FFA’s commitment to Sydney’s west needs to be long-term

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Prime Minister Julia Gillard is presented a football by Football Federation Australia chief executive Ben Buckley. AAP Image/Paul Miller

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For the new Western Sydney football club to become the success that the FFA hope it will be, the governing body have to get one thing right, engagement.

Not only do they have to reach out to new and old fans alike, and touch them, but they have to love them, nurture them, give them a reason to draw a connection to the club, and then keep giving.

To paraphrase and re-engineer a famous John F Kennedy quote, this is not about what the FFA can get out of the western suburbs, but rather what they can give the western suburbs.

Not just now, or next season, but for the next 50 or 100 years.

The concept of engagement is not one the FFA have had a great deal of success with, to be frank.

Indeed, for the most part, they have left a trail of disenfranchised stakeholders across the land, from some former NSL supporters, to the folk of North Queensland and the Gold Coast, to those in Canberra, Wollongong, Tasmania and just about anywhere else you care to name.

Out there, among the football communities, there isn’t a great deal of goodwill left for an organisation that has struggled to make ends meet since the honeymoon period immediately post qualification for Germany 2006.

In many ways, the governing body is banking much on its latest project.

Which is why it’s imperative they find the right people to pull west Sydney together.

Those people not only need to be passionate and knowledgeable about the game, but they need to understand the people and the areas that make up the west.

From Campbelltown, Liverpool and Fairfield in the south, to Mount Druitt, St Marys, Blacktown and Penrith in the west, to Bankstown and Auburn in the inner west, to the Hills in the north, Sydney’s west is a sprawling mass of little boroughs, dotted and connected by a maze of M’s.

From the M5 that connects the south-east to Liverpool and Campbelltown, to the M4 that runs from the inner west in Concord to Penrith and beyond, to the M2 that runs through the north west, connecting the Hills region, Sydney’s west is vast.

As someone who was born and has lived, played and coached in western Sydney, and still does, I know just how fractured and wide the game spreads.

Each district, or association, is a world of its own.

Connecting the football people that line these suburbs, giving them a reason to get to Parramatta, Homebush, Campbelltown or Penrith every fortnight, remains the big challenge.

It will take a job perhaps bigger than the development of the M7, that road on the outskirts of Sydney that links the north-west with the south-west.

In most of those districts, from Cambelltown in the south, to Penrith in the west, to Parramatta in the central west, there remains a deep passion for the local brand of football, rugby league.

With free-to-air TV and saturation coverage in the biggest selling daily tabloid, where there are 12 rugby league journalists to football’s one, this only makes the job harder.

The FFA, in undertaking the project to get a western Sydney team into the competition by October, need to get out on these roads and touch every part of the west.

Not once. Forever.

It can’t be a simple tip-and-run. It has to be a deep relationship, built over time, full of give and take.

This is a discerning audience, many of whom know and understand the game. They can sniff out a “sell” or an inferior product from a mile away.

Particularly in the ethnic areas, among the South Americans, Croatians, Italians, Assyrians and Serbians of Fairfield, or the Turks in and around Auburn, folks that arrived here with the game already in the heart, the quality of the football is likely to mean much.

But in a crowded entertainment market, with much competition for the weekend spend, including from rugby league, it’s more than just the football that will help engage.

In Bossley Park, for example, an area with a shifting demographic, full of younger families, with English now the dominant language at home, providing the family with affordable entertainment, and getting them away from other commitments, remains the key.

Getting the “soccer mums” on board would help in a big way.

Whereas the NSL appealed to the first generation of post war immigrants, and mainly the men, who had little else, now their sons and daughters are married, with children, a busy social life, and choices.

Which is why any form of engagement has to be real and involve good people, on the ground, able to relate to the world out west.

Engagement isn’t as simply as setting up a Twitter or Facebook account, tools some across the west are unlikely to have used.

Indeed, a large percentage of the players I’ve played with, across various associations, and even in the state leagues, have combined their football with work on a construction site.

For some, computers just aren’t a part of their daily routine. A cut-price digital marketing push is unlikely to resonate.

Nor will sticking players exclusively in Westfield’s five western suburbs centres do the job.

That would exclude such key areas as Bossley Park, Bankstown, Castle Hill and Campbelltown, where the Frank Lowy empire doesn’t reign.

This is not a time to cross-sell. Frankly, the punters are sick of those games.

The coming months are a time to get the players out to every shopping centre, school, football club and association.

It’s a time to make sure players aren’t wasting valuable engagement time beating each other up on Playstation.

It’s a time to make sure every young registered player, be they from the Southern Districts, Granville, Blacktown, Bankstown, Nepean, Macarthur or Churches associations, has a free pass to attend.

When I hear from a friend who is assistant principal at a Islamic high school in Auburn, or from another friend who is a PE teacher at a public high school in Greystanes (the same school Joel Chianese went through), or my wife, who teaches at a Catholic primary school in Bossley Park, that the players have visited, then we’ll know they’re on the way to engaging properly.

When the players start visiting the many clubs, big and small, ethnic or otherwise, that make up the above-mentioned associations, then we’ll know they’re on the right track.

When the FFA runs free football clinics, along with the other codes, as part of Sydney Olympic Park’s school holidays program, then we’ll know they’re building a community.

When the western Sydney club sends its players to Stocklands in Merrylands and Bossley Park, we’ll know they care beyond the commercial arrangements with Westfield.

When the FFA encourages families to attend games by coming up with the most affordable pricing structure in the market, and sustaining it, then you know they truly care about the people of the west.

Sydney FC, in the first season, did give people an incentive to attend, often promoting discounted tickets in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Then, in the second season, with the club in debt, Lowy tightened things.

As an exercise in engagement it was a disaster, burning the very people the club had worked so hard to attract in the first place.

Lowy and his FFA need to show they have learnt the lessons.

This is a long term commitment, and the FFA must show the stomach and support to see it through.

The news that they will hold their first fan engagement forum out at Mounties in Mt Pritchard on Thursday night is just the start of this massive project.

Over the coming months and years, the FFA needs to replicate this a thousand times over, leaving no stone unturned.

Anything less would be a complete sell out to the west, and the game can ill-afford that.

This is my 200th column for The Roar since publishing my first almost three years ago, and I just wanted to take the opportunity thank you all for your ongoing interest and contributions to the football discourse down under.

Follow Tony on Twitter @TonyTannousTRBA
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