Sometimes in sport being talented is not enough.
As we frequently hear in football today players are rejected because they are too small; they didn’t say that to Maradona or Lionel Messi! Then there are players with a bad attitude, players who pick up too many cards, and players who are not fit enough, too lazy, always injured, the list goes on. Yet often behind all of these excuses is a very talented player, but a player who has to overcome a label placed on him or her by a coach.
To make matters worse for any young player with talent and ambition in Western Australia is the current view of the game on the Western side of the country by our Eastern counterparts.
If a young player’s name is mentioned as a potential A-League prospect, the first response is usually ‘he can’t be that good or Perth Glory would have picked him up.’ If that does not put the promoter or the player off, which it shouldn’t, the next comment is a killer. If the player is not part of the Glory set-up then he will have to come over and play in the New South Wales or Victorian NPL to show whether he is any good. The standard in Western Australia is too far behind these leagues for an A-League coach to even consider signing a player from WA straight from their NPL. These are not direct quotes but pretty close to the words used.
The question is whether this is a fair claim or not?
The Western Australian NPL commenced in 2014. Bayswater City were the League Premiers and represented their state in the NPL Finals. They lost in the quarter finals to eventual national NPL Champions North Eastern Metrostars 4-3 on penalties after it finished 0-0 after extra time.
In 2015 Bayswater City progressed to the final and controversially had to play their home final at the home of Perth SC because it was to be a night game, and lost 1-3 to Blacktown City. In 2016 Perth SC were the representatives from the West and they were knocked out at the semi-final stage. In 2017 Bayswater City were back as the team from the West, and they lost after extra time to eventual winners Heidelburg United in the quarter-finals.
It is worth mentioning that no other sides took the eventual Champions to extra time in 2017 and 2014. So based on this record is WA Football as bad as it is being portrayed? It would appear not.
Sure some will argue that as only two clubs have represented Western Australia in the NPL Finals, and one three times in four season,s maybe the top sides are good enough, but not the rest.
When it comes to the FFA Cup sadly Western Australian teams have not fared well. In four years and with two teams from the NPL or State League only one has progressed from the round of 32 and that was Sorrento in 2017.
Of course the performances of the State League teams in the FFA Cup/State Cup in 2017 did not do anything to enhance the reputation of the NPL in WA. The Western Knights from the State League won the State Cup and claimed the scalps of three NPL clubs on their march to lifting the cup, including Sorrento in the final.
The Knights were not alone when it came to causing an upset, Gwelup Croatia from Division Two also claimed the NPL scalps of Balcatta and Mandurah City, Wembley Downs defeated Stirling Lions, UWA-Nedlands defeated Subiaco, and Dianella White Eagles beat ECU Joondalup and Cockburn City. Nine of the fourteen NPL sides were knocked out of the Cup by teams from lower divisions. Wembley Downs were not even in the State League competition!
However as the old saying goes, Cup games come down to who is the best on the day. League Champions are teams who are consistent over a whole season, week-in-week-out.
Sadly even in Western Australia there are many who believe that the State League is a better football spectacle than the NPL. Some will even say that there are better players playing in the State League than the NPL. These are arguments that will be debated around the clubrooms and bars on a weekly basis by those who follow the game. The State/FFA Cup results simply lent weight to these arguments.
The pressing question is what can be done to change the perception of Western Australian football? This has to happen, and happen quickly, otherwise we will lose a whole generation of players from Western Australia, because despite all the hype they will soon realise that there is in fact no “pathway” to the top.
These young players sign for NPL clubs as juniors because they are told that this is their best chance to make it into the A-League. Yet the A-League sides over East are saying that the NPL WA is not good enough. The AIS has been closed down so that avenue has become a roadblock. The responsibility for developing players is now going to fall onto the shoulders of the A-League clubs, and in Western Australia that is the Perth Glory. If the Perth Glory do not show an interest in the player, then what option does he have? If he has a European passport there is only one option, to head overseas and try his luck. The window of opportunity has almost been bricked up.
So why has the NPL WA ended up with such a reputation?
Many will argue that the points system for players, and allowing coaches to only have so many “points” on the pitch has had the biggest impact. The biggest one being that it has seen the NPL become more of a development league than a competitive contest. It has resulted in young players being played each week, when some are not up to that standard yet. They get a game simply to make the points add up. Some would also argue that there are older players being given a stay of execution simply to give a team of youngsters some experience on the park.
One thing that is desperately clear is the lack of professionalism evident today. Some clubs have quite rightly increased training to three nights a week from two, but players are still going on holiday during the season. With a bye one week last season many booked flights to Bali, where no doubt they did no training and drank copious amounts of Bintang. Yet the clubs continue to pay these players, so who is to blame?
The quality is clearly not there. So there is an argument that the size of the league needs to be reduced to ensure that the quality players are not spread so thinly across the competition. Less teams means more quality, which should mean a better standard of football, which in turn if marketed properly should lead to bigger crowds.
If the competition was based on attendances then the NPL is clearly in a sorry state. However you cannot blame the NPL for the lack of crowds. Attendances at games were falling away before the NPL came into existence. The NPL however was, we were told, supposed to breathe new life into the competition and the clubs, there was to be a marketing campaign to accompany the new branded league amongst other promises. Yet none have transpired.
Mind you when many of the players who play in the competition fail to turn up to watch the finals series or even the Grand Final, that says a lot about the situation
One has to ask how many of the juniors at these NPL clubs know the names of the first team players, or even stay behind to watch the first team in action. These are the essentials on which clubs are built. These clubs are investing in coaches for the junior teams and players, it is only right that these players support and take pride in being a part of the club. However when clubs opt to have open trials at the beginning of every season where is the club’s loyalty to their juniors? It is a situation that cuts both ways.
Whereas tacking on junior programs to a senior club should have seen an increase in the number of members at many of the clubs, the truth is it has in fact had the opposite effect on the accounts. It has cost the clubs more money and their crowds have diminished even further.
The important issue here is that the reputation and the standard of the league has to improve. It has to have a bigger profile on the sporting landscape in WA. These two things must happen to change the perception of football in Western Australia. If the perception can be changed then maybe, just maybe, in time players from the West will be given a chance by the A-League clubs over East, and will not necessarily have to go and play in one of their leagues before being given a chance to play in the A-League, if overlooked by their hometown club.
At present the pathway in Western Australia has turned into a cul de sac. As soon as players start to realise that, they will be lost to other sports. For the future of the game in Western Australia it is vital that there is a very real pathway to the top of the game, and not just the promise of one. To do that the NPL must be promoted properly and the clubs must start to operate in a more professional manner.