Full Squad: Arnold sprinkles future stardust on Socceroos by adding teen stars from Man City to Adelaide

Clutch of new names includes what would be a third-gen Socceroo and a teen younger than Kewell, writes Tom Smithies.

The future starts here. A Socceroos squad designed to celebrate the achievements of Australia at the World Cup last year is embellished by the most exciting dash of youth seen for years.

Scattered between the familiar names in the 26-man squad to face Ecuador twice later this month are fresh faces to make any fan sit up. Alex Robertson, son and grandson of former Socceroos and highly rated enough at Manchester City to be on the bench in the Champions League, is picked after years of agonising over his international options.

Nestory Irankunda, Adelaide United’s 17-year-old sensation, will join the camps in Sydney and Melbourne initially as a train-on player but with the potential to earn game time if his attitude and output at training demand it.

Such a first cap would make Irankunda – already the scorer of several outrageous goals in the A-League – the youngest ever Socceroo, some five months younger than Harry Kewell was on his international debut in 1997.

Injuries to Martin Boyle, Ajdin Hrustic, Jamie Maclaren, and Mathew Leckie – plus Danny Vukovic’s retirement – have opened up some intriguing possibilities.

There is also a first call-up for another graduate of the last Olympic campaign, Melbourne City’s Aiden O’Neill, after a series of influential displays for his club, his clubmate Jordan Bos and Adelaide’s highly rated young goalkeeper Joe Gauci. All these kids have demanded an opportunity through their pedigree and performances.

Though Robertson will not be formally tied to the Australian cause even if capped against Ecuador – because the games have friendly status – his decision to accept a call-up is hugely significant. The 19-year-old has played for England’s youth teams, albeit not in competitive games, and is eligible for Peru and Scotland as well. This has all the makings of a considerable coup.

“I’ve probably been talking to him for over 18 months, and it was a matter of just one step at a time,” Arnold said of the journey to bring Robertson into the fold. “This time, when I called him and told him I wanted to pick him for these Ecuador games, straight away, it was: ‘Arnie, I  can’t wait’, and he was looking forward to it so much.

“I do believe the kid is aligned now with Australia, and I’m pretty sure once he puts a Socceroos shirt on and feels the emblem on his heart, there’s only one nation you will play for.

Alex Robertson, second left, trains with City players including Kevin De Bruyne, Riyad Mahrez and Erling Haalandin December last year.

“I haven’t just picked him because he’s a talent. He’s doing very, very well at Man City and playing with the U23s but training every day with the first team.

“He plays more as a number eight, very similar to De Bruyne who plays that type of role at Man City. He’s there for a reason and that reason is obviously that Pep Guardiola rates him highly.”

Alex’s father, Mark, and grandfather, also Alex, both represented the green and gold – in that sense Robertson’s background could hardly be more different to Irankunda, who came to Australia as a refugee from Tanzania.

So far he has played just 13 professional games for Adelaide and started none – but his combination of pace, raw power and explosive shooting have made a remarkable impact already. Realistically his major international involvement over the next year is likely to be the Olyroos, but Arnold wants to see him up close.

Nestory Irankunda crosses for Adelaide United against Melbourne City on March 3.

“Seeing the kid play, he’s got these special qualities – the physique on him, the speed on him is exciting,” said Arnold. “At the end of the day he’s coming in for an experience, but that’s not ruling out game time.

“He’s coming in for these games to have that experience of what it’s like to play or be at a top level and I want him to learn quickly and also to help Adelaide as well, that he sees what it takes from an Aaron Mooy or from a Jackson Irvine what it takes to get to the top top level.

“It’s not only on the field, it’s off the field: the behaviour of these guys who have been professionals for a long time and have achieved these things, what it takes day to day to be a professional footballer.

“Yes, he’s in there as a train-on player at this moment (but) there’s two games and the backup of the games is very short. We play Friday and Tuesday, and there’ll be a good chance for the second game especially that he’ll be in the squad.”

That applies equally to a swathe of A-League players who have stepped up in this campaign to warrant inclusion – with debuts for Gauci, Jordan Bos and O’Neill, as well as a recall for Brandon Borello on the back of a barnstorming season for the Wanderers.

“It’s a great opportunity for (Gauci) to come in and see what Maty Ryan does and learn off him,” Arnold said. “He’s doing exceptionally well at Adelaide and giving him that experience to come in and be around everybody and see what it is to go to that level is hugely important.

“Jordy Bos I’ve been impressed with probably for a year and a half, not just the last month or so, he’s got great attacking skills. As a left fullback he can get high, get forward and get some good crosses in the box, and he’s physically a good specimen. I’m excited to see these guys, I’ve said this before that I believe in the A-League and believe in Australian kids.”

That includes Garang Kuol, of course, whose early time on loan at Hearts from EPL giants Newcastle has given just a scattered few minutes of game time often played out of position.

“It’s a physical competition, the way Scottish football is played, and it’s going to be a learning process for the kid as well,” Arnold said. “It’s not easy and a lot of people don’t understand that. When you leave family, you leave friends.

“You look at all of our stadiums (in the A-League), they’re incredible and the teams play on great pitches every week.

“In Scotland, you’ve only got a couple of stadiums that are like they are here, the rest are not so great. It’s a learning experience, as well as the weather conditions that Garang has to get used to. So for the kid, it’s about hanging in there and working hard and having that strong mentality.

“But this is what a national team camp can do for young kids or players that are going through a bit of a negative experience at their club at the moment. It brings them back to life in camp for 10 days, playing for their nation.

“There’s nothing more proud than that and giving him some energy, he’ll get back to Hearts feeling in a much better mood.”

Date: Friday, 24 March 2023
Venue: CommBank Stadium, Sydney
Time: 8.10pm AEDT
Tickets: https://premier.ticketek.com.au
Broadcast: Live on 10 in Sydney and Melbourne, 10 Bold in Adelaide, Brisbane, and Perth, and on 10 Play and Paramount+.

Date: Tuesday, 28 March 2023
Venue: Marvel Stadium, Melbourne
Time: 7:35pm AEDT
Tickets: https://www.ticketmaster.com.au/
Broadcast: Live on 10 Bold, 10 Play and Paramount+