A lack of consistent talent-production has cast the spotlight over Australia’s youth pathways in recent years, a topic that has generated robust discussion in football circles.
With many in the industry calling for change, it was a welcome sight when in July, Football Federation Australia (FFA) released its ‘XI Principles’ discussion paper. The document was generally well-received and among the key issues James Johnson and his team addressed was the requirement for a systematic revamp of Australia’s youth system.
According to principle five, FFA will seek to ‘Create a world class environment for youth development / production by increasing match minutes for youth players and streamlining the player pathway.’
Reinvigorating Australia’s youth football pathways will require a long-term, systematic approach to be successful but one thing is certain – young players simply need more competitive minutes.
And that starts by revamping the Y-League. As it stands, 10 clubs make up Australia’s national developmental and under-23 reserve league, forming two conferences.
In principle, the league fits a purpose, but in practice the system is not providing anywhere near enough high-level football for youngsters, certainly not since structural changes were made that hamstring the progress of Australia’s youth prospects..
The 2015-16 season saw a new format introduced whereby the Y-League’s regular season was reduced from 18 games per team to a meagre eight (with potential for nine including a grand final).
Part of this reduction in games was due to budget cuts, another part due to FFA’s desire for players to use the NPL system as a developmental tool. On paper this seemed reasonable, but it has proved counterproductive, as talented youngsters are often torn between multiple commitments, causing a severe lack of continuity.
Although A-League clubs can enter their academy teams into their respective state’s NPL competition, elite players are playing a mixture of Y-League, NPL and the A-League games, the latter usually in a substitute or benchwarmer capacity.
This lack of consistency is creating a massive void in player development during what are some of their most critical years.
Earlier this year, Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) published an extensive report reviewing the national youth competition through historical analysis and player surveys. In an interview with pfa.com.au regarding the report, Guinean born Australian youth-level star John Roberts had the following to say.
“The Y-League is only eight games, and sometimes you don’t play eight, maybe it’s just four or five because you’re trialling with the first team or you’re the 17th or 18th man and you don’t get to play. In my opinion, for young players I think the youth league needs to go to a full season because I just think it will benefit us young players, it will give us more opportunity when we’re not playing.”
“But after the youth league finishes, you have to wait a while and then play NPL1 or NPL2 or just wait for your opportunity in the A-League.”
“You have to play regularly in higher competitions. If you’re playing NPL1 or NPL2 and you get called up into the A-League, the intensity of the game is too different because you’re not used to that and you don’t play in a high enough competition.”
The full interview with Roberts can be found here.
Among the notable results published in the report were that 90% of players believe the Y-League season should be extended and that only 20% of players who have graduated from the Y-League over the past five years went on to make an A-League appearance.
The findings led PFA Chief Executive John Didulica to state “In its current format the Y-League does not meet the needs of the players, A-League clubs or Australian football.”
The lack of youth production has predictably influenced the national setup, with Australia’s Under-20 team failing to qualify for the FIFA Under-20 World Cup for a record third consecutive time.
With the Y-League’s structural changes in 2016 clearly not having their intended impacts and FFA’s 2017 closure of the AIS, changes need to be made.
The solution may simply involve favouring the decentralized, academy-first approach which FFA has created but designing an environment which complements it. Something akin to the National Youth League of 1981-2004.
Extending the Y-League to run parallel to the A-League as a genuine reserve grade competition would allow players to fully commit to their academy side. This would mean ample minutes, plus a guarantee of continuity that does not currently exist for players who are forced to rebound between Y-League, NPL and occasionally A-League clubs.
While in theory this could harm NPL teams if their talented youngsters are poached by academies, it could create a perfect opportunity for FFA to implement new rules and regulations surrounding player transfers and compensation that would form part of an improved transfer system.
This is something the federation has stated it wishes to achieve through principle number three, in which FFA states in intention ‘To establish an integrated and thriving football ecosystem driven by a modern domestic transfer system’.
Designing a formal compensation system to parallel a legitimate under-23’s full season competition would kill two birds with one stone, rewarding grassroots clubs for producing talent while giving young players the consistent exposure to competitive football
There are undoubtedly factors, mainly commercial, which would dictate the validity of these ideas, but the game’s top administrators do need to act, or Australia will face the risk of losing its next generation and fading from international football relevance.