A feature of Melbourne City’s recovery from the much-loathed Warren Joyce era has been the integration of young players to the first team who contributed heavily to our A-League double-winning season; this comes with a great deal of irony, however, as Joyce would have had a significant hand in the development of some of these youngsters.
City’s youth-led march towards inaugural A-League silverware was a timely reminder of the value of an elite academy system and got us thinking about some of the incredible talent to have come out of Bundoora over the years. The obvious next step – if you’ve got a thing for rankings, like we do – is to pick out and order five of our very best, which is exactly what we’ve done.
To be considered a graduate of the club’s youth academy over the years, a player must have:
1. Joined before turning 18 years old
2. Not transferred in on a senior professional contract
3. Featured for the youth side before the first team
4. Made at least one senior appearance
These criteria would rule out the likes of Craig Goodwin (joined over 18) and Ben Garuccio (signed on a senior contract and didn’t play for the youth team) and were essential for ensuring that players we deemed ‘academy graduates’ were players that City had a significant hand in the development of. If you’re interested in seeing the full list of players that meet these criteria, we’ll include it at the bottom of the article.
Whilst deciding who should and shouldn’t be determined an academy product was tricky, attempting to rank a top five was near impossible without developing a standard against which these players could be judged. Thus, adopting a modern football approach to the term, an ‘academy product’ was determined to be the value generated by Melbourne City in the form of a player developed through its youth academy.
There’s been enough preamble as it is, so rather than delving into that concept further, we’ll give a quick mention to some of the players who came close to cracking this top five before getting into it. Matthew Millar mightn’t have made it at City, but has put together a respectable career that culminated in a short spell at Shrewbury Town in late 2020, before the fullback returned to Newcastle Jets after the parties failed to agree to a permanent transfer. Named by The Guardian in 2017 as one of the 60 best players in the world born in 2000, Dylan Pierias had a breakout 2020/21 season with an otherwise mediocre Western United, contributing six goals and one assist. As for Stefan Colakovski, well, you’ll hardly need reminding of his 2020/21 exploits, with the youngster finishing the season with two pieces of A-League silverware. He’s also been extremely impactful off the bench, recording the second-best goal contributions per 90 minutes value (1.04) in the City squad, behind only Jamie Maclaren (1.31).
Now onto the top five:
5. Stefan Mauk
Before the 2020/21 season, Stefan Mauk likely would have had a far more difficult time making it into this top five.
Following his emergence at Melbourne Heart/City and Adelaide United, Mauk joined Eredivisie side NEC Nijmegen, before falling back into A-League mediocrity with return stints at City and Adelaide, separated by two seasons with Brisbane Roar.
This past season, however, Mauk has finally come into his own, making 26 appearances and scoring seven goals on the back of being named the Reds’ skipper for 2020/21.
To emphasise how dramatic his improvement has been, the 25-year-old made 23 appearances and scored one goal in his previous three A-League campaigns combined.
The contest for fifth spot would’ve been closer if not for this breakout campaign, with Mauk beating out the likes of Millar, Pierias and Colakovski primarily because he’s had the additional years to finally grow into the potential he’d always promised. On the criteria that we mentioned at the start, he’s been able to contribute greater value to the teams he’s been with, winning the 2015/16 Championship with Adelaide United before fetching them a €275,000 fee upon moving to the Netherlands.
Experience, it seems, is Mauk’s ultimate advantage over his competition.
4. Denis Genreau
Denis Genreau’s departure from City still makes for a sore spot amongst some sections of our supporter base, with the talented youngster never quite able to properly break through whilst in Melbourne.
The Parisian-born midfielder was subsequently sent out on loan to PEC Zwolle in the Dutch Eredivisie for the 2018/19 season, making 12 appearances for their senior side, before playing just 317 minutes for City in 2019/20.
Basing his game on strong fundamentals and exemplary control, Genreau is an incredibly versatile operator in any midfield, splitting his time as a #6, #8 and #10, and has even proven capable of appearing on either flank or up top.
After leaving City, Genreau’s Player-of-the-Season-form with Macarthur FC and performances in Australia’s youth ranks catapulted the 22-year-old into Socceroos contention, eventually making his national team debut against Chinese Taipei in June.
As we learned yesterday, this form has also earned Genreau a move to his native France with Toulouse FC, with Macarthur set to receive an undisclosed transfer fee and percentage of future fees.
Though City hasn’t quite missed Genreau in his absence yet, winning the A-League double with Connor Metcalfe emerging as our star midfielder in 2020/21, there’s only so long that the youngster can continue on his upward trajectory before some regretful ‘what ifs’ start to be asked.
3. Daniel Arzani
Though his disastrous freefall since his season-ending ACL injury has been well-publicised, it’s important to remember that Daniel Arzani was one of the best players in the A-League at his peak, and fans were reminded of his brilliance throughout Australia's Olympics campaign after a tumultuous couple of seasons with little playing time.
He won the A-League Player of the Month in January 2018 and by the end of the season, had provided more assists than any other U23 player on his way to collecting the A-League Young Footballer of the Year award. A few months later, he’d claim the even more prestigious Harry Kewell Medal for the best Australian U23 worldwide after bursting onto the Socceroos scene leading into the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Aside from that, Arzani ranks so highly on this list because of the value brought to Melbourne City by his eventual transfer fee paid by Manchester – the equivalent of $1.66M AUD, according to Transfermarkt, the fifth-highest fee paid for an Australian playing in the A-League to this day (though Genreau's fee hasn't yet been made available on Transfermarkt.)
However, where Arzani really falls short in comparison to our top two academy products is a complementing blend of sustainability and experience. The winger has played the least senior minutes of any player in this top five by a long way – Genreau, who’s played the second-least, more than doubles him. This is owing in part to Arzani’s debilitating ACL injury, but also in part due to the ‘impact sub’ role that he rose to prominence with City in, with his sub-par fitness preventing him from starting more games.
Disappointingly, Arzani can be characterised as a mere ‘flash in the pan’ as his career stands at the moment, a sheer departure from the potential he had been touted for.
2. Nathaniel Atkinson
In some ways similar (and in many other ways different) to Daniel Arzani, Nathaniel Atkinson finds himself comfortably in our top three youth academy products, but realistically could have claimed top spot if not for some unfortunate spells on the sidelines along the way.
Atkinson has repeatedly demonstrated the quality to become an outright star for City, but his career has been set back multiple times by lengthy injuries, a trend which dates back to a few games into his breakout 2017/18 season and which also includes two occurrences this campaign alone.
Transfermarkt values Atkinson at €750,000 as of March 2021, the highest of any of our top five, which is perhaps not surprising; now with an A-League double and a starring role in Australia's Olympics campaign under his belt, the 22-year-old represents an attacking full-back (an in-demand quantity) with a wealth of experience at the senior level.
With rumours of a European move seeming to arise immediately after his breakout Olympics campaign, it seems very likely that - assuming he can stay fit - Atkinson will become the next academy product to fetch City a pretty price.
1. Connor Metcalfe
He mightn’t play in as glamorous a position as a striker or winger, but Connor Metcalfe’s 2020/21 season might be one of the best individual campaigns we’ve seen from a City midfielder in recent years.
The 21-year-old started every single one of his 24 A-League appearances, scoring five goals and providing three assists despite frequently dropping back from his usual #8 position to fill in as a defensive midfielder in the absence of Aiden O’Neill or Rostyn Griffiths.
Along the way, he helped City to an inaugural A-League Premiership, made his Socceroos debut (and backed it up with a massive 90-minute performance in his second cap), and played a key role in Australia's midfield throughout our Olympics campaign.
Contracted at City until the end of 2021/22, Metcalfe has the opportunity to establish himself as one of the A-League’s premier midfielders and embed himself further into the national team setup over the course of next season, before likely making the step into European football – all the while being far more prepared to do so than Arzani ever was.
Full list of Melbourne City youth academy graduates (in order of debut):