The Narrow Pathway

There is a phrase going around in sport at present that it is the best payers who are being selected to play for teams ahead of the best players. Many feel that this is how sport has evolved as a result of it becoming a business, rather than a distraction from business.

Yesterday’s piece “The Deadend” touched some raw nerves, and as a result a few interesting phone calls were received to discuss the issues. So let us look at some of the key issues facing a young player wishing to make it as a professional footballer in Australia.

First of all there are more players who will dream of making it as a professional footballer than will ever have a chance of making it. For those who dream of playing for, let alone signing for the big name clubs that they support, the dream is even less realistic.

Craig Johnston and Harry Kewell are two that have played for Liverpool, while the likes of former Perth Glory player Nick Rizzo and Perth-raised Tom King have been in their academy and youth ranks; both moved on to play for other clubs in the UK. At Manchester United only one Australian has worn the famous red shirt and that is Mark Bosnich.

The United Kingdom has a far bigger population than Australia, but the statistics on making it to the top show just how hard it is. The statistics revealed by Michael Calvin, author of the book “No Hunger in Paradise: The Players. The Journey. The Dream,” published in 2017 show that out of all the boys who enter an academy at the age of 9, less than half of 1% make it, or make a living from the game either.

The most damning statistic of all is only 180 of the 1.5 million players who are playing organised youth football in England at any one time will make it as a Premier League pro. That’s a success rate of 0.012%.

So to break through from Australia is going to be extremely hard, and is going to require a young player to be sure to have the required attributes such as dedication and be prepared to make sacrifices. They will need to have an inner strength to keep going when things don’t go well, and stay motivated, by focussing on the end goal. Of course on top of that they need to stay football-fit, watch what they eat and drink, stay injury free and have a certain degree of luck.

The big question is whether the much talked about “Pathway” is actually working. Is it available to all, or is it only available to those who can afford it?

Firstly there are some excellent youth programs in Western Australia that get young players involved in the sport. Programs where fun is a key component. After all who wants to play sport unless it is fun? These are fantastic to give a child an introduction to the game, and even at that early age there will be young boys and girls who stand out. Children with better balance, strength, and co-ordination. This does not mean that those who do not have those skills will not gain them later, some children simply mature later than others.

From here children will progress into junior football. An opportunity that should be fully funded from above. This is something that is crucial if Australia truly has ambitions to become a force in the game globally. Junior football must be readily available to anyone who wants to play the game. So money needs to be filtered down from the FFA and the state bodies to encourage as many players as want to play the game to be able to play the game. Yet since its formation in 2005 the Football Federation of Australia has not made this a priority.

Equally, the FFA should be funding the education of coaches within schools that play football. It should not be incumbent on the schools to outsource coaches. If the game is going to survive in the long term, the FFA would be working with the various education departments to make sure that school teachers that take sport are given the opportunity to become qualified coaches at no cost to them, or the school.

What these two things will do is create a larger talent pool. Currently there are players lost to the game simply because the parents cannot afford the fees to sign up their child with a club, or to transport them to games. There are more pressing financial issues on their families.

Outsourced coaches in schools often come from private academies, which are also private businesses. As is common knowledge, some, not all of these will then see potential clients in the parents of the children that they are coaching and will encourage the parents to enrol their child in extra coaching. Cynics will claim that they are only interested in the dollars that such coaching will bring in, others will take a kinder viewpoint and feel that they are genuinely trying to help players improve. Best players or best payers is already raising its head as a question.

By the age of 12 parents are being told that if their son has any hope of making it as a professional footballer then they need to be a part of a National Premier League (NPL) club. These NPL club youth programs are in essence supposed to replicate the youth academies of the top clubs in Europe.

Again one of the issues facing parents here is the that they are the ones having to pay for their son to play in such a team. Yet if he is successful it will be the club that receives a percentage of their wages, or transfer fees based on the FIFA Training Compensation rules up until the player is 23 years old. So this really is a win-win situation for the clubs; that is if they follow up on claiming the Training Compensation Fee, which is not easy the way the process has been set up in Australia. However estimates show that over a $1million may be owed to clubs in Western Australia alone.

If, as appears to be happening regularly now, clubs are not looking to develop a core group of players at their club, and instead opt to hold open trials and replace virtually a whole team of players each season in each age group, then the Training Compensation issue is going to become even more complicated should the player eventually make it. The fees that would be due to the club would now be split between a number of clubs.

The idea of the Training Compensation Fee was to encourage clubs to invest in developing players. To identify talent, nurture it and give the player the best chance of playing at the highest level. The club would then be rewarded financially so that they could continue the process.

Some clubs were exceptionally good at this in the past. Sadly though some of the coaches that were involved in this successful development are no longer involved as they did not have up to date coaching qualifications, just years of experience.

As young players become teenagers the fees to play become higher. They are at preposterous levels compared to other sporting codes. This has to be prohibitive in terms of who can afford to play the game, and so once again the best payers remain, and the best players have left.

In a city like Perth there is only one professional club, the Perth Glory. So there are always going to be very limited positions available for young players. Sadly to exacerbate the situation around the country accusations have been levelled at some A-League clubs, now that they have junior programs and are involved in NPL tournaments, that some young players are being selected as part of the squad purely because of the fact that the parents may have a business that could become a potential sponsor of the club. If true, then it confirms that the best payers are indeed being selected over the best players.

As covered yesterday the WA-NPL is in such a poor light that talented players missed by Perth Glory now have to move interstate to play and put themselves in the spotlight of the A-League clubs on the East Coast, there is again a cost to the parents; airfares, accommodation etc. Of course this is depending on what age the player is.

Age is a big factor, as many A-League clubs, and in fact clubs around the globe are loathe to sign players after the age of 21. So what age should a player still be clinging to the dream to move intestate? Or if they feel their options are better overseas, and they have a European passport, what age do they head to Europe and try and gain a trial? Once again it will be the parents who will no doubt be footing the bill.

There will undoubtedly be some who will read this and say that part of the problem is parents living their dream through their children. They may have a point. Equally there is the problem that coaches nowadays are not as frank and honest as in the past, as society does not allow them to be brutally honest, as it will then be wrapped up as some form of prejudice. So it is in fact a vicious circle.

One thing that is clear is that Australian football and A-League clubs need to develop scouting systems to identify talent. In addition, the game needs to be funded from the top down. If talented players can be kept in the game at least until they are 16, when it becomes clearer as to how good they are, then that would be a start. It would then be incumbent on the FFA, The State Bodies, and the clubs themselves to go out and find funding for “football scholarships,” which would see for example 20 players fees covered to keep them in the game.

After all Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said back in 2009 “at 12 you can detect if technically a player can make it or not. At 14 to 16 you can detect if physically he will be able to cope with the demands of professional sport. And from 16 to 18 you can start to see if a player understands how to connect with other players. At 20 the mental side of things kick in. How does he prepare? How does he cope with life’s temptations and the sacrifices a top player must make? This is a job where you must be ready. If you get a chance, you have to take it.”

Of course the odds are still very heavily stacked against a player wanting to play professional football actually making it.

The problem is not unique to Australia, but with a smaller population base, and a smaller professional environment it is greater and we do have our own set of unique problems.

To simply ape the systems employed in a country such as England, where football is so dominant is foolish. Sure, clubs like Tottenham Hotspur have an academy. They also hold trials every eight weeks, but these trials are only open to young boys who have been spotted by their scouts. These are players they may have missed, and who have been recommended. They are not open trials. Once again it shows the importance of having people who can identify talent watching games at all levels.

In addition Tottenham also has development centres set up. These are for want of a better expression, “waiting-rooms,” a place for those who have been earmarked as talented but are too young, or not ready to be signed up for their academy. Tottenham has 10 development centres coaching a total of about 600 boys! Are we likely to see any A-League club set up similar centres?

Football academies in England were set up in 1998, following a landmark report named “The Charter for Quality,” and written by Howard Wilkinson, then the Football Association’s technical director. Before academies, most clubs had ‘centres of excellence’ for talented young players. The really talented were invited to attend the pinnacle of football education at Lilleshall Hall in Shropshire. Like the AIS in Canberra this was a footballing boarding school for England’s elite 18 players, selected in trials at age 14. Esteemed alumni include: Jermain Defoe, Michael Owen, Joe Cole, and Wes Brown. It is worth mentioning that the AIS football program was set up in Australia in 1981. To many it was ahead of its time. Lilleshall opened in 1984.

At the England academies, boys are in the main signed from age eight up until they are 16. Signing on with a professional club’s academy sees both parties make a mutual commitment. The boys agree to good behaviour and morals and to turn up to training. The club in return agrees to provide elite coaches, tournaments, physiotherapists and relevant medical treatment.

The Boys are initially offered yearly contracts. They are then ‘retained’ or ‘released.’ At age 12 the contracts move to being two-yearly. At 16 boys become full-time ‘scholars,’ and are expected to move near to the club and lodge with landladies if they are from outside that area. The FA has a rule that 8-11 year olds have to live within 60 minutes’ travelling time of the training ground and 12-16-year olds within 90 minutes. At 17 the lucky ones sign a ‘professional’ contract, which means they can start earning money. Just how much is down to the club.

There is a push at present to see all 17 year olds put on the same salary to prevent clubs stock-piling talent and paying young men vast sums of money before they have achieved anything in the game. Liverpool great Steven Gerrard is one who is favour of such a move, which has a great deal of merit.

There are many who feel that the academy system has been detrimental to clubs as no longer are they community clubs with players coming from outlying areas. Now players come from far and wide. All they need is to have been spotted and have talent. However most fans, as much as they want the best players at their club will still take pride that they developed a player if he goes on to play at the highest level.

There are 9000 children that are part of the academy system in the UK and each season more than half are ‘released.’ Many having their dreams shattered. Yet football is business now, and for every child that doesn’t make it there will be another one to take their place.

Questions have been asked as to whether the clubs release too many children in every year group. Certainly it would appear to some that they do, and that this is proof that the system is not working. Yet with such a large pool from which to choose, many clubs take the attitude that the cream will rise to the top, so if a player has not shown their talent then its time to let them go and give another a chance.

Some claim that by signing a player and then releasing him the club is showing that they made a mistake. Another argument is that they may have signed the right player, but that the coaching was not good enough to develop him into the player that his potential said he could be. In truth there are so many other facets that are taken into account when making such a decision.

If 4500 young players are being released each year by English clubs it makes you realise how good the young Australian players are that make it in England. However the system there also shows that Australia has to re-visit its current set up for the development of young players.

It needs to increase the talent pool in the younger age groups to try and keep more young players involved in the game. It also needs to find a model where young players play for free up until a certain age. It can no longer be a case of youth football propping up the adult game. It must be the other way around.

If A-League clubs are to be the talent development centres of the future, then once again those selected should not have to pay a cent. These should be open to any talented player invited to be a part of the program; after all the A-League clubs will claim the Training Compensation Fee if the player moves overseas or to another club.

In addition A-League clubs and NPL clubs should all have scouts identifying talent rather than holding open trials. Players should be invited to trial with clubs after they have been identified as being of a required standard.

Sport should always be about the best players playing at the highest level. Never should it come down to race, colour, creed or worst of all money.

The Narrow Pathway

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