How to build an A-Leagues academy from scratch: The pipeline, the identity, the endgame

Western United take on Adelaide United in round five of the Isuzu UTE A-League.

Western United Academy Director Anthony Frost chats to about how he set up one of the country’s newest football academies, which is beginning to thrive in Melbourne’s west.

Two years ago, Anthony Frost was handed a blank canvas.

Frost had just been appointed the Academy Director of one of the A-Leagues’ newest sides Western United. He was handed the keys to the castle to build a talent pipeline – quite literally from scratch – for the best young players in the west of Melbourne to achieve their goals of becoming a professional footballer.

But how does one put all the pieces in place to make that happen?

Submit an Expression of Interest to join Western United’s Junior Academy in 2024

“It’s an exciting project,” Frost told about taking on the role two years ago.

“But it can be daunting as well, because you’ve got a massive opportunity to shape something that will hopefully leave a lasting legacy for not only players, but our region and the club.

“It certainly was an attractive proposition to come on board and be able to start something from scratch.

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“I think ultimately for me, my experience and the environments that I’ve been exposed to previously gave me a really good foundation and knowledge to be able to create something that I believe is going to set us apart from other clubs and hopefully be recognised as the leading developer of footballers in the country.”


Early success

When Frost took over in late 2021, the club was embarking on season three of their existence in the A-Leagues.

He had just arrived after a stint at Melbourne City, working as an academy coach for almost four years, while also serving as the assistant coach for the Young Socceroos and a national coach development educator for Football Australia.

Western only had Under-21 and Under-23 sides registered in Victoria’s NPL competition – playing in what was then known as NPL3 (the third tier now known as VPL2) alongside City and Melbourne Victory.

Image: Western United

Prior to his arrival, the U23s were sitting in third place after 14 matches, only a point adrift from top spot before the season was abandoned due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The men’s side had promoted a number of players to their senior side in the ensuing period, including Adisu Bayew – who would go on to play in their 2022 Grand Final success.

But in Frost’s first year, he would not only be constructing the academy, but also taking the reins of the U23s as head coach, replacing Ante Moric.

Frost continued the good work left in place by his predecessor, taking the U23s to promotion via the NPL2/3 promotion-relegation playoffs, defeating Goulburn Valley Suns 6-1 to earn their ticket to the second tier of Victorian football – with the likes of Noah Botic, Luke Duzel, Jake Najdovski and Christian Theoharous hitting the scoreboard.

It capped off a successful few months for the club’s men’s sides, after their seniors took home their first-ever Isuzu UTE A-League Championship, with sustained success trickling down into their youth teams.

“When I came on board, we only had the two teams which were playing in NPL3 in Victoria and we had our under 23s and our under 21s,” he said.

“The first stage or phase of my role was to be the head coach of the Under-23 team and sort of start to oversee and shape what the broader academy structure would look like over the course of that season with a key focus on getting out of NPL3 and progressing into NPL2 because a key driver for us was trying to limit the gap between players making that jump into the first team… (and) the senior academy environment.

Submit an Expression of Interest to join Western United’s Junior Academy in 2024

Michael Vonja. Image: Western United

“To achieve that promotion in that first year was obviously a big plus for the club (and) for myself personally, and it gave us a bit of that impetus to continue progressing what we were doing and build on that first year to head into that following season, with a really strong group of staff and players around us.

“That first year was obviously a challenge, that managing the role of a coach but also trying to plan and organise, to prepare for our additional junior teams to come on board and looking at staffing. Looking at our coaching philosophy, playing philosophy and overall programme, outcomes and objectives.

“It was a challenging time, trying to balance two roles, essentially, but I think the work that was done in that period of time has sort of led us to where we are now in the season that we’ve had, and obviously the players that are starting to progress through into the first team.”


In two years, Frost has overseen an enormous growth in their academy, stepping down from his role as U23 coach to focus solely on building the pipeline from top to bottom.

Western now have Under 14s, 15s, 16s and 18s teams, with all four sides placing well in JBNPL 1, while their Under 21s are thriving under New Zealand football legend Vaughn Coveny – reaching finals for the first time in 2023.

Frost has also helped usher in the WUFC Development Centre, a specialised training program that will gradually incorporate players aged 9-13, as they look to uncover more talent from their catchment area out west.

“We have made a strategic decision to ensure that our development centre programme, which is essentially our sort of pre-academy, under 14 intakes for 2024 will hopefully be every player, from the west that have played in the west,” he said.

“We want to ensure that there’s a clear identity and the players that are involved in our club are from the west and are playing for the west and they share that same passion to want to represent their region.

“But we’re mindful that given we’re so young, we’re in the initial stages of our club, we’ve had to select some players that are outside of our area, but, longer term, that’s certainly where we’re wanting to go.”


But what is the identity and philosophy of the west?

“A big challenge for our coaching will be to ensure that… let’s say if you remove the shirt and the badge from the players, will they actually look like a Western United team or a Western United player?” Frost continued.

“I’m constantly challenging our coaches to ensure that our footballing methodology is aligned to our region and who we are and the the values that we have.

Image: Western United

“It’s a critical part of what we’re trying to do at the club and for me we want to ensure that they’re staying true to the roots of the West.

“So when you think of a Western United player, what does that look like? For me, it’s a player who’s aggressive, they’re willing to dominate the game in all phases, particularly in one v one attacking, defending situations and they’re creative.

“They’re not afraid to take risks. They’re able to see solutions that maybe other players don’t see. For me, that’s a Western United player. We’re trying to ensure that our programme enables us to ensure that those players are coming through our pathway.”

The next wave

The fruits of Frost’s labour have started to show in the last couple of seasons, as many of his senior academy products begin to make the transition to senior football.

With the first wave of youngsters Bayew, Botic, Rhys Bozinovski and co starting to transition into the senior side, it was time for the next crop of young guns to stake their claim.

Locally scouted players Najdovski, Matthew Grimaldi, Oliver Lavale and Michael Vonja are among those who have made the jump in the last 12 months, earning scholarship deals.

Max Bisetto is another on the fringes, following an incredible season in NPL2 after making the move from Moreland City, and seeing minutes in the Australia Cup.

Submit an Expression of Interest to join Western United’s Junior Academy in 2024

The likes of Grimaldi, Lavale, Vonja and Bisetto were central to an improbable run at promotion in their first season in the highly competitive NPL2 competition, led by Frost’s successor in former A-Leagues players Diogo Ferreira and assistant coach Mate Dugandzic.

Max Bisetto. Image: Western United

Ferreira’s charges were only minutes away from an incredible double promotion in the second-last game of the season against Northcote, before conceding a last ditch equaliser which denied them promotion.


They had another crack at promotion the following weekend against FC Bulleen Lions, but fell to a 3-1 defeat, opening the door for Manningham United, who joined Dandenong City as the two sides promoted to Victoria’s top flight.

Despite just missing out on being the only A-Leagues Academy side in Victoria to be playing top flight NPL football in 2024, Frost was pleased with what he saw, especially when it came to the development of many of his young guns.

“When you have great people and a clear programme, clear processes and obviously a group of players that are committed to wanting to get the best out of themselves and achieve success for the club, then those ingredients all work towards a team that is naturally going to do well, and hopefully to a higher level,” he said.

“It certainly wasn’t the intent for us or the expectation for us to get promoted or to be in sort of that position. It was certainly a nice position to be in and, yes, disappointing that we weren’t able to, I guess, make that final hurdle.

Diogo Ferreira. Image: Western United

“But for me, I need to try and look at things from a from a positive perspective and the experiences that our players have had by going through that disappointment or being exposed to those types of pressure games and pressure situations, it’s only going to benefit those players in the group in the long run.

“We’re hopeful that things will continue to evolve within this next season and we go bigger and better and obviously continue to push players through into the first team.

“We are in the business of developing individuals, not teams.

“So it’s ultimately, those individuals that make their debut or have a career in professional football that our academy is going to be judged on ultimately. Promotion is nice, and maybe team success is nice in the academy environment, but for me, it’s just a by-product of the quality of the players that we develop.

“That’s front and centre for us and it’s certainly reflected in the type of players and the age of the players that we’re also exposing to to senior men’s football.

“I think the average age for our playing group was around 19.1 so for them to be pushing for a promotion and playing in a senior environment, that’s ultimately where we’re heading.

Matthew Grimaldi. Image: Western United

“The team’s success is nice, but we look at how many players have had exposure in the first team, either from a training perspective or a playing perspective, those are the trophies that that we want at the end of the day.

“All the other stuff is nice to have, but for me, I get the most satisfaction when I see a player make their first team debut, score a goal on their debut. Those are the trophies that we want, and hopefully we’ll have more of them moving forward.”

Winning trophies and what’s next?

And those trophies arrived.

Western’s senior side underwent a major squad overhaul in the off-season, parting ways with a host of veteran players and opting to replace them largely with younger players – either through transfer or promotion from the academy.

During the 2023 Australia Cup, senior coach John Aloisi handed senior debuts to the likes of Grimaldi, Lavale and Bisetto, who all impressed enormously when given the chance.

But it was the 2-0 win over Gold Coast Knights where they particularly stood out, with Lavale and Grimaldi both finding the net, while the latter came close to adding one himself.

“I was jumping up and down on my couch in my living room, trying not to wake my baby daughter,” he said.

“It was a special moment for me and the club and I guess a reward for all the work that the staff have put into not only the program but the support of those individuals and we know that it’s just the start of more to come.

“The relationship that we have with the first team staff, especially John (Aloisi) is as strong as ever and we’re starting to see more and more players given an opportunity in the first team, which is ultimately what what we want.

“That gives John confidence that the players are ready to perform if they’re given that opportunity and then, at the end of the day, it’s down to the player. It’s down to the individual to rise to the level, rise to the occasion to show everyone what they’re they’re capable of doing.

“There’s a clear connection between the academy and the first team and we’re excited to see players get more and more opportunity in the first team this year.

“The squad that we’ve got has sort of taken the approach to have or carry less contracted players and ensure that maybe there’s a shift from the last couple of years where we’re starting to see younger players given more and more opportunity and I would hope that’s the direction that the club continues to go.

“It also puts a bit of pressure on me to ensure that those players are coming through, but it’s certainly a challenge that we’re willing to to accept.”

So far, only Grimaldi has seen minutes in the Isuzu UTE A-League this season, making his league debut in a 1-0 loss to Newcastle Jets before the international break in Ballarat.

And Grimaldi – along with his academy teammates – will be hoping to be the face of the team that eventually begins to play in the west, with confirmation they will play A-Leagues matches out of the Regional Football Facility in Tarneit later this season.

“It’s something that the club has been working towards for a long time,” he said.

“Now, if I’m a player, I get to share the same facilities that a first team player will get to have and potentially be at the same venue that we’re going to be playing some games at this year as well.

“To have that connection all the way through the academy is something that’s good, that’s really exciting and for not only the players but also the staff to be in the one place to have that connection will be fantastic.

“We’re looking forward to the future, that’s for sure.”