Con Boutsianis: “The nation is not going to get better by just playing more games”

South Melbourne icon Con Boutsianis is steadfast in his view that issues in Australian football’s much-debated talent pathways are rooted in a lack of specialised, skill-specific training, and that higher game loads will not act as the panacea some believe it could be.

As the gears slowly grind towards the development of a National Second Division, and the rebranded A-League Youth (formerly Y-League) competition prepares for its return post-Covid-19, there is a general sentiment that the improvement of the game in Australia depends on the procurement of more football and added opportunities.

This has been a focus of the Australian Professional Leagues ahead of the new A-League Women’s campaign, who in June announced that within two years the competition will run as a 22-round home and away season that offers the global standard of 1,980 match minutes (before finals) per season.

The increase has been welcomed by all and sundry given the relatively low base of the fourteen match season from which it’s risen. But in the men’s game, Boutsianis is wary that more time on the pitch would cause further neglect to skill-specific training. Put simply, he feels the game wants to run before it can walk; or as he puts it, writing literature without the ability to spell.

“I use the alphabet as an example: when you know the alphabet, spelling words becomes easier. We don’t have a curriculum or syllabus that would suggest there is an alphabet in football, because if there was, every single club and academy in the world would teach players how to kick properly with both feet,” Boutsianis told Soccerscene.

“That doesn’t happen, so we know the system is discordant in some way. It’s important we understand what the basics are and how we improve them. The philosophy is very simple: learn the basics well, be able to kick with both feet, run with the ball well, be a good athlete, eat well, and nail all the things that are required to be a top line athlete.”

Without these fundamental structures in place, or without a unified idea across the board of what these fundamentals are, Boutsianis is of the belief that those holes will become exposed on the pitch, and that the pitch is not the environment to improve. 

“Everyone’s talking about game load. I use Graham Arnold as an example, his solution to development is playing more games. Yes, you get some experience, but there are other fundamental things that need to be improved on,” he said.

“Whether it’s fitness, mechanics, goalscoring, the technical aspect of kicking the ball on both feet; if those things aren’t being addressed, and then you say ‘we need to play more games’, all it’s showing me is what you can’t currently do. The nation is not going to become better by playing more games.”

Boutsianis speaks about Australian football at breakneck pace, with his undeniable passion tinged with evident frustration at the direction it’s taken. He frequently diverts the conversation between sports – be it basketball, table tennis or golf – arguing their secrets to success are transferable, but are being wasted.

“Ray Allen was the three-point shooting specialist in the NBA; he’d taken a year off his contract to improve his shooting, especially from the three-point line. He said ‘I don’t have time to improve while playing, I need the time to improve and I’ll come back next year.’”

“From there, he went on to be the all-time shooting champion in the NBA. Someone who’s superseded him now is Steph Curry, he’s taken it to another level. He can shoot at the three-point line, and go one, two, three metres back from there.

“In my experience, the data on football shows most goals are scored close to goal. That’s true, but they’re only analysing what happens, not how they can make it better. Of course if you’re closer to goal it’s easier to score, and if you’re 20-30 metres away it’s harder, but you should be able to do both.

“A fine example of that is Ronald Koeman, who scored 256 goals from his sweeper centre-back position. Because he was able to strike the ball the way he should, he scored. Everyone should be able to hit the ball fluently on both feet, but we get coached in a way that says ‘you’re not allowed to shoot as a defender, you’re only allowed to do this or that.’”

Boutsianis argues that with time away from match play comes the freedom to pull apart and remodel individual skills, with a focus on biomechanical movements in the body central to his Football First coaching business.

His methods helped US Women’s legend Carli Lloyd reconstruct her shooting technique mid-way through a career that finished as a two-time World Cup winner (nine goals) and two-time Olympic gold medallist (eight).

“I haven’t spoken to her for a while, but I know she’s finished up and is running her own academy. She’s a fine example, she’s the all-time leading goalscorer at the Olympics, I just taught her to refine her technique to score goals and make sure she used both sides of her body.

“It’s down to the biomechanics, the mechanical action we use to perform these skills. Table tennis has certain movements, swimming has certain movements. When you go to kick a ball, our players are making enormous errors mechanically, so we have to identify how the muscles work in a certain way and start teaching kids how to perform those exercises.

“The probability of one team winning against another is based around skill sets. If your skills are higher than the others, and you have wider skillsets that you can use faster and for longer, your probability of winning is higher.”

Discussion around Australian youth development rarely lasts long before the inevitable yearning for the halcyon days of the AIS system begins. Having trained in the system as part of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics squad, Boutsianis credits its quality, but argues its success was not solely dependent on the concentration of talent under one roof.

“I trained there, great establishment, but you’ve got to realise most of the players that got picked to go were already pretty good. If you go round to every individual that went there, Paul Trimboli, Mark Viduka, Josip Šimunić… they all have one thing in common. They practised on their own, for many hours a day,” he said.

“When you put them all in an environment like the AIS – and Ron Smith knows his stuff – of course things start to happen, but that for me is not the solitary reason they became that good. They were already busting their arses on their own. When Viduka was there he was hitting the ball against the wall, everyone told him to shut up. And he would not stop.”

The Socceroos head to their fifth consecutive World Cup this November with a playing group widely considered of lesser ability than four years ago, and certainly below that of 2006-2010. If Graham Arnold’s side perform admirably against France, Tunisia and Denmark but fail to win a game, as was the case in Russia under Bert van Marwijk, Boutsianis will be the last to pat them on the back for effort.

“The great Ferenc Puskás was my coach at South Melbourne. He told me something very important when I was eighteen: ‘if you don’t shoot, you can’t score.’ Now, if you can’t putt, you can’t win golf tournaments. Tiger Woods is a classic for it. He’ll say ‘I didn’t hold my putts.’”

“He doesn’t say ‘I deserved to win, I had plenty of chances’, like we hear coaches say. Why didn’t you take your chances? It’s all about execution at the highest level, and if you can’t execute, you can’t win.

“So why is it that we spend such little time on finishing? I know golfers who spend hours a day practising their putting. I know table tennis players that are ten years old who do four hours. We do ninety minutes of training a day at A-League level and expect to play at the highest level, and produce players to win the World Cup? Forget about it.”

PFA Co-Chief Executive Kathryn Gill on the discussions leading up to Collective Bargaining Agreement

Kathryn Gill

The Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between Football Australia and Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) was recently formed for 2023-2027, bolstering the future for the Socceroos and Matildas.

The CBA will put a number of key changes and initiatives in place – namely payments, commercial partnerships, gender equality, work-life balance and life after football.

As a former Matildas captain, PFA Co-Chief Executive Kathryn Gill has been the perfect role model for those rising up through the ranks, and also in her leadership to turn this CBA into reality.

She spoke with Soccerscene to outline the key milestones achieved for the new CBA and what we can look forward to over the four-year duration.

The path towards the 50:50 payments and the key conversations that made it happen:

Kathryn Gill: Women’s football has undergone a global explosion over the past four to five years. When we signed the previous collective bargaining agreement in 2019, the women’s game was threatening to reach new heights, and our gender equal model reflected that trend.

In 2023, we needed the new agreement to reflect this new reality, and most players were comfortable moving away from a centralised contract structure to a meritocratic payment model, mirroring the Socceroos’ match payments.

Players provided direct feedback in player meetings, steering committee meetings, and in the negotiations with FA to share their views.

The outcome was that the players now have a payment model that incentivises performances, creates competitive tension within the team, and is a fit-for-purpose gender-equal payment structure in line with the Socceroos.

There is still work to do to increase player salaries in club football, but we are hopeful that it will continue to grow in line with global trends.

How revenues will benefit the Australian football community with programs for current and former players:

Kathryn Gill: Under the CBA, a percentage of the players’ share of revenue is redirected into player development support programs and services, which are vital to the ongoing support of players and ensure that football remains a sport of choice for Australian athletes. That money is to support the current national team players. However, for the first time, the CBA guarantees investment in our past players via legacy funding from the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

That funding will ensure our players can stay in their careers longer, help them to prepare for life after football, and enable the PFA and FA to invest in areas that will allow us to support our retired and former professional players better.

The importance of giving back towards the PFA Footballers’ Trust:

Kathryn Gill: Players are deeply passionate about many issues within football and society, from reducing the cost of football to climate change and human rights. Their aim is to make the Footballers’ Trust the most impactful sports charity in Australia. The CBA is a great vehicle to foster the players’ commitment by building a deeper level of impact on many existing and new initiatives across the next four years of the agreement.

There were 40 players in the negotiation process, was there anyone in particular that stood out in discussions?

Kathryn Gill: The CBA is the players’ agreement, so as many players as possible in and around the national teams provided their input into their deal.

The players were constantly at the table and in the negotiations, even though many had to join from overseas at various hours of the morning or evening.

Our Executive Committee Members in particular – Andrew Redmayne, Lydia Williams, Tameka Yallop, Elise Kellond-Knight, Jackson Irvine and Mat Ryan – were deeply involved given their representative roles with the union.

Noddy: The Untold Story of Adrian Alston – a review of Philip Micallef’s book

When former Socceroo great, Adrian Alston, took a leap of faith and departed Preston in the north of England and ventured to Wollongong in January 1968, he could never have imagined how his life would change forever.

However, Jim Kelly, the former Blackpool and England B international, who had played with the late and great Sir Stanley Matthews, knew his man and was instrumental in the new life Alston forged for him and his family.

Kelly had become part of football folklore on the South Coast after South Coast United defeated favourites Apia Leichhardt 4-0 in the 1963 NSW Federation Grand Final in front of an Australian record club crowd of 30,500.

Consequently, when Kelly brought his prodigy to the South Coast of NSW, he unknowingly created a football pathway for Alston which he still reflects on with immense pride and gratitude.

There is a constant message in the book, written by Philip Micallef, that Alston never forgot the people who assisted him in rising to the highest level of football, fulfilled by playing all over the globe and representing his chosen country in 37 full internationals, including the World Cup Finals of 1974 in Germany.

When Alston was selected in his first international against Greece in 1969, he stated he was no longer a Pommie – but green and gold through and through.

Critically, he knew that Australia was now the place he would always call home and after travelling the world with the Socceroos, playing in the 1974 World Cup Finals  in Germany and  in the English 1st Division with Luton Town, rubbing shoulders with the greats of world football including Pele, Beckenbauer, Chinaglia, Rodney Marsh, George Best and Johan Cruyff in the North American Soccer League before a serious injury forced him to retire from playing at the tender age of thirty, this fact became more evident.

Ironically, when he returned to England after his playing career finished, Alston really couldn’t settle down  and when his young son, Adrian junior, asked when the family was returning to Australia, it was enough to influence Alston and his family to jet back to Wollongong.

Life after football can be very challenging for some but Alston took to coaching like a duck to water and the book documents in detail his coaching stints in the Illawarra during the 1980’s and 1990’s where he achieved considerable success.

However, his greatest loyalty was to the 1974 Socceroo squad and the last chapter of the book is devoted to his coach, the late Rale Rasic.

This book is just not about the footballer, Noddy Alston, but the man who took a chance in life to explore new surroundings when he came to Australia to begin the voyage of a lifetime.

There are a number of subplots in the book which make fascinating reading like Noddy’s procurement of Franz Beckenbauer’s shirt before the Socceroo’s World Cup match against West Germany in 1974.

The book will not only appeal  to people who followed Noddy’s career closely but to supporters of the game who admire determination and God given ability in professional footballers.

For those who don’t know Noddy’s story, particularly the younger generation and those who are the standard bearers of our game, it’s a must read.

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