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Phil Stubbins: Past lessons the key to reviving Australia’s youth development

Phil Stubbins believes that in order to create a competitive level of youth development and infrastructure, Australia needs to commit to a long-term vision with a clear and detailed plan.

The current Head Coach of Campbelltown City SC, Stubbins has had a storied career in football that spans three-decades, but during this timeframe there has been a marked shift in Australia’s football landscape.

“I think we can certainly get better and definitely need to keep looking at ways to improve our infrastructures and youth programs in order to keep on the shirt tails of the ever-improving world’s best. To not do that could prove extremely damaging to our game, both nationally and domestically,” Stubbins said.

“All of this will need money, of course. If you look at youth development currently in the UK alone, we must acknowledge that vast amounts of money and resource have been poured into their development systems.”

While Australian football lacks the financial muscle to compete with the globe’s leading leagues, the success of the ‘Golden Generation’, who broke the nation’s infamous World Cup drought in 2006, proves that there is an underlying capability to produce talent.

Despite this capability, Australia’s youth pathway systems have come into question from many influential figures and it feels like an age since world class players were being regularly cultivated.

Stubbins during his tenure as Newcastle Jets Head Coach.

“Here in Australia, we’ve actually taken away the most efficient development pathway available to our young players by sadly abandoning the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS). The AIS was our most effective provider of top national team players at one time with a program truly aligned to a top centre of excellence,” Stubbins said.

“I’m not saying that A-League clubs can’t now run their own academies efficiently but, the AIS was a facility designed specifically to accommodate, nurture, and educate professional levels of the game to our ‘best’ young players of the country. These players would all be training against each other on a daily basis looking to stamp their mark. That’s now gone!”

The long-term ramifications of decommissioning the AIS and moving to an academy-based system are yet to be seen, but for Stubbins, players are not being exposed to enough competitive football or elite level football education.

“The English Premier League academy players are playing 40 games per season as a minimum, plus, 10 to 12 hours per week of training, and then educational analysis of themselves and opposition teams in the classroom. Can you imagine the development curve for these players?”

“To be competitive these players are challenged in all aspects of their ability. Preparation, commitment, discipline, desire and a winning mentality. That’s just to compete, let alone to succeed.”

Stubbins understands the AIS intimately, having spent a year there as an assistant then interim head coach.

Additionally, as a star player for Heidelberg United FC during the early 1990s, he played with and against some of the most prodigious talent Australia has ever produced.

“I played in the old National Soccer league (NSL) with the likes of Paul Okon, Ned Zelic, and the emerging Mark Viduka. Kevin Muscat was another who was with us at Heidelberg United. From memory, all of these boys were only 17 when making their mark in the game back then. How many of the same age players do we now we see having man of the match performances in the A-League like these players were?” Stubbins asked rhetorically.

Mark Bosnich, Graham Arnold, Robbie Slater, and many more were making their mark in the NSL during the era, many of which went on to become household names who represented the nation at the highest level.

“The lessons? It was tougher, far tougher back then I’d say. There are some excellent players today of course but holistically speaking, in terms of behaviours, attitude, mentality and the like I’d have to say that the old NSL was simply a tougher breeding ground of competition than the current A-League and that dogged mentality has evaporated to some degree,” Stubbins said.

“How to get some of that back plus, differing ways to progressively take the game forward is now a huge challenge for all of us.”

Stubbins’ Campbelltown City SC were crowned NPL champions in 2018.

Although a major challenge certainly exists to recapture the standards set from yesteryear, Stubbins believes it is possible by leveraging knowledge from current industry leaders and using it to setup a sustainable, long-term strategy.

“I don’t have all the answer but perhaps we could start by introducing the best people possible to oversee the reincarnation of youth development in Australia, with a mandate to provide ideas on gaining parity with the world’s best,” he said.

“To me, it’s very important to offer more educational insight into how top players ‘think’ and ‘train’ at the top level. Find out what separates the best from the rest with insights into their daily, weekly routines. We firstly need to showcase to our coaches exactly what those levels look like,” he said.

“We need to access the knowledge that these people can provide, otherwise, we’re simply guessing on how to improve.”

Another key talking point in recent times has been whether domestic-based talents are leaving too early in their careers. A trend has emerged of players thriving at a young age domestically only to move overseas prematurely, losing their momentum.

“We need to build the game here firstly and offer more elitist environments. That said, too many youngsters go before they are ready to go,” Stubbins said.

“There is no sense in going overseas when you are not prepared and ready. That’s why many of these young players that go overseas early never fulfil their aim to make it abroad. They simply go unprepared.”

While there is no obvious answer or quick fix to Australia’s youth development and infrastructure challenges, progress appears to be heading in the right direction under FFA CEO James Johnson  – and with rumours of a National Second Division starting to gather steam, Stubbins is keenly focused on his current role with the South Australian NPL champions.

“We have a strong junior contingent and a sound underpinning of direction and transparency from the board. Campbelltown City is an exciting club to be around with a terrific work ethic, and culture, both on and off the field.”

“I believe a second division would help to reinvigorate the Australian competition. If we can structure it to offer an attainable pathway opportunity from State Leagues across the country, then let’s make it happen. How? I’m personally not quite sure, but where there’s a will, there must be a way!”

John Didulica: “Football can help Australia to navigate the challenges that we’re going to face as a nation”

John Didulica

John Didulica’s insight into Australian football is entrenched in a broad and intimate exposure to the game from all areas of the pitch and beyond across many years of playing and working in the game.

His long-standing involvement in football has seen him take on a variety of roles including helping to usher in the Melbourne Heart in their inaugural years as Director of Football Operations, leading Professional Footballers Australia as their Chief Executive Officer and now as Director of Football for a Melbourne Victory side looking to rebuild in the A-League.

His chat with Soccerscene saw a whole range of topics covered, namely his efforts to help push the Victory into a new era, his impactful learnings from his time at the Heart and his recent efforts in helping to produce the ‘Football Belongs’ series with Optus Sport.

Didulica Photo

Obviously, it’s been a very challenging few years for Melbourne Victory’s A-League side with underwhelming performances on the pitch and difficulties off it, how was it for you coming into a club off the back of some difficult seasons?

John Didulica: I think it’s been an exciting time for me personally to be back involved with football. Melbourne Victory has had such a proud history in its own right, but equally the club has played such a big role in shaping modern Australian football. To be given an opportunity to work here is a great honour and privilege, like anybody who gets to work in football.

The fact that they’ve had a couple of lean years on the pitch doesn’t detract from all the great things they’ve done over the best part of two decades. Coming into the club, with that in mind, it’s not about re-engineering everything or discarding a couple of decades of history. It’s just about trying to more deeply understand what’s worked, what hasn’t worked and where we need to get better to ensure that we’ve got the right standards across not only the team but also all the other areas of the club.

And making sure that we start, day-by-day through our actions, showing that we want to be better. There’s nobody in the world who can come in with a magic wand and say “If you do ‘A, B and C’, you’re going to get a better performance on the park”. The key thing for us is, through our actions, to everyday try and be a little bit better. That’s certainly led by Tony Popovic – that’s the way he approaches his preparation of the team and I think as a staff that’s what we’re adopting.

Hopefully the results on the pitch will in-time reflect that, and restore the confidence of the team, the members and the club which has been tested in recent seasons and we need to show them that we can be trusted with their club.

For you, was it about coming into the club knowing exactly what needed changing or was it about listening and learning?

John Didulica: I think it always has to be about listening and learning. Absolutely that has to be the starting point. I’ve got some models and framework which I like to operate within, but populating that and identifying what needs to be done sequentially is very much about listening and learning.

It’s about seeing where we’re at now, what the acute areas that required immediate attention were, and in our case, it was pretty obvious. We had a brand-new coaching team that we needed to bed down; we had a lot of squad reconstruction that needed to happen; we had to reboot the entire medical department, so, there were a whole of things facing us right from the outset.

Counterintuitively, that’s helped us to build a lot of momentum as it’s forced us to get things done pretty quickly and in a really decisive way. And with a lot of new people on board there’s a lot of really good ideas being shared and I think overtime we’ll start bedding those things down.

But it’s certainly not about disregarding what’s happened over the best part of two decades just because of a couple of lean seasons. I think if anything, the lessons from 3-5 years ago are a lot louder because Victory’s lost its way in the last couple of seasons.

We’re still lucky to have people like Carl Valeri around who has been a great servant at the club for many years and who works in the role of Player Operations Manager. It can just remind us of what we’ve done well in the past and can ensure that we’re continuing to bottle the great things that Victory has done in the past rather than reinvent the wheel.

MVFC

With the acquisitions of Tony Popovic and numerous proven A-League talents, what are Victory’s objectives for the coming season on the pitch?

John Didulica: Our aspirations are absolutely to challenge for trophies, that’s our expectations internally and I’m sure they’re shared by the members as well. They want to see a team that’s challenging for Honours – that’s certainly Tony’s mindset.

We’re strategically focused on bringing elite Australian talent into the squad and that’s been our absolute priority. Chris Ikonomidis, Josh Brillante, Jason Davidson, Jason Geria, to name a few, are all highly regarded elite proven international level players. So, to have those guys come in it’s a really powerful core and foundation for the club.

And, we might not get everything right in season one because we have so much to do, but I’m really confident that we’ve got a super strong core that will ensure we have a successful season and will only get better in the years to come.

There’s a seduction to going for a couple of big-name players and bringing them in and hoping that they can be a sugar hit, but I just don’t think that’s sustainable and I don’t think that’s what we need at the moment. Because we’re going through so many changes, we need to be able to make as many sure bets as possible. I think with a lot of the players and coaching staff we know exactly what we’re going to get, and we know their history is decorated.

There has been a drive at the club to re-engage the Victory faithful who have ridden through the tough recent history. For Victory fans, what do you believe are the key values off the pitch that need to be reflected on the pitch?

John Didulica: The number one thing I think is for the administration team to match the ambition that the fans have for their club. Our fans at Melbourne Victory are hugely ambitious for what Melbourne Victory can be. Games like we had against Liverpool, that was a magical moment for a lot of people.

Building AAMI Park, something like that doesn’t happen without Melbourne Victory being a success. There’s huge moments and huge steps forward for the sport that are a consequence of Victory doing well. So, the fans see that and are proud to be associated with this club.

Where we need to get back to now is matching the ambition that the fans have for this club. And that’s what we’re committed to doing and I think the board’s demonstrated that by signing Tony Popovic, who’s one of the best Australian coaches and players that are very ambitious, so we know we’re going to get people who are just as ambitious as we want to be.

And I think that sits at the heart of what we’re trying to achieve – matching the fans’ ambition and energy for our club. And if we do that, I know we’re going to be successful. Because we’ve got fans who live and breathe the club and if we reciprocate that then I know we’ll be successful.

Popovic

You’re now coming into an A-League side that has been around since the beginning of the league’s creation, but taking it back over 10 years ago you spent a few years at the Melbourne Heart from their inauguration. What did you learn from your time at the side in their early years?

John Didulica: One of the things I’ve often learnt on a personal level is to be resourceful and resilient. We didn’t have huge budgets and we ran incredibly lean. We were up against Melbourne Victory who had had such great success as a club.

From my perspective it was great to add to the tapestry of football in Melbourne. The pressure of the Melbourne Derby was, for me, one of the real highlights in A-League history. Those nights have been fantastic regardless of whether you were on the red side of the fence or the dark blue side of the fence, they were great nights.

In terms of that experience [at Melbourne Heart], resourcefulness and resilience were key. What resonated with me during that period was getting a more acute understanding of what the implication taking shortcuts were. When you’re at a club that’s resource-poor, sometimes you have to do that. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s not sustainable.

So, very much coming into Victory it’s key that we’re not going to take shortcuts. We’re going to make sure, to the extent possible, remove as much risk from what we do. That means bringing in high calibre people, servicing them effectively and having the right support around people. Even in those days at Heart we still managed to produce some incredible players; Aziz Behich, Eli Babalj, Curtis Good – these guys were all capped because of the opportunity they were given.

There’s a lot of lessons that I’ve taken with me about the capacity to run youth effectively and hopefully that can be something we can continue to build on here at Victory.

Melbourne Heart

A challenge for Australian football throughout its history has been its search for an identity in the midst of such a diverse sporting landscape. From doing such a deep dive with ‘Football Belongs’, what was confirmed about Australian football for you and what surprised you?

John Didulica: Ultimately, what I was investigating through that series was why is it that we’re not comfortable in our own skin. As football fans we’re always looking for some sort of external validation for who we are. And the more you unwrap football the more you understand the way Australia’s evolved, and therefore the role played by football in shaping modern day Australia and how deeply embedded football is in all of these key themes of Australian life.

And that’s something to be so proud of as a code. We don’t need external validation for what we are as football supporters, I think we should be incredibly proud of what we’ve done. Projecting that forward, I think football has the power to help Australia become a far more progressive nation in the decades ahead.

In the same way football helped Australia navigate the influx of migrants has shown, with the likes of John Moriarty and Charles Perkins, it showed a genuine way of respecting Indigenous footballers. There’s a lot football can do about helping Australia navigate the challenges that we’re going to face as a nation in the generations ahead.

As a sport, we need to take a leadership role in those areas. Anyone who is passionate about football knows it is more than just a sport. Nobody follows football for the ninety minutes on the pitch, as beautiful as that is, we’re all in it because it touches us far deeper. It’s about connecting to your ancestry and the broader community and being able to explore the broader world.

How many football fans would know the capital cities and flags of the world by virtue of their passion for football? Football is an incredible portal to the world and we need to celebrate that more. And it’s about having confidence in celebrating.

A club like Victory is a great segue in regards to ‘Football Belongs’, because Victory’s got a lot of opportunity to lead in a lot of those areas. We’re the biggest football club in the sporting capital of the world in the world’s biggest sport. If you bring those three things together, Victory is uniquely positioned to lead in an incredibly compelling and exciting way.

Asian Cup 2015

Bundesliga looks to become the first sustainable league in the world – will Australia follow?

The German Football League (DFL), the body which governs the Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga, recently outlined their ambitions to become the world’s first carbon neutral domestic football leagues.

On August 19, the DFL announced that clubs would take a vote in December of this year on whether to include environmental sustainability as a part of its licensing requirements.

Environmental sustainability has been placed at the forefront of the DFL’s objectives over the past six months, through their Taskforce for the Future of Professional Football.

The taskforce, which is made up of 36 business, sport and political experts also looks to focus their energy on other topics such as financial stability, communication with fans and supporting the growth of the professional women’s game.

“This is only the first step of a marathon,” Christian Pfennig, member of the DFL management board, explained to Forbes.

“Our goal is to anchor sustainability oriented to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals as another key factor in our licensing program by 2022/23. Then the following year, we want to introduce incentives, but also sanctions should a club fail to meet the minimum criteria.”

The criteria itself will be finalised with external experts in the coming weeks and months.

Multiple German clubs have been extremely well received for their commitment to sustainability over the years.

Wolfsburg, who are currently first in the Bundesliga this season, were ranked the most environmentally sustainable club earlier this year in a report conducted by Sport Positive.

The report highlighted Wolfsburg’s dedication to using 100 per cent green energy across the club by using bioplastic cups and for ensuring zero landfill waste, whilst offering vegan options at their stadium on game-day. The club’s website also contains a corporate responsibility page with information about climate protection and environmental initiatives, as they plan to be carbon neutral by 2025.

Freiburg have used solar energy at their Schwarzwald-Stadion since 1993, with their new stadium to follow suit when it opens in October. The new facility will also have green energy storage and plug-in charging stations.

In 2010, Mainz became the Bundesliga’s and one of the world’s first carbon neutral football clubs.

These promising examples and many others have generally been taken individually , but the DFL now wants to centralise its approach to sustainability.

“The most important step now is to create a framework for the different clubs that are part of the DFL, from a Champions League participant to teams promoted from the third division,” Pfennig said.

It’s a significant task, but the DFL believe they have to play a role in pursuing the best practices in tackling social issues, but they keep a realistic head in their objectives.

“There is no ideal world or ideal football, Pfennig said.

“We are aware that we will have to adjust our goals, also taking into account the background of an enormous change in all areas of life. That’s why we need a framework and always work in improving our goals.”

The centralised method has been successful for the implementation of other initiatives such as Supporter Liaison Officer’s (SLOs) and improvement of youth academies.

These works, which are part of the DFL’s licensing framework, have been copied by other countries around the world and Australia should be keeping a keen eye on them.

While looking to Germany may be a good guide for improving fan to club relations and youth academy developments, they should especially look to follow their upcoming sustainability guidelines.

Australian clubs should be further focusing on improving their efforts towards sustainability, in a country which generally fails to meet any of those types of objectives.

It may be a difficult initial transition but clubs will eventually benefit from this push in the years to come.

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