How to fix Australian football: Connecting the tiers
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Perth Glory celebrate AAP Image/Paul Miller
This has been an unprecedented pre-season for the A-League. Never before has the round-ball code generated so many headlines in the midst of the AFL and NRL seasons.
But take Alessandro Del Piero and other marquee player speculation out of the equation, and it would have been quite a barren off-season, which will last a total 166 days – almost half the year. Besart Berisha’s controversial penalty that handed Brisbane Roar back-to-back titles over Perth Glory in last season’s decider really does seem like a lifetime ago.
As the early seasons of the A-League proved, starting when the AFL and NRL seasons are wrapping up starves the A-League of any oxygen in such a competitive marketplace, so the October to April season is the best solution.
But without the A-League for half of the year, football fans only have the respective state leagues to follow domestically – state leagues that vary greatly in quality, reach and popularity. Underneath the A-League Australian football remains disjointed and messy.
Two key areas, therefore, need to be looked at: how to squeeze in more competitive football into the year and how to strengthen the second tier (the state leagues), in part by better connecting the A-League with the grassroots of the game.
Already Football Federation Australia’s National Competition Review has spurred on the impending birth of the Australian Premier League (APL), which will unite participating state leagues under the APL banner in order to improve playing and coaching levels across the country.
While the creation of the APL is the first step in a process to elongate the season and strengthen the second tier, scheduling is key to ensure its impact is maximised.
Here is how the football season should be structured:
April to September: Australian Premier League.
- State leagues united under the one banner, opening the door for cross-state competitive matches and the possibility of down the track creating a promotion and relegation system to a nationwide Australian Premier League.
- The Australian Premier League to operate separately from the A-League. While promotion and relegation to the A-League should not be considered (more on that later), the structure of the second tier nevertheless filters down to the grassroots and will allow for movement from lower tiers.
- Winter season allows for players to be groomed for National Youth League/A-League summer seasons.
- Delivers a stronger football product in the winter, with the APL banner helping the state leagues achieve better recognition and quality.
July to October: Pre-season FFA Cup.
- With promotion and relegation to and from the A-League and Australian Premier League not a realistic option, the FFA Cup is the means to unite the top and lower tiers of the game.
- Timing of the competition allows for semi-professional and amateur clubs to be in season at commencement, while also providing A-League clubs with meaningful and competitive pre-season matches. As opposed to their current pre-season of random friendlies, the FFA Cup will be a better structured alternative to allow for more traction to be gained heading into the A-League season.
- Format should follow England’s FA Cup example whereby top tier clubs enter in the later rounds. Those eliminated in the FFA Cup can complete their pre-seasons with friendlies, as they do now.
- Avoids the odd situation of running a knockout cup competition alongside a league that is decided on a knockout finals system (a key difference between the English Premier League and FA Cup, for example, and the A-League and FFA Cup) while also giving the A-League the clean air it needs over its regular season without the confusion of overlapping competitions involving A-League clubs.
- Extends the football season and will help promote the Australian Premier League as a winter alternative for A-League fans and vice versa, marrying the two in a transition period of the season.
October to April: A-League, W-League and National Youth League.
- The top tier operates separately with clean air over summer and no other pro football competition (FFA Cup) interfering.
- October start allows for a strong launch post-AFL and NRL seasons, while future expansion could be catered for with an extended season into May (the traditional concluding month of domestic football around the world).
- Promotion and relegation forbidden in order to protect A-League franchises, irrespective of pressure from the Asian Football Confederation. Damage would be too severe to franchises and league as a whole to integrate A-League into a wider promotion and relegation system with the Australian Premier League.
This structure undoubtedly has some drawbacks, but it achieves two key requirements: extends the football season and better unites the tiers.
This is the second in a five-part Solutions series running this week on The Roar. Our football experts will be answering this question: “If you were in charge of football in Australia, how would you fix the problems you see and make football a bigger professional code – and could this help the National Team? What are your Solutions to the big issues Australian football is facing?”
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Adrian Musolino is editor of V8X Magazine, and has written as an expert on The Roar since 2008, cementing himself as a key writer who can see the big picture in sport. He freelances on other forms of motorsport, football, cycling and more.