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Heidelberg United: An infrastructure for the future

With Australia’s ‘Golden Generation’ long retired and a lack of stars emerging to take their place, the debate around the nation’s footballing infrastructure has reached fever pitch. Although many blame a lack of investment, some clubs are managing to secure funding to support the development of the next generation and at a state level, few are doing it on the scale of Heidelberg United FC.

The ‘Bergers’ have enjoyed a period of sustained success, topping Victoria’s NPL for three consecutive seasons and lifted the trophy in 2018. Now, Heidelberg’s on-field ambitions are finally being matched off the park, with a multimillion-dollar redevelopment of its Olympic Park precinct.

“One thing Heidelberg has lacked for a while is state-of-the-art, modern facilities. But now, thanks to investment and government assistance we are working towards creating that,” says Steven Tsalikidis, President of Heidelberg United FC.

Olympic Park was built to accommodate athletes competing at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. The ground has hosted many notable events throughout its existence, most recently in 2015 when 11,372 people – the second largest FFA Cup crowd in history – flocked to see Heidelberg’s semi-final clash against Melbourne City.

But despite the stadium’s rich history and the team’s roaring success, the 64-year old complex was approaching a state of decay.

This led Heidelberg United’s board to work alongside the Banyule City Council to form the Olympic Park Master Plan, a four-step proposal designed to reinvigorate the precinct and establish Olympic Park as the premiere sports hub in Melbourne’s North-East. The plan fits FFV’s State Football Facilities Strategy to increase the quantity and quality of pitches across the state.

“We handed the ground over late last year so we could start the facility upgrade. Stage one was reconstructing the main pitch which includes four new LED light tower that are suitable for even A-League standards,” Tsalikidis says.

“We wanted to create facilities that allow us to potentially host A-League games. Also, in preparation for the B-League, if that ever comes about, we want to be in a position where we can be ready to compete from the get-go.”

Fundraising for the redevelopment includes a $2 million injection from the Andrews-led state government and $3.1 million from Banyule City Council.

While additional funding is required to complete the later stages of the plan, the government’s willingness to invest should strongly encourage football fans and those in the industry, many who have grown frustrated over recent years.

The frustration peaked in 2017 when Football Federation Australia closed its AIS Centre of Excellence Program, a pathway which famously produced many of Australia’s footballing icons. The program ultimately fell victim to funding cuts, running costs, and the desire to decentralise the youth development process through the growing influence of A-League Academies.

Since then, influential figures in Australian football have been outspoken on the issue, demanding more investment into the sport to aid the future of the sport. Only months ago Graham Arnold called on Scott Morrison and the Australian Sports Commission to step in, while last year former CEO of the FFA David Gallop stated that local clubs were capping numbers as there simply weren’t enough pitches to facilitate growing participation in the sport.

The growth Gallop referenced was quantified by official surveys. A recent AusPlay study revealed the world game had more than 1.76 million active participants in 2019 – officially making it the most popular organised sport in Australia.

With Australia’s youth increasingly turning to football, it is important for clubs at all levels to follow Heidelberg’s persistence and dedication to seek investment, particularly to help develop the next generation.

Creating more pitches gives more children the opportunity to play, raising the level of youth competition and cultivating more interest in the game. Furthermore, higher quality pitches and general facilities lead to a better standard of football. This is important as it can assist to create a long-term cycle where the overall standard of football improves, attracting more viewership, interest, and sponsorship for the sport.

The latter stages of the Olympic Park Master Plan comprise of proposals to feed this cycle. Stages three and four involve the construction of two additional high-grade soccer pitches to be furnished with drainage, irrigation, fencing and lighting as well futsal courts, cricket nets, basketball courts, and more. All of these improvements will filter down to the lower levels, encouraging participation and enriching the grassroots of the game.

While the club and council work together to raise funding for the final stages of the plan, talks that Victoria’s NPL may recommence shortly are beginning to gather momentum. After three consecutive top place finishes Heidelberg United is in a strong position on-the-pitch and nothing would please the club’s fans and personnel more than to celebrate the opening of their new stadium with another title charge.

Sekulovski hits the ground running in Preston Sponsorship Management role

Naum Sekulovski might be in the twilight of his playing career, but he won’t be finishing up with football or his beloved Preston Lions anytime soon.

The former Perth Glory star has taken on the role of Sponsorship Manager for the 2021 season.

Preston has always been a club that has enjoyed enormous support from its community and its playing members.

The chants of “Ma-ke-don-ia” on game day bring goosebumps to all in attendance at BT Connor Reserve.

Even whilst playing at the relative depths of State League 1 for this former National Soccer League heavyweight, Preston has been able to rely on the incredible support of its fans who vote with their feet year in, year out.

However, it is the ability of the club to mobilise the support of the business network within its community that is truly impressive.

In recent years, the Preston Lions committee has enjoyed enormous success in mobilising the support of the business community within its ranks, signing on an extraordinary amount of sponsors a trend that has well and truly continued into 2021.

“At the top end of this year, back end of 2020, [Preston Lions President] Zak [Gruevski] approached me about taking on the role of Sponsorship Manager,” Sekulovski said.

“I’m coming to the twilight of my career as a player, so I’ve always wanted to understand how I can get more involved behind the scenes.

“I’m always going to have that football attachment and I’m interested in the business side of running a football club, so I jumped on board.”

Outside of football, Sekulovski works in pharmaceutical sales, meaning he felt he had a skillset that would allow him to hit the ground running in the role.

A cursory glance at the club’s social media feed over the last few months would demonstrate that Preston’s support goes far beyond boots on terraces and that Sekulovski has certainly gotten off to a fast start.

Since taking on the role, the Preston mainstay said he has been blown away by the business support afforded to the Lions.

“It’s been a really big eye-opener for me and one that I’ve really tried to translate over to the players and the people at a junior level,” he said.

“To be honest, the level of support has been a bit overwhelming.

“At last count, we’ve ticked over 100 sponsors for the year. We’re in a really, privileged position, but we’re here because of the hard work of all the people that have been on the committee over the last few years.”

Preston has kicked off its own “Preston in Business” program of business events for sponsors and is providing corporate hospitality on gameday, which started with a historic night of football at BT Connor Reserve when the club took on Melbourne City in it’s season opening match of the NPL3 Vic season, attracting a bumper crowd on the night.

The club saw another massive turnout last Friday night for their NPL3 Vic clash with Melbourne Victory, showing the Round 1 turnout was no flash in the pan.

“To have that many businesses and invited guests attend our first President’s Club function for 2021, it just made sense to have a program like “Preston In Business” that we could use to help those sponsors engage with and leverage off one another.

“We’ve got so many diverse businesses in our group.”

Following 2019’s State League 1-winning season, not even the loss of the 2020 year could slow Preston down.

“I think success breeds success,” Sekulovski said.

“And it’s not just about the men’s program. We are striving to get to the heights of Victorian football at all levels and we are firmly in the frame of mind that when a national second division presents itself, we want to be a part of that discussion.

“We’re a united front across our men’s, women’s and junior programs and everything is coming together.”

Facilities have also been a major agenda item for the club and redevelopment of BT Connor Reserve, which has been aided by the City of Darebin Council, as well as the generous donation of money and services from the Preston business community has been crucial to the club’s drive forward.

“I think we’re really only just scratching the surface of what’s possible in terms of our partnership with Council and Government,” he said.

“The administration of the club has been working so hard over the last six or seven years and it’s thanks to a passionate group of volunteers which makes the progress we’ve made extraordinary.

“To see that pay off with the night we had against Melbourne City and our new partnership with them, it was incredible.

“I grew up watching Preston. That Friday night I left the sponsorship stand to go and see some of the game with the rank and file and sitting there with so many people in the industrial back streets of Reservoir at our first official night game was something special.”

Preston remains on the lookout for businesses looking to support their charge forward.

Anyone interested in supporting the club or joining as a sponsor/partner should contact Sekulovski or Preston via their Facebook page or club website.

Image Credit: Preston Lions Football Club

FA CEO James Johnson opens up on difficulties in the game and opportunities for the future

Speaking at Football Victoria’s Community in Business event on Friday, Football Australia CEO James Johnson reflected on his first 14 months in the top job of the sport, detailing the difficulties the organisation faced in 2020 and the opportunities it has in the coming years.

“I’d like to share with you what I walked into in January 2020,” Johnson told the audience in Melbourne.

“I walked into Football Australia and what I understood from the off was that the organisation had really lost a sense of unity. I believe the organisation had lost its connection with the community.”

Johnson criticised the focus of the governing body’s financial model, believing it was not looking after the best interests of the game overall.

“The business model was heavily centred on the A-League,” he said.

“That was what decision making evolved around, while other parts of the game, in my opinion, were neglected. The business model was disconnected, fractured and was inefficient. It was inefficient because of the duplication of administration. It wasn’t set up to foster growth for a thriving football ecosystem.

“The model denied the most significant part of our game, our identity, our community, our people, our stories, our diverse and multicultural base and our great national teams.

“In place of this identity, we’ve allowed a narrative to proliferate over the past 10-15 years that is divided, politicised, old soccer against new football, but this is not what our game is.”

Football Australia CEO James Johnson

The former Brisbane Strikers player admits that the game is far from perfect in this country and needs to address a range of issues.

“We have some really serious challenges ahead of us,” he said.

“We don’t own enough facilities for our growing base, we have too many players, we are turning children and families away from our code because we don’t have enough infrastructure around the country. This is a real issue.

“The performance gap that we released in 2020 tells us that the age group that plays the most minutes in our elite men’s competition (the A-League) is the age of 32. We are not giving enough opportunities for our players under 23. We also have challenges with our football pyramid, we must reconnect our pyramid so we can unleash this potential of an ecosystem.”

Since Johnson was appointed as CEO early last year, the governing body has shifted their business model allowing them to deliver strategic priorities and focus on initiatives such as: the implementation of the domestic match calendar, the proposed introduction of a domestic transfer system, a half slot to the ACL for the FFA Cup winner and more. Johnson believes factors such as these are vital to reconnecting Australian football’s national pyramid.

In his speech at the Community in Business event, the former senior executive at the AFC, FIFA and the City Football Group also strongly emphasised the importance of recognising the game’s history properly, something the game has continued to neglect in previous years.

“We have a rich history and it must be celebrated,” he said.

“There are moments in our game, that not only shaped the game, but they shaped the way that our country is. In 1974, we sent our first men’s team to the World Cup led by Rale, in 1993 Maradona came here, in 1997 Iran broke our hearts, in 2005 a famous penalty got us to our first World Cup in many decades and in 2020 we won the rights to host the Women’s World Cup.

“Our game is full of these moments and I think if you all think about those moments, people will remember where they were when they occurred. We forget that our clubs in this country predated federation. We forget that football was the first sport in Australia to have a national competition in the 70’s. We forget the first cup competition in this country was in the 60’s, the Australia Cup.

“We forget that women played football in this country as early as 1909. Nearly 42 years ago, our very first Matildas stepped out onto Seymour Shaw Park for the first Matildas match. Now, we are only a few years away from the biggest sporting event for women in the world coming to our shores.

“We forget that 99 years ago our Socceroos played their first match against New Zealand. We are one year away from 100 years.

“We forget the role that football played in the lives of indigenous children, like John Moriarty, Jade North and Kyah Simon.

“We forget that our national competitions have always been the hallmark of our game. The NSL for many, many years. Our history provides us with platforms to move forward to and to launch a bold, exciting future for our sport.”

Johnson addresses the audience at Football Victoria’s CIB event

Johnson sees the Women’s World Cup in 2023 on home soil as the perfect avenue to establish a strong future for the game.

“We are focused on creating that link between our national teams, in particular the Matildas and our community,” he said.

“Our base of 2 million participants is great, but only 22% per cent of our base are women and girls. There is a direct link between the importance and relevance of national teams and the base of community. With our national teams starting up again, you will see over the next 3 years (particularly with the Women’s World Cup) that our base will grow further and it will grow well.

Our ‘Legacy 23’ framework is an ambitious plan to maximise the opportunities that the legacy of the Women’s World Cup (WWC) will provide us. Legacy is not something that starts after the WWC, it started last month. We’ve got to try as best as possible to ensure the WWC has a long-lasting legacy, similar to what happened with the Sydney Olympics in 2000.”

The FA CEO concluded by calling on every single stakeholder to be open to change, including the governing body itself, and push forward to make the sport the best it can be.

“If we are to reach the potential of our game, each and every one of us, every stakeholder, Football Australia, Member Federations, clubs, leagues, our community need to be open to change,” he said.

“Change and innovation are the commodities that we must deal with in 2021. I’m under no illusions that Football Australia must continue to earn the trust and confidence back from our stakeholders and community. To do this, we need deeds not just words.

“Let’s seize this opportunity and put our best foot forward.”

Football Victoria’s fifth year of Community in Business looks to reinvigorate business partnerships in the state

In what has been a tough 12 months for businesses across the state due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Football Victoria (FV) will look to recharge the business community through their annual FV Community in Business (CIB) program.

The state governing body for football will host the first of its four CIB events this year on Friday, with Football Australia CEO James Johnson to give the keynote address.

Football Victoria will also be celebrating the five-year anniversary of CIB in 2021, a program which was the brainchild of current FV Head of Commercial Anthony Grima and prominent business identity Professor Greg Stamboulidis.

FV’s Community in Business network was established after extensive research was conducted in 2014 on sponsorship data. At the time around 2,000 businesses invested commercially into grassroots community football in Victoria, with significant financial contributions made to over 350 clubs in the state.

Grima further explained to Soccerscene the origins of Football Victoria’s Community in Business program.

“It was created to provide a platform for businesses, football clubs and their sponsors, media and all levels of government to unite in their shared passion for the world game,” he said.

“It really was born out of one of those ‘write on the napkin’ type moments over a coffee in Ivanhoe. The idea just grew legs from that very moment. It seemed right and we knew the grassroots game needed it.

“We knew that this shared passion would lead to the development of meaningful relationships between the vast range of stakeholders in football and provide them with affordable and effective opportunities to connect with one another for mutual benefits and returns; and at the same time achieve important outcomes for football in Victoria.”

The membership-based program had its launch event in late November 2015, on the back of the Socceroos Asian Cup success earlier in that year.

We were thankful to have the then Socceroos Head Coach Ange Postecoglou and Socceroos legend Josip Skoko, amongst others, to launch the new community initiative,” Grima said.

“Approximately 100 guests of the Victorian football community were invited to help us launch the new initiative. The event was hosted by George Donikian, who we are also very grateful to, being our inaugural MC and first Honorary Member.

Since then, the Community in Business brand has continued to grow exponentially, with over 100 businesses in any given year signing up as members to fund the program.

A major drawcard of these events are the special guests who attend the multiple functions across the year.

“Our feature guests continue to reflect the ethos of supporting every level of the game,” Grima said.

“We make sure that we are always celebrating Victoria’s football achievements, by unifying the achievements of football past, present and future in this country and the diversity of our great game.”

Guests from over the years include Harry Kewell, Graham Arnold, Craig Johnston, Archie Thompson, John Aloisi, Lisa De Vanna, Melissa Barbieri, Tony Vidmar, Paul Wade, Craig Foster, Les Murray and many more.

Other notable events over the course gave members the opportunity to meet former Manchester United and Liverpool players such as Wes Brown, Louis Saha, David James, Emile Heskey and Steve McManaman.

Occasions such as this couldn’t be possible without the assistance of event organisers, who the federation works alongside.

“A big thanks must go to the team at MSE Events,” Grima said.

“The events are very thoughtfully considered and planned, as much as possible, around special events where the celebration doesn’t end at the luncheons.

“For example, when Brazil and Argentina were in town, we gave all our members free tickets to these matches.”

Grima believes that without the support from clubs, businesses and the football community as a whole, the program wouldn’t be where it Is today.

“I am personally proud of how far the program has come,” he said.

“It is called Community in Business because it is a network that is owned and valued by the community. We are all in the business of making this community great. Together we can achieve more for our game, unified as friends in football.

“Community in Business continues to demonstrate how business and community can work together to achieve extraordinary outcomes for our game.”

More information on Football Victoria’s Community in Business program can be found here.

 

 

 

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