In Episode 3 of the Soccer Doctors podcast Andy Harper floated an idea that private schools should step up and invest in licenses to join the SAP/NPL system. At first glance this idea has some merit.
Although I live in Canberra, I grew up in Sydney and went to a private school, so I feel some familiarity with a sector of the football community that is probably under-utilised in the development of football talent.
It’s well known that the private school system is the most important part of Sydney’s rugby union ecosystem, having far more high-school age teams than the struggling club system. Joey’s alone has ten open-age rugby teams this year, while only six club teams competed in that age group across the entire city last year. For better or worse, schools are the key pathway to professional rugby.
Football also has a strong presence judging by the money involved and the pedigree of coaches hired at GPS, CAS and ISA schools. Former professional players and coaches pop up as directors of football.
There are playing tours to Europe (Newington) and South America (Knox) to give young boys a taste of the big time. The schools demonstrate some genuine ambition for football, not unlike what they show for rugby.
It varies from school to school depending on which code is more popular with the student population. Further, schools like Barker, Knox, Waverley, Riverview and Kings have old boys football clubs playing in the district associations, so clearly these schools generate a love for the game as well as anywhere in the country.
But unlike rugby, football has a massive and robust club system for teenaged players at the amateur district association level, the four divisions of the NSW NPL and the relatively new academies at the A-League clubs.
There has long been an unsettled debate about whether clubs or schools are better at talent development. Some of the most productive football factories in Sydney are the sports high schools at Westfields, Hills, Endeavour and the rest.
So is there actually room for the private schools to step up a level like Andy Harper suggests? Is there anything they could provide in terms of off-field education that might enhance the ability of elite talent to forge a career in the game?
I’m not sure many of them would step up under current circumstances. For starters, they’d need to make football a year-round sport to match the volume of training that others already provide. Some of the schools have policies to promote multi-sport participation, instead of specialisation.
So are we missing an opportunity by not encouraging capable schools of aiming higher, or are we better off with the status quo? Personally, I’m not sure, and my perspective is limited to NSW and the ACT. There’s probably different circumstances around the country.
As a final thought, Andy Harper wasn’t quite right about the absence of schools in the semi-pro system. There is one school that has picked up an NPL license and is playing its best teams at a higher level.
Canberra’s Radford College has four teams playing in the NPL2 Youth under Capital Football’s umbrella. Although they’re not a famous sporting school, it will be worth keeping an eye on their results this season.