A-League top bosses contemplate disruption to season

A-League bosses have spoken about the implications of more disruption for the 2021-22 season, with over half the Australian population currently under lockdown or restrictions.

The English Premier League returned last weekend with packed stadiums full of ecstatic fans, for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic made it impossible for supporters to attend.

Those pictures are a far cry from the current sporting climate in Australia. Across the East Coast, professional sporting games are being played behind closed doors, while the 2021 State League in New South Wales was abandoned last week.

Games during the 2020-21 season were played with reduced capacity for spectators, depending on government restrictions.

10 weeks out from the start of the 2021-22 season, the intersection of politics, health and sport will continue to decide whether the season can kick off without disruption.

Danny Townsend, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Sydney FC and Australian Professional Leagues (APL), believes that the APL has learned from running the A-League through the COVID pandemic.

“You’ve got to plan for everything. What we’ve learned from COVID so far is that you have to be nimble and make plans A, B, C, D, and E. So we will plan for all sorts of different outcomes,” he said.

Perth Glory FC CEO Tony Pignata is one of many in the role who have plenty of time to consider what is ahead until the new A-League season begins, despite the uncertainty.

“October 30 is the start of the season. You look at today, Melbourne has gone into curfew, Canberra has cases, Northern Territory has cases. So it’s not ideal or where we like to be,” he said.

“If the government is pushing vaccinations hopefully by then restrictions are easing a little bit and borders are opening.”

Perth Glory was able to play most of their home games of the 2020-21 season in front of their fans, albeit at a reduced capacity. They still felt the impacts through reduced income from members and sponsorship.

Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan last week signalled that the state’s border would stay shut until Australia reached at least 70% vaccination rate, and the state may remain closed off depending on the situation around the country.

Pignata is focusing on preparing for the season, despite these potential roadblocks.

“I’m not exactly sure what our premier said, I know he did say that even if we get to a certain percentage (of vaccination) and there were cases over there he would consider closing the borders still,” he said.

“But for now we are just focusing on getting the squad training, getting fit, and working through the fixtures. That’s what we are doing at the moment.”

Townsend explains the APL are watching the actions of state government closely, as they prepare for the A-League season to kick off on the October 30.

“We need to get clear on what the various states are doing and what their plans are. New South Wales has made its position on what it’s doing pretty clear, and as we get more clarity on the other states we will know what we are dealing with,” Townsend said.

“I still think you can’t sit and wait, you need to start scenario planning, which is what we are doing.”

A large part of the previous A-League season was played in the ‘hub’ format, with clubs based in New South Wales, away from their home grounds.

Both Pignata and Townsend agree there would be an impact on clubs if this were to happen again.

“Not only for the players, who are away from their families for so long, but also the financial impact on clubs, with memberships, corporate hospitality. All clubs had a massive financial hit last year, and it would disastrous if that happened again,” Pignata said.

“It’s not disastrous, but it isn’t ideal. Once again you have to think of ways to get the competition started and moving, and we will do whatever we have to do. But also we have a long way to go, we are still 2 and half months away from our first game, and what we’ve learned is a hell of a lot of changes in 2 and half months,” Townsend said.

“It would be premature for us to try to predict what we are going to do now, and irresponsible for us to do that publicly before we know what we are dealing with. We will continue to monitor the situation and plan accordingly.”

Pignata adds the clubs have yet to discuss any alternative plans for the beginning of the A-League season.

“It’s something that I supposed we will need to look at, but we haven’t had any of those discussions at club level yet,” he said.

A key metric for crowds to be present at games is the uptake in vaccination in Australia, according to Townsend.

“If we can get to a point where we’ve got vaccinations to the level where at least in New South Wales you can start to bring crowds back into stadiums, that’ll be a good thing for us,” he said.

“We will see, we live in interesting times.”

Player sentiment up, average age down: PFA releases annual report

Sentiment is well and truly up for A-League players, according to the annual Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) report.

This time last year, only 33% of A-League players felt confident about the direction of their football careers.

According to the PFA’s latest annual report, that number is now 56%.

Of the A-League’s 312 players, 200 responded to the 2020/21 A-League survey, capturing 70% of the current cohort, with the results proving that even despite the ongoing turbulence and uncertainty of COVID-19, the majority of players feel much more confident about their futures within the game.

The report highlights that Australian players actively want to remain in the A-League, as opposed to seeking opportunities overseas.

The key numbers that demonstrate this include:

  • 55% of players said they would like to stay playing in the A-League next season, up from 45% last year.
  • 56% of players are confident about the direction of their football careers, compared to 33% in 2019/20.
  • Only 4% of players would move to an overseas league even if it was for similar money and/or playing standard.
  • Only 16% of players who would prefer to move to an overseas league would only do so if the money and standards were better.

Other highlights of the report include that the average A-League player is getting younger.

Over the last 14 years, the average age of the A-League player has consistently trended upwards.

In 2020/21, however, this changed and the average age trended downwards, dropping from 27.6 to 25.1.

The number of players utilised in the A-League who were aged 21 and under came in at 107, representing 35% of the 300 players who received A-League minutes during the 2020/21 season.

The youngest squads on average belonged to Central Coast Mariners and Adelaide United, with average ages of 23.6 and 23.9 years respectively.

Another highlight was the fact that of the league’s 312 contracted players, 300 received A-League minutes.

“These reports have been immensely valuable, helping the PFA and the players better understand the industry in which they are employed, monitor the application of high-performance standards, assess technical progress and survey the players’ experience,” PFA Co-Chief Executive Beau Busch said of the report.

“For the last five years, we have been able to utilise these reports to formulate evidence-based positions to improve the environments in which our members work through collective bargaining.

“Promisingly, after a period of significant uncertainty, the players have indicated that they are more confident in the direction of their careers and the future of the competition than this time last year, signifying a positive shift in the perception of the A-League.”

The report also highlights the fact that A-League attendances were the lowest ever in the competition, thanks in large part to COVID-19, with an average attendance of 5,660.

Foreign players in the league reduced by 12 to a total of 51, whilst the average salary in the A-League is $136,791.

Access the full report HERE.

Jamie Harnwell driving the game forward in Western Australia

Jamie Harnwell is Perth Glory’s record appearance holder, with 256 games across three decades. Now Chief Football Officer for Football West, he spoke to Soccerscene about the changes from the NSL to the A-League, the challenges of running a football federation, and his favourite footballing moments throughout his career.

So firstly, what’s the biggest challenges facing Football West at the moment?

Harnwell: I think it’s interesting. Football West is in a really good position, being very fortunate with COVID over here and able to get out and play. The challenges are more for our clubs I suppose, and then Football West supporting them. Facilities are always a challenge for every sport, but certainly for football. We need to make sure there are enough grounds and space for people to play, but also aspects like lighting, adequate change rooms, and those sorts of things are suitable for clubs. We have a number of them almost putting up the closed sign because they have too many players and not enough space for them to play.

The other challenge for Football West and the clubs is the increase in governance requirements. We are basically a volunteer sport in many ways. And the increasing legalities and issues across that for volunteers to deal with can be difficult. So it’s time that we at Football West need to be able to support our clubs, make sure they’re adhering to good practice, and doing the right things so that they can continue to grow.

How has professional football in Australia improved since you first debuted with Perth Glory in the late 90s?

Harnwell: I think it’s actually professional football now. You know when I first started playing, I think there was ourselves and maybe Carlton who were actual full-time professional clubs. The rest were part-time as people were still working during the day, going to training at night, and trying to juggle the two. So certainly the transition into the A-League and full-time professionalism for all clubs has been huge, and just the continued increased coverage and media around the game has made us much more accessible. It’s easier to see and has a much better chance of building that supporter base across the game here in Australia.

What areas do you think the game can continue to improve on going forward into the future?

Harnwell: There’s always talent development and making sure that we stay on pace with best practices and what’s happening in other parts of the world. We are a smaller nation in the grand scheme of things in football, so we need to be smart about how we approach those sorts of things and make sure we get bang for our buck for everything that we do. The other thing is we need to try and increase the commercialism of the game and make sure that we continue to get funds into the game that can assist in the youth development that can help in costs for clubs and all those types of things. So that’s the way I know Football Australia is working hard on it. They’re starting to bring more and more partners into the game. But if you look at the mega machines like AFL, then we probably still have some way to go in that.

How can football win across young athletes into joining the sport over others?

I think we’re really lucky as a game. I can’t speak for other states, I suppose – but the numbers here at Football West in Western Australia just continue to grow year in year out. We are a very attractive game for parents to pick for young boys and girls. It’s a very easy game to choose and very easy to play and train. So we’re certainly well-positioned in that respect – making sure that our clubs provide positive environments that they enjoy what they do. There isn’t the overarching focus on just winning games, but more a longer-term development based approach that will make sure talented young players will stay in football rather than going across to other codes.

On a personal level, what is your most memorable footballing memory?

Harnwell: There’s probably a few, I suppose for myself as a player – it would have been the first NSL Championship that we won. We’d had a couple of cracks at it before and sort of fell away in the Grand Final. So that first win in 2003 was huge, and really got the monkey off our back, and managing to score in that game with the massive crowd was fantastic. But I’m also a Manchester United fan, so the treble was pretty good as well. So I don’t know which one ranks better for me!

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