Has Australian football grown to as big as it is going to get? This was a question posed by The Guardian’s Paul Connelly a few weeks ago in an interesting article. It is a valid question.
David Gallop and the Football Federation of Australia have had some wins. Football is now officially the most played sport in Australia. However as Connelly covered in his article the FFA have to somehow turn those fans into supporters of A-League clubs, and if not supporters of an A-League club, big enough fans of the game that they will actually go and attend live games.
The biggest issue many A-League clubs face in this regard is engaging the local community. Having residents of the cities that they play in feel a pride in the team and that the side is representing them on the national stage. Do fans identify with the teams in their cities they way they do with more localised NRL and AFL clubs?
Many of the A-League clubs have worked hard to try and engage the local community by visiting schools and local clubs. To some these visits have paid dividends, to others they have reaped little reward. Some clubs have been clever to identify which players have the personality to engage with the children and make sure that they use these players for such promotions, others simply rotate their players. This can backfire when those players who are more shy than their team mates stand together and do not engage with the children until the session starts, and they have to. Spending time on working out the best players for publicity roles is crucial to see such ventures being a success.
Sadly it is still not enough, as many of the franchises fail to engage the local communities adequately for it to benefit them where it matters. Many A-League sides continue to fail to be a team that the general public can relate to. Is it because they are owned by millionaires? Is it because few are truly community clubs?
Ironically the clubs of the NSL which were in the main community based, albeit immigrant communities, were accused of isolating fans not from that background. Yet the fans of these clubs were more passionate in the way long running European clubs fans are loyal and passionate about their clubs.
Is it the fact that Australia is such a vast country and the distances between rival cities are just too far for true rivalries to build up? Is it that fact that unlike the NSL, few clubs own their own grounds?
Certainly this is an area that will always restrict the growth of the game in Australia. Not owning the ground at which the clubs play will always put huge financial restraints on the clubs using them. Security and venue hire does not come cheap. Then even if advertising does come in via the big screens at the various venues the FFA claim the lion’s share of the revenue that they generate.
Another issue that will always hold back the A-League is that unless players are simply chasing the money, in which case they will head to China and the Arab states, any player that is any good and has ambitions as a player will head to Europe. Which means the A-league will always lose its best Australian players.
The league will continue to attract former superstars who are well past their best, as long as the big bucks are there. Australia is a far better place to come and play for a year and be paid well than many other leagues around the world.
In fact the key to the A-league’s future is ensuring that the imports are of the same mould as Broich, Berisha, Keogh and Castro. All players that played top flight in European leagues, but all with teams that struggled. Players who in some cases struggled to hold down a first team place in the top flight. These players have been shining lights in the A-league. They have been the stars. Or ar they the stars only to those who follow the game closely? Are they recognised when they walk down the street outside their home cities?
It is interesting to note that the Indian Premier League, a competition that has only been running for three seasons has dropped the Marquee player concept, while the A-League after 12 seasons persists with it. The reason opted to drop it was the return on investment wasn’t there. Alessandro del Piero is a case in point, insiders at Sydney FC have said that he cost the team on the pitch and financially off it. Ironically after two seasons in the A-League where he was lauded by some, he went to India and they soon realised his best was a long way behind him. He only started five games, and then came off the bench in five more, and went unused in four. Of those five games he played 90 minutes twice, but we digress.
Free-to-air television coverage of the A-League has been a topic that is constantly raised as the reason why the A-League has stagnated. Yet when you look at the lack of respect the ABC showed the game between Sydney FC and Liverpool one has to ask is free-to-air the way to go? The commercial channels are losing viewers hand over fist. Yet instead of being smart and changing the way they operate, they still opt to churn out mediocre content. With other options on line is it any wonder that they are losing viewers, so why would free-to-air television help boost the A-League?
A deal has now been brokered with Channel Ten, but it is understood that there will be zero productions costs to them as they take a complete feed from Fox Sports. Ten will simply be a free-to-air marketing tool for the A-League, and they will be expected to heavily promote the competition. Yet is the demographic that the FFA are searching for Watching Channel Ten, or more importantly One which will host the games?
It may help if the FFA and Fox, as well as their free-to-air partner decided to not show any A-League game live in the city where the game is being played unless it is a sell-out. This would be a scheduling nightmare for those stations but it could be good for the sport. The risk here though is with no coverage at all, and if a team is unlikely to ever sell out the venue they play at, the chance of drawing fans in has diminished. To compensate there would be the need for high calibre coverage in the local newspapers. Some cities have that, some can only dream of it.
To some, expansion of the A-League is the key. Yet surely before expansion there needs to be supply chain of talent coming through to put pressure on players currently in the A-League, and also to ensure a more level competition.
Should this have been there by now? It is twelve years since the A-League started and many feel that it should be. Yet sadly the FFA’s focus was very much on the elite side of the game. The juniors and youth became a revenue stream, rather than the future of Australian football. It is fair to say that a generation of talented players have been lost to Australia because the system failed them. Bit by bit the development of young Australian players has been dismantled. The National Youth League has now become an irrelevant farce with little or no kudos attached to those who play in it. In fact who can name the winners in 2017? (Melbourne City beat Sydney FC 3-2).
If we look around many of the youth competitions trophies are now awarded for turning up and not for winning. The game is promoted as being about taking part and not about winning in the younger age groups; as it should be. Then as the children get older it becomes about playing a set formation and sticking to it. The way you play has become more important than learning how to win a game. In fact the playing system has become more important to many coaches than teaching basic skills such a heading a ball properly. The standard of heading a ball in the top two tiers of football in Western Australia is appalling.
The sad truth is that there is no meaningful competition for our youth. Without meaningful competition at youth level is it any wonder that so few up and coming players break through into the A-League? Which in turn also helps players approaching 40 years of age to command a regular starting place.
Putting players in to the first teams of NPL teams based on a points system to encourage a coach to pick younger players, is another move that has been detrimental to player development. Players who should not be playing in the first team are. The standard of the game as a whole is impaired. The said player gets ideals above their station, and then when they don’t make it as a player even at NPL level they walk away from the game completely, instead of going away and working at their game.
When these players are released, dropped, or overlooked many blame everyone but themselves. Then their families blame everyone but their sons. Their hostility turns them away from the game and some of their close friends join up in sympathy.
Having the A-League clubs develop players instead of the state bodies and the AIS is in fact likely to take more people away from supporting the A-League clubs. It is a fact that of all those who are picked at youth level very few will go all the way through to make it as a professional footballer.
In the UK according to the PFA, 700 players are released from clubs at the end of every season. There are only 220 players in the A-League. The academies in the UK take on approximately 700 players each season and the Premier League and Football League have said that 60-65% of those are released aged 18. Half of those who do win a contract will be finished by the time they are 21 years of age.
In the UK people understand that it is a tough market to crack. That you have to be very special to make it as a professional footballer. That there are plenty of players of a similar or better standard than you. The Wayne Rooney’s and James Milner’s are exceptions to the rule.
In Australia the football landscape is not as mature or savvy. Sadly many parents believe that simply because little Oliver (most popular name in Australia a few years ago) is part of a youth set up he will then go on to make it as a professional player. When he doesn’t they are not happy and vow never to support the club that built up his hopes, and are quick to tell everyone how bad the club is and how misled they were by the club.
So the A-League club loses another segment of the community, not through any fault of their own, but by the simple fact that only very few make it to the top.
In fact in the UK one report stated that if you were not part of any youth system by the age of 16; that is part of a professional academy aligned to a club. Your chances of making it and playing top flight football, and as an international are 4 million to one. It stated,”If you have not been picked up by the age of 21 you are better off focussing on another career.”
So all those parents who see their sons playing in the Premier League forget it. For all those parents who blame the A-League clubs because their sons don’t make it, are you sure that it is the club’s fault?
Just as there are good teachers in schools who inspire children, so too there are good coaches who have the ability to inspire and bring out the best in young athletes. Some of these coaches will not be part of an A-League club’s coaching set up. There are many reasons for this. It is therefore important that just as parents think hard about which school they send their child to, they make a considered decision as to which club they have their child play for.
There is a saying in business that when companies move away from their core business that is when they start to decline; That is not always the case but there are plenty of examples that will back up such a thought. Despite being professional football clubs are the A-League clubs ready and equipped to become the main developers of young talent? The fact that these clubs do not own their own grounds, let alone their own training grounds, one has to say they are not. The truth is there are some State League and NPL clubs that are better equipped to develop young talent, and have been doing so successfully for many years.
Will taking on the development of players grow the A-League clubs’ supporter base, or will it in fact end up alienating more people?
Having a team in the NPL in Western Australia has not been the bridge-building exercise that many had thought that it would be. This is not all the fault of the players. In many cases it is the parents fault for they are the ones who drag their children away immediately after the game, without taking them into the club house for at least one drink, and the food that may have been laid on. These are little issues, but they are issues that turn others against the A-League club as these young men are playing under the same name. These are followers of the game that the A-League clubs can’t afford to lose.
Every player, and every parent of every player in any A-League club’s junior set up is an ambassador for that A-League club. There should be a code of behaviour instilled into all as soon as they become a part of the program. This includes the way players dress when they turn up to games; all shirts tucked in or all shirts out. They are a team and should have the discipline to look like one. The expectation on parents should also be made very clear.
If you look at the clubs in Europe and around the globe that have successful youth development programs they instil in each young player what it means to be a part of the club. The expectations when you pull on that shirt, even as a young player. They remind you of the players who have come before. As a result they teach young players responsibility and pride, and from that, the most over-used word in modern sport results, a ‘culture’ is born.
The question as to whether Football has grown as big as it is likely to get in Australia will come down to these youth players and the structures put in place by the A-League clubs. Sadly the clubs do not have time on their sides with the AIS closing. They are now responsible for the future of Australian football, and the future of their club’s support is linked heavily to these young players. How they are treated by those clubs, but more importantly how they represent those clubs on and off the pitch at all times will determine whether the game has reached its peak or not.