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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.

Q&A with Heidelberg United Technical Director Daniel Girardi

Daniel Girardi is the current technical director at Heidelberg United FC. He has previously worked at various clubs across Australian football, including Adelaide United, where he was a scout and an assistant to then head coach of the youth team Michael Valkanis.

Girardi has transferred the wealth of knowledge he has picked up over the course of his coaching career to spearhead the current youth development program at Heidelberg.

Girardi, alongside other coaches and staff, have implemented a philosophy at the club that focuses on critical areas to develop young footballers.

For example, it’s not enough to just develop a footballer, but rather a ‘total footballer’ that is a good person, friend and member of the community. Alongside having the technical, tactical and physical skills, Girardi believes it is necessary to exhibit good behaviours on a consistent basis.

Training programs are based around emphasising individual development within a team context, whilst coaches working with their different squads are encouraged to collaborate together as a unit to focus on the long-term development of players.

In a wide-ranging interview with Soccerscene, Girardi further explains why the youth development setup at Heidelberg has been successful, his career progression, the importance of a national second division, his own views on coaching standards in Australia and more.

First of all, tell me a little bit about your personal career in football and how you ended up in coaching?

I started playing in Adelaide. Like any junior you go through the ranks of a club, I went through Adelaide Blue Eagles. I went on to play with the senior team, from there I had coaching opportunities but I was very naïve and I didn’t want to take them. My senior coach at the time, Zoran Karadzic, said to me ‘Daniel, to be an even better player you need to understand the little intricate things, things that you don’t see that we need to see as coaches’. So at an early age of 17, he asked me to coach a junior team (under 8’s) so I did that while I was still playing. Then from there I went into further coaching, I became a junior technical director and coached all the way through from juniors to eventually senior head coach.

From there I moved to Adelaide United, Michael Valkanis asked me to come and join the team there. I joined United as a scout, as well as an assistant to the youth team, and that’s where my football mindset and career met as one. I honestly thought to myself ‘you can do this as a full-time job’. In Australia it’s very difficult, but at the same time you can put a program together to make it work. I tried to make it work now in my daily life, but again it’s very difficult. You have to coach early mornings and late at night, but it’s a passion that’s why you do it.

At Adelaide, I got to work with Josep Gombau, Michael Valkanis, Angelo Costanzo, Guillermo Amor and Pau Martí. Between all of them, my acceleration as a coach grew exponentially. Just the understanding, the little things that they can teach you about what to look for in a player, how to run, when they should pass the ball, timing, things like that, where in Australia we are not there yet. It was good for me to understand that the game is very simple but it’s the hardest thing to do. People talk about playing simple, but what does that mean?

There are 6 basic style rules that govern football throughout the world. If I see you, you see me, there’s a line of pass, we pass that ball. If there’s no line of pass, I need to run with the ball in order to find the next line. After that, the third rule being if you can’t find a line of pass and you can’t run with the ball, you need to protect the ball. We never player square – that allows counter attacks. Receiving always with your furthest foot so that you can face forward and no two players should be in the same line.

Would you say that standards and methods in local coaching have improved over the period of time since you began coaching?

That’s a hard question. I think the general understanding has improved. People are watching a lot more football, they understand they need to keep the ball and not give it away. But actually understanding the way you keep the ball is very different. In Europe, from a very young age, positionally, kids know where they are on the pitch. Kids know where they shouldn’t be, they know who they should pass to and when they shouldn’t pass to those players.

In Australia, people just see a pass and they just pass the ball. They are not understanding that if I pass the ball the wrong way to my teammate, not to his furthest foot, I’ve put them under pressure straightaway. If I don’t pass that ball with the right ball speed, I’ve put them under pressure straightway. When a player runs with the ball, does he or she use the furthest foot so their body is between the opposition player and the ball? What is the player’s orientation to the player with the ball and without? What’s their orientation to the defender? So, there’s the little things, I don’t think the level of detail is there in Australia yet.

Tell me a little bit about your current role at Heidelberg and your overall involvement in the current youth set up at the club. How did it come about?

I was speaking with George Katsakis a couple of years ago and he asked me if I was interested to join the club as technical director. At the time, I said yes I’d definitely be interested. Heidelberg is a big club. Heidelberg in the last five-six years is one of the best clubs in the country, because of the guidance from the board, Steve (president) and George as senior coach. So, I joined knowing that we are trying to develop players for that senior team. That’s what the goal always is.

However, we focus on how we can accelerate their growth in order to get them to the first team quicker, but at the same time make sure they are our juniors. We don’t want to go and continuously buy players, we don’t want to continuously bring players in from other clubs, we want to bring through our own. We want to have a long-term culture of developing Heidelberg boys and girls. Boys and girls that live in the area, that live and breathe wanting to be a part of Heidelberg, of Alexandros, it means something. To have players who start with our MiniRoos and give them every opportunity to progress into the junior setup and then to the seniors. That’s the main goal.

Heidelberg have strong teams at a junior and senior level across men’s and women’s competitions, what do you think is the formula behind this success in developing young talent at the club?

For me, 100%, having the facility continuously upgraded is so important. You need to have pitches, equipment and the club has always been willing to buy all these things. They’ve bought us new goals, new mini-goals, the smart goal system now, trackers, VEO and we’ve established a new collaboration with Oxidate – we are always cutting edge. So, we are trying to build that DNA and at the same time use technology effectively.

Importantly, we have really good coaches. Brian Vanega (U21s) who unfortunately had to leave due to family commitments, Jeff Olver who has come back to help the club, Renato Liberto (U19s), Adrian Mazzarella (U17s), Sinisha Ristevski (U16s), Jim Daglaras (U15s), Kai Maxfield (U14s); these are all coaches who have either got A licenses or B licenses. They all understand that we are trying not just to look at one team, the U17’s or U19’s or whatever. It’s a culture of looking more at the overall picture, the 200 boys and the 200 girls at the club and saying ‘how can we develop them as a group rather than individually?’ Anyone can go and kick a ball but you can’t play football by yourself, there’s 10 other people on the pitch. So, we focus on how we can get all of them up to the level we want them to be at.

What type of programs, initiatives have you introduced in regards to learning opportunities for other coaches at Heidelberg United? What do you provide coaches at the club with?

We provide them with an innovative online session planning and player management system called SoccerPLAY. It’s got hundreds of different sessions and drills that they can use for ideas to create and implement our methodology. Additionally, at any time, we are able to provide feedback to help improve the sessions and the coaches. At the same time, we also do coach to coach sessions and are always looking to improve the program.

We have a new athlete development and high-performance collaboration with Oxidate, headed by Jacob Falla, which is specifically designed to educate the players about football development, physical performance (strength, conditioning, recovery, nutrition) and overall wellbeing. We have a club philosophy which connects all players via the ‘three wheels’, the Skills Phase for our MiniRoos, Growth Phase for our junior NPL teams and Elite Phase involving our seniors. You are trying to build across these wheels to get them into to the top teams at the club. We continually reassess what we are doing across all the different pathways to make the necessary improvements daily, weekly, monthly and yearly.

A snippet of Heidelberg United’s philosophy.

How crucial do you think a national second division is for the progression of youth development in Australian football?

It’s imperative. I’ve actually spoken with James Johnson and his team about it a few times. I think you need more than just a second division; you need a third division. I think that the NPL should be that you go from that league to a third division and so on. The more levels there are, you give more opportunities to the kids in order to develop at the level that they’re at. At the end of the day, we’re not just trying to develop a footballer. We’re trying to develop good boys, good girls, good sons, good daughters, it’s the overall person we are trying to develop…a total footballer.

The women’s side of the game is seeing huge increases in participation numbers and a home Women’s World Cup is on the way in 2023 which will lead to even more playing the game. How important is it capitalise on this and build female youth development standards and produce the next generation of Matildas?

Again, it’s imperative. The girls’ game has gone from A to Z in the last couple of years and it’s only going to continue to grow. The standard of the girls is phenomenal and improving all the time. It’s so important that the football community and country get behind the Women’s World Cup. I’ve coached girls’ teams and their enthusiasm for the game and desire to improve is brilliant. We need to capture that and harness it for both the girls’ and boys’ games to make a better competition for Australian footballers going forward.

Grassroots sport given new lease of life in Frankston

The Frankston City Council have been provided $2.9 million in funding, part of projects that the Victorian Government has been involved with.

The Frankston City Council have been provided $2.9 million in funding, in a move that forms part of the ongoing community sport and recreation infrastructure projects that the Victorian Government has been involved with since 2014 – exceeding the amount of $1 billion.

Ballam Park, home to the Peninsula Strikers Junior Football (Soccer) Club, were granted $300,000 as an investment towards a new pavilion and an installation of new lighting for two pitches to allow further utilisation of the pitches for training and games.

The club consists of around 300 registered players and a rebuilt facility will ensure that it is inclusive for female participants. This is a boost and reassurance of female participation throughout all age groups.

Players and coaches will be delighted to find that the new pavilion created by the grants will include eight new female-friendly changerooms, kitchen, kiosk, social space, referee changerooms, storage, first-aid accessibility and public toilets. On top of this, there will be new parking facilities with street lighting upgrades for patron safety.

In addition to the Victorian Government’s financial contribution to Frankston City Council’s grassroot clubs, RF Miles Recreation Reserve, home to the Seaford Tigers Football (Aussie Rules), Netball and Cricket Clubs, will receive a new pavilion too.

Following consistent growth of participation numbers for the clubs of the three different codes, they will be treated to a brand new two-storey pavilion to cater for them. This will also include female-friendly changerooms and amenities, social and meeting rooms, first-aid room and umpire changerooms.

The oval at RF Miles Recreation Reserve will consist of a reconfigured larger oval with lighting that will meet to AFL standards. Along with this a new scoreboard, a coach’s box, cricket nets and brand-new netball courts.

All was made possible through the government’s Local Sports Grants initiative. The timing of the announcement and delivery conveniently falls in line with the lifestyle recovery post-covid. As such projects will inherently create much needed stimulating and restoration of the local economies, creating new jobs and bringing communities closer together.

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