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Where does Western United sit one week away from round one?

Western United has had a big couple of weeks.

They’ve signed Melbourne Victory hero turned nemesis Besart Berisha and they’ve also named a new CEO, Chris Pehlivanis.

But is all the noise surrounding the newcomers to the A-League blocking out what’s happening behind the scenes?

According to a statistic on Twitter, Western United’s membership numbers are extremely low, lower than what most would’ve hoped.

Understandably, as a new team you need time to establish yourself in the competition before you catch up with the rest of the sides.

But for a team based in Melbourne to have such a low membership rate, it’s quite alarming.

With the accumulated total of City and Victory fans larger than that of Sydney FC and the Wanderers, you would think more fans would be getting on board.

Especially those who may not have teams in the A-League at the time of writing this.

The AFL, despite being played during the winter, offers strong competition to the Melbourne based sides. The Big Bash League is also a popular competition amongst children and family during the summertime.

The A-League has certainly made the right move in introducing new sides to the competition. There’s still a week until the season gets underway and the above membership numbers were released on the 24th of September. So the situation, hopefully, could have changed since then.

So hopefully, we can see some more members donning the green and black in their first season, especially with the massive news that Berisha has returned to the A-League.

‘Bes’ and United will be tough opposition for any side this season, given their performances in pre-season have been more than admirable.

But come round one, it’d be nice to see large flocks of fans cheering on the troops from Truganina.

 

Senior Journalist

The coach speaks: One on one with Alen Stajcic

It was perhaps apt that my chat with former Matildas and now Central Coast Mariners manager Alen Stajcic was interrupted by an urgent call from the top brass in Gosford; such is the chaos of the times.

Stajcic agreed to chat about all things football in the present climate and the repercussions for the short and long term future of the game in Australia. I opened by asking the 46-year-old whether he held fears for the future of the game, both domestically and abroad.

Citing what he referred to as “the new normal”, Stajcic predicted considerable challenges on both landscapes as football enters a recovery period.

“It was pleasing to see most governments place health concerns over those of their economies, yet the financial implications of that will see football take a hit as well; being merely a microcosm of the world,” he said.

Rather astutely, Stajcic pointed out that, “At times like this it is the vulnerable and weak that will be exposed”. Once again referring not only to our communities, but also to the precarious financial position in which Australian football now finds itself.

I probed the former Sydney FC W-League manager as to the ramifications for the women’s top tier. He referred to the $16344 minimum wage and a likely decrease to it; in line with what their A-League counterparts will no doubt experience.

Stajcic recalled the early days of the league when “W-League clubs were primarily funded by the federations”. When the clubs themselves took over the funding and administrative arms in subsequent years, their reliance on broadcasting revenue became as paramount as that of the A-League competition.

Hence, with the existing broadcast deal between FFA and Foxtel seeming insecure and likely to be reshaped, Stajcic sees the immediate impact on both leagues as “significant and potentially life changing” for many players, coaches and staff.

I asked whether there could be something of a silver lining in international football, with a potential correction of wages that have spiralled to absurd levels in recent times. Whilst in notional agreement in regards to the EPL, LaLiga, Serie A and other major leagues, he also expressed a concern that a hypothetical 20 per cent correction could have disastrous implications for the A-League. Stajcic was adamant of the importance in “sustaining full-time professionalism in Australia.”

With many ex-Socceroos currently throwing their hat into the opinion ring and FFA convening the rather aptly named think tank, Starting IX, I quizzed Stajcic on the past. I wanted to know whether he felt the added weight currently being given to past players’ views was a help, or in fact a hindrance to the financial and structural challenges that lay ahead.

Stajcic was clear and categorical in his response, citing dangerous appointments of the past, where non-footballing executives were frequently appointed to prominent positions at FFA. He is hopeful for and thankful that James Johnson has taken the reigns and was clear in his desire for the governing body to emanate a “clear football voice with football people making the decisions that impact the game.”

According to Stajcic, a sticking point in the domestic game lies in the pathways to the elite level. “The pathways for young and promising players were far better in the NSL days. Outcomes are a direct result of those pathways.”

No doubt, that issue may well be placed on the back burner for the short term future, as Johnson and his board attempt to navigate their way through the mess that is COVID-19. However, Stajcic sees it as vital if Australia is to begin producing a greater array of elite level professionals, capable of playing in the world’s top leagues.

With the A-League eyeing a month long feast of football in August, I asked Stajcic how he would approach preparing his squad with fitness levels and continuity serious considerations.

“Due to the restrictions we have had in Australia, I think you will find many clubs will be in different situations, depending on the access to facilities the players had and will have within their own jurisdictions. Clubs will also have different goals and objectives when we return. A club like the Mariners are obviously looking to continue the rebuild, others may do the same.”

I rounded out the interview by asking the man still heavily invested in the fortunes of the Matildas, whether the Australia/New Zealand bid for the 2023 Women’s World Cup will seem more or less attractive to FIFA in the aftermath of the pandemic.

He replied, “I’m not sure how it could seem less attractive. There is little need to develop infrastructure as our stadiums can cope comfortably with such an event and Australia does seem more advanced in its recovery from COVID, compared to Brazil, Japan and Colombia who are also bidding for the event.”

With reports from Japan suggesting the pandemic still has some way to run its full course and Brazil having tragically lost over 11,600 citizens, Colombia and Australia may now well loom as the favourites in the race.

Hopefully Stajcic is correct in his summation of the potential success of the bid and that FIFA also see the benefits of hosting a World Cup down under for the first time. It would be one of the biggest sporting events in Australia’s history; one drawing revenue, investment and interest.

All stakeholders know just how important each of those things are in the business of football, Alen Stajcic included, particularly within the uncertain financial future that football in Australia must now navigate.

FFA launches online football resource for schools

Football Federation Australia have announced it has released a new interactive online football resource for primary school students.

Titled the ‘Schools Football Workbook’, the resource gives children and their teachers the opportunity to learn and become fans of the world game.

The online resource covers four separate areas:

Active: Focuses on physical literacy, with students also learning the value of good nutritional habits and eating practices.

Experience: Based off FFA’s MiniRoos program, students can complete footballs skills and challenges via video tutorials.

Transition: This section helps individuals identify pathways to access their local football club and link-up with member federations.

Fans: Students can participate in interactive projects with the aim of learning about the A-League, W-League, Socceroos and Matildas.

Speaking about the workbook, FFA CEO James Johnson claims he is pleased with what has been produced.

“This is an important piece of work to bring football to the classroom via an interactive, digital resource that will prove invaluable to primary schools as they work through the COVID-19 situation. It will enable boys and girls to remain connected with football, while staying active, healthy and happy,” Johnson said in a statement on Monday.

“We have taken a whole of game approach in the development of the workbook and I’d like to acknowledge the great contribution the Hyundai A-League and Westfield W-League clubs and the member federations make in the schools’ space, and the effort they’ve put into this project alongside FFA.

“This workbook will complement the work our stakeholders undertake with schools and will enhance football’s future delivery model.

“We may be moving to a relaxation of social isolation measures over the coming weeks, but we believe this workbook will be of great benefit to schools, teachers and students long after the coronavirus pandemic is over.”

Sport Australia General Deputy Manager of Participation James Ceely praised football’s governing body for the initative they have shown.

“It’s great to see Football Federation Australia embedding physical literacy into resources for schools,” he said.

“Through these fun and engaging football activities, children can develop the skills, behaviours and attitudes they need to be physically active for life.”

Schools and teachers can register and download the workbook here.

Gary Cole: There is no better time than now to unify the game

Socceroos great Gary Cole feels it is now time to “find a way to heal” the wounds of the past and move forward for the good of the game.

In a wide-ranging interview with Soccerscene, the former NSL striker believes FFA CEO James Johnson is the right man to lead Australian football into a new era, incorporating “the best of both” the old NSL and A-League.

“I think James has been an absolute breath of fresh air,” he said.

“You couldn’t have wished a worse start on a person to take over that role.

“My hat’s off to him and I just can’t applaud him enough for the start he has made and his willingness to listen and engage.”

Cole remains involved with the game in some capacity, after being elected as a member of Football Coaches Australia’s Executive Committee, late last year.

The 64-year-old has a strong belief that coaching education in Australia needs to improve and was a major factor behind his decision to put his name forward for FCA.

“Coaches have never had a seat at the table (in the game) for the last 30 odd years,” Cole said.

“Today (with FCA), we’ve got a good working relationship with James, Chris Nikou and the FFA board.

“We are talking regularly, having zoom meetings; they understand that coaches are an important part of the game. It’s absolutely terrific.”

Throughout his coaching career, Cole would go on to be an assistant to Socceroos coach Frank Arok, as well as managing various clubs in the old National Soccer League and Victorian Premier League.

The ex-Heidelberg player admits he was fortunate to land his first coaching gig, as an assistant to Ron Smith at the AIS in 1987.

“I was always going to go into coaching and I was incredibly lucky that in my last year of playing as a 30-year-old at Preston, I went and did my Senior License (equivalent of an A Coaching License today).

“That was at the end of my career, then within six months I applied for and accepted a role as Ron’s assistant at the AIS. So that was absolutely incredible.

“At the age of 30 I had a full-time job in coaching and I have to say at the time I didn’t realise how lucky I was to do that.”

The mentorship he received and experience he gained from working alongside Smith, has led Cole to question the way Australia develops coaches in recent times.

“I had an incredible coach and mentor in Ron who I worked with day in, day out. So, not only did I just complete a coaching license, I got to practice on a daily basis with someone there who would coach me as a coach and answer my questions.

“When I left and came back to Victoria because my mum developed cancer, I coached Heidelberg in the old NSL and I still had my coaching mentor on the other end of the phone.

“Nowadays, most modern coaches don’t have that.

“We’ve done a terrific job at getting thousands of coaches through coaching courses. But, getting a coaching license is a bit like being an 18-year-old and getting your driver’s license, it gives you access to the roads but it doesn’t make you a great driver.”

The AIS program was recently brought back into focus after a panel of six former ‘golden generation’ Socceroos heralded the setup and its role in their football development, in a recent Optus Sport discussion.

Cole echoed their sentiments claiming “It was integral to the development of players at that point in time.”

“Those guys all had wonderful talent but what Ron Smith did was turn the AIS into perhaps the best professional finishing school for athletes that we have ever seen.

“It was a wonderful opportunity for both players and coaches to develop and I was very sorry to see it go.”

When quizzed on the possibility of a reformation of the program, the Socceroos goal scorer believes the ship has sailed on that front, due to the current structure implemented in the game.

“Most countries around the world now have some sort of national coaching setup and some of those have a system like Clairefontaine in France, which is still there,” he said.

“But we are so different.”

According to the former Socceroos assistant, a country such as Belgium which is much smaller in size, makes it significantly easier to introduce a national setup.

That’s not the case in Australia, however.

“Here, we are so vast in distance and travel. I think it would be very difficult, because the model has been…to help A-League clubs develop academies and then…help NPL clubs develop academies.

“There are challenges around the depth and quality of the coaching talent, as well as getting kids in there. It’s not simple to answer.”

After an extremely decorated playing career in the NSL and the Socceroos, Cole looks back fondly on his time in the old national competition.

Memories of his playing days at Heidelberg stick out vividly in his mind, particularly the large crowds that would gather for matches against South Melbourne.

“It was a tough competition, played in smaller stadiums. We would have 15, 20, 25,000 people at Middle Park or Olympic Park (against South Melbourne).

“It was a real derby like Liverpool against Everton. You could have a terrible season, but if you won the derby then you are everyone’s hero.

“There was a great passion to it.”

Most NSL clubs at the time were ethnically based, which created distinct atmospheres at the grounds.

“You can remember the sights and sounds,” Cole said.

“Will Hastie (Executive Manager of Football at FV) and I were having a conversation last year, (saying) you could remember the smells from the different cultures.

“That multicultural background that it gave us was absolutely incredible.”

Cole described the transition between the end of the NSL and start of the A-League as a divisive period, which the game must now, after 15 years, finally try to put to bed.

“I loved the NSL, but so much was made out of the crowd trouble. It was bad at different times and that was a part of killing it off unfortunately.

“But by the same token, (when the A-League was created) it became ‘old soccer against new football’. It drove a stake in the heart of the game and developed this disconnect straight away.

“Not only because the (NSL) clubs couldn’t play in the top division, but we did away with the history. It was like the history of Australian football, for a long time, kicked off in 2004.”

In that year, Cole was appointed Melbourne Victory’s inaugural Football Operations Manager, a position he would hold for seven years, with the Victory winning two championships in that time.

There were certainly challenges in that period, including a board which was initially not comprised of football people.

Speaking about his time at Victory, Cole said it was “perhaps the most exciting and remarkable thing I’ve ever done.”

“I’m blessed that Ernie Merrick came on board. We brought in some great players, we developed some great talent and I’m very proud of that unique opportunity.”

Whilst a fantastic achievement, it would pale in comparison to the proudest moment in his football career.

“I can close my eyes and think about my first game for the Socceroos, standing on the pitch before the game against Greece in Melbourne.

“When you stand there with a green and gold shirt on and the national anthem plays, the hair on the back of your neck stands up.

“And then, you realise you’ve got an opportunity to represent your country.

“I’ve got a lot of things to be proud about in the game, but that for me is by far and away perhaps the best day.”

© 2019 Soccerscene Industry News. All Rights reserved.

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