Former Juventus goalkeeper Vanstrattan had just been signed from Gold Coast United to play between the posts and his injury left boss Graham Arnold with a dilemma with the transfer window shut.
Fortunately he was able to secure former Bradford City and Leicester City man Paul Henderson on a six-week injury replacement deal but eyebrows were raised when, instead, 18-year-old Mathew Ryan was given the nod in goal.
The inexperienced Ryan didn’t look back, performing superbly in his first season of A-League football, and he was key figure in the Mariners’ run to the Grand Final. The Mariners lost that game on penalties to Brisbane Roar but Ryan picked up the Joe Marston Medal as the game’s Man of the Match, the first player on a losing side in the A-League era to win it. He was also named on the PFA’s A-League Team of the Season shortlist and tied with Roar’s Michael Theoklitos for the most clean sheets in the league (12).
Ryan’s form has continued during the 2011-12 campaign and he has been instrumental in guiding them to top spot in the league. A recent performance against Melbourne Heart, who are still wondering how they failed to score, drew widespread praise with Mark Bosnich stating on Fox Sports that it was the best performance he had ever seen by an Australian keeper.
How long Ryan stays in the A-League remains to be seen but there is no reason why he shouldn’t be pushing for the number one shirt with the Socceroos in the not too distant future.
Ryan is a great example of the young talent currently being nurtured in the A-League, and most of the clubs have given the best some first team action, although not always by choice. Another of the Mariners’ hot young guns, Mustafa Amini, signed for Borussia Dortmund in the off-season but is back on the Central Coast for a year-long loan.
Still only 18, Amini has displayed all the hallmarks of a promising playmaker and Dortmund had no hesitation in snapping him up on a four year contract. The man who is instantly recognisable due to his trademark afro hairstyle has formed an excellent understanding with another quality youngster, Bernie Ibini-Isei. The Amini-Ibini combination has ripped apart defences across the country this season and both are being tipped to make it big abroad.
Gold Coast United have endured a difficult season thanks to a small squad that has struggled to cope with injuries. Indeed, they have been forced to throw a number of inexperienced youth team players into action at various points. Thankfully, there are few better at handling such a situation than United boss Miron Bleiberg whose bluntness and honesty have endeared him to fans of all A-League clubs.
Bleiberg knows his hands are tied in terms of his playing personnel but has made the best of it, blooding the likes of James Brown and Ben Halloran. While Brown has already played for Australia at Under-23 level, Halloran is very much a new kid on the block at 19 years of age.
The blonde-haired forward oozes confidence and isn’t afraid to shoot from long distance or try a speculative overhead kick inside the area. He has already attracted the attention of a number of other clubs and may not hang around the Gold Coast for long.
Another striker coming into his own is Eli Babalj of Melbourne Heart. At 193cm in height, he looks like your typical target man but in reality he is well suited to the free flowing attacking play that has seen Heart push for the top places in the table.
A West Australian, Babalj slipped through the Perth Glory net and headed east to join up with Heart for their inaugural season. Unfortunately injuries blighted much of 2011 for him, though he has taken his chance with both hands now that he has reached full fitness.
Babalj is one of a handful of youngsters currently shining at Heart and has been joined by Aziz Behich, Michael Marrone, Brendon Hamill and the superb Mate Dugandzic in the first team this season. The club has also recently signed up promising goalkeeper Andrew Redmayne for 2012-13 and he will be groomed to take over from the aging Clint Bolton in the next year or so.
Some of the other hot prospects currently in the A-League are Perth Glory duo Adam Taggart (striker) and Josh Risdon (full back), while Brisbane Roar’s Matthew Jurman (centre half) and Mitch Nichols (midfielder), as well as Sydney FC’s Terry Antonis (attacking midfielder), should succeed at a very high level.
With the Socceroos’ ‘old guard’ very much on the way out, it’s imperative that the next generation step up to the plate very soon with qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil underway.
Already the likes of Tommy Orr, Michael Zullo, Robbie Kruse, Mitch Langerak and Mathew Leckie have headed to Europe to hone their skills and there is no doubt that some of the names mentioned in this article will be joining them before too long.
By Neil Sherwin
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona