Somewhat overlooked among the announcements regarding Silver Lake’s $130 million investment in the Australian Professional Leagues were two proclamations with far-reaching ramifications regarding competition structures for Australia’s national leagues.
Indeed these changes will create the conditions for developing multiple golden generations of Australian footballers.
I have previously argued that we need to redesign our competition structures to maximise player development and provide opportunities for second-tier clubs to play more games that mean something for their fans.
Much of the reasoning about enhancing player development was informed by work done by the players union, Professional Footballers Australia. In its research document Pathway Study it showed the clear link between declining national team results and player quality that resulted from decreased availability of playing time to young Australian players after the NSL ended.
John Didulica, the then CEO of PFA, noted that for young footballers “the link between the volume of match minutes between 18 to 21 and a successful career is profound. We need to create opportunities for players to blossom in those key developmental years to increase our chances of being consistently successful at an international level and to increase the value of our players in the global market.”
The same root problem was identified by Football Australia in its more recent Performance Gap study. The conclusion from both reports is clear.
Young Australian footballers just don’t play enough competitive football when it matters most.
To put it in cooking terms, Australia’s system for developing football talent is like a kitchen that uses some good ingredients and has a few decent chefs but puts its dishes into an oven that is not hot enough and for not nearly long enough. No matter how much innate talent they may have, our players are almost always undercooked compared to their international peers. We need a stronger oven. The system needs to change.
The Performance Gap report is worth reading in its entirety if you’re interested in the underlying causes for why our national teams have underperformed for so long. The problem can’t just be sheeted home to one coach, or our performance in one tournament; we have a systemic problem that requires a systemic solution.
Fortunately the APL and Football Australia are working to remedy this in a very big way. The solution is as obvious as it has been difficult to achieve in the past: more and better games for young players.
The NSL-era National Youth League was a productive league that saw the likes of the AIS teams and a teenage Mark Viduka, among other members of the golden generation, cut their teeth against the very best teenagers in the country. But the NYL was replaced with the Y-League, a sadly neglected competition during the Frank Lowy-era that was slowly reduced down to a very short summer tournament. It’s now in complete hiatus due to COVID, so borderline A-League-talented teenagers are only playing the too-short winter NPL season – not a great development pathway as it stands.
Fortunately something like the NYL will be re-established. APL CEO Danny Townsend advised the Sydney Morning Herald that one of the items that the Silver Lake capital injection will be spent on will be the rejuvenation of the A-Leagues Youth set-up. It is very heartening news to see such a critical development pathway brought back into operation.
Just as important, and for very similar reasons, will be the establishment of the national second division. Football Australia CEO James Johnson has already hinted that FA’s share of the Silver Lake cash will be used as seed money to get the NSD off the ground.
My personal view is that the NSD will have most of the look and feel of the NSL. Most of the clubs will overlap, there’ll be similarly sized crowds and we can expect a talent mix of ambitious youth and professionals at the tail ends of the careers. It won’t be a bad place for young players to get used to the cut and thrust of national league football.
For each individual footballer there will be far greater opportunities available to get competitive football minutes under their belts. And we won’t be as likely to see a player like Cristian Volpato slip through the cracks in the future either.
The addition of the NSD and a full-season NYL will require professional implementation and shouldn’t be rushed. I’m as impatient as anyone to get these leagues off the ground, but doing it right, doing it well, requires intelligent preparation. Measure twice, cut once, as carpenters say.
I was initially sceptical about selling part of the future of the national leagues to a private equity firm. There are good reasons to dislike the idea of the game’s revenue being siphoned off by a third party. But the capital they are injecting into the sport up front will allow us to break the cycle of neglect in player development.
With the new structures in place we have great reason to be optimistic about the future of Australian football.