There are very few people in Australian football who have left their mark on so many facets of the game like Gary Cole.
From his early days in the Victorian Premier League as a professional footballer which led to a prolific goalscoring record in the National Soccer League (NSL) and significant success with the Socceroos, Cole has experienced it all.
Cole wasn’t the type who could hang up his boots and not play any further part in the game, so he pursued coaching positions in the Victorian State League, Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) and the NSL.
He was also the first Director of Football at Melbourne Victory from 2005 to 2011 and occupied a similar role at Sydney FC in 2012.
Recently, Cole has completed an eight-month stint with Football Australia (F.A.) in trying to establish a National Academy.
Significantly, he has occupied an active role on the Board of Football Coaches Australia (FCA) for the last three years and was recently elected as President.
Although there have been periods he has been absent from the game, Gary Cole identifies strongly with the desire to see football in this country prosper.
In this interview with Roger Sleeman, Gary Cole discusses his recent work at the F.A., shares his opinion on the standard of playing and coaching, and the means by which football can be improved on and off of the park.
You were recently with the F.A. but your position was made redundant.
What did you achieve while you were there?
My specific role was to initiate the setup of a National Academy, similar to the previous AIS.
I reconnected with people involved in coaching education at the FA and also met up with representatives of the member federations.
However, ultimately the FA decided not to invest in the Academy.
Whether it was a question of affordability or their lack of desire, I wasn’t privy to the reasons behind the decision.
Nevertheless, the FA Board should be asked to read a document compiled in 2021/2022 called; “The One Football Strategy”, which revealed a hunger for the Academy to be established with the FA and the member Federations working in unison.
Furthermore, with the appointment by FIFA of Arsene Wenger as Chief Football Officer who has stated every nation should have a National Academy or Centre of Excellence by 2026, it flies in the face of the decision to close the AIS in 2017 and the reluctance to invest in a National Academy now.
What do you observe as other problems in the system?
Player development and talent identification are key factors in producing a better quality of player.
Graham Arnold said before the last World Cup in his Gap Report that players from u/17- u/23 don’t get enough game time.
in his role as Chief Football Officer at the FA, Ernie Merrick has a big job to review and change the system because people involved in coaching at the moment are frustrated by the current pathways and lack of investment in the game.
When you were at the FA, how did you rate the expertise of your colleagues and other employees in the organisation?
I had already worked with Will Hastie at Football Victoria and rubbed shoulders with seasoned campaigners Ian Crook and Gary Phillips – who I’ve both known for a long time.
However, they’re all busy people who are fully occupied in their coaching development and administrative roles.
Regarding other employees at the FA, it isn’t always the case that obtaining a university degree in sports management guarantees a contribution can be made to the game.
If football isn’t your first love and you don’t have a background in the game, it makes it much harder.
While I was there, I witnessed a high turnover of staff which indicated that maybe the wrong people were being employed.
How can we get more former professional players involved in media, coaching, marketing and operations?
Professional Footballers Australia are trying to encourage current players to think about remaining in the game and they are paying for their courses.
Some players want to get away from the game and follow a new career but for others, it’s a matter of examining their skill set which doesn’t happen enough.
One of the biggest problems is the current regime feels threatened by the presence of former players which is a big mistake.
Surely, the retention of more former players in life after football can only benefit the sport due to their total understanding of the product.
We are producing very few tactically accomplished players in the game.
What is the solution?
I was invited to the National Youth Championships in Coffs Harbour last year by the FA and spent some time with former Socceroo striker, Josh Kennedy.
There were players on view with reasonable technical ability but there was a dearth of quality strikers.
Control and passing technique were excellent but they didn’t know where the ball should be going before and after the pass was made.
It shouldn’t be just about maintaining possession which the current coach education emphasises.
What about penetration behind defences to create goal scoring opportunities?
In relation to the quality of players in general, every coach I speak to decries the quality of players coming through the system.
When we replaced the AIS and State institute of Sports because the Dutch said not enough players were getting a chance, we set up academies in the A-League and NPL clubs.
The intention of the model was theoretically sound, but as Wenger says the reason to establish national academies is so the best play with the best which provides the ultimate learning environment.
You spent six years with Melbourne Victory from the start of the A-League and it was the boom club of the competition for many years.
What has happened?
The club had lost its way to some extent when Geoff Lord was replaced as chairman and Ernie Merrick and I moved on.
However, when Ange Postecoglou became coach and was succeeded by Kevin Muscat, the performances on the park improved and AAMI Park was always full.
After they vacated their positions, recruiting wasn’t up to scratch and then Covid struck.
When Tony Popovic took over two seasons ago, the mood became positive leading to a Australia Cup win and just missing out on the Championship.
Unfortunately, the club finished last in the league last season and I believe the reluctance to start U/23’S from the Academy was a major reason for the poor performance.
In contrast, the Mariners – with the smallest budget in the league – gave their youngsters a chance and achieved wonders while Adelaide United provided opportunity for their youth players and also performed very well.
Notably, there has been a clearing out of the Football Department at Victory and Poppa has a new squad so hopefully the club will benefit on and off the field.
Unquestionably, the A-League needs a strong Melbourne Victory.