The new year is well under way and football fans have a great deal to look forward to with a World Cup in Brazil. Closer to home they have the new National Premier Leagues to look forward to. A competition that is going to link the top semi-professional leagues around the country.
It is important to remember why this league has come about, it has been forced upon the game in Australia because those running the game at the time Australia was bidding to be accepted into the Asian Football Confederation promised a second tier competition to the A-League by 2013. Hence the unwillingness to listen to the concerns of clubs around the country and the “we’ll adapt as we go approach.” Building something on shifting sands is never a wise decision.
It is interesting to note that the NPL should come into being in 2014, the same year that the Australian Rugby Union will be launching the National Rugby Championship. Although created for very differing reasons, both sports realise that the second tier competition is lacking and that without it the elite teams suffer.
Let us go back to the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Australia was on top of the world in sport, maybe not in football just yet but that was just around the corner. Sports science was the buzz word and anyone that worked in the field in Australia was much in demand as the rest of the world clamoured to match a nation that punched well above its weight.
Australia looked to keep one step ahead of the rest of the world as key personnel headed overseas and started running international programs for other nations. One of the innovations was to hive off talented youngsters and keep them in a controlled environment, control their training, eating habits and game time, the idea being that at the end a supremely fine tuned athlete would emerge. Very similar to some Eastern Bloc regimes just without the steroids. Many of these selected athletes were not to perform with the clubs from which they had been plucked, as the fear was if they played amongst lesser talented individuals their standard would drop back to theirs.
The major downside of these controlled environments, apart from some young players getting ahead of themselves, is that you are unable to gauge how the finely tuned athlete will perform when the chips are down, or in a an overly physical environment. Do they have the inner strength the physical toughness, not just the muscle, to get the team across the line.
It was baseball coach Yogi Berra who coined the phrase ‘Baseball is 90% mental the other half is physical.’ With time the word ‘baseball’ was replaced by the word ‘sport.’ The funny thing is that 90% of coaches along with their athletes spend 100 percent of their time working on the physical and tactical sides of their sport. The reason being that mental edge cannot be taught. Some people have it, some people don’t and it has nothing to do with lifestyles.
In the era mentioned, when Australia was at the top in rugby union and cricket, players played for their clubs, if they were lucky they were picked for their state side. They were not guaranteed a long term place in the side, they had to perform on a regular basis in order to earn that right. If they couldn’t cut it they were back playing with their clubs. What is more important in both of these sports when there were no test matches international players would be playing at their clubs, that in turn helped aspiring players learn what was required to make it to the next level. Nowadays in cricket they hardly ever play for their states teams let alone their clubs.
The problem with the academy system is you have as a club committed to a player, you may be able to create this magnificent specimen of an athlete, -as this is how all sports people are classed now – but how do you know that athlete can perform? The only way is to throw them in the mix, but then many coaches are loathe to do that at the highest level because their job could be on the line if the athlete fails and the team loses.
Australian rugby has realised this predicament, and that is why they have created the National Rugby Championship. This will give those fringe players, as well as the academy players a chance to show what they can do in a real game situation, without harming the integrity of the Super 15 sides.
Australia were superb in this Summer’s Ashes but that victory covered over a great number of cracks in the game and the talent pool. One of the things that the rest of the world admired about Australian cricket of yesteryear was how they seemed able to pluck players at random from the Sheffield Shield competition and these players were able to perform at Test level. That is no longer the case.
Football has to accept that with the dawn of the professional era in Australia, the gulf between the A-League and the new NPL players is widening. It is already bigger than it has ever been. Ex Socceroo and A-League coach John Kosmina spoke out about this in 2011, and stated that the FFA needed to invest money at this level. The NPL will see negligible investment from the FFA. The points system is also going to be detrimental to the development of quality players capable of making that step up to the next level; the players points system penalises players as they get older, as they are worth more points and teams can only field a side with a set number of points.
The points system is a protectionist move to ensure that the young players who they have had in their development programs – and in some cases whose parents have spent thousands of dollars in the hope that their son will make it to the big time – get to play senior football. The State League competition, or NPL as it is now, is not and never should be a development league! If you turn this competition into a development league you will end up starving the A-League of genuine talent. That is unless you want the A-League to be a development league for overseas clubs?
As rugby has realised the second tier needs to be highly competitive and in that environment the cream will rise to the surface. One problem Football faces, being governed by FIFA rules, is getting around how fringe A-League players on full professional contracts can compete in a separate competition, run by a different body without terminating those contracts. FIFA have advised Not The Footy Show previously that there is no such thing as dual registration, so that is not an option.
There is no doubt that Football needs an improved second tier competition and to have it linked nationally is definitely a great move, however as touched on before, geography and costs should not play such a big part in the play-off series to decide who Australia’s champions will be. By bowing to these influences you are tampering with the integrity of the competition as well as hampering the natural evolution of teams and players. Essentially by giving in to such constraints the FFA opens itself up for accusations of skewing the competition in order to get what they want out of it.
Respected Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger several years ago threw down a challenge to any coach who could identify a 13 year old and guarantee that they would play at the highest level when they reached adulthood. There are too many variables to be able to guarantee such things, yet the FFA and its development pathway seem hellbent on proving the likes of Wenger wrong.
Skill and preparation will get a player so far, as rugby has discovered. However the reality is that sport is 100% mental, a player’s thoughts influence his actions, and then those actions influence their thoughts. Ultimately it is in most cases the mental side that separates successful athletes from those who do not reach their full potential. The cold reality is unless you place an athlete in a real competitive environment you will never find out how good he is and whether he can cut the mustard.
Two sports taking very different approaches to underpinning their top competition, it will be interesting to compare rugby and football’s development over the next few years and how the Super 15 franchises and the A-League Franchises compare in terms of onfield performance and standards. As for Cricket, let us see which path they chose to go down in the future for Australia will no doubt have to re-visit the way it is doing things away from the Big Bash League.