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The next generation of Socceroos is here and we can thank the developmental A-League for it

There are few things that draw more criticism and disrespect in Australian sport than the A-League and by extension, the game of football. Some weeks back, respected journalist Will Swanton took his swipe at the competition, rather unsuccessfully I might add, and the next veiled attack will not be too far around the corner.

In essence, those yet to discover and embrace the beauty and passion of the ‘beautiful game’ and Australia’s domestic competition, still see something less than courageous and creditable about the most popular sport on the planet.

Sadly, to many Australians, the people who play football are actors, fakes and more inclined to simulation than substance, play-acting to performance and the dramatic rather than determined effort.

Thus is the challenge of educating the beer swilling, muscle brandishing and winter-code loving Australian sporting public; to enable them to see the beauty and dexterity of the round ball game.

It is a common misconception for some than football fans want Australia to succumb to its world-wide popularity, in some sort of takeover that destroys the ingrained love and passion for AFL, rugby league and the slowly declining rugby union.

Nothing could in fact be further from the truth and many writers such as I grew up watching, playing and being captivated by other codes of football in our early years. Australia is somewhat unique in the broad array of sporting endeavours available to its citizens, with football now the most popular of all according to current figures.

Logic would suggest that such interest and participation would directly correlate to international success in a sport played by around 1.8 million people on our shores. However, such logic is seriously flawed with far more than participation and enthusiasm required for a nation to even dream of grasping international trophies.

For Australian men’s football, despite the growth, development and gradual ‘street cred’ achieved over the last 50 years, international success has been fleeting and rare. Our women have fared far better in recent times, something that has made the Matildas arguably the most loved national team in the country.

The 1974 Socceroos trail blazed to the World Cup, before 32 years of alienation saw them lampooned as perennial losers. When John Aloisi’s penalty sent the men’s team to Germany for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, the tide appeared to have turned.

Despite some qualification challenges, the Socceroos have featured on the World Cup stage without fail ever since. It’s move into the AFC has played more than a minor role in that success, yet creditable the achievement is.

The A-League competition was birthed in 2005-06, devoid of the community, cultural and nationalistic ties that the powers at be had told us held the game back and restricted its appeal.

Quite the opposite in fact, as the competition proved somewhat fractious and difficult for many Australian football fans to embrace. The A-League was problematic and tough to swallow for many fans of long standing clubs.

Refreshingly and despite constant criticism around the recruitment of ageing international veterans and the recycling of local ‘B Grade’ talent, the league is actually producing a potential goldmine for Australian football.

Such contemporary talents as Aaron Mooy, Tom Rogic and Mathew Ryan have already ventured abroad to expand their skill set and become key components in Graham Arnold’s Socceroo equation.

Adelaide United’s Al Hassan Toure has declared his allegiance to the Socceroos and looks a flat out star. Team mate Nikola Mileusnic is not far behind, after overcoming injuries that hampered him early in his career. A trio of talent from the city of churches is completed by Riley McGree, potentially the most gifted player to emerge from the A-League in some time.

Daniel Arzani’s talent was so rich that his journey to Europe was expedited with a move to Celtic and Connor Metcalfe’s trajectory may well be similar, so impressive have his first six games been for Melbourne City.

Melbourne Victory’s Thomas Deng continues to loom as a long term Socceroo, Jamie Maclaren has confirmed his place in Graham Arnold’s squad and Adam Taggart’s golden boot season in Korea places the current Socceroos coach in a healthy space when it comes to weapons in front of goal.

Awer Mabil’s arc of improvement has continued abroad, Paul Izzo’s potential has begun to take a tangible shape and Central Coast Mariners star Samuel Silvera looks one of the most exciting youngsters seen on local shores for some time.

Throw in Newcastle Jets’ Angus Thurgate and Melbourne City’s Lachlan Wales and the depth of talent emerging is clear. Perth Glory’s Chris Ikonomidis might just prove to be the best of the lot, so talented is the 24-year-old Sydney born attacker.

The Socceroos have tread an oft criticised path in recent times, with many citing a lack of emerging world class talent when compared to the so-called golden generation of the early 2000’s.

However, in the new world order of truly global football, the talent being produced in Australia looks as exciting as ever. Once it matures, the Socceroos will have a wonderful team to represent us all on the world stage.

Norwich City FC – The Canaries continue to fly off the field

Norwich City currently sit at the bottom of the English Premier League table after winning only three games this season. Whilst their team hasn’t particularly impressed on the park in the world’s most popular league, a change in ideas off-the park well over a year ago is being associated with their rise back to the top division of English Football.

Adopting a shared leadership management structure, three people were left in charge of making decisions at the top table. Chief Operating Officer Ben Kensell believes this type of approach has encouraged innovation throughout the club when it came to dealing with the industry, the fans, the community and its staff.

“There is Stuart Webber, who deals with the footballing side, myself handling the non-football sides of the business, such as all commercial areas, finance, operations and Zoe Ward who is very much the glue in between the two areas driving behaviours and culture on both sites whilst managing support services such as Legal, HR and our fantastic community work,” he told FC Business.

“We are all experts in our fields but we communicate and run the business as a three and as a collective and that means you can be across everything and we can focus key objectives across all areas to really drive results and what’s best for the club as a whole.”

Owners Delia Smith and Michael Wynn-Jones are adamant the club must look after itself financially, which brings about an element of self-pride according to Kensell.

“We are immensely proud to be a self-financed club, as are our fans,” he claimed.

“Delia & Michael lead by example and they are brilliant owners of this great club, we do it our way and we want to be the best we can be in everything we do. Being self-financed certainly sharpens your focus. We know how much responsibility we have to get it right and that means we take responsibility for every bit of the detail because your margins for error are very small. Our attention to detail for each other’s business needs comes from the knowledge we have little wiggle room and we have to get things right. Across all areas of the club we look for continuous improvement and from top down we are all hungry and committed to be the best we can be for Norwich City and its fans.”

But the structure seems to be providing the club with several commercial benefits, aside from the clear achievement of reaching the English Premier League.

“Our commercial revenue in partnerships has doubled. Our club-controlled income of £33 million plus has grown and we have seen good growth in retail and memberships after overhauling previous structures and we are sold out home and away for the majority of our games thanks to the phenomenal support of the fans. We are maximising every opportunity we have to work in an innovative way with partners and its certainly paying off.

“We have made a seven-figure investment in our new training facility and secured a lucrative long-term sponsorship with Lotus cars taking the naming rights of the training centre and academy. That’s on top of money that the Norwich City fans themselves have invested through the Canary bond, which we facilitated.

“We have improved fan experiences around the ground and in the city centre with our new Fan Hub. And in all that time we have worked to make sure Stuart [Webber] and Daniel [Farke] have the budget they need and the player development structure they desire to take this club forward on the pitch.”

Whilst various changes have been made it is still extremely important to communicate efficiently with fans, to get them back onside. This was a core focus for Ben, Zoe and Stuart once the executive committee was created at Norwich.

“We have firm short, medium and long-term plans in place whatever happens on the pitch. We are in a financially sound position but just as important is that our fans and everyone in our community understand the decisions we are making and buy into it.

“That’s why we work hard on our fan engagement and broader communication. We try to involve the fans through clear and concise communication in every stage of our thinking about the future of this club, we want them to feel very much part of the plan and proud of doing it the Norwich City way. Sometimes people are not going to like what we plan to do, but we make sure they understand our reasons for that.”

Ben adds: “You rarely hear a Norwich fan call for us to get the cheque book out to make a big-money signing. That’s because they have bought into our sustainable plan of being self-financed. They know through previous experiences that breaking the bank can lead to tough times for the club they love and equally, they know from what we tell them we are not willing to play that lottery again, either. We are investing in the stadium and training ground because then we will have something to show for the monies the Premier League brings but we know it’s a balance in everything we do as we want to remain competitive.

“They also know we are spending money on the club infrastructure, whether that be improvements at Carrow Road or on fan engagement zones – it is clear what we are doing.”

As the Premier League does attract a global audience, Norwich have profited through deals with the Tampa Bay tourism board and Philippines-based Dafabet. However, the club promises to stick to their roots and do things the Norwich way.

“We have to build our commercial expansion plans carefully to ensure we stay true to our club values and ways of doing things. We are making a name for ourselves by doing things differently, we are growing and have impressive numbers to show from a club-controlled income perspective compared to our peer group clubs, but we can, and will, continue to grow whilst never losing sight of our doing it our way.”

A new Canaries Fan Hub in the centre of the city has recently opened, with fellow English Premier League sides interested in the development. Kensell is extremely satisfied with the progress of it so far as it promotes the club’s identity further, as well as being commercially rewarding.

“It’s been a massive success and a real game changer for us; you can purchase everything there from retail to tickets to special events. It’s a true one stop shop but more importantly is that it has loads of fans and kids just coming in and playing on our penalty shoot-out simulator or going on the iPads or taking part in some of the cool experiences within the Hub.

“People come in to just watch the exclusive content whether it be interviews, highlights of the game, training across our giant screen or playing on the PlayStations. We have seen turnover rocket since it was launched in August and I am delighted with the performance of it in every aspect.”

With room for growth and plans to expand Carrow Road on the agenda, Norwich City FC are in a good place to continue to thrive.

State Federations unite together for bushfire relief

A number of state football federations in Australia have expressed their support for those affected by bushfires across the summer.

Football Victoria, Football NSW, Football Queensland and Football South Australia have already released statements and will roll out initiatives to help contribute their donations to the cause.

Football Victoria CEO Peter Filopoulos has kickstarted the campaign by donating $10,000 to the Victorian Bushfire Appeal.

It has also been confirmed that the annual Community Shield matches and Round 1 of the NPL Victoria Men’s season (February 13th-16th 2020) will be a Bushfire Relief Appeal round.

Both Community Shield games will take place at City Vista Reserve, the new home of Caroline Springs George Cross FC.

In the men’s match, 2019 Dockerty Cup holders Hume City FC will take on 2019 NPL Victoria Champions Bentleigh Greens SC on Saturday, February 8, 2020, from 5pm.

The women’s match will see 2019 Nike F.C. Cup winners Calder United FC face NPLW Victoria Runners-Up FC Bulleen Lions on the weekend of March 15, 2020 (exact match date and time TBD).

In a statement by Football NSW CEO Stuart Hodge, the entire federation have expressed their sympathy for the people who have been caught up in the bushfires that have shocked everyone here and around the world, while thanking all the brave firefighters and emergency workers for the selfless role of protecting affected towns and communities.

Football NSW have said they are working with Football Federation Australia (FFA) and other Member Associations and Clubs about how to unite and add to the massive fundraising efforts already on display.

So far, Football NSW have confirmed they will make a donation to the Red Cross Disaster Relief and Recovery Appeal and also dedicate Round 1 of the NPL NSW competitions as a Bushfire Relief Round.

Football Queensland have committed to the bushfire appeal by working closely with Football Federation Australia (FFA), Brisbane Roar, regional zones and clubs.

CEO Robert Cavallucci has been involved in engaging the football community through fundraising initiatives and kick-started this with a donation to the Red Cross Disaster Relief and Recovery Appeal.

Not only will Round 1 of the NPL Queensland men’s season be dedicated as a Bushfire Appeal Round, but two special charity matches will also take place.

The first is a charity match between Brisbane Roar Legends vs an NPL Queensland Select Team and Celebrity VIP’s. It will be played before the Brisbane Roar v Wellington Phoenix A-League match at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday January 18, 2020.

The second of the charity matches will be The Football Foundation Cup, FQ’s curtain-raiser to the NPL Men’s season. NPL Queensland Premiers Lions FC will take on FQPL Premiers Sunshine Coast Wanderers on Saturday February 1, 2020 at Lions FC.

In a statement by Football South Australia, they have also given their support during this tough time, with more details to be released from them soon.

“Football SA is deeply saddened by the tragedies, losses and suffering that have resulted from bushfires in South Australia and around the nation.

We want to support the community at this time and will provide details in the coming days.

Our thoughts are with all people affected by the devastating events.”

In addition to these vital initiatives, FFA will dedicate the upcoming two rounds of Hyundai A-League and Westfield W-League to raise funds for those impacted by the disasters.

If you have been affected by the bushfires and need support, please reach out to Lifeline.

Support is available 24/7 on 13 11 14, or nightly via Lifeline Text.

Lifeline Text is available 6pm – midnight (AEDT) on 0477 13 11 14.

You are not alone. Bushfire Relief tool kits are also available at lifeline.org.au

Sarpreet Singh makes Bundesliga debut for Bayern Munich

On July 1st, 2019, Wellington Phoenix starlet Sarpreet Singh made the big European transfer he would’ve only ever dreamed of.

German giants Bayern Munich came calling and on Saturday, Singh made his official top tier debut for ‘Die Roten’ in their 6-1 win over Werder Bremen.

Singh was a late substitute for Philippe Coutinho, who scored a hattrick. Coutinho is most well-known for his tenure at Liverpool, where he made over 150 appearances.

Coutinho is currently on loan at Bayern from arguably the biggest club in the world, Barcelona.

The mere fact that Singh, who played in a loss to NPL Victorian side Bentleigh Greens whilst at the Phoenix, replaced Coutinho is absolutely astonishing.

From the semi-professional grounds of Kingston Heath Soccer Complex to the 75,000 capacity Allianz Arena in Munich, Singh has come a very long way in record time.

And he still has plenty of time on his hands. At just 20 years of age, Singh has already accomplished so much, but still has plenty of potential to realise.

Following the abrupt sacking of Niko Kovac, Bayern have scored 25 goals from eight games, with a win/loss record of 6-2 in all competitions.

Hans-Dieter Flick, the interim head coach of Bayern, has allowed many of the club’s youth players opportunities in the first team following good runs of form in the third tier with the club’s reserves team.

Kovac, during his time as coach, took Singh along with the senior side in their pre-season tour.

Despite this amazing opportunity, Singh was expected to see out the season in the reserves.

But nine scoring involvements from 13 appearances has impressed Flick, giving him the nod for a senior debut.

Despite only being on the field for a mere ten minutes, Singh was lively and was able to win a corner. It’s not much, but it’s certainly enough of a platform for him to launch off.

Singh also created a little bit of history by stepping out onto Allianz Arena. He became the first Kiwi player to play in the Bundesliga since New Zealand footballing legend Wynton Rufer.

Funnily enough, Rufer spent the majority of his playing career at Werder Bremen, the same club Singh made his debut against at the weekend.

Sarpreet’s Bundesliga debut is another sign that the A-League, for all its criticism of bringing in too many marquees and older players, is doing a marvellous job at developing youngsters and nurturing them for the roads that lie ahead.

Over the years, we’ve seen many players struggle to forge successful careers outside of Australia and New Zealand, with many being forced to return to try and recapture their best form.

There have always been players that have been very solid players in lower European tiers, such as Carl Valeri who played in Serie B and C during his time in Italy.

But not many have been able to take Europe by the scruff of the neck and establish themselves as high-quality players who can make it alongside the ‘big boys’. Brighton pair Aaron Mooy and Mat Ryan are two of the best we’ve seen in the last 5-10 years.

Robbie Kruse is another example of this. He was a superstar of the A-League prior to making the move to Fortuna Dusseldorf in Germany in 2011. He would proceed to jump from club to club whilst in Germany, struggling to establish himself as a regular.

21 appearances between 2013 and 2017 during his time at Bayer Leverkusen sums up Kruse’s fortunes whilst in Europe.

His best stint came at VFL Bochum, who are a second-tier side. Between 2017 and 2019, he made 42 appearances and was a constant member of their first team.

He then moved back to Australia to join the Melbourne Victory at the start of the current A-League campaign.

Perth Glory star Chris Ikonomidis is in a similar boat. Despite being seven years Kruse’s junior, Ikonomidis seems to be following in the Victory star’s footsteps ever so slightly.

He made the move to Italian giants Lazio as a teenager, which on paper, would be a dream move for any aspiring junior.

He was subsequently loaned out three times before moving permanently from Rome back to Australia, where he joined the Perth Glory.

Ikonomidis has plenty of time on his side and hopefully, we haven’t seen the best of him just yet and he can one day, return to the big leagues and make his mark.

The same can be said for Sarpreet Singh. He has a lot of work to do to become a first team regular in the coming years at Bayern. But his Bundesliga debut can hopefully be the catalyst for his development into becoming that player.

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