How the A-League’s goalscoring king would find Australia’s next great number nine

Full story first published for SBS’ The World Game:

A greater emphasis on individual striking work during youth development and the introduction of a national second division are key in Australia finding its next great number nine, according to the A-League’s greatest-ever goalscorer.

Fully fit after carrying soreness into his side’s season-opening draw with Adelaide United, Western United’s Besart Berisha is raring to go for his side’s meeting with Melbourne City on Saturday night; a foe who, in Jamie Maclaren, field one of the few success stories in Australian striking development in recent years.

A-League clubs throughout the competition’s 16-year history, have traditionally operated with a lone striker, limiting opportunities to play, and the international signings have often been preferred to fill those roles: less than half of the A-League’s sides in 20/21 likely to feature a player developed through the Australian system at the tip of their spear.

In the wake of Olyroos friendlies against Sydney FC and Macarthur FC ahead of the 2020/21 A-League season, dual Olyroos and Socceroos boss Graham Arnold admitted he had been forced to alter his scheme to play those games without a recognised striker due to a perceived lack of options beyond the absent Nick D’Agostino and Dylan Wenzel-Halls.

Further limitations of the Australian developmental system widely acknowledged amongst the game’s stakeholders, the superlative of “the next Mark Viduka” has almost come to resemble the ultimate kiss of death in Australian football.

The legacy of ‘The Duke’ casts a long, and often unfair, shadow of expectations on those expected to follow even to this day.

“It has to be really staring with the right people being around those players and then doing the extra work with [developing] strikers,” Berisha told The World Game.

“Because I feel like we do have a lot of midfielders and defenders coming up, goalkeepers as well, but the strikers, it’s a bit of a problem at the moment in Australia.

“Of course, they’re coming but they’re not there where they have to be as an 18, 19-year-old. They’re shining as 25 and 26-year-olds.

“What we have to do is really, to bring the right people around them at a very early age, from 16 to 18 or 19 and really doing a lot of individual training.

“But also to bring hungry strikers through [to play games] who at 19, 20 start scoring goals is really important. That comes hopefully in time a second professional league comes up so they really have a lot of strong competitive games.

“Because we don’t have a second league, they are everywhere but kind of nowhere, because they’re training but not doing professional training.

“It feels like when they come to the A-League they are 25 and they didn’t take in the things they have to take in from 16 to 18, 19 or more to be a poacher, a real striker who really finishes a lot.

“And that’s a problem. I’ve been here nine years and I didn’t really see those [type of players].”

Under the terms of the unbundling of Australia’s professional leagues from Football Australia, the national federation retains control of the introduction of a national second-tier, but it has promised extensive consultation with all stakeholders before implementing such a competition.

Rising through the ranks of Tennis Borussia Berlin, Berisha’s development was one characterised by being able to move and find opportunities to develop.

He transferred from Berlin to Bundesliga side Hamburger SV as a youngster, before promptly being loaned out to multiple sides in the Danish Superliga ahead of his senior Bundesliga debut.

Subsequent stops across Denmark, Germany, England and Norway followed his exit from Die Rothosen before he landed with Brisbane Roar ahead of the 11/12 A-League season.

Scoring 19 goals in his first campaign in Queensland, the Kosovan international then went on to become the greatest goalscorer that the A-League has ever seen; his 135 strikes 43 clear of second-placed Shane Smeltz and 56 clear of the next active player on the charts in Maclaren.

He now sits third on the all-time list of Australian national league goalscorers, behind only Rod Brown’s 137 and Damien Mori’s 240, and the 35-year-old hasn’t slowly gorged himself either; scoring 0.63 goals every single time he steps on the park.

A lot of what makes Berisha such a threat, as is the case for most strikers, comes from innate ability and predatory instinct that can only be fostered, not taught.

Nonetheless, he told SBS The World Game that there were some aspects of his approach youngsters could seek to emulate.

“I don’t know what to tell each striker, but I’d say that what I did since I was 12, I went into the box and dream I am dribbling and just keep finishing,” he explained.

“Finishing, and finishing for hours. I was in the box and I was doing dribbles in the box and with finishing. I would do an hour of finishing. A striker needs to be in the box and finishing all the time.

“It’s really kind of boring, but the work you put in as a young player in the box, it’s crucial.

“I still do it, I’m 35 and I’m still after training in the box doing finishing work. In the box, right in the box.

“It’s really important to do those things, which hopefully also in the future a lot of coaches do with their strikers in training to help the players become poachers, really good strikers, in Australia.”

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