How A-League’s Gen Next seized their moment

With the A-League season in its penultimate week, we’ve had multiple twists and turns, barnstorming finishes, unbelievable goals, controversies and conjecture. 

Much to the delight of fans, we’ve also had an influx of young players into the league: 107 of the 300 players deployed by A-League coaches this season aged 21 years or under — setting a new record – and they have produced some of the most outstanding moments so far this season.

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A-League 2021 Finals Series


Delianov denies the Roar

The race for the finals in 2020-21 proved to be one of the most vociferously contested in the A-League’s history and, with such razor margins in play, entire seasons swung on a single moment… moments such as Adelaide United keeper James Delianov’s crucial penalty save against Brisbane Roar on May 16.

Getting down low to his left to deny a Joseph Champness spot-kick, the 21-year-old AIS graduate preserved the Reds’ 1-0 lead with his effort, a lead they would subsequently hold for a crucial three points. Replace that win with a draw, and it’s Wellington Phoenix, not Adelaide, that is playing finals football. 

Yengi struts his stuff 

What’s better than scoring your first A-League goal? Scoring your first A-League goal for your hometown club against their biggest rivals. 

What’s better than scoring your first A-League goal for your hometown club against their biggest rivals? Scoring your first A-League goal for your hometown club against their biggest rivals and flexing on them. 

Turning in a Craig Goodwin cross to put Adelaide United against Melbourne Victory, one-time Adelaide Comet Kusini Yengi did just that back on March 13: putting his side up 2-1 before leaping the advertising boards and performing a Conor McGregor strut towards the Victory fans behind the goals at Marvel Stadium. Bold, brash and absolutely brilliant. 

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Colakovski shows his Heart  

Maybe there’s something about playing against Victory that brings out the best in youngsters. Coming off the bench with his Melbourne City already up 5-0 against their rivals, 21-year-old Stefan Colakovski put the cherry on his side’s thrashing of their local rivals when he hammered home his side’s sixth of the evening to complete the humiliation and, in the process, secure his first-ever A-League goal. 

Later describing the moment as “one of the best moments of my life”, the bombastic youngster — who cut his teeth with NPL Victoria side Pascoe Vale — didn’t strut to the Victory fans as Yengi would later do but, instead, ran over to celebrate in front of City fans that have embraced the childhood Melbourne Heart fan as one of their own. 

Colacovski is embraced by his City teammates as he celebrates netting against Victory

Ruhs rocks City 

It may have taken him a bit longer than 25 seconds, but Macarthur FC youngster Michael Ruhs’s debut A-League goal served as yet another reminder about the instant impact that the enthusiasm, pace and power that youngster can deliver off the bench. 

Thrown into the contest with his side trailing a red-hot Melbourne City — Patrick Kisnorbo’s side having downed Victory 7-0 the week prior — the U17 World Cup representative took just two minutes to bring the Bulls back level: stealing the ball off Kerrin Stokes and firing past Tom Glover to earn a valuable point as cowbells rang out across Campbelltown Stadium.

Twice as nice for Patrick Wood

There’s no doubt that Sydney FC coach Steve Corica has an impressive array of attacking talent assembled at Harbourside, with the likes of Adam Le Fondre, Bobo, Kosta Barbarouses and Milos Ninkovic all set to pull on Sky Blue this finals series. He’s also got Manly United product Patrick Wood.

A prolific goalscorer at an NPL NSW level, the 18-year-old striker announced himself to the A-League by scoring his first and second senior goals in back-to-back fashion in Sydney’s first-ever derby meeting with Macarthur FC: entering as a 60th-minute substitute and finding the net in the 66th and 88th minutes to propel his side to a 3-0 win and early bragging rights.

M’Mombwa makes his mark

A proliferation of youngsters isn’t the only demographic mark being set in the A-League in 2020-21. Reflecting the changing face of Australian football and society, a record 34 African-Australians have logged minutes in the competition this season; accounting for roughly ten percent of players used compared to their approximate two percent representation in Australia’s total population. 

A Congolese-Australian refugee whose friends and family rallied around him to pay his junior fess, Charles M’Mombwa made his first-ever start for Macarthur against Central Coast back on April 18 and promptly marked the occasion with his first-ever A-League goal in the 35th-minute. Wheeling away, the former Mount Druitt Town Rangers prospect subsequently made his way to the stands to celebrate with “family and friends here supporting the journey ever since [the] grassroots”.

Last-minute delight for Van der Saag 

One of the realities of being a young player making the jump to a senior level is that there’s going to be ups and downs. Blistering stints of form followed by periods of coldness that need to be overcome. But if there’s any young player heading into the finals with a wet sail, it’s Sydney FC’s Harry Van der Saag. 

His side staging a rearguard action to defend a 1-0 lead against Brisbane Roar on the final day of their A-League campaign, the 21-year-old streaked up the right flank and advanced, unmarked, into the penalty area to receive a pass from Alexander Baumjohann in the 95th minute. 

Promptly firing an effort that beat Jamie Young at his near post, the former Manly United prospect ensured that his side entered the finals as the most in-form team of the competition, unbeaten in their last six.

Tilio Time

The road to senior football can often be a long and winding one, with unexpected diversions and changes in route frequently thrown up along the way. For Marco Tilio, his pathway to the A-League initially looked like it would be a purely Sky Blue one: the Hurstville-born attacker moving from the ranks of Sydney Olympic into the Sydney FC youth system and winning a Y-League Golden Boot before debuting for the Harboursiders towards the end of the 20219-20 A-League season.

The 19-year-old’s journey, however, then took a sudden, Southward turn when he opted to head down to Victoria and sign a three-year deal with Melbourne City. 

Slowly integrating him into a squad with a bevy of highly credentialled stars up front, Tilio announced himself as yet another difference-maker for the A-League premiers against Wellington Pheonix back on April 5: meeting a cross in from Connor Metcalfe with a booming header in the 83rd minute to beat ‘Nix keeper Oli Sail, make it 3-2, and ensure that City would take all three points away from Wollongong.