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Con Boutsianis: We must fix youth development in Australian football

South Melbourne legend Con Boutsianis’ message is simple. As a nation, we are failing to produce enough players at the calibre of the Mark Vidukas and Harry Kewells of yesteryear.

In an interview with Soccerscene, the 48-year-old believes youth development across the board is suffering in Australia and the cautious approach that has been taken with talented young players is not beneficial.

“Mark Viduka at 17 played his first senior game,” Boutsianis said.

“At 17, I played my first National Soccer League game. Now, if a 17-year-old is good enough to play, we say ‘oh no we better not, he’s too young, he needs more time to develop.’

“It’s complete rubbish.”

Boutsianis concedes a national second division and connected football pyramid will be a positive for the game’s issues at a developmental level, but doesn’t think it is the panacea others in the game believe it will be.

“That’s not what the answer is,” he said.

“People are just shooting off the hip, of course it would be great to have a second division. Is it viable? We are struggling to get the A-League to be viable.

“Now, you want a second competition?

“It’s not working at the top level. We’re a mess at the moment. We don’t have any sponsorships, we don’t have any direction, we’ve spent one billion dollars in 15 years (on the A-League) and most of the teams don’t even have a home.”

In an effort to improve the youth footballing standards in Australia, after the conclusion of his playing career in the NSL, the former Socceroo has invested his time in creating a coaching business called Football First.

He uses his years of expertise and research to focus on the development of groups and individuals, coaching a range of players from beginners to professionals. Sessions are completed in person by him or online to those who are in other countries.

“Because I’m very analytical, I started to think (near the end of his career) ‘what is it that makes a soccer player? What do you actually have to do to become a professional player?’

“One thing that I realised, I was more a technical player and I was speaking about football with my friend Mickey Petersen who played for Ajax under Johan Cruyff.

“He said, ‘look, we are just born in the wrong country. They don’t value the technical players here (in Australia).’

“I said ‘yeah I know’; I can’t understand why they wouldn’t want to learn how to kick the ball properly and that technical skills are more important than physical initially.

“So, I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to teach these guys how to do it.’ I started off with a group of five kids, not getting paid a lot of money, but it wasn’t about the money.

“I said to myself ‘I’m going to start doing it’ and then from that I never realised where it’s going to go.

“20 years later and I’ve developed a really good coaching business that gives me the opportunity to travel around the world.”

With his years of experience, Boutsianis’ most important piece of advice for young players is to identify the real weaknesses and strengths they have as footballers and address them on a daily basis in a specified program.

His use of a grading system, which generates a tangible document for a player, similar to a school report, is important for the improvement of an individual.

“This is what the parents love, this is what the clubs love, this is what the kids love,” he said.

“It’s a grading system that says, here, you’re a beginner, this is your score for a beginner. You’re a semi-professional, these are your scores for a semi-professional.

“Unfortunately, in football, we generally don’t have a system that suggests this. It’s an opinion, your opinion against my opinion against that person’s opinion.

“You need something that you can physically see and understand. Is the passing good? Is it not good?”

Money should not be the overriding factor in whether a player coming through the ranks makes it as a professional, with the ex-Perth Glory player valuing commitment and hours spent instead.

“If you want to develop a player it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to spend millions and millions of dollars.

“What you need to get them to do is to start working at home on their own. Mark Viduka would be at the AIS and kick the ball against the wall for hours at night, no one told him to do it.

“Young players need to start understanding what it is they have to do to become a better footballer.”

According to Boutsianis, the perception is that to be better, we need to send youth players (who are not ready) overseas at a young age.

He believes this is a critical mistake.

“What’s the point of spending $10-50,000 on people who don’t really develop a player,” he said.

“We spend all that money to compete against the best overseas, when you haven’t done the work prior…you haven’t earned the right to go and play against the best.

“So, get your own backyard in order, make sure you are one of the best in your state, if not in the country, and then consider to go overseas. If you’re not one of the best here, how do you think you are going to be the best there?”

When quizzed on the possibility of becoming a coach of a side in the future, the man who scored the winner against Carlton in the 1998 NSL Grand Final claimed: “I will coach, no problem.

“But for me it’s not that important at the moment, I think developing people is more important than getting results and saying I won as a coach. Because, that’s not giving to the player, I’m more focused on making sure that player in the future becomes successful.”

Philip Panas is a sports journalist with Soccerscene. He reports widely on football policy and industry matters, drawing on his knowledge and passion of the game. Follow him on Twitter @PhilipPanas

Katholos and Spanoudakis – Players who know best

In this age of uncertainty, Australian football faces great challenges to maintain prosperity in the professional sporting environment.

The decision makers would assure the football fraternity,  the right decisions are being made by the  people who are responsible for the governance of the game.

However, the history of the game is highlighted by the failure to provide former players the opportunity to contribute  in their life after football.

Many of these players have succeeded in the business world but have never been sighted by the hierarchy.

In 1992, the former Socceroo great, Marshall Soper, commented the game was all about administrators, not players.

Two former players who have succeeded in the business world are former Sydney Olympic team-mates, Peter Katholos and Manny Spanoudakis.

Katholos commenced a business in the manufacture and supply of football equipment while still playing professionally, has applied his electronics background in telecommunications and pursued extensive property and development interests.

Spanoudakis’s specialty was in electronic engineering with Unisys and is now General Manager of Sales for global technology company, Cisco Systems, in the Asia Pacific region.

In this interview with Roger Sleeman, Katholos and Spanoudakis provide their insights into Australian football.

 

ROGER SLEEMAN

With the restart of the A- League, what are your views on the current state of the game?

MANNY SPANOUDAKIS

Like all fans, I’ve missed the game and it wasn’t before time that the League was recommenced.

Ironically, the pandemic is an inflexion point for the stakeholders to reassess the existing status of the key areas of operational, technical and administrative procedures, and to implement necessary change.

PETER KATHOLOS

The restart was critical because if the League wasn’t to be completed, it could’ve potentially led to its premature demise.

Some players and coaches haven’t returned and without a competition, there was no publicity and the League became a distant memory.

However, the game probably required a reset so it could come out stronger at the other end.

ROGER SLEEMAN

What was your opinion of the playing standard before the halt?

MANNY SPANOUDAKIS

Watching overseas football with no crowds over the last few months has given me the opportunity to reflect and compare against the standard of the A League. Whilst the tempo, skill and intensity overseas is more advanced than the A League, turnover of possession and defensive frailties even at the most elite level are still there to be seen. That said, the standard of the A League still has significant scope for improvement in order to be compared with most European leagues.

PETER KATHOLOS

There are a couple of good teams in the League but it’s far from exciting as there is an absence of creative players.

I watched Leeds United v Stoke City a few weeks ago in the English Championship and it was breathtaking.

It highlighted the speed, technique and intensity which is lacking in our game and the bottom line is broadcasters woudn’t be pulling out of A-League coverage ,and subscriptions wouldn’t have been declining so consistently in the last few seasons if the product was better.

ROGER SLEEMAN

What is your view on the XI Principles for the future of Australian football, recently released?

MANNY SPANOUDAKIS

The document is voluminous so it’s better to consider the main points.

Point number 1 refers to the requirement for a strong brand and identity. I believe the Socceroos and Matildas already have a strong affinity with even the most casual sports fan across Australia. However, at the domestic level, promotion and marketing of the A League is almost non existant.

The awarding of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup will certainly increase awareness of our sport across all demographics and we should look to leverage this great event to amplify the A League at every opportunity.

PETER KATHOLOS

To improve the identity of the game, there has to be consistent marketing for the benefit of the sporting public.

People are aware we qualified for the last four World Cups which we should continually market to the masses.

Personally, I was pretty disturbed by the total lack of coverage when the A-League and NPL competitions ceased at the start of the Pandemic.

ROGER SLEEMAN

On that note, what are your thoughts about the viewing audience last Saturday for Central Coast v Perth of 9,000 compared to NRL of 804,000 and AFL 978,000.

MANNY SPANOUDAKIS

Before their seasons recommenced, the other codes launched their publicity machines and people knew what was happening.

Honestly,  I wasn’t aware that Sydney FC played Wellington in the first match of A- league until I saw the score the day after.

Also, I didn’t know about the Central Coast match so the message is, there has to be some money spent on promotion because I didn’t see any advertising for the A-League.

PETER KATHOLOS

The figures don’t lie which suggests the A-League isn’t exactly capturing the imagination of the sporting public.

ROGER SLEEMAN

Point 3 of the Principles highlights payments in the transfer system.

Your thoughts about player transfer payments.

MANNY SPANOUDAKIS

In order to stimulate the football economy, the most immediate focus should be for the establishment of a transfer system across all levels of football in Australia.

For example, I remember in 1989, Zlatko Arambasic was an up and coming striker playing for Canterbury Marrickville Olympic in the NSW Super League. Blacktown City was in the NSL and paid a $50,000 transfer fee to secure his services.

If NPL clubs can generate revenue from developing players, they can reinvest in better facilities and coaching which sustains the football economy.

PETER KATHOLOS

We need a vibrant and sustainable development system so the NPL clubs can be rewarded via a transfer system which provides the resources for them to continue to churn out quality players for the A- League and the national teams.

ROGER SLEEMAN

Point 5 in the Principles refers to creating a world class environment for youth development.

Your take on this.

MANNY SPANOUDAKIS

The whole youth development system needs to be revamped and a funding structure established.

In order to improve the end product, we need a 5-10 year plan which entails developing better youth coaches and investing more in player education.

Parent education also has a key role to play in assisting youth development because up to 80% of the player’s available time during the week is at home.

Consequently, nutrition, fitness levels and private practice of technique and drills have to be of the highest order.

PETER KATHOLOS

Our major objective should be to develop better players who can boost attendances and bring more money into the game with the help of companies and the government.

In the 80’s, when I played at Sydney Olympic, our star local players attracted crowds of 10-15,000 without much promotion.

If you raise standards, more money will naturally flow into the game and also players can be sold overseas providing another substantial revenue stream.

ROGER SLEEMAN

There is a severe absence of past players involved in the game.

How can this change?

MANNY SPANOUDAKIS

As a corporate manager, I believe you need football people in the key positions of financial,  operations and marketing.

Historically, the CEO role was awarded to a non-football industry candidate but times have changed and James Johnson’s appointment was a positive one and quite timely.

The previous CEO’S had a lack of emotional connection to the game so at least giant strides have been made here.

PETER KATHOLOS

There are enough football people and former players available to be involved in all areas of the game like in Europe.

When the FFA started, their executives didn’t know who we were.

The skill set of former players should be utilized in coaching, mentoring, marketing and administration.

I applaud the selection of the first eleven but the key issue is, some of these current and former players may have little business experience.

Undoubtedly, there are many former players who have succeeded in business and willing to make a contribution to the progress of the game.

ROGER SLEEMAN

Is the administration hanging its hat on the success of the Women’s World Cup bid?

MANNY SPANOUDAKIS

This is a fantastic victory for the sport as it promotes gender equality and it should be an amazing tournament.

During the difficult times, a better good news story couldn’t have happened to the sport.

PETER KATHOLOS

This was a real success after the failure of the Men’s World Cup bid and hopefully it will encourage a large commitment to building better infrastructure for the sport.

Frankly, I didn’t follow the women’s game closely until the Stajic saga prompted me to take interest.

However, I believe the players like our men, have to improve the technical side of their game if they’re going to be a threat in the tournament.

Destination NSW partners with A-League

Football Federation Australia (FFA) have announced Destination NSW will become an official partner for the remainder of the A-League season.

As the state government’s official tourism and events agency, Destination NSW is currently undertaking a marketing campaign titled ‘Love NSW’, encouraging people to spend locally during this time.

The Love NSW campaign will feature in LED and virtual signage across a majority of the remaining A-League games this season.

NSW Minister for Jobs, Investment, Tourism and Western Sydney, Stuart Ayres, believes the partnership will be a huge boost, in what has been a tough year.

“In what has been an incredibly challenging year, the NSW Government is proud to support the return of the Hyundai A-League and use this high-impact opportunity to help our state’s tourism industry to recover,” Mr Ayres said.

“This partnership is a fantastic opportunity for us to promote the unique experiences and attractions NSW has to offer local holidaymakers now and in the future through high-reaching broadcast and social media activity.”

“All travellers and businesses must follow the latest health advice to ensure all NSW adventures are COVID-safe.”

FFA CEO James Johnson thanked the minister and Destination NSW for their support.

“Over recent weeks, we have been working with the NSW Government at many levels, through their support and assistance in getting our Hyundai A-League teams to NSW, and on developing this integrated marketing partnership,” Johnson said.

“The fixture to complete the season will see Hyundai A-League matches played across five different NSW venues, in Sydney and in regional areas, and is therefore a great platform to showcase the state of NSW.”

Johnson continued: “COVID-19 has required sports rightsholders and marketers alike to be agile and look for creative partnerships that adapt to the constantly evolving circumstances our community is facing.

“The condensed nature of the restart to the Hyundai A-League season allows brands to capitalise on the unique media opportunity that our Festival of Football provides, especially for those looking to amplify targeted campaigns.

“We greatly appreciate the support of the NSW Government through Destination NSW for the remainder of the Hyundai A-League season and encourage our fans across the country and the world to #LoveNSW,” he concluded.

Heidelberg United: Modernising youth development with SoccerPLAY

At all levels of the game technology is having a profound impact on football. While spectators focus largely on tools like VAR and goal-line technology, coaches and administrators are increasingly turning to sports science and innovation to seek a competitive advantage.

It was searching for this competitive edge that led Chris Theodorou, Football Programs Manager at Heidelberg FC to SoccerPLAY, an online management system which is revolutionising the club’s youth development.

“SoccerPLAY does more than just support coaches, it allows clubs to create a structure and a style. It’s a methodology,” Theodorou says.

SoccerPLAY is currently being used by more than 100 clubs and football federations around the world, including AC Milan and the Dutch Football Association.

The system gives users access to more than 800 exercises and training drills which can use to create training programs, improve specific skills, and track player development.

“The structure is phenomenal. It allows a football department to put together a program that can be accessed on a phone, tablet or computer,” he adds.

“It helps to keep training fresh and there are different formats for each exercise, so it provides coaches with all the tools they need to feel supported,” he adds.

Coaches can also create their own exercises which they can upload onto the system and form training schedules in weekly, fortnightly, or monthly blocks.

“If you fail to prepare, prepare to fail. Sporting organisations love to see their coaches turning up well prepared and with this system they will never run out of ideas,” Theodorou says.

“There are different objectives listed, so a coach or technical director can search specifically to find relevant exercises. From basics like first touch, passing, and movement to more advanced things such as building from the back and possession play, there are different formats of drills for everything.”

Each of SoccerPLAY’s  training exercises comes with a detailed guide on how to execute the drill correctly. This includes information on what equipment is needed, an animation providing an overview of the movements, and a real-life instructional video designed to demonstrate correct technique.

Theodorou highlights the video depicting technique as a particularly valuable tool for Australian coaches.

“The instructional videos are technique-focused because in Europe if you can’t pass, you can’t play. Whereas here in Australia we emphasise going hard and fast,” he says.

As SoccerPLAY is designed to incorporate youth development for all ages, there are exercises that are suitable for players in the under-6 age bracket through to under-19’s.

Many of the drills have variations which provide coaches the option to simplify them or make them more challenging, depending on the age group and skill level of the players.

“You don’t want to give five or six-year-old players too much information, so the drills are simple in order not to overcomplicate things. It’s also recommended that you don’t change what they are doing too often, whereas with older groups you can be more creative,” Theodorou says.

In addition to assisting coaches with an overarching training program, SoccerPLAY allows football departments an unprecedented ability to track individual player development.

“The player tracking is awesome. You can record a player’s results in agility tests, beep tests, sprint tests and so forth then track how they improve over the course of the year. At Heidelberg we aim to do these three or four times over the year to measure their developments,” Theodorou says.

“You can also track how players are performing in matches by uploading statistics and video snippets to their profile. For example, you can upload clips of a player doing something really well or if they’ve made a mistake, then you can show them the footage in order to identify learning opportunities.”

The key to SoccerPLAY’s effectiveness is the calibre of its designers, Dutch football experts Patrick Ladru, Bram Meurs and David Zonneveld. All three have all had distinguished careers within football, specifically youth development and education.

Among their many achievements, Ladru was a youth manager and then scout at AFC Ajax, Meurs played at PSV Eindhoven and now operates as a sports psychologist, and Zonneveld served as a youth coach at FC Volendam and now specialises in motorised learning for children.

“Ladru has worked with Johan Cruyff and the likes, he creates many of the exercises himself. Bram focuses more on the mental components of the system and what sort of actions players need to do off the ball and then there’s David, who specialises in teaching players behaviours and habits,” Theodorou says.

In Australia, SoccerPLAY is just beginning to gain traction with Heidelberg United being one of the first clubs to adopt the system.

As an active user of the program, Theodorou believes Australian football should be more open to stepping away from traditional practices and embracing new ideas.

“This is where FFA and FFV are missing the mark. Our national youth teams are not making World Cups so how are our seniors going to make World Cups in the future?” he says.

“The coaches that have embraced SoccerPLAY here think it’s unbelievable, its designed to be simple and effective.”

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