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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.”

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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.

AAFC releases plan to introduce national second division by 2022

AAFC have released their progress report into a feasible national second division, believing the competition can get underway by 2022.

According to the document, the organisation says the league could initially start with 12 clubs, but hopes to eventually rise to 16 teams through promotion and relegation from state NPLs, as long as those clubs meet certain standards.

“This report is about what our member clubs can contribute to Football Australia in establishing and operating a true national second tier,” AAFC chairman Nick Galatas said.

“It is about the best possible. Not about a notional ‘best’ or the merely ‘possible.’ It identifies the most viable and financially responsible model for a true national second tier to be able to both start and, as importantly, to grow.”

AAFC estimate that the league will cost up to $3.3million to operate each year, with participating clubs to pay a $200,000 fee each season and require an annual budget of $1m-$1.8m.

Most of the costs are due to travel, however partner clubs involved in the interim report have made it clear the figures listed are achievable due to the expected additional revenue they can generate.

The report outlines the proposed second division would be played in alignment with the A-League season, whether that is winter or summer.

Promotion and relegation to the A-League is not an immediate goal for the second division plans, however AAFC envisions a scenario which could see it introduced by 2028.

The organisation has also targeted 2025 for the commencement of a national second tier for women, recognising the importance of the female side of the game.

“Currently, like the men’s second tier, the women’s second tier is comprised of the Women’s National Premier Leagues run separately by each Member Federation. AAFC considers women’s football vital to the overall health of our game. Hosting the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2023 presents us with a wonderful opportunity to grow women’s football, including through the introduction of a true national second tier,” Galatas said.

“We have pressed for a NSD for women from the outset, but this measure has not received the same measure of support from our governing bodies and other stakeholders, so our report addresses it in that context.”

AAFC will now consult with relevant stakeholders in the game including Football Australia, before finalising the final report by Easter to present to the governing body.

Football Australia partners with Qukes

Football Australia has announced that Qukes Baby Cucumbers have signed an agreement to become a partner of the MiniRoos grassroots program, as well as an official supplier of the Socceroos and Matildas.

The deal will run for two years, with Qukes set to help deliver the MiniRoos program nationally.

Qukes Baby Cucumbers will be promoted as an ideal healthy sporting snack for Australian footballers of all ages, under the details of the partnership.

MiniRoos branding will also be present on Qukes’ product packaging across Australia.

Football Australia CEO, James Johnson, detailed the importance of the governing body’s new partnership with Perfection Fresh via the Qukes brand: “Football has a participation base of nearly two (2) million Australians – including nearly a quarter of a million participants in the MiniRoos bracket – and can act as a powerful vehicle to deliver positive messages to the Australian community,” he said.

“With the 2021 MiniRoos season just a couple of months from kick-off, we’re proud to have partnered with Perfection Fresh and, in doing so, welcome another important corporate partner to our football family.

“The Australian football community is at the heart of the sport and vital to the ongoing growth and popularity of the sport in Australia. This agreement ensures that young players and their parents around Australia will be delivered important healthy eating messages and content, and, in the spirit of truly integrated and aligned marketing partnerships, we’re pleased to have Perfection Fresh Australia’s commitment to promote football via its national marketing initiatives. Soon the MiniRoos brand will live on over two million Qukes packages in supermarkets and grocers across Australia, while from next week MiniRoos branding will be beamed into up to 5.5 million households across the nation via a new Qukes television commercial.”

Perfection Fresh Australia Chief Executive Officer, Michael Simonetta, said: “We’re really excited to establish Qukes Baby Cucumbers as the perfect sporting snack for Aussie kids. Our partnership with Football Australia and the MiniRoos allows us to reach the next generation of fresh produce consumers, educating them on the benefits of fresh produce, healthy eating and regular activity.

“We want to get kids ‘Qrunching’ on Qukes and football as an inclusive, grassroots and community sport is the perfect partner. It touches the lives of many Australian families across the country and the Football Australia values TOGETHER, DIVERSE & UNITING really resonate with our brands and business as a whole.”

 

A new year brings optimism for Australian football

Stadiums have been forced to adapt during the pandemic, introducing new procedures and innovations allowing fans to attend matches safely.

As always in Australian football, 2021 is set to be a big year.

After a year which was continually disrupted by a global pandemic, the game’s future seems to be much brighter in 2021. Here are some of the reasons why:

An Independent A-League and W-League

After years of infighting, the A-League and W-League were finally unbundled from Football Australia on the last day of 2020.

A new organisation of A-League club owners, under the moniker of Australian Professional Leagues (APL), will now take over the operational, commercial and marketing control of both leagues.

Essentially, the league’s power brokers will now have more incentive to invest and market the leagues as they now have the impetus to attract and organise their own business dealings.

Chair of APL and co-owner of the Western Sydney Wanderers, Paul Lederer, spoke of the importance of the deal: “This is an historic moment for the future of football in Australia – for the fan, for the player, for the whole game.

“It’s now time to earn and deliver the future our game deserves. The handbrake on the game is off; owners can finally invest in what they own and create value for the entire footballing ecosystem.

“Players can plan their careers in Australian football, fans can reconnect with the game that they love, and clubs can create meaningful moments for the whole Australian football family.”

Domestic Transfer System

One of Football Australia’s ‘XI Principles’ outlined the need to stimulate and grow the Australian football economy, with the establishment of a new and modern domestic transfer system mooted as a proposed measure.

Last week Football Australia released a Domestic Transfer System White Paper, which will set the wheels in motion to revamp the current model into one which falls in-line with the rest of the global game.

It’s an area where Australian football is falling behind, with FIFA reporting in 2019 that Australian clubs only received US$1.9 million in international transfer fees, compared to other Asian nations like Japan who garnered US$29.4 million.

Football Australia CEO James Johnson has placed significant importance on the issue and the implementation of a proper domestic transfer system will finally reward a broad range of clubs across the Australian football pyramid.

“The establishment of a modern Domestic Transfer System in 2021 by Football Australia will seek to remedy the ‘gap’ that has been created in the Australian football ecosystem by providing opportunities to progressive clubs at all levels of the sport to generate new revenue streams which can be deployed into the ongoing training and development of players, and the clubs themselves,” he said.

“We believe that the implementation of a fit-for-purpose system will have transformational benefits for football in Australia and particularly our professional and grassroots clubs by reconnecting the game and stimulating growth,” Johnson concluded.

National Second Division

The Australian Association of Football Clubs (AAFC) is set to release a report on the progress of their plans for a national second division in the coming days, in a move which should enthuse the Australian football public.

A national second division (eventually with promotion and relegation) will bring a range of benefits to the football system here and will be a unique identifier which separates the game from a range of other sports played on our shores.

There does seem to be some hesitance from A-League clubs however, to immediately green-light a national second division.

Chair of the APL, Paul Lederer, recently stated that a national second division wouldn’t eventuate within the next two years, claiming that expanding the A-League to 16 teams was a more urgent priority.

Speaking with Box2Box, AAFC Chairman Nick Galatas responded to Lederer’s comments. “It doesn’t really bother us much because I don’t think the issue will come down to Paul in the end. It’s not really about him”, he said.

“I was surprised to hear the comments, I’ve got to say, but equally had he said the opposite, it wouldn’t have mattered much either.

Ultimately, the decision will come down to Football Australia as the APL does not have the appropriate regulatory functions.

The current FA administration is much more willing than previous administrations to introduce a second tier, previously listing the need to continue the development of a framework for a national second division, in their ‘XI Principles’ document last year.

New Broadcast Deal

Fox Sports re-negotiated their TV deal with the A-League and other Australian football properties when the competition went into shutdown during the COVID pandemic.

The deal was reduced in both dollars and length, with Fox Sports paying just over $30 million for a one-year agreement which runs out in July of this year.

There is a possibility that Fox may pass on extending that deal, but that does present the game with opportunities to seek out a new broadcast partner or to take things into their own hands and build up their own streaming service.

The game’s TV deal with the ABC is also set to expire this year, with the need to find the right balance between free-to-air exposure and broadcast revenue becoming increasingly important.

New potential broadcasters that may be interested in striking an agreement include:

Optus Sport: Currently have the rights to competitions such as the English Premier League, UEFA Champions League, J-League and K-League,

Stan Sport: Recently entered the market by signing a deal with Rugby Union’s Super Rugby competition and are reportedly interested in securing the NBL rights in the future.

DAZN: Have started to dip their toes into the Australian landscape through other sports, after broadcasting football in multiple countries across the world.

Whatever the case, Australian football does seem to have options outside of Fox Sports, who have broadcasted the A-League for the past 16 seasons.

With many exciting possibilities to look forward to, the game should be in a stronger place by the end of 2021.

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