Much has been made of the inability of the Socceroos to score goals in recent times, with their recent World Cup exit after not scoring a single goal from open play bringing those discussions to a fever pitch.
That Australia was still turning to a 38-year-old that had played less than a cumulative 90 minutes at club level in search of a goal during a must-win World Cup clash against Peru speaks volumes to the problems Australia has had in developing a lethal presence up top.
Whilst Jamie Maclaren, Tomi Juric, Adam Taggart and now Andrew Nabbout have all had stints leading the line for the Socceroos; none have been able to truly claim the title of Socceroos spearhead as their own.
Still relatively young and perhaps having not been on the receiving end of a fair chance at the job there is, of course, every chance that one of those four may step up in the wake of the expected retirement of Tim Cahill and make the number nine jersey their own in the lead into Qatar 2022.
Observers of Australian youth football, however, would also point you towards another Qatar candidate; one presently taking the field at Western Sydney Wanderers preseason training.
Still toiling away in the relative obscurity of the Western Sydney Wanderers youth system, 17-year-old John Roberts is a striker that has the potential to prove himself a generational talent.
— John Roberts (@john_roberts9) June 8, 2018
Identified as a budding star by NSW NPL side Mt Druitt Town Rangers as a 12-year-old playing in a West Sydney park, Roberts was considered by many to be the most talented prospect in NSW football just a year later: making the move to the now-closed FFA Centre of Excellence (COE).
Born to Sierra Leonean parents in Guinea, Roberts grew up in the coastal capital of Conakry before moving to Australia as an eight-year-old refugee and captained Australia at the 2016 AFF U-16 Youth Championships.
Playing alongside players such as Perth Glory’s Jacob Italiano and Melbourne City’s Dylan Pierias, Roberts won the Golden Boot for that tournament: scoring eight times. His most important goal came in the 91st-minute goal in the final against Vietnam, his strike leveling things up at 3-3 and forcing the tie into extra time and eventual penalties – which Australia won.
Two years later, Roberts was one of the youngest members of the Australian U-19 squad that topped its qualifying group for the AFC U-19 Championships – which will be held in October in Indonesia.
Roberts left the COE in July of last year, following the likes of Sydney-born prodigies Daniel Arzani and Ramy Najjarine southward to sign with Melbourne City.
One of his coaches at the time, Lachlan Armstrong, told the Daily Football Show last year that it was already apparent that Roberts was a special talent.
“He’s a big, strong, back to goal type of striker and holds the ball up and brings other people into play,” Armstrong said.
“He went off and captained our Joeys team in their last campaign, so he does have some terrific leadership qualities.”
Yet, while the footballing transition to City may have gone smoothly for Roberts, he quickly came to the realization that home is where the heart is.
“I thought it was going to be an easy transition,” Roberts told dailyfootballshow.com.
“Keeping up with all the older players, it was a bit different, it was a different pace. (But) because most of the things we did at the AIS was pretty much what we did when I was at City, it was easy.
“At the start, it was a bit easy, but [I started] missing my family a bit.
“It was hard… it was.
“Family is pretty important in my life, they’ve encouraged to get out to training and do my best. Whenever I’m down they’re there to talk to me and they’re around me, which was different at City.
“When I was in Canberra (at the COE) it was just a short drive, they normally drove down every weekend.
“When I was in Melbourne and I was feeling a bit down or not feeling good I had to call them, it was a bit different because they’re not there. It was a bit hard.”
With the call to return home overwhelming, Roberts would amicably leave City in January of 2018 and sign as a scholarship player with his hometown A-League club in the Wanderers.
Finding regular minutes with the youth team, Roberts was a part of the Wanderers Y-League championship winning side – although he frustratingly missed over half the eight-game regular season as he waited for his transfer to clear.
“It was a bit hard, it was different,” Roberts said.
“I didn’t get to play for about four games because of the transfer window and when I was at Melbourne I didn’t get to play, so I had to wait till January to start playing.
“First game I found it hard because of match fitness: I wasn’t really match-fit and the pace was different from training. That first game was a bit hard, but as soon as I started playing it was fine, I just went for it.”
Now taking part in pre-season training with the Wanderers A-League side, Roberts is loving life.
“Yeah, I’m really enjoying it,” he said.
“I live close to training; the people are welcoming and they’re friendly. Everyone gets along well. The older players treat the young players fairly. So yeah, I’m really enjoying it.
“I’m happy with preseason, how it’s going and how I’m training. If I just keep working hard this is the year to break through.
“Mark Bridge has been a good leader to me.
“He helps me with my movement in training. He’s been helping me a lot, just trying to develop everything that a striker needs to do from his experience; from his experience with other players and his experience playing striker.”
Roberts, just like the rest of his teammates, is attempting to impress new gaffer Markus Babbel.
The 45-year-old former Bayern Munich and Liverpool defender has previously managed sides such as VfB Stuttgart, Hertha BSC, and FC Luzern and was announced as the Wanderers boss in May; taking his first preseason session with his new squad last week.
“First when he came he looked scary,” Roberts said of Babbel.
“But when I got to know him he’s been helping me a lot with my game.
“He’s a really nice guy, (he’s) helping me with my positioning, simple things that I need to work on and do extras with me; trying to improve me as a complete player.”
A striker whose combination of an eye for goal, touch, finishing ability and physical capabilities is a rarity amongst players his age, Roberts is the type of prospect that Australia rarely produces.
Asked about why he thinks Australia has failed to produce a true top-class number nine since the retirement of Mark Viduka, Roberts pinpoints the fleeting opportunities presented to young attackers.
“I think it’s hard to because if you’re a young player and you don’t have the experience the coaches wouldn’t play you,” he explained.
“They like to use strikers that have experience, overseas strikers or older players with experience.
“So, I think that the more chances young players get, strikers get, to show what they can prove, I think the better that they’ll come in the build and the better they get.
“Looking at Arzani, he was one of my close mates I was with when I was in Melbourne and him going all the way to playing for the Socceroos inspires me to achieve. (It)makes me wants to improve as a player and one day play for the Socceroos as well.”