fbpx

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 Queensland awards four teams with FQ Club Shields

Football Queensland have issued their first FQ Club Shields to four teams across the sunshine state.

The clubs to receive the accolade are Brisbane City, Brisbane Strikers, Lions FC and Gold Coast United.

The FQ Club Shield initiative was announced in June, serving as a visual representation of how clubs are performing based on a number of factors including extensive technical assessments.

“The FQ Club Shield initiative has been developed to improve accountability, transparency and visibility across a club’s technical performance and achievements while giving them a platform to celebrate success and growth in a meaningful way,” FQ CEO Robert Cavallucci said.

“We congratulate Brisbane City, Brisbane Strikers, Lions FC and Gold Coast United on completing their assessments in partnership with our FQ Club Development Unit and becoming the first clubs to receive their FQ Club Shields, with the remainder of National Premier Leagues Queensland Men’s, Women’s and Football Queensland Premier League clubs to receive theirs in the coming weeks,” he continued.

“FQ will continue to roll this initiative out across clubs as we support them in building capacity and improving technical development standards.

“Assessments are undertaken continually with star ratings provided annually. Up-to-date FQ Club Shields will be displayed on the Football Queensland website where players and parents can view them.”

The Club Development Unit critiques clubs on their planning, delivery and development outcome measures.

It also takes into account factors such as training and game observations, as well as an assessment of coaching standards.

“It is important to note that achieving any of the Gold, Silver or Bronze rating categories demonstrates considerable effort and consistent work and quality delivery by clubs’ administrators and technical staff,” FQ State Technical Director Gabor Ganczer said.

“The FQ Club Development Unit is continuing to ensure that both the players involved in these programs and the clubs themselves are well supported in their development.

Fixing Australia’s youth development starts with revamping the Y-League

A lack of consistent talent-production has cast the spotlight over Australia’s youth pathways in recent years, a topic that has generated robust discussion in football circles.

With many in the industry calling for change, it was a welcome sight when in July, Football Federation Australia (FFA) released its ‘XI Principles’ discussion paper. The document was generally well-received and among the key issues James Johnson and his team addressed was the requirement for a systematic revamp of Australia’s youth system.

According to principle five, FFA will seek to ‘Create a world class environment for youth development / production by increasing match minutes for youth players and streamlining the player pathway.’

Reinvigorating Australia’s youth football pathways will require a long-term, systematic approach to be successful but one thing is certain – young players simply need more competitive minutes.

And that starts by revamping the Y-League. As it stands, 10 clubs make up Australia’s national developmental and under-23 reserve league, forming two conferences.

In principle, the league fits a purpose, but in practice the system is not providing anywhere near enough high-level football for youngsters, certainly not since structural changes were made that hamstring the progress of Australia’s youth prospects..

Gary van Egmond was appointed Young Socceroos manager after the team failed to qualify for three consecutive Under-20 World Cups.

The 2015-16 season saw a new format introduced whereby the Y-League’s regular season was reduced from 18 games per team to a meagre eight (with potential for nine including a grand final).

Part of this reduction in games was due to budget cuts, another part due to FFA’s desire for players to use the NPL system as a developmental tool. On paper this seemed reasonable, but it has proved counterproductive, as talented youngsters are often torn between multiple commitments, causing a severe lack of continuity.

Although A-League clubs can enter their academy teams into their respective state’s NPL competition, elite players are playing a mixture of Y-League, NPL and the A-League games, the latter usually in a substitute or benchwarmer capacity.

This lack of consistency is creating a massive void in player development during what are some of their most critical years.

Earlier this year, Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) published an extensive report reviewing the national youth competition through historical analysis and player surveys. In an interview with pfa.com.au regarding the report, Guinean born Australian youth-level star John Roberts had the following to say.

“The Y-League is only eight games, and sometimes you don’t play eight, maybe it’s just four or five because you’re trialling with the first team or you’re the 17th or 18th man and you don’t get to play. In my opinion, for young players I think the youth league needs to go to a full season because I just think it will benefit us young players, it will give us more opportunity when we’re not playing.”

“But after the youth league finishes, you have to wait a while and then play NPL1 or NPL2 or just wait for your opportunity in the A-League.”

“You have to play regularly in higher competitions. If you’re playing NPL1 or NPL2 and you get called up into the A-League, the intensity of the game is too different because you’re not used to that and you don’t play in a high enough competition.”

The full interview with Roberts can be found here.

Striker John Roberts spoke about the limitations of the Y-League.

Among the notable results published in the report were that 90% of players believe the Y-League season should be extended and that only 20% of players who have graduated from the Y-League over the past five years went on to make an A-League appearance.

The findings led PFA Chief Executive John Didulica to state “In its current format the Y-League does not meet the needs of the players, A-League clubs or Australian football.”

The lack of youth production has predictably influenced the national setup, with Australia’s Under-20 team failing to qualify for the FIFA Under-20 World Cup for a record third consecutive time.

With the Y-League’s structural changes in 2016 clearly not having their intended impacts and FFA’s 2017 closure of the AIS, changes need to be made.

The solution may simply involve favouring the decentralized, academy-first approach which FFA has created but designing an environment which complements it. Something akin to the National Youth League of 1981-2004.

Extending the Y-League to run parallel to the A-League as a genuine reserve grade competition would allow players to fully commit to their academy side. This would mean ample minutes, plus a guarantee of continuity that does not currently exist for players who are forced to rebound between Y-League, NPL and occasionally A-League clubs.

While in theory this could harm NPL teams if their talented youngsters are poached by academies, it could create a perfect opportunity for FFA to implement new rules and regulations surrounding player transfers and compensation that would form part of an improved transfer system.

This is something the federation has stated it wishes to achieve through principle number three, in which FFA states in intention ‘To establish an integrated and thriving football ecosystem driven by a modern domestic transfer system’.

Designing a formal compensation system to parallel a legitimate under-23’s full season competition would kill two birds with one stone, rewarding grassroots clubs for producing talent while giving young players the consistent exposure to competitive football

There are undoubtedly factors, mainly commercial, which would dictate the validity of these ideas, but the game’s top administrators do need to act, or Australia will face the risk of losing its next generation and fading from international football relevance.

FFA maintains commitment for Indigenous football

FFA has expressed its commitment towards a new era of Indigenous football in light of NAIDOC Week and Indigenous Football Week 2020.

Football Federation Australia (FFA) has expressed its commitment towards a new era of Indigenous football in light of NAIDOC Week and Indigenous Football Week 2020.

The recently concluded NAIDOC Week and Indigenous Football Week celebrated the history, cultures and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to Australian society.

“In the XI Principles for the future of Australian football we recognise that our Indigenous heritage must be a critical component of Australian football’s identity and story, the need for clearer pathways, and to create more opportunities for Indigenous players, coaches and administrators to play and be involved in football,” FFA Chief Executive Officer, James Johnson said.

“It’s key that FFA becomes a leader in the Indigenous space. As part of the consultation process for the XI Principles, we have spoken with the Indigenous community over the past four months.

“One of the concrete outcomes of that process will be appointment of a National Indigenous Manager in the first quarter of 2021.”

FFA’s commitment to Indigenous football is strengthened with news that Football Queensland (FQ) has shown its support to a new showcase of Indigenous football and culture that be part of an exciting triple-header in Redcliffe on 27 February 2021.

Men’s and women’s teams made up of Indigenous players from across the nation will be the feature, taking on event hosts Peninsula Power FC in two exhibition matches at AJ Kelly Park.

FQ have officially endorsed the sanctioned event and will supply match officials for both games, as well as a curtain raiser involving Peninsula’s masters team and the South Coast Jummalungs – an Over 35s side from New South Wales.

The event has also been endorsed by Football West (FW) and Football Northern Territory (FNT).

“Events such as these add to the fabric of our football community,” Johnson said.

“FFA joins our Member Federations in endorsing this event, which has been sanctioned by Football Queensland, and congratulates everyone involved with its establishment. I understand that some high-profile former Socceroos and Australian youth internationals of Indigenous heritage will be involved with the event, which will also include football clinics and a showcase of First Nations culture through football.”

FFA Head of Game Development Sarah Walsh welcomed FFA’s Indigenous football developments.  

“We are fully focused on embedding Indigenous football into everything that we do with the goal of increasing Indigenous participation in our game at both the elite and community levels,” Walsh said.

“From Harry Williams, John Moriarty and Karen Menzies, to Jade North, Lydia Williams and Kyah Simon, our game has been blessed with the talents of incredible Indigenous and First Nations footballers.

“To provide the opportunity for the next generation to continue this tradition and to strengthen Indigenous participation at all levels of the game, we need to create stronger pathways and ensure they are integrated seamlessly into our current development system.

“We want to continue to partner with great organisations like John Moriarty Football and events such as the one being held in Queensland in February as we build a pathway that takes into account the varied experiences of Indigenous peoples,” she said.

Johnson, Walsh and National Technical Director Trevor Morgan all recently attended John Moriarty Football’s Indigenous Football Week Gala Day at their Dubbo hub. The event wrapped up a week of celebrations for JMF and the FFA.

Photo credit: Football Federation Australia.

© 2020 Soccerscene Industry News. All Rights reserved. Reproduction is prohibited.

Most Popular Topics

Editor Picks