The Australian football community cheered as a collective with Friday’s official FFA announcement that James Johnson would take the reigns as Chief Executive Officer.
The primary reason for such a reaction is two fold. Many will see the departure of former CEO David Gallop as potentially the best thing to happen to the game on our shores for some time. Seen as a risk adverse, conservative and football novice by many, Gallop failed to build trust in relationships nor any belief in his approach throughout his reign.
The site of the CEO of Australian football enjoying champagne celebrations after successful Socceroo qualifications and wonderful Matilda victories only made critics and cynics irate. Most saw football as his second or third language at best, with his rather ponderous time involved in the game of rugby league also cited as another reason behind his mostly ineffectual time at the FFA.
The second reason for the broadly positive acceptance of the appointment of Johnson is quite clearly that the initial perception and hope around his ascension to the top job will bring exactly the opposite of what we currently have.
Those invested as stakeholders in the game, all the way from the local parks to the boardrooms of some of the most powerful clubs in the land, hope that Johnson’s football DNA is strong enough to bring about the structural and cultural changes that the game needs to undertake in order to grow and prosper.
Nothing brings ‘football cred’ like playing the game and Johnson’s career with the Brisbane Strikers and the fact that he also loomed on the radar of national selectors in restricted age play during the late 1990’s, gives him just that. Now a lawyer, and after a burgeoning career in sports administration and governance, where he worked with the PFA, AFC and FIFA, Johnson returns home to Australia and will attempt to clean up what many believe is a football mess
Johnson has spent his recent past as Senior Vice-President External Affairs at the City Football Group, no doubt an asset considering the group’s now global footprint in the game. His awareness of the eight different leagues into which City Football Group have become involved with will no doubt ensure Johnson sees the Australian game through the global lens required and not an A-League restricted bubble.
With a reputation for intelligence, collegiality and creating effective channels of dialogue between stakeholders, Johnson will take the reigns in January with myriad issues demanding his immediate attention. Unifying the game will be his most urgent matter of business, yet there are a number of more short term steps that will, if taken, convince people even further that he is the man to lead the game into it’s next phase.
Accelerating the creation of a national second division that brings Australian clubs under the one umbrella is vital and something that fans have seen stalled countless times by those previously charged with its implementation.
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Ensuring fans of the Australian game are permitted to support actively and avoiding the ludicrous sight of domestic supporters being escorted from stadiums for merely standing, is also key. Opening lines of communication between the FFA, stadium authorities and security companies could perhaps create some common ground and understanding.
The cost of junior football also looms on the horizon for Johnson, with an urgent need for a restructure of the expenses involved for parents of junior players. Ticket prices, stadium development and the correct expansion of the women’s game will also occupy much of his thinking in the near future.
As daunting as many of those issues sound and as difficult as the way forward may be, Australian football fans are speaking hopefully and positively about their new CEO. If he is able to use his experience and skills to implement real change and briskly, it will confirm to many that the previous CEO was doing little more than letting the game down and holding it back.
If not, Johnson will also begin to feel the pressures and weight of expectation, so clearly evident amongst passionate football fans.