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Promoting the National Premier Leagues makes more sense than A-League expansion

The FFA Cup presents a great opportunity to bring together football fans. (AAP Image/Jane Dempster)
Roar Guru
9th March, 2015
31
1102 Reads

The FFA are promoting and developing a sound strategy for the second tier of football, one that makes more sense than A-League expansion – for now.

I got my first taste of the second tier, now in its third season, at the Brisbane derby between Brisbane City and Brisbane Strikers at Spencer Park on Friday night.

Coming from a steady diet of lower league football in England, I was interested in exploring the football pyramid in Australia.

As such, the newly branded PS4 National Premier League (NPL) looks to be a sure way to establish a viable multi-tiered level of competition in this country.

But first, a short history lesson – and an illustration as to how long it takes to create an extensive, viable, nationwide football pyramid from a selection of disparate regional leagues.

The English Football League, formed in 1888, was one of a number of national leagues that tried to form in the late 1880s, and consisted of 12 clubs from the Midlands and the North. This was increased to two divisions in 1892, when a rival national league (The Football Alliance) was absorbed.

The league gradually expanded over the course of time, absorbing teams from regional leagues until each division consisted of 22 teams after World War One.

In 1920, the Southern League was added to the National Football League – forming the Division 3 South. Additional teams from the north were admitted to form the Division 3 North. This regionalisation of the lower divisions did not end until 1958, when there were a grand total of 92 clubs in the Football League. This number has remained the same until today.

Below the professional national leagues there are a further seven tiers of competition, headed by the Conference Premier – the lowest nationwide level of the football pyramid which was formed in 1979, unifying the Southern and Northern Leagues. Direct relegation between these leagues into the Football League first happened in 1987.

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Below the Conference Premier, the leagues are split into increasingly regional divisions, mostly for financial and practicality reasons – and this is the model that the FFA are trying to adopt.

Splitting the NPL into eight regional divisions – the winner going through to national play-offs – makes each league more affordable to run and makes it easier to plant roots in the sporting landscape.

Although the NPL Queensland is a ‘closed-shop’, five of the eight regional NPL divisions do have a promotion and relegation systems in place to the leagues below them. These are the first shoots of an integrated pyramid system.

Fans may see this as a step in the direction to where we could eventually reach a situation that leads to promotion and relegation from the A-League. But let us not get ahead of ourselves.

The FFA’s launch of the NPL for this season has been backed by a strong social media strategy and presence, utilising Twitter and Facebook to target the younger demographics.

In the NPL Queensland, a great effort has gone into marrying historic teams with new franchises in regional areas. This helps to create an environment whereby the competition is truly national, a concession to both reformists and traditionalists.

And with strong football and a local team to get behind, there is no reason why this market will not grow. With exciting matches taking place in smaller suburban grounds right on people’s doorsteps, there is no reason these leagues couldn’t gain traction in the sporting community.

The game I attended on Friday was as frenetic and engaging as you would expect from a derby, resulting in a 2-1 victory to the visitors. Two somewhat scrappy goals gave the Strikers a come-from-behind win after City’s Kai Smith opened the scoring for the home side in the second half.

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Promisingly, there was a decent sized crowd of around 1,000 in attendance as well – with a large number of younger fans despite the late 8pm start. And it doesn’t take a leap of imagination to see the potential in the league.

So where does this fit in with the A-League?

One day the aim would be to create a system of promotion and relegation between the NPL and the A-League.

The biggest difficulty this system would face is one that has shaped Australian sport – the extraordinary distances between urban centres and subsequent costs in transporting players and staff around the country are incredibly prohibitive.

Promotion and relegation would be entirely more feasible if a nationwide NPL were to be created after a few seasons of this regional model – providing the support (and more importantly money) is there.

But Australia is not alone in facing these issues. Brazil’s Campeonato Brasileiro (national club competition) in 1959, almost 60 years after state leagues like the Campeonato Carioca (1906) and Campeonato Paulista (1902) were established.

The point I’m trying to make is that these things take time.

The geographical spread of teams increases the problems. Unlike in England, where teams in the Midlands like Walsall or Mansfield could be shuffled between the Division Three North and South without too many problems, finding space for a Brisbane team in the Western NPL conference should a Perth-based team win promotion, for example, would cause administrators more headaches than a cocaine scandal.

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Maintaining and enhancing the regional NPL leagues as the top level below the A-League will – for the time being – be the best thing for Australian football, along with some trans-league interaction through the FFA Cup.

So until a two-tier system is viable, get your weekly football fix at your local NPL club. Take the kids, enjoy the game, and rest happy in the fact that you are helping secure the roots for an expanded game in this country.

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