Suns set scene for top young guns
By MARK ROBINSON
THREE years ago the North Coast Suns were invited by Brisbane Men's Soccer to mix it with the best Under-21 club and rep sides from Brisbane, the Gold Coast, the Sunshine Coast and South-East Queensland in the inaugural Summer Youth League.
Today the Suns sit on top of the ladder and have a chance to cement their place in the 2005 final when they host the Queensland Academy of Sport at Weston Park, Goonellabah from 7pm on Saturday.
The Suns' meteoric rise from minnows to pace setters has paved the way for many of Soccer Far North Coast's best young players to make the next step up the ladder in their personal careers, as well as raise awareness of the region as a fertile breeding ground for emerging talent.
During the past three years, numerous players have capitalised on their exposure through the Suns to create the opportunity to play for State League clubs north of the border.
Clint Willoughby, Adam Holmes, Jed Wright, Joel Gosper, Jordy Campbell, Rowen Barratt and Matt Pratten all had time with the Palm Beach Sharks and some are still with the club, while Fraser Robinson is still with Rochedale Rovers, where Tom Guttormsen has just spent a season.
Aaron Noble is a regular with Brisbane Lions, where Matt Piga also had a spell, and Sam Murdoch has had experience with Brisbane City and Wynnum Manly.
The Suns' first tentative steps were taken in 2003 when Soccer FNC general manager Matt Kelso showed his commitment to the new concept by coaching the side, before Paul Foster took the reins in 2004.
Today Kelso looks back with pride on the success of the venture: "Since our participation in the Summer League and the involvement of Paul Foster, our credibility has gone through the roof in Brisbane and Queensland.
"We're now recognised as a well organised, professional association with quality players and coaches," Kelso said.
After spending last year as the understudy to Paul Foster, Jonathan Harlen has led the side to new heights this season, but he still credits much of the success to Foster's initial input.
"The influence of Paul cannot be overstated," Harlen said.
"He has a detailed understanding of modern, organised team systems and how to coach them.
"Before leaving for the AIS he was a mentor to me for two seasons, as well as to all players who have made the move up north.
"His coaching made the difference for these players, and helped put them in the shop window, by teaching them their precise individual jobs within a team system, and this is the approach I'm using again this year.
"After this year's success the range of clubs interested in looking at local players will be broader, and players who want to take their career further will have more opportunities.
"This year a number of players have already expressed interest in going north, including Joel Rudgley, Lucas MacPherson, Eden Robinson, Rhys Evans, James Hirst, Joel Gosper and Kyle Sutton, with others who definitely have the ability, such as Jack Williamson and Joel Saye ... just about the whole starting XI, in fact.
"Also, it's worth noting the number who play up there and then come back, improving our local standard, such as Adam Holmes, from Goonellabah, and Clint Willoughby, for Italo Stars.
"Joel Gosper played here this year for Workers, likewise Matt Olley for Goonellabah and Tom Guttormsen, who will also be back next year.
"Obviously, some will stay up there and one or two might even follow Todd Gava into the professional ranks.
"The newly introduced Soccer FNC junior representative system has been instrumental in raising the standard of our emerging young players to the level required by these elite competitions.
"A very high percentage of the Suns players are products of rep football, which gets them used to the tactics and the technical demands of high level football."