FPF Exclusive: Our chats with Adelaide United's next generation
The 2020-21 A-League season was a hotbed for young Australian talent.
No side reflected that more than Carl Veart's Adelaide United.
Adelaide has been promoting from within for many years.
That approach continued this past campaign, with the club now having more exciting prospects than ever on their books.
Front Page Football was lucky enough to be allowed to sit down and have a chat with one of the most promising groups of young Australian players in the league.
In several interviews, we discussed the past season and the club's expectations for 2021-22.
United made it to the semi-finals last season before being eliminated by Sydney FC 2-1 away from home.
Most of their fanbase might have looked at that as a decent campaign considering they finished the home and away season in sixth.
However, the players were disappointed not to go all the way.
A devastated Mohamed Toure at full-time following the semi-final loss to Sydney. (Getty Images)
“I think the boys definitely feel like we could have gone that next step further and made it to the final,” young goalkeeper Joe Gauci said.
“We built a very good squad and had a great team camaraderie, and everyone got along well.
“It was a bit of an up and down season in parts. We went on a great run in the middle of the year, which really set us up.
“We had some tough games where we were able to fight back and get a point, so we had great team character.
“I think it was the building blocks for what’s to come next season.”
That sentiment of disappointment was also shared by Mohamed Toure, Kusini Yengi and Louis D'Arrigo, who agreed that the season did not live up to their expectations.
“It was a bit unfortunate that we didn’t make the Grand Final, but I think our goals this year [are] to make it and go all the way,” Mohamed Toure said.
“I think there’s no point playing if you’re not going out to win. We had set a goal as a team to finish at the top of the table and win the league, and we didn’t achieve that,” Yengi said.
D'Arrigo highlighted how the Reds were lucky in a way to be in the finals in the first place.
“I think this year we have to be a lot better. If you look at everything that comes into place, we were one point [from] not coming in the top six and then ended up going to the semi-finals,” the midfielder said.
As you can see, the level of ambition within the squad - particularly amongst the young players - is exceptionally high.
The Reds don't just want to be making up the numbers in the finals every year.
That ambition is something that has rubbed off onto winger Mohamed Toure.
“I think Carl’s built a really good culture around the team. He’s made our team such a winning team, and now all we focus on is winning, and we want to win every game, every week,” he said.
Although United harbour ambitions of winning a second title, they often find it difficult to compete financially.
Powerhouses such as Sydney FC and Melbourne City can bring in more experience from overseas and fit it into their salary cap.
Some of the Reds fanbase have previously criticised the club for not bridging the gap and bringing in more experienced players.
Instead, they believe the club has placed too much trust in youth and has prioritised development over success.
Those concerns were brushed aside by D'Arrigo, who believes the continuity and constant development of young players mean the club is better prepared for the future.
“I think this season we will be more prepared. What I’m trying to say is [that if] you look at Sydney FC, they’ve had the same coach a lot of years now, and the same players,” he said.
“This is going to be our second year with the majority of players in the same team and the same coaching staff.
“You look at other seasons; we’ve had a new coach every year. Maybe this season, we’ll be better at implementing that system of play to continue from last season."
“You see it not only in our sport but in all types of sports [like] basketball etc. Teams that seem to stick together and keep those core players end up having success,” goalkeeper James Delianov added.
The Reds are attempting to keep a core group of players from last season.
The bond amongst them is strengthened because many of the youngsters have worked with Veart previously in the NTC state program in South Australia.
Yengi added that having that sense of familiarity from a younger age with Veart will only make him better.
“With Ross (Aloisi, assistant coach) and Carl, they’ve taught me a lot. Every day they come into training and want us to do better and improve as players and play attacking football, and that’s what I love,” Yengi said.
“Doing things with people that you’re familiar with makes it a lot easier. I know the type of coach Carl is and what he likes and what he doesn’t like, so it makes the transition period a bit quicker and smoother.”
Last year, the striker had a breakout campaign, particularly throughout the middle part of the campaign, where Adelaide played their best football.
His memorable moment came in an Original Rivalry game away to the Melbourne Victory back in March.
Yengi scored his first goal for the club and assisted in a 3-1 win.
But the 22-year-old sets the bar high for himself, and he is determined to become the primary goalscorer upfront for United next season and not just chip in with important goals here and there.
“I have very high standards of myself, and I know what I can do on the pitch and what I’m capable of,” he said.
“I know that I can do so much better than what I did last year, and I can play so many more games and score so many more goals.
“This season, Tomi (Juric) [has] left. He taught me a lot, and I learnt a lot from him, and I’m going to use that this season to help myself cement my position in the starting eleven for sure.”
Yengi might have a more straightforward path to regular starts as a number nine after Tomi Juric's departure.
However, the goalkeeping situation at the other end remains a good headache for Veart, with both Gauci and Delianov providing excellent competition.
Delianov in pre-season training. (Jordan Trombetta)
The pair are determined to start as many games as possible next season and only see the competition as a positive.
“I think for me [the goal is] to play as many games as possible. I had ten last season, which is not even half a season,” Gauci said.
“For me, it was a great taste, but like I said, it just made me more hungry. I want to be starting every game next season.
“I think the more games you play, the more you develop and the more you get an understanding of game situations.
“We both (him and Delianov) got a taste to play. I think we both played at a very high level.
“It’s fantastic competition. It’s really exciting. Like you said, at other clubs, you may have a more senior number one keeper.”
Delianov echoed Gauci's words, but he has become irked by the constant tag of being a 'young' goalkeeper.
He believes he would push any other goalkeeper for a starting spot regardless of their seniority.
“The competitive side is the same for me whether I’ve got a 40-year-old goalkeeper that’s played in the Premier League ahead of me or not,” he said.
“I want that to be gone out the window [the young goalkeepers' tag]. We’re both proven that we can do a job, and I want that aura that someone who’s been in the league for the last 5-10 years will have.”
There's no question that Adelaide has always had a relatively young squad, though, hence the perception that they are not always ready to challenge for the title.
A-League recruitment experts could argue that investing so heavily in youth doesn't lead you closer to success.
However, it creates an environment in which young players can thrive.
The Toure brothers (Mohamed and Al Hassan) found this to be a real positive when they were finding their feet at the club.
“Having a lot of young players is a good thing. I think when you’re coming into a [new] team, it’s good to have people your age who you feel more comfortable [around],” Al Hassan Toure said.
“If one is doing well, we all get around him and praise him. Having good youngsters in the team [lifts] the standards higher.”
“It was easier (to adapt) because there [were] so many other young players around me who talked to me and helped me, and so it’s easier for me coming in. I felt a lot less pressure,” Mohamed added.
Mohamed has been featuring in the local NPL competition with United's youth team during the senior team's pre-season.
Within that squad, he can see even more promising talent coming through at the club.
“I find it very fun playing in the youth team, given that we have a young squad. We’re not the most experienced players; some of them [are] just debuting in the NPL this year,” he said.
“It’s still really good to play with a lot of players that know how to play, and even though we don’t always get the result, we can see that week by week we’re improving.”
The key for the young players playing every week in the NPL long-term is to adjust to the A-League and professional football once they make that next step.
Although Mohamed Toure was the name on every fan's lips when he scored on his debut at the age of 15, he has still found it somewhat difficult to adapt to the demands of the A-League.
“I think in every aspect, it was a big adjustment. Skill[fully], mentally, physically, it’s a lot harder playing in a professional league,” he said.
“You have to be switched on the majority of the time.”
United are working towards being more switched on as a collective after having ups and downs in their form throughout 2020-21.
Veart often referred to their inability to string good performances together as an "Achilles heel" in his press conferences throughout the previous campaign, which the players also noticed.
“I think consistency is key. A lot of it can be out of our hands with injuries and whatnot, but I don’t see any excuse, so that’s something we’ll be looking to do,” Delianov said.
As Delianov touched on, injuries played a key role last season in impacting the team's results and the development of some of Adelaide's younger players.
No one felt the effect of bad injuries more than Al Hassan Toure.
Toure broke onto the scene after a stunning 2019 FFA Cup campaign, where his man of the match display in the final that year led the Reds to a third cup triumph and second in a row.
But his career has struggled to take off since then, with the 2020-21 season being particularly frustrating.
Al Hassan Toure missed much of last season due to persistent injury issues. (Jordan Trombetta)
“I had a really bad injury. I broke my ankle so coming back from that wasn’t easy. I think missing pre-season as well, I wasn’t at the same level as the other boys,” he said.
“These things are going to happen. It’s about your mentality and how you bounce back. Football is not a sport where you can’t get injured. There’s always injuries.”
There is more positive news on the injury front for Gauci, though, after he missed the end of the previous campaign after developing problems with his quad.
“[In the] early stages of pre-season, I got myself cleared and back in full training now and looking to play some games with our NPL side over the next couple of weeks to get some more game time,” he said.
Gauci's injury was also frustrating after he broke out in the middle part of the campaign.
He initially deputised for Delianov, who, you guessed it, was suddenly ruled out injured for an extended period.
The former Melbourne City shot-stopper was superb in his ten appearances last season.
Still, he admitted that the injury has only made him hungrier for more next time around.
“If you were to tell me that I was to play ten games and beat Sydney FC at home in your home debut, I would be over the moon,” Gauci said.
“Especially as an Adelaide boy, for Adelaide, it was an unbelievable experience.”
“But again, it was just a little bit of a taste, unfortunately. [I] picked up an injury myself towards the latter end of the season, which left me out for the finals series, which was disappointing.”
As he mentioned, his home debut against Sydney will live long in the memory.
A stunning save from a close-range Patrick Wood header secured Adelaide a 1-0 win.
It is undoubtedly Gauci's most memorable moment from the previous campaign.
“I’d be lying if I said I haven’t watched it back. It was a really special moment for me. Not just for the save itself; I think the moment, in general, was a culmination of lots of emotions of lots of hard work over the years,” Gauci said.
Although many of the youngsters had fond memories of the previous campaign, some were disappointed they did not achieve more, such is the ambition amongst the group already.
“I think before the season, my goal was to score ten goals, but I only scored four. I felt like I could have done a bit better, but I was really unfortunate with injuries,” Mohamed Toure said.
“Yes and no [to achieving his targets last season]. I thought I was going to play a deeper role last season, but then I was playing a bit higher up, a bit more attacking," D'Arrigo said.
"It took me a couple of games to get to know my role, and I thought I executed it well in the second half of the season."
As he admitted, the 2020-21 campaign took some getting used to for D'Arrigo in particular, who had to adapt to a subtle position change.
In the 2019-20 season under Dutchman Gertjan Verbeek, the midfielder broke out by playing as a deep-lying number six but was utilised as a more advanced number eight in Carl Veart's midfield.
“It’s probably a major change just because of the level it is at. I used to play higher up when I was younger, and then I moved into six when I moved to Adelaide United at a youth level,” he added.
“I was playing as a six for about two, three seasons and getting the hang of it. [But] then out of nowhere just getting pushed up to an attacking role, so I have to get used to it and adjust to it, but I’m enjoying it.”
D'Arrigo is now confident he can perform in both midfield roles.
He agreed that the squad is blessed to have a versatile midfield group.
“We’re a versatile team, and everyone knows their roles and structures. If you get asked to play a position, I’m pretty sure everyone will know what to do and what to expect if they’re getting played there,” D'Arrigo said.
Al Hassan Toure is another player who has been used in multiple different positions under Veart.
Despite playing his best football at the club as a striker, he prefers playing on either side as a winger.
“My whole junior life, I played as a winger, and I only started playing striker two years ago," he said.
“I’m comfortable around there, I can play [as a] nine, but I prefer [the] wing. I also can play [number] ten if I’m needed.
“I think [it’s] because I’m a skilful player, and I’m pretty fast. One-on-ones, crossing and shooting are my main skills.
“Always being one-on-one against the defender is a very good thing for me. I think I use my strengths out there well instead of being in the middle where I only touch the ball a few times.”
Many of the young players at Veart's disposal have similar technical qualities.
It often means one or two will be disappointed by being left out of the matchday squad.
But there's no question that he has an exciting group to choose from in his ranks heading into the new campaign each week.
The group is also excited about the new TV deal the league has struck with Channel Ten and Paramount +.
The next generation in Australia is now likely to be broadcast to a greater audience next season.
To close our chat, we asked Delianov what he thought about the landmark deal.
“I think it’s a massive step in Australian football. The more we can get people watching us and investing and seeing what we’re about, I think we’re better off,” he said.
“This partnership is perfect, and it’s exciting.”
The TV deal will certainly underline a new era for football in Australia.
Reds fans will now hope this generation of young talent will also leave a lasting legacy and elevate the club to a second championship in 2021-22.