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FFA CEO James Johnson: “We have many challenges in front of us as a sport”

James Johnson FFA CEO

Is James Johnson the trailblazer Australian football needs?

When James Johnson, the FFA CEO, attended his first press conference in mid January, he could never have predicted the enormous challenges facing Australian football.

Significantly, he was the first CEO in the history of the FFA to have a football background, having played for Brisbane Strikers at youth and senior level in the NSL and also being an original member of Les Scheinflug’s Joey’s squad of 1999 which performed so gallantly to reach the final in New Zealand before succumbing in a penalty shootout to the mighty Brazil.

In late March, mainly due to the impact of COVID-19, it seemed the sky was falling when 70 per cent of the FFA staff were stood down and there was extreme uncertainty about Fox Sports’ commitment to A-League coverage.

Fortunately, Johnson demonstrated all the negotiation skills he had gained in his senior roles at the PFA, Asian Football Confederation, FIFA and the City Group since 2009 to carve out a deal which ensured A-League backing from Fox for the remainder of the current season and to the end of next season.

He also played a major part in Australia and New Zealand securing the 2023 Women’s World Cup, and was the main architect behind the selection of the Starting XI and the proposed XI Principles which are designed to lead football into a new era.

Nevertheless, despite his track record and excellent credentials, Johnson has one of the toughest jobs in Australian sport as he tries to unite the stakeholders of a game which has always exhibited major political divisions.

In this interview with Roger Sleeman, James Johnson discusses all things football in his attempt to take the game to a new high in the Australian sporting landscape.

ROGER SLEEMAN
What are your views on the current state of Australian football?

JAMES JOHNSON
We have many challenges in front of us as a sport, intensified by COVID-19. These include the economics of cost and funding, as well as many football challenges, for example rankings in senior men’s national teams and not producing the same number of players competing in leading overseas Leagues. Also, our youth teams still find it hard to qualify through Asia in both the men’s and women’s game so this has to be addressed.

However, there are many opportunities, including capitalising on the large participation rate, local and global ownership, NPL clubs with an amazing history which has to be tapped into, and great products in the Matildas and the Socceroos, with the Tokyo Olympic Games, and World Cups, including one on home-soil in 2023, to look forward to.

ROGER SLEEMAN
Which of the Proposed XI Principles deserve major priority?

JAMES JOHNSON
They are all important as they include a vision, a narrative and definition of who we are. These philosophical football principles must be reinforced by commercial well-being of the game so real change can be implemented. Critically, changes in all parts of the game are required to realise the principles.

ROGER SLEEMAN
What is the state of progress in the efforts to fund the game, in light of the competitive marketplace and sponsorship dollars foregone?

JAMES JOHNSON
The traditional methods of business are broadcast, sponsorship, gate receipts and player registration fees. Undoubtedly, post COVID-19, broadcast revenues will be more difficult to obtain and sponsorship will be more competitive. Due to globalisation of the game across the world, the sponsorship funds go to bigger Leagues and clubs. Therefore, in Australia we need to look at new ways like O.T.T. and digitalisation of the game to produce more reliable revenue streams. Capital investment from the private sector and government also has to be increased.

ROGER SLEEMAN
What is being done to engage the general media in lifting the profile of the game within print, radio, television, and internet mediums?

JAMES JOHNSON
Firstly, we have to identify how our supporters are absorbing content. Our ongoing market research shows the A-League supporter is between 16-30 years of age and they are obtaining content through digital means, for example social media, especially Facebook. We have to capitalise on this further, but we shouldn’t ignore traditional and mainstream media. The Women’s World Cup can be very important in leading the transition to gain increased coverage through this medium. Also, we have to identify people in mainstream media who support our game and can influence the decision makers. In this regard, I recently met with Karl Stefanovic from the 9 Network who played youth football in Cairns and whose father played for West Ham. We have to be smart and find such people to put their hand up and make a statement for the code.

ROGER SLEEMAN
What are your plans to revamp the youth development system?

JAMES JOHNSON
In this space, there are significant challenges and it takes a long time to develop pathways. Some of our recent failures to qualify in both men and women youth tournaments must be reversed and we have to find ways to invest in youth development and pathways. Ideally, a transfer system will be an incentive for NPL and A-League clubs to focus on player development which will guarantee rewards and reinvestment in the game.

ROGER SLEEMAN
There is a distinct absence of technical players in Australia and very few playing regularly in the world’s top Leagues. What are you proposing in this area?

JAMES JOHNSON
The improvement in technical skills is a major priority for our game and we are discussing this in detail with the Starting XI. Regarding the fewer Aussie players in top Leagues, the freedom of movement of players in Europe sees more players moving across borders which increases the talent pool and can limit the opportunities for our players.

ROGER SLEEMAN
The selection of the Starting XI with former star players like Mark Viduka, Paul Okon and Mark Bosnich was an innovative step but what about former players who have achieved at the highest level in the game and in business but are not given a chance to contribute, e.g. Jack Reilly, Peter Katholos, Danny Moulis, Alan Davidson, Craig Johnston, Gary Marocchi, Glen Sterrey, Richie Williams, Manny Spanoudakis and Dave McQuire to name a few.

JAMES JOHNSON
The Starting XI is a football advisory panel and they have provided a lot of feedback already, including on the transfer system. Certainly, we have to listen to other football people to assist the game’s growth, and we are very open to doing so.

ROGER SLEEMAN
The game’s history reflects a lack of recognition for former players to be involved.
Your comment.

JAMES JOHNSON
I reiterate, it is important to draw on the expertise of former players and perfect examples are (Zvonimir) Boban and (Marco) Van Basten with FIFA and (Dejan) Savicevic at UEFA. The appointment of Mark Bresciano and Amy Duggan to the FFA Board last year was a positive move and former Socceroo and Newcastle Jets CEO, Robbie Middleby, is making a big difference at the FFA. Sarah Walsh, a former Matilda, is also a member of our senior management and works in our participation and grassroots space.

ROGER SLEEMAN
What are your thoughts on the proposed change of season from summer to winter?

JAMES JOHNSON
Obviously, the practical reason for a change is the late finish in August, rather than May this season. We have flagged the 2020/21 competition to start in December which will allow a fair time for the clubs and players to re-set and provide the opportunity for us to assess the benefits of A-League, W-League, NPL and grassroots playing simultaneously. This will also test the alignment of more grass-root supporters to become fans of senior football.

ROGER SLEEMAN
Many people believe the decision of the Board to deny the Southern Expansion an A-League license was a major mistake, particularly in light of their commitment to put down $15 million dollars on the table immediately and their Chinese backer’s intention to purchase Shark Park from Cronulla League’s club.
Your comment.

JAMES JOHNSON
I can’t comment because I wasn’t in the country at the time, but I can say, there is a solid commitment in the XI Principles for our Professional Leagues to be expanded.

Football Tasmania CEO Matt Bulkeley: “It isn’t a national competition without a Tasmanian team in it”

Football Tasmania CEO Matt Bulkeley has been in the job since August 2018, and has had plenty of work cut out for him during a turbulent time in Australian football. He spoke to Soccerscene about his involvement in football, Tasmania’s A-League ambitions, and the future of the game in Australia’s smallest state.

Q. How did you become involved in football?

Bulkeley: I’ve been involved in football all my life, I started playing when I was about six or seven in the Hills district in Sydney. I played football probably until I was about 35, and was involved as a volunteer coaching juniors and seniors. I studied a sports management degree when I finished school and worked for about 10 years in cricket. The opportunity came up for an opportunity with Football Federation Australia in around 2005, and I took that role on and was with the national body for almost eight years. I had some other roles in between before coming back into football in this role. 

Q. What challenges has Football Tasmania faced in recent years?

Bulkeley: We’ve had similar challenges to everyone else in relation to COVID, The interruption of the season, and the need to reconfigure what we had planned to do. We were able to get away a season that was roughly two-thirds of a normal season, we didn’t play all of the normal games. We did get most of our players who ended up playing after the break, which was a good thing. When we did return it was a pretty good season. What our clubs found was that they had good interest, good attendance on game days. People enjoyed themselves, and after that lockdown, it was in a sense even more important people had football to forward to and bring themselves together again. What it did impact was that the National Boy’s Championship didn’t go ahead, so that cohort of players didn’t have that opportunity last year, which was disappointing for them with a bit of gap in their development.

In terms of other challenges, one of our challenges that has been fairly well documented is around facilities. We are the biggest participation sport in Tasmania in terms of team sports, but our facilities have not kept up with that demand. They are dated, they are all a similar age and until recent times that haven’t provided suitable amenities for females in particular, both in terms of the number of change rooms as well as their design. We’ve spent a lot of time in the last couple of years working with all levels of government and our stakeholders to try and unlock more funding in football and had good success with that. There have been commitments of $30 million-plus, maybe closer to $40 million after this last state election, and we are starting to see the fruit from that – better facilities, and more across the state.

Q. Has engaging with state government and politicians been a challenge?

Bulkeley: It has been a challenge, and I think that is because we haven’t been as coordinated as we could have been in our approach, and being able to put forward a needs-based business case on why football needs better and more facilities. We are the biggest sport, we are bursting at the seams, and have facilities that aren’t fit for purpose. On one hand, it was challenging, but on the other the case sort of speaks for itself in terms of outcomes in recent years.

Q. Is a boutique rectangular stadium an aim for Football Tasmania?

Bulkeley: Absolutely, as far as I know, we are the only state capital that doesn’t have a rectangular stadium of any kind. When we have high-level games, including the Western United games, they’ve been played on ovals which as you know isn’t as good of a spectator experience for everyone. It’s really important for our ambitions for having our own A-League and W-League teams, which we are confident will happen. The Liberal state government has been very supportive in recent times under the leadership of premier Gutwein, in terms of supporting those ambitions, and has been very positive around a rectangular stadium. We know that would be very important in terms of that missing link for sport in this state. 

Q. How important would it be to become the first football code to launch a professional team in Tasmania?

Bulkeley: I think it’s just important full stop that we have that pathway opportunity. One of the big benefits we see having a team will provide for males and females in that opportunity locally to play at the highest level in this country without leaving the state. We’ve still got people as young as 14 and their families having to decide to relocate, with half of them staying and half of them going, so this provides a local opportunity for those more aspirational players. Then obviously being the biggest team participation sport it provides that local high-level football opportunity for people to go and watch to get behind. We think we have the football community to support it, but also think it adds value to our community by providing local heroes for our young people to look up to.

Q. What hurdles does Football Tasmania in launching an A-League team?

Bulkeley: It is tied to further expansion to the A-League, and from everything that has been communicated from the APL (Australian Professional Leagues), that will occur. Then it’s working on the infrastructure part of it, ensuring we have government support, and that we work with club owners and put the case for having a Tasmania team forward as a strong environment for a further team to be based. It would add a lot to the competition, and our view has always been that it isn’t a national competition if it doesn’t have a Tasmanian team in it. 

Q. What challenges does Football Tasmania face going forward?

Bulkeley: I think one thing we have worked hard on, in the last period of time, is collaboration. We have and are committed to working very closely with our clubs and associations on the aspirations of football. We know we can only do it together. We’ve made some really good inroads in the infrastructure area. We are working hard on other areas of the game, continuing to grow the game, the female side of the game. We have the highest proportion of female participation of anywhere in the country of almost 29%, which we are very proud of but want to keep building on that. We want to keep providing more opportunities around coach education and development, and similarly with refereeing. So there are lots of opportunities and challenges for us to embrace, but we know we need to work together with our clubs and associations to do that.

Football Coaches Australia presents ‘The Football Coaching Life Podcast’ S2 Ep 5 with Gary Cole interviewing Catherine Cannuli

Football Life Podcast Cannuli

Catherine Cannuli has recently been appointed as Head Coach of the W-League team at Western Sydney Wanderers after spending a number of years as Assistant Coach after she finished up her playing career at the Club.

Cath had a terrific playing career as a junior and senior player, becoming a 15-year-old first-team player at Marconi before also playing W-League football with Sydney FC and Brisbane Roar, as well as receiving four caps for the Matildas.

Her coaching career began at Southern Districts with the Raiders before quickly adding the U14’s and eventually the Technical Director role. Catherine is open in discussing how great the Association have been in helping her grow and develop as a coach and in allowing her to juggle her coaching role at WSW whilst learning to understand the demands of full-time coaching.

We discuss the impact that Alen Stajcic has had on her career as both a player and a coach as well as how he helped her ‘fall back in love with the game’ after she walked away from the game and the national junior teams.

In her role as TD with Southern Districts she is focused on helping players love the game first as well as trying to fit in more games and training sessions to provide more learning opportunities for players and coaches.

It becomes very evident that Catherine wants to leave a legacy for the W-League program at Wanderers where all players, coaches and staff are full-time.

Please join me in sharing Catherine Cannuli’s Football Coaching Life.

Australian Clem Morfuni becomes owner of Swindon Town FC

Swindon Town Morfuni

Australian Clem Morfuni has become the majority stakeholder in League Two side Swindon Town FC, with an ambition of bringing in a new era to the club.

The Robins, who were relegated from League One last season and have just nine senior players contracted – including Australian Jordan Lyden – will be backed by Morfuni for the foreseeable future with the upcoming League Two campaign less than three weeks away.

Morfuni, a previous minority stakeholder in the side, founded his plumbing business Axis Services Group in Australia in 1994. It is now a globally operating business with a financial turnover of $200 million each year.

The acquisition has also signalled the end of a lengthy ownership battle for the League Two club who have fought recent financial hardships. Moreover, the club’s fans have rejoiced across social media at the sight of Morfuni’s long-awaited arrival.

In a club statement, Morfuni acknowledged the importance of having a ‘fans first’ philosophy on and off the field.

“I want to tell the fans that you’ve got your club back, a football club should be the heartbeat of the town and the local community and should be something that the whole town and surrounding communities takes great pride in,” he said.

“Without fans you don’t have a club and I want to thank every supporter (many who I have got to know personally) who have fought for their club and helped me to gain control. I know I am indebted to you and will work hard to make this club a club all our fans can be proud of.

“Last season we came last in the football league in terms of fan engagement; this season I aim to come first.”

Morfuni’s takeover of the club has ushered in a new contingent of executive and technical staff, with arrivals including Swindon Town Supporters Trust board member Rob Angus as club CEO and Ben Chorley and Ben Garner as the club’s Director of Football and Head Coach respectively.

In addition, Morfuni spoke on the significance of building a youthful side, something which bodes well for young Australians seeking a pathway into European football.

“I want a young, forward thinking, vibrant club. I want the average age of the team to come down, that doesn’t mean every player will be young because you need a balance, but I want a young side that plays an exciting style of football and create a club where top young players want to join because of the environment, the opportunities they will be given,” he said.

Morfuni’s full statement can be read here.

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