Melbourne Victory is not a side used to operating in the shadows.
The reigning premiers of the W-League and four-time champions of the A-League, Victory make no pretence of their belief that they are the biggest and best club in Australia; one that possesses not just a desire for success but also an expectation of it.
However, one area that the club has struggled to keep pace with their rivals in recent years has been in the creation of a production line of young talent.
Perhaps due to the must-win temperament of both the club and former boss Kevin Muscat, youngsters have struggled to attain meaningful senior A-League minutes at AAMI Park; more often than not consigned to spot duty off the bench late in games.
According to figures calculated by journalist Damir Kulas, Victory players aged 21 and under combined for only 673 minutes during the 2018-19 A-League season, with just Champions Sydney FC (322 minutes) affording their young players fewer minutes on the park.
Though talents such as Christian Theoharous and Seb Pasquali are notable exceptions, Victory has increasingly been outpaced by rivals such as Sydney FC, Western Sydney Wanderers and Melbourne City when it comes to representatives in Australian international youth sides.
At the Young Socceroos and Joeys most recent major tournaments – the AFC U19 and 16 Championships respectively – only one member of either squad – Birkan Kirdar – was on the Victory books at the time of the tournament.
Looking to change this is newly appointed Victory Technical and Academy General Manager Drew Sherman, who arrived in Melbourne in March after helping to steer a Brisbane Roar academy that was crowned as champions of the Y-League in 2018-19 and saw its U21 talent afforded 5,938 minutes of A-League football.
Cardiff-born, Sherman is the son of Australia Technical Director Rob Sherman and was the youngest person to ever complete the UEFA A License course; doing so at just 21-years of age.
Possessing experience in the setups of Everton, Wolves, Aldershot Town, Crawley Town and Southampton as well as a stint in charge of the Cook Islands, Sherman told dailyfootballshow.com that he’s enjoyed immersing himself into his new Victorian surrounds.
“It’s been good, I think that settling in is probably the key term,” the 32-year-old said.
“Obviously, when you come to a new environment and a new city the key is probably to understand the context of the club, the context of the local community, some of the cultural things and the way in which we work in terms of systems and processes.
“That takes a period of time and I think I’m a better space in terms of getting my perspective and thoughts on that and assessing things from a more global point of view. I’m very impressed with what we do have in place around infrastructure and the potential there is for us to really create something quite unique here at Melbourne Victory.
“I’ve worked in various environments, clubs that have a very clear identity like Southampton in the Premier League and some clubs that have historical success, Brisbane Roar being very successful in the Australian environment.
“Clubs that have a very clear identity in terms of what they think their football should look like.
“Here at Melbourne Victory, there is clarity and expectation. The governance structure means that there is a strong degree of continuity and therefore the club really take more of a long-term approach to developing these systems and processes.
“It’s a club that is very people-centred and expects and demands continuous improvement. That’s the thing that has really stood out for me and my first impressions.
“It’s something I personally align with so it’s an exciting place to be. I guess it’s a type of culture that you want to work in in any field of work.
“In the academy space, we’re almost like a blank canvas.
“There are areas where, undoubtedly, we need to be better but there are also areas where we’ve been very good.
“I think now is the time where the club really realises the potential and scope of the academy program. Now is the time where they’re making a real commitment to invest and grow that program.
“It’s nice to be here at a point where we do have a start, a blank canvas, and with the inception of all the new teams we’re really at a ground zero in terms of what are ambitions are going forward and what we want the program to look like.”
As Sherman alluded to, part of that evolution in the way that Victory handles their academy will come in future NPL Victoria seasons, where the club will soon field sides beyond their current allotment of U15s, U18s, U20s and seniors.
Whilst some facets may have met some resistance from local residents, there are also plans to expand Victory’s academy footprint through the construction of a number of facilities across Melbourne’s inner-west.
“We’ve a sporadic academy program it’s fair to say,” said Sherman.
“We’ve some good players and good processes and people evolve from a coaching perspective, but we’ve got players aged between 13 and 20 to 21 that are sort of split into those loose teams and infrastructure: 15s, 18s, 20s, and academy.
“Next year we’ll obviously have the full entourage right from a U13 team all the way through to an U21s that will compete in the senior NPL.
“We’ll see full age groups 13s through 18s, which is obviously the age groups where the players are still in school, and then we’ll have a full-time youth team that will train in the mornings. So, we’re really trying to upskill and make the program more professional.”
The subject of immersing prospective young footballers in a proper environment is an important one to Sherman, who will also be a part of the recently announced FFA review into pathways for young players in Australia.
“We’re in an interesting position where we need to align,” Sherman explained.
“We need to put the onus on clubs to invest and ultimately, we need to reward the clubs that do invest. It’s very difficult, from a business perspective, when we can’t protect investment around contracting youth players and what that might look like, to ask clubs to invest.
“Fundamentally, that’s one challenge. We’re reliant on FIFA Training Compensation and nowhere else in the world is solely reliant on that. I think that there has to be some global direction from a governance perspective over how we’re able to do that.
“Ultimately, we need to provide better environments.
“We had the AIS program but, if we’re truly honest about that, it was a two-year program for players that had had their key formative years in existing environments. They didn’t come into that program at 16 or 17 as novice players; they already have formative football experience.
“We need to create more environments across the country to provide more opportunities for children to do that at young ages.
“That’s the focus of A-League clubs, member federations, NPL clubs but then we also need to be very strict with the standards that are associated with that because we are a long way behind the eight ball in comparison to youth development infrastructure around the world.”