Some in football may be surprised that there has not been more of an outcry on hearing the news that the FFA’s Centre of Excellence, formerly its Australian Institute of Sport program in Canberra is going to be shut down. Yet it is hard to build an argument for it to stay open.
There was a time when the AIS program served a very clear purpose, since the birth of the FFA that purpose has become extremely unclear. A cynic would say it was a siding for the FFA’s highly rated coaches.
Before the existence of the Football Federation of Australia the AIS program, which started in 1981, was where the rough diamonds of Australian football went to be polished. These were the players who had broken through into State League sides at a young age based on sheer talent and ability; not to meet a team points quota.
Not surprisingly these players were rough around the edges. They went to Canberra and under the watchful eye of Ron Smith he turned boy footballers into men. They key issue here is when these young men left the AIS they were all ready to walk into, and hold a place in a National Soccer League side. They had graduated to senior football. Not only that, but many went beyond just senior football in Australia, but went on to grace some of the greatest leagues in the world. The likes of Mark Viduka, Marco Bresciano, Lucas Neill, Craig Moore, Josip Šimunić and Josip Skoko to name a handful.
In fact in the late 1980’s though the 1990’s the AIS football program was at the forefront of the development of young players and it has been written that it had a record of developing more than 60% of national team players at youth and senior level.
The argument that is being bandied around now is that the Centre of Excellence is no longer required because the A-League clubs have their own academies, and their own development pathways for players to break through to the highest level. To many involved in development coaching this is a complete smokescreen.
For a start if analysis was done on how many young players have come through A-League youth league systems to hold down a regular first team place? The numbers are staggering as to how few actually make it. This was one of the reasons the A-League club owners wanted the Youth League to be shelved. Instead we now have a token competition which has little appeal, apart from to die-hard fans.
The Youth League was meant to be the path to A-League football, but too many clubs did not have a plan in place as to how they were going to use this competition to develop and prepare players for A-League football. Mike Mulvey who was coach of the victorious Gold Coast United Youth Team said that he saw his job as a youth team coach to prepare as many of the boys under his control to play A-League football or higher. Zac Anderson was one player, he went on to play over 50 games for the Central Coast Mariners before a move to Sydney FC and is now playing in Malaysia. Ben Halloran now playing Germany after a spell with Brisbane Roar was another player. Steve Lustica went to play Hadjuk Split before returning to the A-League and Josh Brilliante has been to Italy and is now with Sydney FC, but is also in the Socceroos. The list continues…
This is proof that Mulvey, whose sentiment echoed what the AIS was set up to do, was good at his job. How many other clubs can boast as many players coming through and making it? Some would say Gold Coast United did a better job than the AIS.
Ironically at the time that Mulvey was polishing his diamonds on the Gold Coast those in charge of the now named Centre of Excellence made the bold, and as it has proved ill-judged decision to lower the age of entry to the Centre of Excellence. What this meant was the program was now no longer preparing boys to make the transition to manhood and a senior team. Only a select few were ready when they left the Centre of Excellence to play first team football with an A-League club. Many were signed after tip offs from the coaches, but few in each graduating year made the breakthrough.
Of the Class of 2006 there are currently no players playing in a top league in Europe. All of these players are coming to the end of their 20’s and should be in their prime. Players such as Robbie Kruse (China) Nikita Rukyavysta (Israel) Nathan Burns (Japan) Bruce Djite (Korea) Matthew Spiranovic (China) Michael Marrone (Adelaide) and Tando Velaphi (Japan). The other players are back in NPL football. Has the system failed these players? Or were they simply not good enough? These players were deemed to be the cream of their age group and were given access to supposedly the best coaching and facilities football had to offer. So why, like the generations before them are they not playing in the best leagues in the world?
If we look at the year that followed this one check how many of these boys who are mostly aged 27 now are still in the game at professional level. Also check how many are playing top flight football?
The class of 2007 was made up of: Isaka Cernak, Daniel Mullen, Luke De Vere, Milos Lujic, Jerrod Tyson, Andrew Redmayne, Matthew Jurman, Ante Cicak, Matthew Mullen, Richard Greer, Alex Sunasky, Matthew Harper, Laurence Braude, Seb Ryall, James Holland, Tahj Minniecon, Bonal Obradovic, Stefan Vrbesic, Matthew Theodore, Marko Jesic, and James Brown.
One has to ask if they had been admitted a year later would the coaching staff have been able to send them to A-League clubs ready to play?
Not surprisingly Centre of Excellence coach Tony Vidmar is against the decision to close. A decision which is being pushed FFA technical director Eric Abrams and head of community, football development and women’s football Emma Highwood. These two FFA staffers presented a case to shut down the Centre of Excellence in favour of focussing on A-League club academies and establishing strong football programs in schools; obviously saving the FFA money and allowing them to spend Government funding elsewhere.
Vidmar was quoted as saying on The World Game website ““We agree with the A-League clubs having their academies and providing the player pathway but at this point in time it’s not ready and some have not even started and that’s the frustrating thing,” he said. “In five years’ time perhaps, see how the A-League academies are progressing and then review things and decide if it’s time to phase out the program.But if they just throw it all out now then I think youth development in this country is finished.”
He has a very valid point. The FFA are to be applauded in making more people involved in coaching young children become accredited coaches, but accreditation does not guarantee a good coach. There is no follow up on those given a coaching badge, to monitor if they are of a suitable standard and if they can impart knowledge that will indeed inspire and make the youth better players. Until the accreditation of coaches ceases to be purely a revenue raiser for the FFA, development will suffer.
As we saw with the Youth League some clubs had systems in place with their youth development and others just tried to assemble a competitive team each year. The same is happening with the pathway system. Some coaches are recruiting players simply to be competitive in the NPL knowing full well that 90 per cent of those players will never come close to an A-League contract.
Then there are coaches who have selected a player to be on the pathway to the dream of a first team contract, but will not admit they have made a mistake even though everyone else can see it. There will be coaches down the track who will be influenced by some Club owners and CEO’s to play a player because the parent will put in much needed cash into the club by way of sponsorship. These are not knew issues, but they are issues that have not come to the fore yet.
Vidmar has a very valid point in relation to shutting down one program before the other has proven itself. However it would be interesting to see if in the five year extended lifeline he wants for the AIS, if he reverted to admitting the players a year later how many would in fact win A-League contracts and progress to football in the top leagues, and at the clubs of the ‘Golden Generation.’
Often the reason something is not working the way it used to is very simple, and the problem often is right before your eyes. Many a time people who are not comfortable in their job, and are striving to survive will fail to see the issues. Others who have the greater good and the passion to see not only each player succeed, but as a result of their success the sport and the nation, will sacrifice themselves for the greater good.
Should the Centre of Excellence be closed down, on present results definitely. Is this the right time, probably not. How this plays out will undoubtedly affect a generation and that could be potentially damaging for the game as a whole. How many of those making the decisions will still be there when the affects of these decisions come home to roost?