While the issue of promotion and relegation to the National Premier League of WA continues to be a major talking point in football on the West Coast of Australia it is interesting to note that it is also an issue now on the East coast.
Northern New South Wales entered the NPL family in 2016 and already they are questioning why the did so.
Like many clubs around the country the teams in this competition wanted to play at the highest level and test how good they really were. Not only that, their teams wanted the chance to be crowned National Premier Leagues Champion.
Like all the other clubs that signed up to the NPL model – a model that was brought from the Netherlands and failed – the clubs have invested heavily to be a part of the competition.
In Northern New South Wales two teams were relegated and so there has been a double blow. Valentine and Lake MacQuarie were the two clubs who dropped down, and already it has been reported that the other clubs have swooped like vultures to take their best players.
This competition like Western Australia also had a salary cap that was supposed to be adhered to by all clubs, but when faced with the prospect of relegation those close to the competition claim that clubs went out and broke the salary cap to secure their NPL future. Is this any different to Perth Glory stacking their team with A-League contracted players at the end of last season to ensure they climbed out of the relegation zone in WA? Players incidentally who under FIFA regulations should not be playing in the NPL at all.
The problem in both cases is that clubs who are playing by the rules are finding themselves stretched even further in playing terms, and also financially, as they simply cannot keep up with the teams who are breaking the competition rules in order to survive, but who are at the same time driving themselves deeper into debt. So the salary cap has actually had an adverse effect on the game, and because it has never been monitored by the powers that be, has created a massive problem.
The spin used to sell the NPL across the country was that this would be a group of State-based semi-professional competitions which would underpin the A-League, and bring a new level of sophistication to state leagues. This was simply not the case. The NPL was purely and simply created to meet a promise made to the Asian Football Confederation by the FFA that they would have a second tier competition to the A-League by 2013. They failed to deliver, and an Asian Champions League slot was threatened. So the then technical director of the FFA adopted a competition that was introduced in the Netherlands and failed.The NPL had to be implemented in 2014 or else.
This was promoted as being a whizz-bang new competition that was going to raise the state competitions to a new level. Many asked how this was going to be done and received vague answers. The reason being there was no business plan to back the NPL, it was purely and simply to satisfy the AFC and protect the A-League clubs slots in the Asian Champions League. Look at the lack of marketing in three years. A dedicated website for the NPL is pretty much the extent of the marketing for the competition; and it is a dull and boring website. Hardly dynamic and one that pulls in fans of the game.
Coupled to satisfying the AFC, the FFA was at a loss as to how to develop the next generation of youth in Australia. Suddenly the NPL gave them the ability to meet that requirement at little cost. By making junior development a part of the NPL criteria suddenly all of the top clubs in each state would be forced to develop players at no cost to the FFA. After all, these were the “big” clubs in each state so why shouldn’t they have to take on more responsibility?
Linked to this development was the requirement that all NPL clubs must have accredited coaches and the accreditation standard of those coaches would rise every few years. As in all industries training staff is an expensive exercise. Many industries no longer have in-house training as it became too costly, and they outsource it. The FFA has kept it in-house and has even gone so far as to not recognise similar qualifications from Europe approved under FIFA, and forced coaches to attend the same course under their auspices. This is simply a new guaranteed revenue stream for the FFA, and a very lucrative one. The fact that there is no post training follow up to assess that quality coaching standards are being maintained, confirms that this is all about revenue rather than producing top level coaches.
Once coaches have a qualification they want to be paid, so no longer in many cases will clubs have junior coaches who will coach for free because their son is in the team. So there is another added cost to the clubs themselves.
Of course one way to force the clubs to take their youth development seriously and not poach players was the player points system. Players developed by the club are given a lower value than than imported players, but the sad fact is this could end up excluding better players from the competition, and then undermines the overall product of the league. The NPL, if it is to be the league underpinning the A-League, should be full of the best players in the country outside of the A-League, irrespective of age, where they were developed, etcetera. Sadly this is not the case, as the points system prohibits that. This will in the long term will harm the A-League, as the NPL is where the A-League clubs look to recruit their players from.
Whereas in the past the top flight clubs in the state leagues would go out and source the best up and coming youngsters, as well as the best players, to build teams over a number of years, they are no longer doing that. Now their whole success is based on trials. Only those whose parents can get them to the trials end up trialling. Some talented players who live too far away from an NPL club or have no transport, miss out.
However this is not always the case. One of Perth Glory’s coaching staff spotted a talented young player playing in a local game and wanted to bring him into their junior ranks. The player concerned was a refugee and transport and distance was a problem. The club, it is pleasing to hear, has set aside funds to assist such players, and help them to be able to attend training. For that they should be applauded, as sport goes a long way to helping people assimilate to a new life in a country.
Yet finally one of the biggest problems that a relegation-faced team in any of the NPL competitions has is that when they go down, a large percentage of the junior players they had walk away and look to join another NPL club. The better players are approached by other NPL clubs to come and join them as the teams stares relegation in the face.
With junior registration fees at ridiculously high rates across the country, this is a blow financially to the clubs who add on an administration fee, and also because the NPL clubs have a large number of juniors. It also decimates a junior program that the club has invested heavily in, because they had to as a NPL club. Sure some of the junior programs are not linked to the senior team’s fortunes, however many parents who are not involved in the game do not understand that.
The other reason that the children leave is because the NPL junior programs have been promoted as the only chance for “little Johnny” to have a hope of playing in the A-League is by playing for an NPL side.
The Junior programs are now the main reason clubs cannot afford to get relegated. The Junior programs forced upon the top sides will be the reason some will die. The same reason that clubs did fold in the Netherlands, and why they scrapped this model so quickly.
The NPL was never thought through properly. The then Technical Director at the FFA, Han Berger, travelled the country ‘selling the concept’ and explaining the benefits, purely and simply because this had to be rushed through to satisfy a promise. It may have benefitted the A-League clubs who retained their two Asian Champions League places, but is clear as ripples of discontent spread across the country that unless issues are addressed quickly, and finances invested into the leagues it is destined to push some long standing clubs to extinction. It has already lowered the standard of football in many states, and it is only time before that starts to impact the A-League as well.
Now it may be a long bow to draw but the comparison may be reasonable. When the English Premier League came about many expected the relegated teams to bounce straight back up to the Premier League, that was not the case. Incredibly only just over 23% of the teams relegated have managed to win promotion back to the Premier League the season after they were relegated. Which is just over a fifth of all the teams which is now numbered in the 90’s.
The big issue has been clubs continuing to operate with a Premier League budget when relegated. The evidence is clear that if budgets are not restrained by clubs, relegation from the Premier League can be catastrophic. Nine clubs have gone into administration within five years of being relegated and many others have only narrowly avoided that fate.
As a result of this the Premier League agreed to pay relegated clubs “parachute payments” to give them more income to pay those wages until the contracts ended. It used to be that relegated clubs received four years of parachute payments: £25m in the first year, £20m the season after, £10m in the third year, £10m in the fourth. If the team won promotion back into the Premier League the payments ceased.
In 2016 the system was changed. Under the new system relegated clubs will be paid “Parachute Payments” for only three seasons following relegation. If they have only been in the Premier League for one season, then they will only receive two years of “Parachute Payments.” For clubs relegated in the last season of the English Premier League the payments will be split as follows: In season one, 2016-17 they will get £40 million, season two 2017-18 £33 million and in season three, 2018-19, £14 million.
Now obviously such sums of money are beyond the wildest dreams of NPL clubs, but should the NPL have parachute payments funded by the FFA to compensate teams who have invested in infrastructures at their behest, and obtained qualified coaches etcetera?
The big problem to such an idea is where would this money come from? However, if the FFA actually promoted the National Premier Leagues as a national competition underpinning the A-League, and the State bodies negotiated media coverage in their states, then surely sponsorship could be gained, and from that sponsorship payments in the thousands could be made to relegated clubs, to protect their short term future.
There is no doubt something has to be done, or we are going to see across the country the NPL become a closed shop, and the clubs in the competition rally against relegation, as the reality that it could spell the end of their club begins to dawn on them.