When the Football Federation of Australia unveiled its Strategic plan for 2016-2019 this week the CEO, David Gallop was quoted as saying “Results at youth international level matter, but not as much as finding the next generation of stars to keep the Socceroos and Matildas at the forefront of Asian and world football. The establishment of A-League academies and the integration of the Foxtel National Youth League teams in the Sony PS4 National Premier Leagues are great steps forward in this aim.”
He is right that results at Youth international level matter, and Aurelio Vidmar found that out when he lost his job after the Olyroos failed to qualify for the Rio Olympics. This is the second consecutive Olympic Games that Australia has failed to qualify for. This is an Under 23 tournament and in the qualifiers Australia had 12 players aged 22, one aged 23 and three aged 21. So of the 22 man squad in their age-group half of the players should be in their prime. More than half of the squad came through the AIS (8) or state academy programs. These players are supposed to be the cream of the crop. In fact if we look at the 2012 campaign there were again eight graduates of the AIS and four players from state NTC or institute of sport programs. So are these programs really proving successful or does all the blame lie with the coach?
There are many who believe strongly that this failure to qualify for major international tournaments stems from a decision made in 2008 to lower the entry age for players at the AIS. The results lend weight to that argument.
Mr Gallop mentions the National Youth League teams playing in the NPL competitions as a good move, but is it really? The National Youth league is now a watered down competition that one has to question its validity.
In 2015/16 the competition was cut from 18 games to eight. The teams were divided into two conferences of five teams. Conference A consisted of teams from Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria and Queensland, while teams from Australian Capital Territory and New South Wales were in Conference B. All teams in each conference played each other home and away with a Grand Final played between the top teams from each conference.
The reason for the change was purely financial. The A-League Franchise owners did not want to shell out the money on a youth team when so few made it through into the first team. The spin however was, that with A-League clubs having teams playing in the National Premier Leagues competitions around the country there was now less reliance on the Youth League to be the pathway for youth players to progress at their respective clubs. As many of these youth teams have struggled playing against mens teams again there are many who question if this is benefitting the youth players and whether they would not have been better still playing for the clubs that developed them and being integrated into a side alongside men when they are ready. Ask any top player who has made it and they will tell you they were playing alongside men – not in a youth team against them – at a young age and that was when they learned the most.
Mr Gallop also mentions A-League Academies and how they are assisting in the development of the game. This comment reveals just how out of touch Mr Gallop is sitting in his Sydney Ivory tower.
First of all most of what he calls Academies could not be further from being an Academy if they tried. To most people in the sporting world an academy linked to a professional club sees the club go out and offer places to players that they have scouted as being talented. They do still have trials to make sure that they have not overlooked players. Once accepted into the academy the club pays for everything, as they no doubt hope that they will develop a player that will go on and make them money in the transfer market.
The situation at the moment is parents are still paying fees to the A-League clubs for their children to play, even though they have been selected to play for a club that promises a pathway to professional football. Instead of being about who is the best player it is becoming a case of who can afford to play.
As was warned, there is also a blurring of what should be very clear lines. Some young players have been signed by local clubs, and are registered with those local clubs. These youngsters are playing and training for that club, yet the A-League club is asking them in to train with them on the nights when training does not clash. Can you imagine Sydney FC allowing one of its players to train with Western Sydney Wanderers when training schedules don’t clash, or Arsenal and Tottenham? In fact would any professional club in the world allow this? So why is it allowed here? This practice needs to be stamped out immediately, and to some it seems incredible that the state body has not stepped in to do so, as ultimately they administer the competition.
Yet in the West they too are looking to cash in on the dream. Football West set up an “Academy” on a Wednesday for the stand out players in the National Premier Leagues, the players who are too good for their youth teams, the outstanding talent. Yet once again rather than being free, those identified had to pay to be a part of such an “academy.” Not surprisingly with fees so high for players to actually play in the NPL there were not many takers, so the invitation has been extended to the lower divisions.
This flys in the face of the whole NPL concept. Clubs were told by the State Body that they had to supply FFA accredited coaches to coach all levels. Clubs have to have teams in all age Groups to be a part of the NPL from Under 9’s to Under 16’s. Now when they have invested all of their time and money in finding talented players and the best coaches to develop and nurture that talent, not only Perth Glory can come in and take the player but now Football West is too. Is it any wonder that some clubs are wondering why they are spending so much money on setting up such structures when there is no protection of their players?
In fact if the NPL clubs are set up as envisaged this was meant to alleviate the financial burden put on the state bodies of having to employ development coaches and run NTC and similar programs. Yet the clubs have made this investment and the State Bodies continue to run their programs.
Add to this conundrum the financial side of a player given an opportunity to pursue a career overseas and suddenly these “academies” become even more questionable. It would appear that the FFA is in favour of them as they present a new revenue stream for club owners who did not want to invest in youth. How many of the young guns who have broken into an A-League side are sold off to almost the first club that comes knocking, only to return a few years later when they have been unable to secure first team football and regular game time?
The trouble with the “Academies” is the A-League clubs can now ask for a development fee. Take the case of Stefan Valentini, a player who was developed by Balcatta, his father having been involved at the club for years. In 2015 he joined the Perth Glory Youth where he proved a prolific goalscorer in the NPL. He made his senior debut for Perth Glory in the 2015 FFA Cup against Newcastle Jets FC when Kenny Lowe sent him on as a substitute. He did what was asked of him, and won a penalty from which Glory scored to give them a 2-1 lead. Holding dual citizenship he went over to Europe for trials and was picked up by a German club. They want to sign him on a longer term contract based on his performances but the deal has been held up by the demands from Perth Glory for a Development fee, a fee that was waived by Balcatta so that a player from their club could fulfil his dream.
These are not professionally run Acadamies and should not be promoted as such. Just as A-League memberships are not memberships, they are simply season ticket holders.
As one parent of a young player who has headed to Europe to further his career suggested, – which has a great deal of merit,- to encourage A League clubs to invest in their academies, the academies should be assessed and graded. The grading to be based on the facilities at the club and training ground, full time staff, links to education programs, budgets etc. The grading would then be made public so all parents know exactly where each A-League academy sits. Then as a reward for their investment in the progression of the game, depending on their grade, the salary cap in the A-League would be staggered. So the more a club invests in its academy and the future of Australian football, the higher their salary cap. So they benefit from investing in the future.
There will be some who may disagree with such a suggestion, but at least suggestions like this can carry the game forward and create discussion. At present from the FFA all we have are words and no actual plan as to how they will achieve the goals they have set.
It would appear that Mr Gallop in the comment quoted is saying that an almost non-existent Youth League, Youth league players playing and struggling against men, and academies where players are taken from clubs who have invested heavily in development measures at the behest of the State Bodies, and to which they have to pay the A-League club to be a part of, only to be prevented from making a move overseas purely for the financial benefits of the A-League club, are all good for encouraging the next generation of players to play football.
To most these are far from “great steps” as Mr Gallop has called them. They are in fact steps which will take the game backwards, although Mr Gallop will be long gone from the FFA in ten years time when the effects of such decisions will be most felt.