-Leagues’ relevance in a global context.

In a way, every competition in the world is a feeder competition – except for the Premier League and, maybe now, the Saudi Pro League.

There is no shame in it. And there’s no point fighting it.

Montgomery certainly didn’t. He might be gone, but he leaves behind a blueprint for rival clubs to copy, and an ethos that can help the A-League not just survive, but thrive.

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