The importance of the professional football coach in Australia

Bobby Walker was the first professional football coach appointed in Australia when he took the helm at the Gladesville-Ryde club in 1939. Walker had played professionally in Scotland for Motherwell FC and Falkirk FC.

He was the first of many from the British Isles to venture to the footballing outpost that was Australia for much of the 20th century. The contributions that he and many others made played an important role in the growth and development of the game.

Sadly, the notion of fully professional coaches mentoring young players in their formative years has been more of a dream than a reality in Australian football. Enthusiastic parents often took on official duties at a grass roots level and the number of officially qualified coaches in schools has traditionally been low.

The reality for players blessed with talent not deemed worthy of representative level play; those perhaps destined to bloom and flourish as a player a little later in life, is that the influence of a professional to guide and nourish their football development is rarely a reality.

In recent times, parents keen to encourage and fast track their child’s development have sought other avenues. As a result, the unregulated and often absurdly expensive academy system has become a necessary evil for parents of talented and enthusiastic young footballers.

It is a somewhat surprising reality that it took nearly 80 years from the time of Walker’s appointment for a fully professional coaches association to appear. It is long overdue. There is a current and urgent need to ensure that the hundreds of thousands of young people playing football in Australia are given qualified and professional instruction.

Conjointly, immediate action is required to reform/rewrite the National Curriculum which has proven nothing but a failure.

With an intention to represent, advocate, develop and support professional coaches, Football Coaches Association (FCA) will play a key role in addressing such issues.

The association’s work extends beyond the obvious need to continually improve coaching standards in Australia. It is also focused on providing opportunities for professional and community based coaches to contribute to Australia’s football narrative.

As an extension of both a raising of the bar in terms of professional standards and providing a supportive, community based and inclusive environment for all coaches involved in the game, FCA also aims to enhance the reputation of Australian football and its coaches on the world stage.

As we speak, former Socceroo manager Ange Postecoglou stands within a handful of wins and just a few weeks of becoming Australia’s most successful coaching export. Should Yokohama F.Marinos manage to seal the deal over the final month of the J-League season, his achievement would be considerable and well deserved.

Postecoglou forms part of a group of Australian coaches who have dominated the top flight of domestic football since the inception of the A-League. Alongside Socceroo and Olyroo boss Graham Arnold, current Perth manager Tony Popovic and former Victory coach Kevin Muscat, Postecoglou completes an impressive quartet.

As a collective, the four men possess six A-League championships, countless grand final appearances and a staggering seven premierships. Their sustained success confirms the importance and value of a proven coach. In spite of playing personnel changes, injury concerns or absences due to international duty, their message always remained consistent, firm and effective.

Now, Western United’s Mark Rudan and Sydney FC’s Steve Corica loom as the new generation of Australian coaches, yet with only Popovic employed on the domestic scene, the stocks do look a little thin elsewhere.

It is potentially where Australian football is slightly off the mark when it comes to player development. Rather than mad capped international searches to find the right visa player or marquee man, A-League and NPL clubs would be better served investing more heavily in the person they ultimately choose to mentor their playing squad.

Acquiring the services of an elite international coach would do far more for young Australian players seeking to learn and develop their footballing nous.

Playing professionally alongside an experienced ex-La Liga or Bundesliga journeyman will no doubt count for something. However, young players like Riley McGree, Elvis Kamsoba and Al Hassan Toure will benefit far more from time spent under a truly world class manager than mingling with an ageing veteran merely visiting our shores.

Postecoglou, Arnold and Popovic have all had a taste of coaching abroad and our best minds will now always attract Asian Confederation interest. What remains on their departure will always be young and developing coaches, coaching young and developing players.

Redressing that cycle is vital and something within which the FCA can play a key role; both in improving standards and enunciating the importance of the coach at all levels of football.

Stuart is a writer, journalist, blogger and social commentator based in Sydney, Australia. His work can also be found on theRoar.com.au, zerotackle.com.au, openforum.com and on his website, stuartthomas.com.au. You can connect with him on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

How should Australian football best use its COVID-19 postponement?

FFA head James Johnson revealed the worst keep secret in Australian football early Tuesday morning; announcing the immediate suspension of A-League play on the back of the continued threat of COVID-19 . With states and territories having moved decisively on border control and lock down procedures, Johnson referred to a continuation as having become practically impossible.

The W-League did manage to squeeze their season in before the announcement was made, with a grand final between Melbourne City and Sydney FC last Saturday. The Melbourne City women may well be the last football team in Australia to win a championship for some time.

Words such as unprecedented, unique and testing have been common place in language over the past few weeks and the seriousness of the pandemic escapes no one at this time. Public health and prude governance are the most important aspects of the current situation, hopefully, wise decisions and action lead to a flattening of the curve and a slow return to normality over the next few months.

With around 1.8 million Australians who would normally be engaged with the beautiful game at this time of year in isolation and forbidden to compete, it would be prudent for FFA to think about encouraging behaviours that will benefit domestic football when it does eventually return.

As a first port of call, FFA should interact with the federations and ensure that junior players are sent age and skill appropriate drills to complete whilst confined to their home address. Many children will have a backyard in which to complete the drills, whilst others may be limited to small spaces available in apartments or town houses.

Technical directors could construct short clips and illustrated diagrams and then email and/or text the content to players using the official register in each federation.

Many young people will be feeling anxious about COVID-19, thanks to certain sections of the media that do little to encourage calm and thoughtful behaviour. Providing content for kids to work individually on their football skills would be a nice way to add a dose of normality for what will be a very strange time in their lives.

Slightly older players could also be engaged by their clubs, with coaching staff and technical consultants producing content they feel individual players need to work on. Within a supportive and digital environment, coaches might be able to set goals and objectives for the group and could potentially instil a competitive and diligent commitment to the drills that is so often lacking in junior players.

Players at NPL will find great challenges in maintaining fitness levels during the hiatus, with many young players no doubt living in high density situations with partners and young children. At a professional level, the AFL and NRL have set about the task of outlining fitness programs for their players that are adaptable to both indoor and outdoor environments. No doubt, the A-League will be following suit as we speak.

Many of the AFL players spoken to appeared at a loss as to how they would maintain fitness and skill levels without the expensive and vast resources of the football club to which they below. For NPL players it will be even more difficult, with the now closed local gyms the most common place for them to develop and maintain physical condition.

All NPL clubs need to establish a digital forum that includes the players, support staff and coaches in order to be pro-active during what appears likely to be an extended period away from the game. Once again, that sense of collegiality would be emotionally beneficial and with performance targets in place, the incentive to work collectively could potentially avoid any apathy that may occur in isolation.

The successful E-League concept should be immediately expanded with A and W League players engaged in play. A handful of players from each club with some X-BOX or PlayStation experience could be enlisted to play brief matches live on line, with the games streamed for fans to view via the club’s Facebook pages and the official A-League site.

The banter and enjoyment provided by what would no doubt be a comical yet also potentially competitive competition would further engage young fans and continue the objective of keeping the football community connected at this difficult time.

NPL New South Wales’ Facebook page is leading the way with lateral and creative thinking, already posting classic NPL matches for fans to view. The newly launched NPL.TV offers further potential in terms of streamed content and interaction and the National Premier Leagues’ #PlayAtHomeChallenge is a fun initiative that many players will be drawn to.

There is an emotional component to what all professional sport is about to encounter in Australia and monitoring and measuring that will prove difficult. The mind is fundamentally more important than the body and ensuring our football communities remain connected, active and positive is vitally important as most of us enter a period of isolation thanks to COVID-19.

Fox Sports staff cuts reinforce football is not a high priority

On Wednesday, Foxtel announced a host of cuts to its Fox Sports News division.

Of the expected 20 or so staff to lose their jobs, football reporters Daniel Garb and Carly Adno have confirmed their departures from the company.

Head of Fox Sports, Peter Campbell, told staff in a letter that the decision was based on a thorough review.

“Following a careful and considered review, we have today announced some changes to the programming of FOX SPORTS News which reduces the number of live news hours through the middle of weekdays and which unfortunately have resulted in a number of redundancies within the Australian News Channel (ANC) team that delivers FOX SPORTS News.

“Our customer audience analysis shows viewing of FOX SPORTS News now peaks in the morning and evening and on weekends, with low daytime viewership. Therefore we are going to focus on delivering live sports news and the channel’s marquee programs, including AFL Tonight, NRL Tonight and Cricket AM, during those peak periods.

“This decision is not about the Coronavirus (COVID-19) and its impact on sport. It simply reflects viewers are consuming sports news in different ways and at different times together with the same challenging conditions in the advertising market that are impacting the entire entertainment industry.”

The company wants to focus their energy on morning sports bulletins and evening shows, which will also perform better on their on-demand streaming service Kayo Sports.

Campbell’s comments reiterate the idea that the AFL, NRL and Cricket are their marquee offerings, therefore it is in their best interests to improve their associated programming for these sports.

On the football side of things, the axing of Garb and Adno is a huge blow to the sport’s presence on the Fox Sports network.

Garb, in particular, has been a prominent footballing voice on Fox Sports News as well as the host of the weekly Fox Football Podcast.

The podcast itself has become more important in recent times, due to the lack of magazine shows on Fox Sports for the A-League.

Magazine shows such as Sunday Shootout and Just for Kicks were all axed by Fox in recent years.

The job cuts come after the news the A-League will play on and try to finish the season, even though there are concerns around the coronavirus outbreak.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, there is a possibility Fox Sports will look to get out of the TV deal they signed with the A-League in late 2016, if the competition was abandoned this season.

If the A-League fails to meet its obligations this season, it could give Fox Sports the opportunity to move its way out of a deal they are currently unhappy with due to the leagues declining ratings.

A-League decision makers plan to condense the season into a shorter timeframe, with the hope of finishing by mid-April.

PFA CEO John Didiluca told SMH: “As it stands now we have no certainty about what Fox will do in the event of the league having to be shut down – whether they choose to withhold funding or terminate the agreement.”

“All of these things are options and we just don’t have an answer about what that will be.

“The players are showing their commitment and good faith by putting their hands up and continuing to play. The nature of their choice is awful, effectively having to weigh up risks to their personal and public health on one hand with the knowledge the football economy could collapse on the other.

“Fox have helped us build our competitions from day one and we now need them stick with us more than ever. We are urging them to match the resilience and commitment that the players and the clubs are showing. This will give everybody within the football community some measure of certainty that the sport has a strong future.”

Although Fox may not be satisfied with their current deal with the A-League, outside of the NRL and AFL there is not a whole of sport to broadcast at the moment.

The A-League would have received pressure from Fox to continue the season, even though there is uncertainty Fox will continue broadcasting the competition in the future.

Fox seems to be using the A-League to boost its current lack of sport offerings on Kayo Sports, despite recently sacking one of its most influential voices.

Football is not a priority for the company at this stage, but rather a pawn they can easily influence in these uncertain times.

Why the FFA have made the right call on grassroots soccer

The grassroots level is where our stars are born, where we discover our love for the game.

It’s arguably the most important level of the game and without it, the sport of soccer in this country would be next to nothing.

In light of the recent coronavirus outbreak that has been dominating the headlines worldwide, the FFA originally decided to continue games at the community level, without crowds.

From a certain point of view, it made sense.

Local clubs thrive on matchdays and to play fixtures as per usual, just without any supporters.

Only players, coaches, officials, registered ground staff and media were going to be allowed attendance.

But this week, the FFA have overruled this decision, instead opting to postpone all fixtures below the A-League until the virus outbreak reaches a manageable level.

One which would allow fans to go to games without running the risk of contracting COVID-19.

It’s hard to argue that the FFA have made the incorrect decision.

As much as we want to watch our favourite clubs play whilst we sit at home, cheering them on, it’s hard for clubs to warrant fixtures being played without gameday income.

As fans, we can often take our purchases and financial commitments to clubs for granted. It’s easy to do so, especially if you’re a long serving member of the club.

At the start of the year, prior to the outbreak, many fans would’ve felt paid their membership fees, bought their attire and anything else without thinking twice.

Just the beginning of another season.

But now, with all those fees paid and no games to help bring more money in, clubs would struggle.

Clubs rely heavily on food, drinks and ticket purchases to keep them afloat during the season. It’s a reliable source of income that doesn’t need much attention, if any.

People will always buy tickets on the day, buy their own dinners and even a few drinks if they’re in the mood. It’s a given for most clubs and it is an easy way to make profit.

However, with no fans at games, things change drastically.

Players, coaches, ground staff and club media still have paychecks to be met. Referees are in the same boat.

Power bills don’t come cheap and with games being played, you can bet those bills would take their toll, especially night fixtures where lights are required to be on.

Furthermore, by playing these fixtures, you run the risk of people contracting the virus.

Yes, it’s not as risky as having hundreds or thousands of fans enter the stadiums/grounds.

But the chances of it happening, albeit slim, are still higher than we all wish it was.

Clubs will still make significant losses from this outbreak, make no mistake about that.

Some AFL clubs are reporting that they may be in for financial losses of more than $5 million, a staggering amount.

Clubs across the Serie A, Bundesliga, La Liga and the Premier League will also make losses.

Community level clubs are in the same boat. But it’s certainly smarter and above all else, safer to have these games postponed until the time comes when we can all shake hands again.

When we can go outside without having to worry about what might happen.

When we can live our lives as per normal.

Many fans will be staying at home during these bizarre times and limiting how often they leave the house.

As much as they’d love to see their sides play whilst in the comfort and safety of their own homes, it simply isn’t the way.

Fans will simply need to find other ways to entertain themselves as their local clubs will have to join many more around the world, in a period of limbo.

Although the decision would have been one they did not make lightly, FFA CEO James Johnson and his team have certainly done the right thing in postponing.

By running these fixtures, it’s simply running the unnecessary risk of spreading the virus and that’s the last thing needed right now.

Johnson has been thrown out of the frying pan and into the fire as CEO, but he has made a good start in trying circumstances and let’s hope he stays on this trend.

However, he and his team need to continue making these tough calls.

Next up, postponement of the A-League.

Once again, it’s merely common sense.

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