Sport is now a business, no matter what level you participate. Just as in the business world some clubs are full time professional outfits, others are part-time, and many are run from home. Yet no matter which category you fall into the rules are the same, that to be successful you must focus on the key element of your business.
It would appear that this is where football clubs in Australia have found themselves being caught out.
In the past most of the clubs at the top of the tree, in the old National Soccer League had no junior development. In order to source players they watched the local leagues and by word of mouth heard who was doing what in each competition, and invited the said player to come to training where they could have a better look at them.
The same was true of the professional clubs in many of the leagues in Europe in the pre-Bosman era. Very few invested in a youth structure. Following the Bosman Ruling players could now move to a new club at the end of their contract without their old club receiving a fee. Players could now agree a pre-contract with another club for a free transfer if the players’ contract with their existing club had six months or less remaining. So the club was no longer guaranteed a fee if a player wished to move on, so in order to make money clubs realised that they needed to sign talented juniors to long term contracts in the hope that a bigger club would come along and pay a large sum for a talented youngster.
Football became very like Baseball inasmuch as Major League Baseball clubs sign young players to lucrative long term contracts in the hope that one day they will make it to the Majors and they will get a return on their investment. However sometimes these players never make the grade. In the USA in 2016 it was reported that of all those who dreamt of a career in Baseball only 1 in 200 High school students would play Major League Baseball. Of the 900 players selected in the draft only one in six will play a minimum of one game in the Majors.
So is that investment worthwhile? Obviously the number crunchers at the various clubs believe it is, and are not prepared to let potential talent slip through their fingers.
Moving back to Football in Australia, there is not the money in the game for A-League clubs to be signing young players up to long term contracts, and even if they wanted to there are rules prohibiting such a move. In the English Premier League a player must be at least nine years old to join an Academy, but many clubs do have development groups which cater for even younger players. They can only sign a professional contract on their 17th Birthday.
In the past in Australia there were clubs that were renowned for their youth development. Many did not have senior teams playing in the various State League competitions, let alone the National Soccer League. This did not matter as they had excellent coaches who taught the children the rudimentary skills that would give them the best chance to play the game at the highest level their skill allowed them to compete at. Not surprisingly this was the first stop for many of the higher level clubs as they looked for new players.
With the restructure of the game many of these development clubs have fallen by the wayside. First of all because the coach accreditation system had fallen into disarray under Soccer Australia many had not renewed their qualification, and under the Football Federation of Australia they were now required to do so. There was no recognition of their work or experience, so some simply walked away. Others could not afford the fee, and instead opted to work with an accredited coach rather than sit the required exams.
Now we have seen the A-League clubs as well as the National Premiers Leagues clubs – which were previously the State League – have to have juniors teams in all ages in order to be a part of the competition. It is a system that may well work over time, but is certainly not one that is working currently.
The FFA will close down the Australian Institute of Sport Centre of Excellence in August. CEO of the FFA David Gallop admitting that the funds could be better spent as the players selected for this specialist program have failed to deliver internationally or locally. “While the Centre of Excellence has helped to produce great players and still delivers a quality product, it caters to a maximum of 24 boys at Under 16 and Under 17 level at a cost of $1.6 million a year,” Mr Gallop said. “We believe FFA resources can be better used in a decentralised and expanded system that provides opportunities for many more young male and female players within club settings around Australia.The reality is that increasingly, some talented young players are choosing to stay with their local clubs or find places in Hyundai A-League academies and our schools program. Even among those who have attended the Centre of Excellence in recent years, fewer than half have gone on to become professional players.”
The fact that some players were chosing not to take up a position at the AIS speaks volumes. The fact that over five years ago players were deliberately trying to be expelled from the program shows that it had clearly lost its way, and many believe that happened when the age of entry was lowered.
Now the A-League clubs are expected to take up where the AIS has left off. Are they ready for such a role? Have the A-League clubs shown so far that they are astute enough to pick the cream of the crop at each age group? Already around the country accusations are being levelled at the A-League clubs that the sons of the key people in the game in each state are being given places in a youth squad, when clearly the boy is not good enough. Then there are also accusations over boys being selected because the parents have money, or the father is influential in a big business and therefore the link with his son could bring in potential sponsorship.
First of all to use a child as a pawn in such a way, as a parent, or as the club is simply wrong. Secondly if these selections are being made for any other reason than being based purely on talent, the FFA needs to step in and stop the trend, or the planned pathway is soon going to be lost.
Another key problem with the new proposed system is funding. The FFA has admitted that they are closing down the AIS Centre of Excellence to better use their resources. So the $1.6million a year saving needs to be filtered down to grassroots to ensure that development is funded properly.
The NPL competition is sponsored by Playstation, a huge global brand, but ask any of the clubs how much they are benefitting from such sponsorship, and they will tell you they have not seen a dollar.
So the NPL has cost clubs more money than the old state League did, as they have had to create a youth structure that did not previously exist. The A-League clubs too, who are already bleeding, have also had to create a number of youth teams, which is an added cost when it comes to employing coaches and hiring grounds on which to train these players.
Not surprisingly clubs are now loath to let players they have developed move to an A-League youth structure, because they could well lose out on much needed development fees. The A-League clubs are demanded their cut of the development fees when any of these young players look to head overseas and try to gain a contract with club there. Such a request frequently results in the offer of a contract being withdrawn, as players of a similar standard can be signed locally.
Now young players with European passports, whose parents understand how the game works, are opting for their son not to sign for the A-League youth sides in order to give their child a better opportunity to gain a contract overseas. Can you blame them? Can the clubs really be blamed for trying to secure what is rightfully theirs? With very few revenue streams one players success could be a lifeline.
In the middle of all this are the academies. Private enterprises set up usually by passionate ex-footballers purely and simply as a business. The FFA pushed so many people through its coaching courses, but what it never thought about was finding these coaches work. Some ex-Players have managed to pick up work with NPL clubs, some working for State Bodies and the rest have decided to back their reputations and their background in the game.
In many cases these academies offer far more than basic coaching, as the players running them have played overseas and in the professional leagues in Europe, so they know what it takes to make it as a professional footballer. The good academies will prepare the players who have the ability, mentally and physically. They will warn them of obvious pitfalls and give them the best chance of finding a career in the sport.
Many of these academies organise tours to Europe for their players and parents shell out the required money for their enrolled children to participate. Yet the reality is only one player, possibly two is ever likely to stand out in such a situation and be asked back by a club for a closer look; and everyone probably knew who that player was before they went overseas. Here it is crucial to understand the reason for the tour. Is it to put the players in the shop window of clubs in Europe? Or is to expose the players, and see how they cope playing against players the same age, who are in a professional environment and play every day? Is this an opportunity to show the player where he is in his development, and how much he needs to do to succeed?
If that is the case then it is definitely beneficial and bound to be a life-changing experience. Certainly such a tour would be better than a parent spending money on a trial at club. No one should ever have to pay a cent to trial for any club, no matter what the carrot at the end of the trial is.
The interesting thing is when a player does make it who claims the credit for that player’s development? Usually all of the entities mentioned will put their hand up. What should be a relatively clear pathway has now become overgrown, and as the player progresses more and more try to claim a part of that success.
Is the pathway the FFA are proposing doomed to fail? To many the answer is regrettably an emphatic, yes. The reason for this view is the lack of understanding as to how NPL and State League clubs are run. They are not full time businesses, they are run by passionate, committed and willing volunteers, and they simply do not have enough hours in a day, or enough hands to help them set up and run numerous junior teams, develop players, play in a semi-professional league and ensure that all their coaches are accredited, that the accreditation is up to date and they have enough income to cover all the outgoings.
The clubs are being asked to move away from what was their core business. That is why many are struggling to make ends meet.
Surely rather than trying to re-invent the wheel the FFA and their state bodies should have looked at assisting those clubs that were already doing a great job in youth development and created a feeder system into the NPL and State League clubs. The A-League clubs should then have been encouraged to set up a scouting system to identify the players they believe have the potential to make it to the top; but always remembering the low percentage that will succeed.
So the NPL and State League clubs would be allocated local clubs to which they would be affiliated and from which they could recruit junior players from. With the Zone rep system this would be easy to police and would also possibly help the NPL clubs as with a link to these other clubs they may encourage more people through the gate and to attend club functions.
Even in as cut-throat world as the UK clubs are prevented from signing young players who live outside their catchment area. Here the Under 12’s must live within an hour’s travelling distance from the club, or 90 minutes for players aged 13-16. With most clubs in and around the major cities obviously those distances could be less in Australia.
Between the ages of nine and 16 players at the academies sign schoolboy forms. These will be renewed every year or every two years, if the club wants to keep the player. Once the player is 16 the club will then decide whether it wants you to stay on and join its Youth Training Scheme. So the player then receives some financial reward for his commitment. However it should be noted that most clubs only sign around half a dozen players to this scheme. From there scholarships are awarded and if players are lucky over the next three years they will progress through the academy youth team to the reserves; in the Premier League they have an under 21 team to bridge the gap between youth team and reserves. In the main a full contract is not offered until a player reaches 19 years of age.
Looking at the current system one does feel that more structure is required in order to give players a clear idea of the direction they are headed. Contracts need to be put in place so that young players are not chopping and changing teams every season, as that does not help the player or the clubs.
Yet most important of all for any structure to work it will need financial backing. The FFA will save $1.6million a year by closing the Centre of Excellence. No doubt the A-League clubs will be putting their hands out for a share, as the burden of development is shifting to them, but there still needs to be money going to established junior clubs who have the runs on the board in terms of youth development. It is also vital that this money is spent on development, and not sidetracked into administrative costs. Australia has the least number of players playing top flight football overseas for 35 years, that position will not change without the correct structures and investment.
All of these parties can work together, and all have a purpose in the game, but for all to survive they need to focus on what their are good at, rather than trying to be everything to all people.