Dane Ingham, the footballer who chose the All Whites over the Socceroos
OPINION: Dane Ingham has made history, as far as I can tell. The first player to choose to play for New Zealand rather than Australia. As the debate swirls about whether the youth system is nearing collapse, what should we read into this?
Ingham is 17, born and raised in northern NSW by a Kiwi mum, and it's only in the last few months that he's broken into the Brisbane Roar first team. John Aloisi's decision to give him a handful of appearances is exactly what Ange Postecoglou has been imploring A-League coaches to do. Give youth a chance.
In doing so, however, Aloisi showcased a rising talent, and the end result is Australia has lost him to the Kiwis. What makes Ingham's case different to, say, Andrew Durante, Shane Smeltz and Glen Moss - all Australian passport-holders now playing for the All Whites - is that Australia wanted to keep him. Players who feel they have a chance of wearing green and gold don't swap it for white. Archie Thompson - born in the Waikato - a case in point.
Not Ingham, though. Just last month he was in a camp with the Australian under-20s in Canberra. This week he heads to Fiji having been called up by the senior NZ team. All Whites coach Anthony Hudson reckons he's a big chance of making his debut in the problematic right back position in Lautoka. Maybe that's where the moral of the story lies.
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Football Federation Australia staff coaches Ufuk Talay and Josep Gombau tried hard to convince Ingham not to switch. But they couldn't offer him what the All Whites can. An escalator. In 2015, New Zealand hosted the World Youth (u-20) Cup. Nine of those players have since been capped by the senior team. Two more youngsters, Luke Rogerson and Henry Cameron, have also debuted. All are 20 years old or younger. That's 11 teenagers capped by NZ in the last two years.
Australia? From the same age group, just one. Alex Gersbach. Last week Postecoglou raised eyebrows by selecting 18-year-old Riley McGree. The reaction from one A-League coach? "He's not ready." Maybe not, but it's a cultural issue which has dogged the game for too long. Players are supposed to work their way through the system, from under-17s to under-20s to under-23s, step-by-step. Only then are they deemed ready for the Socceroos. Poppycock.
Ingham's decision may well be as much personal (older brother Jai has also been called into the All Whites) as professional. But it's a red flag all the same. Somewhere deep in the DNA of Australian football is the mistaken belief we're a first world football country. We might get there one day, but we're not there yet. So we patronise. Giving kids a senior cap is what the small countries - like NZ - do.
Never mind the All Whites, like the Socceroos, are heading to this year's FIFA Confederations Cup. Never mind Hudson has players like Winston Reid and Chris Wood who are doing better than any overseas-based Australians. Never mind Postecoglou would probably kill to have Marco Rojas in his squad. Here, you don't hand out senior shirts - even in the A-League - to kids if you're fair dinkum. You leave that up to the minnows like NZ.
That's got to change. It's something Postecoglou wants to change. There may be a legitimate discussion about whether the Dutch-based doctrine the FFA signed up to a decade ago is producing the right type of footballer. On that score it will be interesting to see how Daniel Arzani - the Melbourne City midfielder held up as the pin-up boy of their methods by the Dutch interlopers - progresses.
But talent can only flourish with opportunity. That's the bottleneck. It's in the A-League, and it's still in the national set-up. It's another reason why establishing a national second division, to be workshopped in Melbourne on Monday night, is so crucial. A 10-team A-League is suffocating the pathway. Another tier of professionalism will let it breathe again.
In the meantime, we should all be cheering for Riley McGree. A few weeks ago, in the Asian Champions League, he swept past Japan's most-capped player, Yasuhito Endo, as if he wasn't there. In McGree's mind, he probably wasn't. Just another player to beat with a swerve, a touch, and a burst of acceleration. That's what needs to be encouraged. That's what you get with youngsters. No fear.
- Sydney Morning Herald