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Q&A with Football NSW CEO Stuart Hodge

2020 has been a challenging year for all sporting administrators due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Stuart Hodge is the current CEO of Football NSW and has held the position since June 2017.

In a wide-ranging chat with Soccerscene, Hodge shares his thoughts on the notable events of the year gone by, the opportunities the Women’s World Cup will bring, a national second division and the future plans for Football NSW.

Q: We’ll start by speaking about the recent Australian Coaching Conference. Could you just expand a little on the process and preparation of organising an event like that virtually…and are there any plans or a strategic focus to host other industry events like that in the future?

Stuart Hodge: Yeah look obviously the impact of COVID this year has forced a re-think in many industries on how they deliver on conferences. For example, our state coaching conference in 2019 was held at Valentine Sports Park and was sold out with 400 coaches in attendance. We had some fantastic presentations made in person, but obviously with COVID and the restrictions in place we took the opportunity to explore a virtual coaching conference this year.

Arsene Wenger presented at this year’s Australian Coaching Conference.

It really allowed us to open up our coaching conference to a much wider audience and at the same time, we were able to attract an incredible calibre of speakers from around the world. Having Arsene Wenger present was a fantastic coup for us.

In the end, we had over 1800 people register, so our ability to be able to deliver education in this space was enhanced by the choice to do it online. The great thing is that those registered can go back and re-watch those sessions, so it’s not only a fantastic opportunity to be engaging with it on the day, coaches can go back in a few months’ time and refresh their learnings.

We had terrific support from the FFA, Football Coaches Australia and some of the other state member federations, with people from different parts of the world registering and involving themselves in that conference.

It gives us a real potential to drive this forward and use the platform now to potentially look at doing other types of conferences, such as Football and Law, Sports Medicine and Sports Science, Capability Building projects for clubs…there’s a whole heap of possibilities now that we can explore from our experience.

Q: 2020 has been a tough year for most, how has the organisation been impacted (both positively and negatively) and what did you personally find the most difficult about the COVID situation?   

Stuart Hodge: The most difficult (aspect) was the unknown. As people have said, there was no playbook for this. There was no manual you could pull out and say ‘these are the steps you need to follow’. It was unprecedented.

It was having different impacts in different states and so really the challenge of everyday, working with government and stakeholders on trying to understand where things were going to head…and trying to predict the future, was very difficult.

Some of the positives to take out of it I think, was the great spirit shown by the football community in coming together and working collectively to get football back onto the park.

We were having a tremendous amount of engagement with our associations, our NPL clubs and other stakeholders. There was just such a fantastic spirit of cooperation.

When I have gone out and about and spoken to some club presidents of community clubs, they said it was so important for football to be played, especially for young people, and for the many people who went through difficult times, football was that release. The physical and the mental health value of playing football was absolutely vital.

It wouldn’t have been possible without the tremendous efforts of volunteers, who implemented all of the COVID safety measures. Volunteers, who always do a fantastic job, were asked to do more and they stepped up and were fantastic.

On another positive note, we also launched our NPL.TV platform and is now up to over 25,000 subscribers who are registered to the service.

On the negative side, it was a very challenging time for everyone involved. For Football NSW, all of our stakeholders and employees it was difficult. We did have standdowns, there was a lot of uncertainty.

Q: In regards to the recent Football NSW vs Football QLD State of Origin series, what do you see as the benefits of this initiative?

Stuart Hodge: It’s a tradition that goes back to the 1800’s for NSW and Queensland to play each other in football. It’s a treasured rivalry and from my understanding the last time it was played before this was 2003. I think there’s a tremendous pride in playing for your state. We see it happen in Rugby League, when the Blues play Queensland, it’s such an amazing occasion.

Rale Rasic at the Football NSW jersey ceremony.

We believe, the quality of our NPL is fantastic and also believe in the pride of representing NSW. We think it’s a great concept to bring back for our senior players. There’s been a great reaction from them. We had a fantastic jersey presentation with Rale Rasic in the build-up, and also Robbie Farrah. You can see it means a lot to the players, it’s another level.

It’s a tradition that was unfortunately lost and as a sport, we’ve decided to embark on a history and heroes project. We want to start recognising those who have contributed to the game at all levels and all aspects. Historically, football has not done enough of that. So this match was part of our push to start recognising the traditions of the game. The history project will also start to look at the naming of assets to appropriately reward those heroes’ service to the game.

Q: With the winner of the FFA Cup now getting a half spot into the Asian Champions League, do you think this will incentivise NSW member federation clubs to further lift their standards and professionalism across the board?

Stuart Hodge: It certainly provides a wonderful opportunity. But obviously in order to be eligible for that, the clubs need to meet certain requirements by the AFC. This does offer an incentive for clubs to look at what those requirements are and how they can develop and grow in order to meet those levels.

It’s a great chance to play off for that ACL spot, but not only that, because you would have had to win the FFA Cup to get there, which obviously no NPL club has done yet and is a huge achievement in itself.

I applaud the FFA for this incentive, to really try, in many cases, and lift the profile of the FFA Cup. I think it’s a fantastic competition, we see some great matches especially those involving member federations clubs against A-League clubs.

You really see how much it means to those federation clubs when the results go their way, and the large crowds that come along to see a Sydney club play against one of the Sydney A-League clubs.

The way they (FFA) have broken the competition into zone areas for the Round of 32 I think is also going to create some more of those derby games which are a fantastic aspect of the tournament.

Q: What’s your overall view on a national second division with promotion and relegation, is it currently realistic?

Stuart Hodge: I think everyone in football would ultimately like to see a second division with promotion and relegation. It’s something that is very unique to our sport and we see it happening all over the world. But, it has to be with the right circumstances all put in place. I think having the discussion around the second division is healthy, similar to the FFA Cup, the notion that a second tier may come at some point is also important to inspire those aspirational clubs to continue to grow and develop.

Q: How big of an opportunity is it for girls playing football in New South Wales to witness a Women’s World Cup in their backyard? 

Sam Kerr celebrates her goal against Brazil at Penrith Stadium in 2017.

Stuart Hodge: The Women’s World Cup will provide an incredible legacy opportunity for the game of the football, even beyond just girls. We’ve seen when the Matildas have played in NSW, the superb crowds of boys and girls coming to watch them.

I remember going out to Penrith Stadium, when the Matildas played Brazil, it was sold out with a fantastic atmosphere.

It’s incredible to see how the Matildas are just embraced here in NSW, they are so popular here for boys and girls. The Women’s World Cup is going to take all of that to a whole new level. I think the opportunities that will present for the game, not only for inspiration purposes for new players, but also encouraging those in the game to embrace a World Cup on home soil. It’s a once in a life time chance.

Q: Should this help with factors such as facilities in the future, due to the expected participation boom?

Stuart Hodge: It’s time for football to capitalise on this. We are engaging with the NSW Government and they are a tremendous supporter of major events. It’s about promoting a legacy for the game.

In the past, the government have provided legacy programs off major events which have included facility funding, funding for programs and more…and it will be important to connect with them in that process.

We know that facilities are a challenge for our sport, in NSW and around the country. We have a lot of football projects and facility investment that is required (to deal with the expected participation boom). The Women’s World Cup gives us an amazing platform to really advocate for our cause.

Q: Overall Stuart, what are your goals and vision for the organisation in a post COVID setting?  

Stuart Hodge: We have the XI Principles that the FFA have set out, and gives some guidance and direction for where the game may head. We just have to be positioned well to capitalise on the legacy of the Women’s World Cup and use that to benefit all of the game.

Coming out of COVID we want to make sure our associations are strong. We’re embarking on an NPL improvement project which will look at the next three years and how we can boost the governance and the structures of the competitions, in order to maximise those factors.

Football NSW will continue our player development programs and really look at how we can contribute to plugging the performance gap that the FFA has identified.

Finally, continuing to support and grow community football through investment is a high priority of our organisation.

 

 

 

 

Philip Panas is a sports journalist with Soccerscene. He reports widely on football policy and industry matters, drawing on his knowledge and passion of the game.

Football NSW and NOVA Employment renew long-standing partnership

NOVA Employment Renewal FNSW

Football NSW has announced that Disability Employment Service and Registered NDIS Provider NOVA Employment, has renewed their long-standing partnership as the presenting sponsor of the annual Football4All Gala Day.

Established in 2008, Football4All is an initiative led by Football NSW aimed at providing people with a special need or disability an avenue to enjoy ‘The World Game’ with family and friends.

Run by Football NSW’s member Clubs and Associations, the Football4All programs provide inclusive playing opportunities in a safe and secure environment. All 44 programs from around NSW vary in their offerings depending on the players within, however all initiatives highlight the significance of inclusion, health promotion and skill development.

The partnership renewal sees NOVA Employment return as the naming partner for the NOVA Employment Football4All League and NOVA Employment AWD Futsal League in addition to the NOVA Employment Football4All Gala Day for both 2021 and 2022.

Football NSW Chief Executive Officer Stuart Hodge was pleased to have secured an extension of the partnership with NOVA Employment.

“NOVA Employment first joined forces with Football NSW back in May 2012. The almost decade long partnership has been crucial in our ability to support and grow our inclusion programs in New South Wales,” he said.

“We look forward to working with Martin and the NOVA Employment team over the coming years.”

NOVA Employment CEO Martin Wren echoed Hodge’s sentiments.

“We really enjoy being part of Football NSW’s Football4All program and feel privileged to be on board again for 2021 and 2022,” he said.

“NOVA Employment encourages participation in team sports and Football4All provides a safe, fun environment where lasting skills and friendships can be developed.”

NOVA Employment is a not-for-profit charity that aims to achieve the employment of people who have a disability in award wage work within the general community. They offer specialist job seeking assistance, post placement support and work exclusively with people who have a disability.

The NOVA Employment Football4All Gala Day will take place at Valentine Sports Park on Sunday June 27, 2021.

Is it time for a national agenda regarding Futsal?

Futsal has played a role in the development of famous football players. Is it time for national agenda regarding this format of the game?

Futsal has played a huge role in the development of some of the most famous football players on the planet. Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Neymar are three of the biggest names in game, who all honed their skills playing the small-sided game.

Even in Australia, one of our top talents – Celtic and Socceroo’s Tom Rogic – was an avid player throughout his youth. The country is currently without a national team for men or women, and those within the game argue that without a national agenda for futsal, Australia may fail to develop players of this calibre going forward.

According to former Futsalroo and South Melbourne Legend Fernando de Moraes, one of the biggest benefits to player development is the number of touches on the ball they receive, and this is an essential part of developing a complete and technically talented footballer.

“I’d say futsal isn’t important. It’s essential. It has to be a part of their development. The technique developed from playing futsal, you won’t get that in outdoor football. The technical skills, the small touches of the ball, the quick thinking. In the full-sided game, you don’t get enough of that sometimes,” he said.

Anthony Grima, head of commercial and futsal at Football Victoria, is at the heart of the development of the game within Australia. He believes that Australia needs a national road map for futsal to get the best out of the game.

“A roadmap for Futsal is crucial for the future success of the sport in this country. It would lay the foundations for the sport nationally and provide an aligned Futsal framework for all states and territories to follow,” he said.

“Priorities such as governance, grassroots and pathway programs, player, coach and referee development, Futsal national teams, a national Futsal League and more.”

De Moraes believes without a path for young players to compete against the best opposition, the game is losing out on developing players. Football Australia’s former iteration of a national futsal league, the F-League, is now defunct.

Fernando De Moraes playing in the F-League

“It all starts from if you don’t have a professional or national league, even a semi-pro league. If you have a pathway for the kids who want to join futsal in competitions around the country, these amazing kids can succeed. But obviously, there is no pathway for them. They get lost,” he said.

De Moraes is no stranger to international futsal, having been capped 29 times by his country. In the past futsal has operated on an ad-hoc basis, with national teams suffering from a lack of support and organisation. National teams were sometimes organized as representative sides without recognition from the professional bodies in Australia, especially for women.

“It was always a get-together one or two months before the competition, we’d train together maybe two times, and then we’d go overseas to play the tournament. To have a program, so you can organise sooner, get yourself ahead, and develop players would be brilliant,” de Moraes said.

According to Grima, the sport has suffered without a centralised and focused vision, however, success can be created by listening to the stakeholders of the game.

“There has been a lack of certainty over what role governing bodies should play in Futsal and what leadership they should provide,” he said.

“After the extensive consultation we did here in Victoria in 2019 with the game’s stakeholders – and getting a deeper understanding of best practice principles – it is clear that the sport must be aligned.”

Grima explains that while the game faces issues, Football Australia, and the state federations, have signalled improvements in the games pathways, while calling for a national agenda for the sport.

“I am delighted that Football Australia included futsal in Principle IV of the recently released XI Principles – for the future of Australian football. They call for the establishment of a national agenda for futsal and beach soccer and to investigate the creation of new products to grow the game. This is fantastic to see,” he said.

“Here in Victoria, like Queensland as well, we recently announced our futsal strategies and have stepped up our dedication to unite the sport and invest in the resources needed to govern Futsal in our respective states. Other states including NSW and ACT have long been dedicated to Futsal.”

The Futsalroos are currently inactive. Grima thinks there is a huge opportunity to launch a women’s national team under Football Australia.

“The FIFA Futsal World Cup is being held this year in Lithuania, it would have been great to see the Futsalroos participating,” he said.

“I believe there is a huge opportunity ahead of the FIFA Women’s World Cup to introduce a national women’s team for Futsal as well. What a great legacy hosting the World Cup would bring here for Futsal as well.”

De Moraes believes that with the support of the state federations, futsal could become a huge part in developing players for the national team.

“Futsal is a great sport to develop players in this country. The amount of talent that gets lost and doesn’t end up playing because of a lack of opportunity is a missed opportunity. To make futsal a part of football, with the federation’s support, would be great to see.” he said.

Football NSW announce HG Turf as Official Supplier of Hybrid Grass

HG Turf Partnership FNSW

Football NSW have named HG Turf Group as their Official Supplier of Hybrid Grass.

HG Turf Group are the market leader in Hybrid Grass solutions. Since 1999, their Hybrid Grass solutions have improved the quality of sport fields across Australia and New Zealand, with some of their most significant installations including: ANZ Stadium, Bankwest Stadium, Eden Park, the Gabba, MCG, Optus Stadium and Sky Stadium.

In addition, international sporting events such as the 2000 Olympic Games, 2015 AFC Asian Cup, 2006 and 2018 Commonwealth Games and 2003, 2011 and 2019 Rugby World Cups have also used HGTG’s Hybrid Grass.

Over the years Football NSW and HG Turf Group have developed a strong relationship, with the latter building two FIFA certified synthetic turf pitches at Valentine Sports Park (VSP) in 2014. Since their establishment, these synthetic turf pitches have been heavily utilised and have increased the capacity of usage of the facility.

In an effort to improve the durability and performance of the natural grass pitches at VSP, HG Turf Group approached Football NSW with a Hybrid Grass solution – SISGrass®.

SISGrass uses needles to push artificial grass fibres into natural grass. The resulting mix of 95% natural grass and 5% artificial grass improves the stability and durability of natural grass, providing up to 3x more playing hours. It also improves the playability of the natural grass, with optimum ball roll and ball bounce, and ideal footing when turning and sliding.

Football NSW Chief Executive Officer Stuart Hodge welcomed the partnership with HG Turf Group.

“The SISGrass® hybrid solution synergises with the NSW Football Infrastructure Strategy and the key pillar, ‘improve existing venue capacity’. Maximising the carrying capacity and activation of existing Football pitches and venues is a key objective,” he said.

“With the installation at Valentine Sports Park, Football NSW Associations and Clubs, as well as local Councils, can inspect our venue to see the SISGrass® technology and its benefits first hand. We look forward to working with HG Turf Group to introduce their products to the wider football community.”

HG Turf Group Owner and Director Hamish Sutherland expressed his appreciation of Football NSW for the opportunity.

“We are very fortunate to be partnering with Football NSW again. Football NSW advances football in so many ways, and the installation of SISGrass® at Valentine Sports Park has created a new standard for natural grass pitches,” he said.

“By protecting the natural grass, SISGrass® delivers increased usage, durability, consistency, and better play, all year-round. Associations and Clubs can also enjoy the benefits of SISGrass®.”

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