Josh Parish

After just three rounds of the domestic season, the term “Socceroos bolter” has already been thrown around in reference to countless A-League players – perhaps prematurely in most cases. In the football media it is an almost irresistible temptation to picture the players whom you see week in, week out representing the national team. While many of their compatriots in far-off leagues may well be superior footballers, it is difficult to imagine many people outside of the Socceroos coaching staff regularly taking in fixtures from the Czech Republic, Qatar, or the German second division.

Craig Goodwin and Rhyan Grant are but the latest in a long line of A-League products to be touted for a
national guernsey. But what would a Socceroos squad look like if it were entirely composed of A-League players? As an exercise to examine the depth and quality of the domestic competition, I have attempted to compile just that.

Criteria:

  • This is not a national youth team, and will not be selected based on unrealised future potential. The idea is to assemble the strongest possible domestically-based 23-man squad to take to the Asian Cup in January, ideally with a good spread of youth and experience.
  • The players must be playing regular first-team football, and not suffering from a long-term injury.
  • Past international experience will be looked upon favourably, as will recent good form.
  • Balance in positions is essential, with 2 players picked for each position in Graham Arnold’s favoured 4-2-3-1, plus the mandatory three goalkeepers.

Starting XI: 

Goalkeeper:

Lawrence Thomas

Club: Melbourne Victory

Age: 26

Int caps: 0

Youth caps: 5

Particularly over the past two years, Thomas has emerged as perhaps the A-League’s most reliable pair of hands. Rarely one to make a high-profile error, the reigning Joe Marston medallist has cemented his spot as Victory’s #1 goalkeeper, and has no glaring weaknesses in his game. He is a vocal communicator and organiser, comes out to claim crosses, and is capable of a spectacular reflex save. Thomas quite literally put his body on the line to win Melbourne Victory the 2018 Championship, and the images of him celebrating – battered and bandaged – are immortalised in A-League lore.

Right Back:

Rhyan Grant

Club: Sydney FC

Age: 27

Int caps: 0

Youth caps: 25

A favourite of Graham Arnold’s, one feels Grant would already have made his international debut had it not been for a nightmare run of injuries, including two ACL tears and even a fractured ulna sustained in a freak surfing accident. Now sporting the most infamous haircut in the league, he appears to have returned to his brilliant best, flying up and down the right flank and providing Sydney with a constant overlapping threat. Grant is perhaps the most remarkable athlete in the competition, and continues to improve his delivery and the timing of his attacking runs.

Left Back:

Jason Davidson

Club: Perth Glory

Age: 27

Int caps: 22

Youth caps: 6

After Australia’s Asian Cup triumph in 2015, then-first choice Socceroos left back Jason Davidson appeared to have the world at his feet. A couple of unhappy transfers later – including one diabolically poor spell in Croatia – and Davidson has been forced to return home. How cruel and unfeeling European football can be.

Regardless, he has made a phenomenal start to life at the Glory in a left wing back role, reminding us all just how good can be. While there are still a few question marks over the defensive side of his game, with his burst of pace, boundless energy and sweet left foot, Davidson can dominate an entire flank on his own.
Centre backs: Thomas DengClub: Melbourne VictoryAge: 21Int caps: 1Youth caps: 15

Born in a Kenyan refugee camp after his family fled conflict in South Sudan, Deng’s debut for the national team – alongside his childhood friend Awer Mabil – was so inspiring it brought a tear to this writer’s eye. But Deng’s is not just a feel-good story – it’s the story of a hugely exciting young talent. Capable of playing anywhere across the back four, he has clearly benefited from his loan spell at Jong PSV, as he returned a more tactically aware footballer with vastly improved positional sense. Those developing qualities, combined with his athleticism, recovery pace and well-timed tackling ability make him an easy selection for this squad – and a good chance to be selected for real in January.

Alex Wilkinson (c)

Club: Sydney FC

Age: 34

Int caps: 16

Youth caps: 17

The elder statesman of this squad, Wilkinson has been successful and well-respected wherever he has played. A surprise inclusion at the 2014 World Cup, Wilkinson is a classy and reliable defender who dominates in the air, and a model professional who takes supreme care of his body. Given his experience and pedigree, Wilkinson is an easy choice to captain the side and set an example.

Holding midfielders:

Terry Antonis

Club: Melbourne Victory

Age: 24

Int caps: 3

Youth caps: 33

Antonis was already a sensation at 10 years old, when he appeared in a competition on Today Tonight, winning a trip to Madrid to make a training skills DVD with none other than David Beckham. But like many a child star, Antonis has thus far struggled to live up to his immense potential. A succession of failed spells abroad led to a return to the A-League in January with Melbourne Victory, replacing the outgoing Mark Milligan. That goal – and an A-League Championship – duly followed, and two excellent strikes to start the season suggests he is finally beginning to thrive in the spotlight that has followed his career for so long. In a league predominantly filled with workhorses and enforcers, Antonis is one of few players to possess the calibre of touch, vision, and movement required to break down the most stubborn of defences. After years of forlornly chasing a European dream, Terry could well fulfill his burning international ambitions right here on home soil.

Josh Brillante

Club: Sydney FC

Age: 25

Int caps: 5

Youth caps: 28

Brillante struggled for first team football in Italy, but since his return the A-League in 2016, he has been a stifling, overwhelming presence, and half of the most dominant double pivot the league has ever seen. Is he brilliant on the ball? No. Is he a goal threat? Almost never. But Brillante will run for days, and simply does not give you an inch. His and Sydney’s success is perhaps a function of the league rewarding reactive football, and the distinct lack of local ball-playing #6s. But the bearded Bundaberg native wins more tackles, makes more interceptions, and springs more counter attacks than any other player in his position.

Right Wing:

Chris Ikonomidis

Club: Perth Glory

Age: 23

Int caps: 6

Youth caps: 11

Until recently on the books of Serie A giants Lazio, Ikonomidis saw precious few first team minutes, making his Socceroos debut before he’d even turned out for a senior club side. Since his return to Australia with the Wanderers midway through last season, Ikonomidis has more than justified the hype, terrorising opposition defences with his direct and skilful dribbling and netting 3 goals in 10 appearances. Wanderers players reportedly pleaded with management to keep him around on a permanent basis, but the club let him slip through their fingers – a decision they’ll no doubt be rueing. Ikonomidis’ stoppage time winner against the Victory and man-of-the-match performance against Brisbane show he has legitimate claims for a return to the national setup.

Left Wing:

Craig Goodwin

Club: Adelaide United

Age: 26

Int caps: 3

Youth caps: 1

Boasting the most delicious left peg in the league, Craig Goodwin’s quality lies purely in his unrivaled capacity to strike a ball (and as the FFA Cup final proved, his right foot ain’t half bad, either). Goodwin was already a folk hero at his hometown club, and his performances in both cup and league games since returning from Sparta Rotterdam have been nothing short of inspirational. Goodwin is far from a complete player, but he is shouldering a huge attacking burden for the Reds – and in the absolute form of his life, who knows how far he could take them?

Attacking Midfield:

Dimitri Petratos

Club: Newcastle Jets

Age: 25

Int caps: 2

Youth caps: 12

Always devastating over a dead ball, and a constant threat from outside the box, Petratos has added more variety and subtlety to his game under the tutelage of Ernie Merrick. A terrific return of 10 goals and 9 assists last campaign was rewarded with a spot on the plane to Russia. Petratos is deceptively quick off the mark, can combine well with those around him in one and two-touch play, and makes good decisions on and off the ball in transition. Although generally pushed out wide due to the presence of Ronny Vargas, I still believe the #10 role will prove Dimi’s best position. Much like the rest of the Jets squad, Petratos still has to improve when attempting to create against a set defence.

Striker:

Adam Taggart

Club: Brisbane Roar

Age: 25

Int caps: 7

Youth caps: 27

Due to the alarming lack of local strikers in the A-League, Taggart earns this spot virtually by default. A penalty box specialist, he thrives on hard, driven crosses, and running onto through balls off the shoulder of the last defender. Taggart was frequently deployed on the wing by Kenny Lowe, with Irish import Andy Keogh generally preferred in the #9 role, but his record of 21 goals in just 31 starts for the Glory speaks for itself. Now the undisputed first-choice centre forward in Brisbane – and playing under one of Australia’s greatest ever strikers in John Aloisi – this season could well be make-or-break for Taggart’s international career. The ongoing struggle for goals in the national setup gives him a rare opportunity. Is he up to the task?

Bench:

Jamie Young

Club: Brisbane Roar

Age: 33

Int caps: 0

Youth caps: 8 (for England)

After spending much of his career in the English lower leagues, Young returned to his hometown in 2014 to compete for a spot in the starting line-up with Michael Theo. His early struggles hardly inspired confidence, but a wrist injury to Theo gave him breathing room, and Young has not looked back. Yes, he is still capable of a brain fade from time to time (think Perth away, Round 27 when he rushed way off his line to gift Adam Taggart a goal), and is susceptible to being beaten at his near post – but no other goalkeeper in the league makes saves as spectacular or as often as he does. His acrobatics have kept many a mediocre Roar side in games they had no right to compete in, and he seems to still be improving with age. Young was duly rewarded with Goalkeeper of the Year at last season’s Dolan Warren Awards, and judging by this incredible double save, he may well make it two on the trot. Young’s unpredictability sees him narrowly miss out on a starting spot to the more reliable Thomas.

Josh Risdon

Club: Western Sydney Wanderers

Age: 26

Int caps: 11

Youth caps: 0

Already a staple of the national set-up, Risdon is an easy selection. Pacy, industrious, and not afraid to lay a tackle, he has stood out domestically for years as among the best in his position. Perhaps unlucky to give away a crucial penalty via VAR against France, international football has proved a big step up for Risdon, but one he is more than capable of making. Grant’s recent imperious form and strength in 1v1 contests confines Risdon to the bench, but there is little to choose between them.

Michael Zullo

Club: Sydney FC

Age: 30

Int caps: 10

Youth caps: 6

An exciting winger in his younger days at Brisbane Roar, Zullo was converted to an attacking fullback during his time in the Eredivisie, and has adapted to the position with ease. Until the return of Davidson to these shores, Zullo was comfortably the best left back in the league, and is a crucial cog in the dominant Sky Blues machine. Opposition coaches rarely have to game plan specifically for an opposition fullback, but Zullo is a different story. His inside-outside combination with Milos Ninkovic is a joy to behold, and a constant thorn in the side of any team unfortunate enough to come up against him. Just don’t leave any folding tables by his side of the pitch.

Matthew Spiranovic
Club: Perth GloryAge: 30Int caps: 35Youth caps: 39

Another member of the 2015 Asian Cup backline, Spiranovic has led something of a nomadic existence at club level, despite his obvious talent. He was curiously without a club for several months this year after his deal was terminated at Chinese outfit Hangzhou Greentown. Tony Popovic duly snapped up his former Wanderers charge on a free transfer, and a run of good form in a purple jersey will surely spark renewed interest from the Socceroos. Spiranovic is yet to break into the Glory starting XI due to a soft tissue injury, but he’s simply too good to be left out of that back 3 for long.

Steven Ugarkovic

Club: Newcastle Jets

Age: 24

Int caps: 0

Youth caps: 14 (2 of which were for Croatia)

Is Steven Ugarkovic the most underrated player in the A-League? A quiet achiever, Ugarkovic is the metronome that underpins this exciting Jets side. He knows not just how to distribute the ball, but when and where to receive it. A technically polished and intelligent player, Ugarkovic also provides an effective shield for his defence, winning over 78% of his tackles and springing those lightning Newcastle counter attacks. He has the misfortune to play in the most stocked position in the Socceroos setup, but among A-League midfielders, he is up there with the very best.

Riley McGree

Club: Melbourne City

Age: 20

Int caps: 0

Youth caps: 6

Still on the books of Belgian champions Club Brugge, the rise of the ‘Scorpion King’ has been almost as sudden and unexpected as the manner of his Puskas-nominated goal. McGree has scored 5 goals in just 12 appearances for the Jets last season, and provided positivity and drive from wherever he was deployed across the midfield. McGree has a truly rare skill set: remarkable positional versatility, fantastic off-the-ball movement, and a mentality that demands he pass or carry the ball forwards at every opportunity.

Alex Brosque

Club: Sydney FC

Age: 35

Int caps: 21

Youth caps: 14

I’m as surprised as you are, dear reader, that the veteran forward features on this list. Brosque is one of just 12 active A-League players who featured all the way back in Season One of the competition, and nearly retired in the off-season. How on earth has another Australian striker not surpassed him? The bleak reality we must all face is the stunning dearth of local attacking talent. The #9 role is constantly outsourced to foreign imports, and the current national curriculum has failed to produce the kind of instinctual finishers Australia once had in spades. Across the league, only Brosque, George Blackwood, Nathan Burns, and David Williams are getting at least semi-regular first team football, and you could argue the latter two are really wingers. Despite his advancing years, Brosque is still a canny operator who can score goals and bring other players into play.

23-man squad:

GK: Lawrence Thomas, Jamie Young, Vedran Janjetovic

RB: Rhyan Grant, Josh Risdon

CB: Thomas Deng, Alex Wilkinson, Matthew Spiranovic, Tomislav Mrcela

LB: Jason Davidson, Michael Zullo

CM: Terry Antonis, Josh Brilliante, Steven Ugarkovic, Brandon O’Neill

AM: Dimitri Petratos, Chris Ikonomidis, Craig Goodwin, Riley McGree, Daniel De Silva, Ben Halloran

ST: Adam Taggart, Alex Brosque

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Rick D'Andrea
ricdan85@gmail.com