Youth in focus: Ava Pritchard and Nestory Irankunda
Christmas has come and gone, but the gift of youthful talent plying their trade in the A-Leagues keeps giving. After a brief seasonal break, Youth In Focus is back as we look at two fantastic young footballers ready to take the world by storm in 2023. This week we focus on Wellington Phoenix's Ava Pritchard and Adelaide United's Nestory Irankunda.
Wellington Phoenix has been a pleasure to watch since being added to the league last season. Whilst not seeing any significant success in their short history, the Nix's addition to "The Dub" has uncovered talent that has previously flown under the radar from Australia's neighbour and football sibling in New Zealand. It proves that as more opportunities arise in football, so do the young talents we enjoy watching every week. Ava Pritchard falls into this category.
Pritchard in full stride for Wellington. (Twitter: @NZStuffSport)
With New Zealand's local football scene barely making the run in Australian media, you'd be forgiven for asking who Ava Pritchard is. To those unfamiliar, Pritchard somewhat represents what the Wellington Phoenix is all about, giving Kiwi-based talent a chance to shine on the biggest stage. She has already written a significant chapter for her club, becoming the inaugural goal scorer for the expansion side last season. At only 19, Pritchard is already building quite a legacy across the ditch, having been selected for the Women's U20 World Cup side earlier this year. However, she did not make an appearance at the tournament.
A tenacious forward, Pritchard has terrific speed, serving as a viable option in the few opportunities the Nix have attacked this season. Whilst it has to be said that Wellington has struggled since entering the competition, Pritchard has undoubtedly done herself proud with her performances. She has completed 100% of her dribbles so far this season. However, with attempted dribbles per game standing at 0.2, it's an asset that could be worked into her skill set more. She is also only one of two players that have scored for Wellington this season.
Pritchard in action during the round five clash against Adelaide United recently. (Masanori Udagawa/Getty Images)
However, Pritchard's determined and exciting style continues beyond the attacking end. She helps her side in defensive scenarios, often retreating quickly to nullify the opposition in transition. Pritchard is currently averaging 1.6 tackles per game. Forever the optimist, Pritchard believes Wellington is a few minor details away from winning again.
"It's been a tough first five games, but we can take a lot of positives from what we've done. We are keeping the ball; we just really need to work on those final bits," she said in a press conference following the defeat to Adelaide United two weeks ago.
Pritchard is fast becoming the face of Wellington and will undoubtedly need a closer eye kept on her in weeks to come.
You'd have to live in an underground bunker, specifically built to block out all football-related communications, not to have heard about the teen sensation Nestory Irankunda. If you have, then you are certainly missing out. Adelaide United has had an up-and-down season with three wins, two draws, and three losses, as they sit fifth in the A-League Men standings.
Whilst general form has left a little to be desired by most, Adelaide's perpetual talent factory has seen Alexandar Popovic given an increased role in the side, along with debuts for Musa Toure and Panashe Madanha. Joe Gauci also featured on this series recently, albeit in a more advanced stage of his career. However, Irankunda has arguably been the most exciting new emerging talent over the past 18 months. His pace, flair, and overall approach to the game have excited all who regularly watch Adelaide matches.
Irankunda is marked by Newcastle's Mark Natta earlier this week. (Twitter: @AustraliaFut)
Featuring in six of Adelaide's first nine matches to start the season, Irankunda has picked up right where he left off after challenging the Central Coast Mariner's Garang Kuol in conversations surrounding the best new talents of Australian football. He was invited to Football Australia's talent ID camp earlier this year alongside making his U17 debut for Australia. Irankunda's pace and style, which sees him consistently dribble at opposition defenders, is his arsenal's most valuable and exciting attribute. He has completed 0.5 dribbles per game, averaging only 31 minutes in games played this season. He is also keen to get his teammates involved in general play, completing 6.2 passes per game at a 77% success rate whilst providing one assist this season.
It has been a pleasure to watch his creativity and general flair since he burst onto the scene at 15. He shows no hesitation in attempting to beat defenders with his unrelenting speed and technical ability. Irankunda possesses incisive touches and incredible agility that carries him forward against tired defenders in the latter stages of matches. However, he has had some teething issues off the pitch. Adelaide manager, Carl Veart, prides his side's attitude above all else, with Irankunda being omitted from the Original Rivalry matchup against Melbourne Victory before the World Cup due to several incidents. These included being tardy to team meetings and not fulfilling the chores a younger player like him is responsible for completing.
However, Irankunda has taken the omission as a learning experience upon returning to the squad against Brisbane a few weeks ago.
"I've been training my hardest to get myself back into the squad, and I'm happy that I have earned my spot," Irankunda told the club's website on December 10.
In a submission to The Roar, TheSecretScout described how Irankunda's early brush with the club brass is a learning experience for all players, indicating that youngsters "need to be punctual and complete menial club-related chores" to keep their egos in check. It is great to see a young man develop his game at such a level whilst also understanding his responsibility off the pitch. Irankunda certainly has a long way to go. But with the promise he has shown and the maturity he's had to gain so young, I wouldn't be surprised if he attracts more suiters over the coming months.
Irankunda getting in the zone ahead of Adelaide's recent clash against the Wellington Phoenix. (Masanori Udagawa/Getty Images)
All statistics sourced from SofaScore.
Click here to check out our previous 'Youth In Focus' on Melbourne Victory gun Melina Ayres and Newcastle Jet Angus Thurgate.