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Australian NPL clubs persevere through COVID restrictions

The Covid-19 pandemic has put an immense strain on football clubs worldwide, and Australia is no exception. From stop-start seasons, stifling player development, and putting clubs under financial stress, local clubs have faced some of their biggest challenges.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put an immense strain on football clubs worldwide, and Australia is no exception. From stop-start seasons, stifled player development, and clubs being put under financial stress, National Premier League (NPL) clubs have faced some of their biggest challenges.

Bentleigh Greens are one of many clubs hit by lockdowns and postponements, as they have seen the second NPL Victoria season in a row disrupted by the pandemic. Bentleigh Greens President Trifon Rellos has seen his team heavily affected by this.

“Financially game takings are gone, canteens are gone. Now with the junior programs, we have with the mini roos and NPL kids we don’t know the parents are going to ask for, whether they want their money back,” he said.

“The impact has been massive, but not just financially.”

Not every club and league has been heavily impacted. Edgeworth Eagles Football Director and Treasurer, Warren Mills, explains that the Further Northern New South Wales region has managed to avoid the worst of the pandemic.

“Newcastle has been a lot less impacted than others. Last year was pretty horrendous obviously, we started later but we managed to get in a competition, playing our competition plus finals,” he said.

“This year we’ve got two rounds to go. To be fair we’ve been much luckier than others.”

In contrast with other clubs in New South Wales and Victoria, Warren believes that the amateur status of the Newcastle clubs has helped weather financial strain.

“Financially it hasn’t been a massive drain on us. We are more amateur than Sydney or Melbourne, in terms of wages paid out. Its smashed those clubs a lot more.” he said.

The season will be completed once restrictions in the Hunter region are eased, with one advantage they have over other areas being that they rarely share grounds with summer sports.

“I don’t think there is anybody who doesn’t have their own ground in Newcastle,” he said.

“We have the potential to host the grand final this year, and we’ve just got a new 1.1 million dollar clubhouse. Newcastle is very lucky that way.”

Football Victoria recently agreed to a ground-sharing agreement with Cricket Victoria, in an attempt to alleviate this issue if the season is restarted.

For regional NPL clubs in Victoria, they have been in and out of lockdown more than anywhere in the country. For the Goulburn Valley Suns, their season has been disrupted by not only state-wide lockdowns, but also a major outbreak within the city of Shepparton.

Goulburn Valley head coach Craig Carley believes that players at the club are uniting together through the hardship.

“We don’t know what’s going on at the moment, but we need to try to tick over. Previously we were able to do that as a team because the metropolitan area was in lockdown, the last couple of weeks it’s been individual training,” he said.

“We’ve got players posting times on runs and activities that they are doing. It’s been good from a team point of view with players pushing each other and staying connected, even though everyone is in lockdown. The longer that goes on the hard that is going to get.”

Rellos fears that these disruptions could cause setbacks for some of the most talented players at Bentleigh Greens.

“It’s a sad situation that we are in for our children, and our young senior soccer players. We need to remember that the boys that are playing under 16s and 18s and talented, and they are just about to break into that senior team,” he said.

“I think this year is worse than last year. Those boys and their careers have been cut short by coronavirus. These kids need to break into the senior team, god knows if they will. Some might lose interest and not come back as football players.”

For others, they can only appreciate that their seasons and clubs have only had minor disruptions.

“In Newcastle, we’ve been so blessed. I don’t know how we’ve hardly had a case while we are so close to Sydney. It hasn’t the impact on us that a lot of areas have.” Warren said.

Every state has had different challenges they have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. For NPL clubs in New South Wales and Victoria, some are facing the biggest in their history. Most are looking forward to next season, hoping for the light at the end of the tunnel following these hard times.

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?

Harnwell:
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!

$1.5 million in fee relief provided to Football NSW Associations and Clubs

Football NSW

To help consolidate losses related to the premature cancellation of the 2021 Winter Football season due to COVID-19, Football NSW has announced $1.5 million in fee relief for its Associations and Clubs.

The Football NSW Board identified the need to provide support to its Associations and Clubs to ensure their ongoing solvency and assist them through these challenging times.

And in spite of the difficult circumstances for all stakeholders involved in the game, Football NSW CEO Stuart Hodge credited the strength of football in coming through previous Covid-enforced lockdowns.

“As we have stated previously, our player numbers can only continue to grow, and football can only remain the most popular participant sport in NSW, if there is sustained financial viability at each tier of the game,” Hodge said.

“The sustainability of a healthy Association and Club framework is fundamental to our continued development and maintaining our capacity to progress and achieve our lofty ambitions.

“With this in mind, and on the recommendation of management, the Board resolved to provide a discount on the Football NSW Capitation Fee for the 2021 Winter season.

Hodge acknowledged the hardworking efforts of each of the Associations and Clubs who have been resilient in the face of the COVID-affected season.

“I want to acknowledge the dedication of our volunteers, administrators, players, referees and coaches that enabled us to still deliver part of a football season,” he said.

“Once again, the Football NSW community has come together to support each other and keep our participants and their families safe, something I feel that’s been truly inspiring.

“Football is a vital part of the lives of our players and other participants, but also vital to our communities.

“Thank you all for your work to keep things going through this period of disruption.”

Football in NSW played a leading role in ensuring the community, and sport as a whole, did their bit in fast tracking a return to sport via the recent NSW Health initiative, ‘Super Sport Sunday’.

“Our collective commitment to a safer community was evident in our recent initiative to offer our facilities as vaccination hubs to the NSW Government,” Hodge said.

“What started as an offer of facilities quickly evolved into a request from NSW Health for football to mobilise its community in certain regions where vaccination rates were desperately needed to be increased.

“Answering the call, we led a campaign for football participants in those regions to get vaccinated and engaged other sports to join as we created a ‘Super Sport Sunday’ for vaccinations at Sydney Olympic Park Authority (SOPA).

“We have since been briefed that the campaign helped set a new single day record of vaccinations at SOPA, with many people wearing the jerseys of their favourite football clubs.

“This is another good example of how, as a code and a football family, we are leaders in our communities and, when we work together, we can achieve great things.”

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