Wanderers academy shows age is no issue after shining against the best

The red and black matched it with the world's best academies at a tournament in China

When the invite came for Western Sydney Wanderers to compete at the 2018 Guangzhou International Championship, the club's academy technical director Ian Crook was both humbled and a little nervous. 

An U17's tournament for the world's best academies, the Wanderers showed how far their academy has come over six short years as they were lined up against historic clubs Palmeiras and Villarreal

But though the recognition was nice, Crook admits the calibre of opposition the red and black were set to face meant he didn't expect the team to exactly shine. 

"I’d be lying if I said I expected us to go there and perform at the level we did," Crook told Goal

"I felt that with the sides that were there it would be extremely tough, so I can’t speak highly enough of the boys and how they performed." 

A surprise opening 4-1 win over hosts Guangzhou Evergrande showed the Wanderers weren't there simply to make up the numbers. 

While a 1-0 loss to Brazilian side Palmeiras would follow, Western Sydney picked themselves up quickly as they edged past Dynamo Kyiv to seal their place in the semi-final.

Spanish side Villarreal would await in a thrilling and fairly controversial contest as the red and black were sent packing 5-4.

A hat-trick to Dylan Ruiz-Diaz, including a strike from inside his own half, wouldn't be enough as the Wanderers conceded a late and by all accounts offside goal to lose the match.

While their exit wasn't without its doubts, there was no question of Western Sydney's overall performance as they defied Crook's expectations and made the most of the experience. 

"At the end of it we were 20 seconds away from a penalty shoot-out to get to the final. So if you said that to me at the beginning of the tournament I certainly would have been happy with that," he said.

"It was fabulous to get an invite and to come up against clubs that have been around a long time and compete shows we’re not far away. Certainly the standard between our boys and theirs wasn’t as vast as many expected. 

"We got on very well with the Palmeiras people and spoke to them a lot. Just to sit there, speak to them and pick their brains a bit was a massive thing for all of us."

As one of three A-League clubs with 2-star accredited academies, the Wanderers have put a real emphasis on building for the future despite the club's young age. 

While football is a large focus for the academy, Crook revealed his aims as a technical director reach well beyond the pitch. 

Gabriel Popovic

Having himself played over 400 games for English club Norwich City before taking up a number of coaching roles since, Crook believes an academy needs to look at more than just the round ball. 

"We have some core values that we believe in, but for me what we want at the end of the day is better players and better human beings," he said.  

"Players, when they leave this club, we want them to be people that are employable, and not just from the football sense."

When it comes to football, the academy does also have one eye on ensuring their players get the chance to play A-League football.

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"At the end of it we try to give our players the best opportunity to make our A-League first team," Crook said.

"Tony (Popovic) before and Markus (Babbel) now are really involved in that. We try to play like the first team, but not just like them.

"Parents send their sons and daughters to school to learn a number of things, and that’s the same here. We don’t just want to teach them one particular way, we’ve got what we think is the Wanderers way but we want them to experience lots of different things within that to make them better."