18. Alex Wilkinson
An A-League original, Wilkinson was bought by the Central Coast Mariners in December of 2005, in time for the very first A-League season. He went on to become the record caps holder for the Mariners, won two A-League titles with them, and captained the side from 2006 until he left in 2012. It was in that year that he moved abroad, to the K-League, signing for Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.
So far, Wilkinson has enjoyed a fine career in Korea, this year earning a spot in the 2014 K-League Best XI, only the second Australian to be selected in the team of the year (Saša Ognenovski was a member of the 2010 vintage). A defender of ferocious persistence, Wilkinson also possesses a fine gift for raking accurate diagonal balls out of defence. Often the last man between a gang-rushing striker and his goalkeeper, Wilkinson has proven himself a reliable, disciplined soldier. He finished every match that he started last season for Jeonbuk, as they rollicked to the J-League title, finishing 14 points clear at the top.
This year was also a rewarding one for Wilkinson on the international stage. Handed his first cap at the age of 29, Wilkinson was also included in the final squad for the World Cup in Brazil. He started Australia’s opening group match against Chile, and brilliantly saved a certain goal, clearing a trickling ball off the line. It was an incredible moment, the first time goal-line technology had been used in a World Cup, and it prevented Chile from snatching a two-goal cushion. Wilkinson started all three of Australia’s group stage matches, and conducted himself admirably. Even though he’s only just now making a convincing case for Socceroos regularity, at 30, there’s plenty of good years left for Wilkinson.
17. Awer Mabill
Imagine the scene: It’s 2006, and the World Cup in South Africa is just kicking off. The globe is enraptured by the spectacle, and not yet sickened by the brain-melting bore of a sea of vuvuzelas. A young boy, freshly arrived on Australian shores from Kenya, is seeing his first World Cup. With the rest of the sunburnt nation, he is swept up in Socceroo fever, as Lucas Neill and co surprise the world by finishing second in their group and making it through to the Round of 16. He too throws his hands up as Josip Šimunić is shown two yellow cards, yet is allowed to remain on the pitch until he receives a farcical third. He too turns away in disgust as Fabio Grosso embellishes a foul in the box, and Italy knock out the Socceroos with the last kick of the game. It lights a fire in him, and he takes up football with a roaring blaze in his belly.
This is Awer Mabil’s story, and this year he wrote some exciting new chapters. At 19, he’s already one of the most promising starlets in the A-League, playing for Adelaide United, and thrilling crowds with his prodigious pace, irresistible power and deadly-quick feet. Last season saw him score twice and lay on two assists, and already this season he’s equalled that total for goals. An automatic selection for the Young Socceroos, Mabil scored a Cristiano Ronaldo-esque free kick while on national duty, and his U20 strike rate currently stands at a goal every other game. His potential is scary, with a ceiling higher than the Sistine Chapel, and Dutch giants Ajax are sniffing around ominously. Having reportedly requested a trial, Adelaide coach Josep Gombau has made it clear to Ajax that only firm offers will be considered by the Reds. Although another year of development in the A-League might be the best thing for Mabil, the Eredivisie is also an excellent nursery for a young footballer; less physical than the other European leagues, but still competitive in terms of quality, Mabil would no doubt thrive in Holland.
Words by Evan Morgan