Second tier the ticket to football’s future success

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Former chief executive of the Australian Rugby League Commission David Gallop. AAP Image/Dean Lewins

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Today could well be remembered as one of the most important days in recent Australian football history.

David Gallop will this morning make a “significant announcement” regarding the outcomes of the recent National Competition Review, which set out to clean up all of Australia’s state leagues.

The fact that the FFA CEO is going to be the face of this announcement means it is a big one – and a big one has been in the pipeline for a while.

We can safely assume what it is.

The ‘Australian Premier League’ project has been going on quietly behind the scenes for some time now – most prominently in Queensland, the state which has effectively served as a test case.

The idea is to have a new APL division in each state to replace the current leagues that hitherto have differed wildly in terms of quality in all senses – coaching, administration, facilities, governance and of course, the football itself.

It might not even be called the Australian Premier League – the grapevine suggests securing the rights to this name has been a tougher task than what the FFA had anticipated.

But the name is not important. It is only window-dressing for a set of nationwide reforms that will give football the kind of underpinning that the AFL and NRL both enjoy, but the round ball game never has.

All states will come under the new banner by 2014, starting with Queensland, South Australia, the ACT, New South Wales and Tasmania this year.

The only reason why Victoria, Western Australia and northern NSW are 12 months behind is because of existing sponsorship arrangements, which will soon expire.

When the curtain was last peeled back on the outcomes of the NCR back in October last year, Football Queensland told reporters – including this one – that a national naming rights sponsor was on the way and that the FFA would play a major hand in upping the publicity surrounding state-level football.

That was at the launch of the APL’s Queensland conference, when FQ chief Geoff Foster turned what was a good news story into a confusing one by claiming FFA was under enormous pressure from the Asian Football Confederation to create a national second division with promotion and relegation by 2022.

Is the whole APL/NCR thing a step towards that? Probably, eventually. But that’s a long ways down a road that needs to be walked very carefully – and it’s not even close to the most exciting thing about all this.

For me, it’s going to do two things that have been desperately needed for years – to bring the proud old NSL sides back into the ‘new football’ fold, and to create a genuine pathway below the A-League for players, coaches and even future expansion bids.

It’s huge. Using Queensland – my beloved adopted state – as an example, former NSL clubs like the Brisbane Strikers will be pitted against former A-League clubs like Northern Fury and A-League aspirants Sunshine Coast Fire.

In NSW there’s Marconi and Sydney Olympic, in Victoria there’s South Melbourne and the Knights.

All of these clubs, past, present and future, in each and every state, will see their paths intersect in an annual play-off cup between each state champion.

What intrigue, what drama. They can relive past rivalries on a brand new stage or build fresh dynasties as they’re embraced as part of a broader national strategy.

Then, the players. Of course, this is primarily for them – these higher-level competitions are being introduced to increase the opportunities for elite young players to play senior, first-team football.

They will all be guided by better coaches – perhaps ones keen to climb up to the A-League like Marconi’s Jean Paul de Marigny or new gaffers just starting out like the recently-retired Kasey Wehrman at the Western Pride in Ipswich, just outside of Brisbane.

This is the level for them to earn their stripes, in a competition where new minimum standards will be set for coaches for the first time ever.

The cherry on top is the fact that in the winter time, we’re going to have some football that at long last will be in some sort of national context.

Eventually the FFA Cup will arrive. For now, though, Australian football gets the structure below the surface it has needed.

It’s been a long time coming.

Vince Rugari is an Adelaide-born journalist who cut his teeth on the sporting graveyard of the Gold Coast. He fancies the round ball and the Sherrin, and used to be a handy leg-spin bowler before injury curtailed a baggy green push. A Port Adelaide fan by birth, he now is a sports reporter for The Cairns Post.
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