The National Premier Leagues competition in Western Australia has been running for four seasons and it is fair to say that it has failed to lift the game to the level that was promised.
One of the key reasons that it has failed to ignite the game the way it should has been the lack of sponsorship dollars coming in for the league itself and being passed onto the clubs. The costs to the clubs however have continued to rise. This is an issue that the Association of Australian Football Clubs has raised with the FFA in particular, the impact on the costs for children.
As stated previously the reasons for the NPL were questionable; to satisfy a promise to the Asian Football Confederation that there would be a second tier competition to the A-League by 2013. The fact that nothing had been put in place to bring in such a competition, meant that the NPL model was rushed through. The reason it was rushed was the AFC were threatening one of the A-League’s Asian Champions League slots.
So one has to ask if the motives for the switch from the State League competitions to the NPL competition were in the best interests of the game?
The model adapted came from the Netherlands, where it had in fact failed, but somehow it was, we were told, going to succeed in Australia. How it was going to succeed was never adequately explained.
This writer was against the proposed changes from the start. Many of the reasons for that opposition was that there appeared no clear plan to make the league a success. There was no marketing plan, there was no financial plan and much of the onus for its success was being passed onto the cash-strapped clubs yet they were being burdened with higher expectations in terms of what they offered on and off the pitch.
Four seasons of the NPL have now passed and a fifth is about to commence. Some clubs have adapted better than others, but all will tell you that they are losing money.
Yet was the concept, albeit rushed, as bad as at first thought? With time a picture of what may have been the goal is starting to evolve, however whether that goal is going to be reached is questionable.
As we all know many of the clubs in the State League had Geographical affiliations. Affiliations it was argued that had held them and the game back; a debate that will continue to rage.
What was clear was that some of these clubs took pride in developing youngsters and bringing them through into the first team, whereas just like the top sides around the world, others simply looked to buy the best players to be competitive. There is nothing new in that, and even if you impose youth systems on clubs that will not change. FourFourTwo magazine in the UK a few years ago looked at the performance of the EPL clubs academies and how many of the players in these went on to play in the EPL, the numbers at Arsenal were some of the worst. So even at the highest level some clubs will be the developing clubs and others will be buying clubs. That is never going to change.
Howver one can’t help feeling that the idea of having youth teams coupled to the senior sides was actually aimed to be something that would save the existing clubs from extinction, rather than the thing that brought about their demise.
Was the premise that the club would have youth teams at various ages, that junior players would play through those teams over the years, and then when they were ready progress to the first team? For those who were not good enough to play at that level they would still remain at the club and play on a Sunday for the social or amateur side, alongside players they had grown up with.
So the club would become a community of its own. A place where families would come for many years to watch their children progress through the age groups. Where lifelong friendships were formed, and who knows relationships to last a lifetime.
Was the idea for the club to hold social events on a Saturday night, that people would rather stay there amongst their new “family” or “Community?” That juniors would stay behind and watch the team above them play, believing that they were good enough to play in that age group? That they would all be there to watch the first team and want to emulate the players playing and one day be wearing their shirt?
If these were the goals then the concept had a great deal of merit. Yet how the game was going to manage such a cultural shift needed to be communicated.
There is no doubt that Football in this state would benefit enormously if clubs were run, and supported in such a way, but sadly they aren’t.
For a start children today rely on mum and dad to take them to training and games rather than riding their bikes or catching public transport.
The clubs, by holding trials each year for their junior sides do not encourage any loyalty from their young players or their parents. The parents of young players desperately pushing their child because they believe they have more talent than they do, certainly doesn’t help. Neither the clubs nor the parents teach the children anything about loyalty and being part of a team when each season they look to move club.
Then there is the modern phenomenon, that the youth of today do not support teams. They follow individual players. This is why clubs are terrified to lose their big name players in the professional game, because with that move they lose hundreds of thousands of fans. So if they are prepared to change allegiance so easily with a team they support, how can they be expected to have loyalty to the team they play for?
Let us not forget that the NPL concept came from the Netherlands. A small country, but nonetheless one where the rivalry between one town and the next, like in most of Europe, is huge. The same rivalry exists between villages.
When there is such a rivalry, there is also identity. People are associated to that town, that village and they are proud to play for the club that represents that community. Having grown up there, they know what it means to everyone who lives in that town when you win and when you lose. So the players fortunate to play for the team feel and understand the responsibility, and the honour of representing that community.
Perth is a sprawling city. It is a city With 29 Local Government Authorities. Is there a rivalry between any of these local areas? Sure there is the North and South of the River, but is pride on the line when teams from either side play? Are there bragging rights to be enjoyed by the winner? Does a whole community’s chest swell with pride?
Sadly, such communities do not exist, and as result trying to create such a sporting community within a general community that has little or no identity is always going to be extremely hard. How many of the exisiting NPL clubs can tell you what identity they are trying to promote to the community? How can they go about pulling in people from those communities?
With the geographical associations gone, many of the clubs lost their identity. Despite taking on the name of the local area they have struggled to engage local support, simply because the local communities do not feel any association with where they live or have any rivalry with a neighbouring suburb. Football is not alone in this.
To be fair the NPL was in fact a way to try and make football clubs a part of the community again. However the key to that success was through the juniors. Bringing in young players and keeping them at the club until they moved to another suburb, or walked away from the game. The key was to instil in them a sense of pride when they put on the club shirt, an understanding of the club’s history and who and what they represent. TO make them feel a part of a special place, part of a community that welcomes them, shares in their success and their sorrow. Yet to achieve this parents and clubs have to understand the end goal. To make this shift was never going to happen overnight. Some will say it will never happen in Australia for many of the reasons stated.
As much as I question the merits of the NPL, if this was genuinely one of the aims to try and help preserve the clubs of old, and resurrect the game in terms of having a local identity and support, then it was ambitious but a step in the right direction. What is disappointing is that this goal was not communicated, and the clubs have not been advised as to how they can help create this shift in thinking.
Are we likely to see such parochialism in localised areas in years to come? Are we going to see people taking pride in their local area and supporting local teams again, or are there simply too many distractions today?
Having experienced what it means to be a part of several special clubs in different sports it would be fantastic if sporting clubs could once again become a part of the community, a meeting point, a place for social gatherings and a coming together of local people.