Is FFA’s determination to continue with A-League football amidst coronavirus concerns brave or foolish?

The new man at the helm of FFA must be a risk taker, even whilst facing the scary realities of coronavirus.

Monday morning’s announcement that Australian football would proceed in spite of the pandemic seemed somewhat out of step with most current thinking. It also did not align with many of the decisions being made by other sporting organisations, both in Australia and internationally.

James Johnson held a professional and concise press conference to inform the nation of the decision to allow football across the country to continue in the immediate future, with an assurance that the fluid situation would be re-evaluated on a constant basis as the evolving coronavirus story unfolded.

The powers at be were content for the W-League Grand-Final between Melbourne City and Sydney FC to go ahead this weekend, albeit behind closed doors. With just one match remaining in the season, an argument could be made that it is a risk worth taking.

However, endeavouring to continue the A-League season in spite of increased infections around the country and some of the logistical complications that will occur with an immediate change to the schedule, will seem fool hardly to some.

With mandated 14 day quarantine periods now in place for people arriving in both Australia and New Zealand, Johnson’s announcement means that both the Melbourne Victory and Wellington Phoenix will experience such a restriction after returning to Australia. Upcoming matches involving both clubs within that period will be postponed.

Wellington will have their Round 24 clash with Newcastle delayed as well as the already postponed encounter with Sydney FC. Victory will have their matches against Brisbane and Perth pushed back to accommodate the quarantine period.

A-League boss Greg O’Rourke expressed the need for brisk discussions with stadium representatives and clubs in order to re-schedule the final seven rounds of play. Doing so would allow the postponed matches to be held and all teams to play out their allocated 26 games.

It appears mid-week matches will become the norm in an effort to squeeze seven weeks into four.

Despite initially announcing that NPL play would continue, with only people essential to the playing of the game to be in attendance, that decision was reversed on Tuesday. Along with all grassroots football, the game will now go into hiatus until at least April 14.

What Johnson outlined to the media had obviously been carefully considered, in line with the Australian Government’s official advice at the time and after discussions with key stakeholders. However, with most sporting competitions taking the decision to cease indefinitely,  it appears that proceeding with a revised A-League schedule could have serious repercussions for players, staff, referees and their families.

Ploughing forward with a revised schedule in the hope of completing the season and crowning an A-League champion, as well as continuing NPL and grassroots play, would simply have increased human interaction and by extension, the chance of infection. That plan lasted less than a day, with common sense prevailing, aside from the decision to continue the A-League season.

Stoically allowing the matches to proceed does little more that create more human contact than what would take place during a short term suspension of play.

Thus, many will see the FFA decision as irresponsible.

When quizzed by journalists around the ramifications of the loss of gate-takings and the financial hit the game was already taking, Johnson was quick to state that monetary matters were secondary and that the health and wellbeing of the footballing community were of the highest concern, along with the game acting responsibly as a citizen.

Yet with schools acting briskly and postponing events, major sports putting competitions on indefinite hold and all gatherings of 500 people or more now banned in Australia, FFA’s move appears one made by a body determined to proceed in spite of the increased risk that doing so creates.

In reality, the decision could be the most temporary of moves. An infected A-League player would shut the league down instantly and seems inevitable.

No doubt, should the league be ceased at its current point, the ramifications for FFA are profound. Lost revenue stemming from postponed World Cup qualifiers is already on its mind and an Olympics where our national teams were to be showcased appears more and more unlikely

The already financially stretched A-League clubs will suffer further without gate takings and may be forced to forgo corporate benefits from opportunistic businesses looking to align as the season reaches its climax and the finals approach.

A-League wages for both players and staff would come into question, with other codes already toying with notions of broad and mandated percentage pay cuts.

Grassroots registration fees across the country may well be refunded should junior football associations be forced to abandon their seasons and state federations could be left with a financial vacuum and without their most reliable revenue stream.

Without football to cover, media contracts will not be met and the ramifications of adjustments to broadcasting deals to compensate for a lack of content will further hurt the game.

Johnson and O’Rourke have made the call to persist with play and if that proves to be a successful ploy, as infection rates drop and the situation stabilises, they will forever be known as the geniuses who navigated their sport through a period in which others shut down conservatively.

Alternatively, they may be seen as the men who proceeded pig-headedly, when most of the sporting world closed for business.

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Ange Koutos calls for removal of FV Emerging from women’s NPL

The Victorian women’s National Premier League season will breathe a rejuvenated sigh of relief when it kicks off in early April after two seasons lost to Covid-19. However, former NSL/Greek First Division Professional and past South Melbourne senior women’s premiership coach Ange Koutos believes the competition remains shackled by Football Victoria’s insertion of their Emerging Matildas side.

‘FV Emerging’ are one of just eight sides that contest the league, providing an opportunity for those within the full-time National Training Centre program to experience the graft and grind of weekly senior football, with an eye to higher honours.

If the theory is sound, Koutos believes the reality is of significant detriment to the other seven clubs. It’s a lesson he thinks the game has already learned, evident through the discontinuation of the male equivalent after 2011. 

“Here in Victoria the talent pool is so small, and the Emerging Matildas program is actually detrimental to growing the talent pool,” Koutos told Soccerscene.

“The Victorian Federation goes out and gets the most talented girls and puts them in their program that goes down to junior ranks as well.

“Instead of these girls being in a club environment and then selected to go and represent Victoria, they’re invited to the Federation program, and we’re starved of them. It says ‘if you’re not in this program, you will never, ever become a Matilda.’ So for me, it’s like all the other girls that are at South Melbourne, Heidelberg, Box Hill and all the other clubs are just cannon fodder.”

Koutos coaching for South Melbourne FC.

Koutos believes the channelling of talent into one side means a lack of competitive tension which is, counterintuitively – what Football Victoria hopes players in their program are exposed to by playing in the competition. It also means players who fall out of the program see the other clubs as unfit to provide them a pathway to the professional ranks.

“When girls trial for the Federation Program, and the ones that don’t get selected come back to their clubs, the parents demand they play a higher age group to be challenged and prepare to return the following year to try again,” Koutos said.

“They’re using the clubs as intermediaries, when it should be the clubs developing players with an eye to the long term and their senior teams.

“There’s a lot of girls in Victoria who are what we term ‘institutionalised’ – they’re not focused on results, they’re focused on the pathway. They train without the added pressure of going out on the weekend to try to win points. If they lose 5-0 it feels like ‘that’s alright, just go back to training, keep developing.’

“The same thing happened with the boys program. It produced players with no emotion. It said ‘win, draw, loss, it doesn’t matter.’ It should, and when all the boys came out and went back to clubland or overseas there was all this pressure, which was new to them.”

Koutos has seen a great deal across his 30 years in the professional game. Following his career as one of the first Australians to ply his trade abroad that wrapped up with a denouement in the NSL, he’s coached men’s football, women’s football, junior boys and girls, both in Australia and abroad. Of all the hats he feels junior development fits best, and this winter he’ll coach South Melbourne’s Under 17 girls and Manningham’s Under 14 boys.

“If junior coaches are not there, you’re not going to get the players to filter up. For me it’s about growing the talent pool and passing on my knowledge, whether it be football related or physiological. It’s a whole package,” Koutos said.

Koutos’ life in football began in the same manner as many Greek-Australians of his generation, following the migration of his father Peter from Greece in 1954.

“My father started off as all Greek immigrants did, as a South Melbourne supporter. In Greece there’s a cultural difference between the north and the south, and my father happened to be at a game – South Melbourne against Heidelberg – where some South supporters were throwing derogatory remarks at the Heidelberg fans.

Koutos heading clear for Pierikos against Panathinaikos in the Greek Cup, 1992. He was one of four Australians on the pitch this day. The Panathinaikos side featured Louis Christodoulou, Jason Polak and Chris Kalantzis.

“My father thought ‘well, you’re effectively swearing at me there’, so he changed allegiances and went for Heidelberg.”

Without knowing it, Peter’s switch reflected how his son’s career would play out, criss-crossing between Melbourne’s two strongholds of Greek football: starting with South Melbourne’s juniors in 1975, and ending his career with Heidelberg in 1994 – fleetingly managing their seniors the next year, and returning to South in 2018.

In between were two defining periods in Greece, firstly as a player with S.F.K. Pierikos between 1986-1994, and secondly as a coach of their junior academy from 2008 – when the game grabbed him again after a period of disillusionment.

“I had interest from Heidelberg and South Melbourne aged 20 but was looking for my next challenge so went overseas. I thought if nothing eventuated, at least I had one of the two big Greek clubs in Melbourne to fall back on. I ended up staying for eight years,” Koutos said.

“When going to Europe from Australia at that time, going to the moon was probably closer! Only Eddie Krncevic was a recognised Australian playing, and then there was a big influx of players into the Greek league: myself, Jimmy Patikas, Chris Kalantzis, Louis Christodoulou and Johnny Anastasiadis. Frank Farina was also starting his career at the time, so there were a dozen of us in the mid-to-late 80’s.”

It was at Pierikos that Koutos’ views on the game were challenged, primarily under managers John Mantzourakis and Dimitrias Liapis, who exposed him to a level of management then non-existent in Australia.

“Mantzourakis was young and ambitious, and a very strict disciplinarian and tactician. I learnt about looking at the game from a tactical point of view – when here in Australia the coaches just put the starting eleven out and said, ‘go out and play,’ Koutos said.

Suddenly I came across this coach who gave me something to think about. When we came up against the bigger clubs we took up different conservative tactics, then when we played clubs at our own level we might attack a little more.

“The one that really influenced me completely was Liapis – who was a lecturer at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki. He majored in football! At that stage football was changing from that technical, romantic style that we all want to see to a more robust, athletic, ‘German-style’ game.

The establishment of the Collingwood Warriors alongside Lou Richards.

“We were robots, athletes, but he kept his training around the ball rather than running, and he’s probably the major influence on my coaching.”

Further influence came while working as an assistant to Zoran Matic at Heidelberg in 1997, with the club at the time operating as the Collingwood Warriors following their expulsion from the National Soccer League in 1995. A six-game stint in charge of Heidelberg, existing separately to the Warriors in the Victorian Premier League, would also follow.

“The two candidates for the Warriors job were Krncevic and Matic. Eddie had a chat with me and said if he was given the nod I’d be playing. Zoran didn’t say anything, and didn’t endear himself to the existing Heidelberg players; I think he had a bleak view of the standard of players that were at the Bergers, and even let Bobby Despotovski slip through his fingers.

“I thought if Zoran got the nod it would be a good opportunity to go into coaching, which was the natural progression for a player. I thought, ‘who better to learn under?’ He got the nod, I put in the application, and we worked together for a good eight months before it fell apart.”

Koutos makes no secret of his disappointment in the way his first stint in Australian management concluded, and it was only after a chance meeting with a former teammate while living in Greece that the wheels of his second-coming as a coach began to turn. 

“After the Heidelberg stint as senior coach I was just despondent with the game, and the way things had happened,” Koutos said.

“When you’ve got like minded people, you can work – but once the committee changes with a different outlook on things, you clash. I was pretty hurt by that and walked away from the game.

“Then I went overseas, and just out of the blue a former teammate of mine at Pierikos approached me and said, ‘how about coming over to our academy?’ I ummed and ahhed but after a couple of weeks gave in, found my niche and that’s where the junior development all started.”

Koutos’ vast experiences have given him a worldly view on the game, and also the opportunity to test ideas and theories in a range of environments. But like Ange Postecoglou – who he first crossed paths with as a South Melbourne junior – his views on the game remain shaped by his formative years.

“My key principles are always the same, whether it be boys, girls, senior men, senior women,” Koutos said.

“Whether I’m playing a different system, it’s about aggressiveness, keeping the ball on the deck, and the stuff you read from Ange’s autobiography. Our fathers saw the game the same way.”

Despite years of public consternation around National Technical Directors and Coaching Curriculums, he sees unity of purpose as the greatest challenge facing development in the men’s game, and that the lack of it hinders any chance of NPL pathways stitching together with the professional level consistently. 

“Even though Football Australia have come out with their National Coaching Curriculum to streamline everything and get everyone to think the same way, unfortunately each state has their own way of playing the game,” Koutos said.

“If you look at the Victorian NPL, it’s a very aggressive style of football with not much on the tactical side, which is the legacy of the English and Scottish influence in Victorian football. If you go to South Australia, New South Wales or Queensland, it’s more possession based, and thinking about the game.

“It is healthy to a certain point, but what do A-League teams want? Do they want someone who will run, chase and be aggressive, or someone who can think about the game? We need to find some sort of uniformity in the way we all play.”

FCA Ambassador Ernie Merrick on being a football coach

The players must have clarity in their roles and a belief in the formations and structures being implemented by the Head Coach.

As often stated, there are only two types of coaches in football – “those that are sacked or those about to be sacked”.  Such is the emotional nature of the sport and the insecurity of the role.

It seems that, in most football clubs, negative short-term results determine the employment status of the coach. How much time are the club Board prepared to allow the Head Coach to build a team for the future?

Football can be simplified and defined as a team invasion game. The objective is to invade territory to an area where goal-scoring is possible. The players must have clarity in their roles and a belief in the formations and structures being implemented by the Head Coach.

A major failure of any player is not being involved in the invasion. Penetration through forward passes and movement is critical and everyone needs to play their part. FEAR is the foremost inhibitor of performance.

There is no doubt, that the noise from the critical and emotional minority affects decisions regarding short-term results – wins or losses.  Logic and reason would favour a coach who strategically plans and implements developmental processes which will deliver sustained success over time. Sir Alex Ferguson won Manchester United’s first EPL Premiership after 7 years and went on to win 13 EPL Championships and 17 other trophies.

The ultimate aim of the coach is to find the line between luck and skill and shift it. Luck plays a role but the implementation of programs that develop skilled technique, tactical decision-making, strategic awareness and game plan execution will grow the club and achieve continued success in the longer term. The Head Coach focuses on the TEAM, however, management is about INDIVIDUALS.

The modern professional game requires expert staff comprised of coaches and service providers to cover all aspects of player development – technical, tactical, physical, mental and personal skills. The Head Coach/Manager must demonstrate that he is able to coordinate the staff and drive change with a clear vision of the processes involved. He must be capable of planning a comprehensive holistic program and develop relationship skills that encourages staff and player buy-in and a willingness to be accountable.

The Head Coach must demonstrate competence in:

  • Enlisting support staff with qualifications, experience and education skills
  • Targeting the recruitment of players who fit specific profiles within the team game plan who have the necessary skill set combined with the right mindset and resilience
  • Implementing a program which clearly defines his coaching philosophy
  • Designing an attacking Game Model that will provide the best opportunity for success
  • Encouraging a brand of football that excites the crowds and makes them feel part of the game
  • Providing the club fans via the media with club driven news and team information

Poor results in the early stages of the coach appointment is not unusual but has to be managed and conciliated. Providing honest relevant information which accepts and identifies problematic issues and a club perspective on how matters will be resolved is always helpful.

Winning teams embrace pressure and the weight of high expectation.

The key to long term success is managing failure and learning from it.

As Einstein states – “Failure is success in progress.” [That’s Jimmy Einstein from Glasgow not Albert].

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