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Sunshine Coast FC: The story behind Australia’s only full-time football youth program

Wilkes

The last decade of the Sunshine Coast Football Club’s journey embodies the ‘rollercoaster ride’ metaphor wholeheartedly.

Founded in 2007 and nicknamed “The Fire”, the club are led by Sporting & Technical Director Melvyn Wilkes, who has first-hand insight into the tumultuous 10-year stretch that saw them go from a dominant force in the now defunct Queensland Soccer League (QSL), to struggling in the National Premier Leagues Queensland (NPLQ) and then to rebranding as a hub for youth development.

Upon the disbandment of the QSL, the NPLQ was born in 2013 with Sunshine Coast FC taking its place as a founding member. However, upon the implementation of the NPL, the Fire could not replicate the same level of success of its senior men’s in the years prior where they had achieved three Championships and a Premiership between 2008 and 2012.

As a part of the newly established NPLQ, the Fire were now required to establish a junior program from U12 to seniors, which was at the time a license requirement of (the then-named) Football Federation Australia and Football Queensland.

From a semi-final spot in their debut NPLQ season, to a lowly 8th position finish in 2014, the Fire began to stutter in the new competition setup. This proved to be the turning point for the owners of the club as they looked for a more long-term strategy which involved the integration of the clubs successful youth into senior football.

At the end of 2014, Sunshine Coast FC Head Coach & Technical Director Kevin A’Hearn Evans parted ways with the club, leading to the separation of the Head Coach & Technical Director roles, with the club owners focusing their attention towards youth development to ensure a pathway for its bright young players.

At this point the best young players would progress into the Queensland Academy Sport (QAS), which eventually filtered into the Brisbane Roar youth program. Today, Sunshine Coast FC remain one of the major developers of youth players in the country.

At the end of 2014, club owner Noel Woodall and Sunshine Coast FC enlisted the assistance of their overseas networks to bring in a Technical Director who had vast experience in developing young players and preparing them for senior football. The incoming Technical Director would be tasked with revamping their youth development program to create a beacon to mirror what our European counterparts were delivering on a weekly basis.

Step forward Melvyn Wilkes, a vastly experienced developer of youth players and coaches, having spent well over 20 years working as a youth coach at clubs such as Manchester City, Nottingham Forest and West Bromwich Albion. In addition, Wilkes worked as a licensed coach educator for the FA and the PFA and represented the FA on UEFA study technical visits, whilst also working as a National Team coach for Guinea Bissau alongside his role as Technical Director for West Bromwich Albion.

Wilkes with coaches
Wilkes (far right) with Guinea Bissau coaches Rob Williams (far left) and Causso Seidi (middle)

Wilkes’ arrival in November 2014 was the starting point for the Fire to make headway into revamping their youth development program whilst also aligning the Senior program as one unified organisation. This would prove to be a substantial undertaking.

Wilkes recalls from the time: “I remember being called to the owner’s house after a couple of days of arriving on the Coast from the UK. We sat around his dining room table at his beach side residence in Peregian Beach.”

“The owner, Noel Woodall, reaffirmed his request for “accountability” from his staff, who he had believed had been underperforming with misplaced trust in previous years.”

As with any business and program, the first port of call was to observe and listen. Wilkes again recalls his first engagement with the parents and staff from the club.

“Noel had advised me that a parents information event had been set for 1 week after my arrival at the Sunshine Coast Stadium (home to SCFC Fire),” he said.

“I stood on the stage in the foyer and spoke openly about my background and my plans moving forwards. Upon the conclusion of the meeting, I had my first indication of how fractured the club was and how there was zero culture going on.”

Wilkes cites the intrusion of misinformed parents with personal agendas as one of the greatest drivers of the toxic environment the club had found itself in.

“Parents were continuously asking; “Who’s coaching this team, who’s coaching that team, we have had this coach for this year and we don’t want him or her again”, it went on like this for around 20 minutes from various parents of players,” he said.

The first three months of the 2015 season proved to be as instrumental an eye opener for Wilkes as he had ever encountered. All of the recruitment for the season had been done prior to his arrival, staff were under qualified or simply unqualified and teams acted like their own mini-football clubs. Change was overdue.

By mid-2015, the disharmony and lack of club culture was evident. There needed to be a renewed starting point and after assisting the next head coach of the seniors, Wilkes was ready to put plans into action.

Wilkes recollects telling the owners at the time that: “This will get a lot worse before it starts to get better, but you have to trust me and give me the time to affect the changes needed, irrespective of the outcomes.”

To the owner’s credit, they stuck by their very word, even after the club suffered relegation from the NPL, with Wilkes spending time with the owners over many cups of tea, keeping them up to speed.

Gradual removal of problem parents and players, as well as negative and under qualified staff, helped to reignite The Fire’s spark.

At this point, the investment into the juniors had overtaken that of the seniors, however, the club owners were still paying its senior players, but not out of the junior funds.

“We will definitely need to go backwards in order for us to move forwards, however, we will not deviate from our course and our plan, nor will we be prepared to throw silly money at Senior players,” Wilkes recalls explaining to the club’s owners at the time.

“We produce our own kids and players which is the platform and foundation for our club, it’s based around discipline and culture and stability.”

Within a subsequent five-year period, the club had blooded numerous young players who are now plying their trade in the NPL and above at various clubs. Despite suffering a relegation, the club have remained steadfast in their rebuild.

Youth coaching

2020 was undoubtedly one of the most difficult years in our recent history, with a global pandemic knocking every country sideways. However, this did not intervene with Sunshine Coast FC and it’s plan to progress, as the club amalgamated its private school and football club into Australia’s sole full-time youth football program.

The full-time academy is the only one of its kind in Australia, and at this present time is attracting interest from every corner of the nation, as well as interest from overseas parties who view the program as potentially being a part of a wider network.

Through the program, players receive 16+ hours per week of training, combined with fully funded private tuition. As well as a full-time sports science program that offers the likes of thermo imaging of muscles on a weekly basis, HR variability testing, GPS player tracking and much more.

Very much akin to what Wilkes had built and driven in the UK, the Fire now have a sporting club model that has football at its core.

The redevelopment of the grounds and land acquisition around the college is ongoing, as the venue transforms into an elite sporting training and competition venue, which is located 10 minutes from the newly developed Sunshine Coast International Airport. Wilkes believes this will ensure the College and venue is a prime destination for elite sporting athletes and visiting teams, with the Olympics and Women’s World Cup a target to host training camps alike.

Incoming ground

The Fire’s transformation as a representative sporting association in the Sunshine Coast is a testament to the foresight from the club’s owners and Wilkes to revamp the club for good. It is an undeniably significant untold tale in Australian football’s pantheon of incredible stories.

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W-League big winners in new CBA, as greater contract freedom for A-League clubs beckons

A new collective bargaining agreement has been struck between Professional Football Australia and the Australian Professional Leagues.

Equity in high-performance standards in the A-League and W-League, a 32% increase in the W-League salary cap floor and an increase in the A-League salary cap floor are the highlights of the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) struck between Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) and the Australian Professional Leagues (APL).

The new five-year deal was described as “ground-breaking” by a joint statement between the two bodies, in an announcement that highlights the newfound confidence in the economic environment for professional football in Australia.

Much of that confidence can be linked to the new five-year broadcast agreement with ViacomCBS and Network 10 and it is no surprise that this new CBA has been deliberately linked in length to the broadcast deal.

PFA Co-Chief Executive Kathryn Gill explained that being able to achieve this agreement was a huge milestone for the professional game in Australia, after such a long period of uncertainty in recent years due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the end of the previous broadcasting deal with Fox Sports.

“The players’ vision for the negotiations was economic security and stability for the clubs, the leagues and the players. This agreement is a foundational step towards this objective and our leagues will be stronger as a result,” she said via the joint statement.

“It has been an incredibly challenging time for our game; however, we believe the CBA will provide a platform for our leagues to be re-launched and for a genuine partnership between the clubs and the players to be forged.

“I would like to acknowledge the work of Greg O’Rourke, Danny Townsend, Tracey Scott, Chris Pehlivanis and John Tsatsimas for their efforts and commitment during the negotiations and especially the players who participated so actively throughout.”

PFA President Alex Wilkinson noted the immense sacrifice made by many players to usher the game through the COVID-19 pandemic, which he says helped pave the way for this agreement.

“This generation of players, club owners and staff have been asked to make immense sacrifices to preserve our sport during unprecedented times,” he said.

“As a result of these sacrifices we have been able to take an important step forward and provide greater certainty for the clubs and players and make important progress in areas such as our high-performance environment, player welfare whilst further embedding our commitment to gender equity.”

Under the new CBA, genuine equity in high-performance standards in the A-League and W-League have been entrenched in order to create a “world-class workplace” for all of the country’s footballers.

This CBA will be the first to deliver common standards across higher performance and medical departments across both the W-League and the A-League.

Increases to minimum and maximum player payments are also factored in during the course of the five-year CBA with a particular focus on an increase to the W-League salary floor, providing another massive boost on the back of the recently announced expansion of the competition to also include Central Coast Mariners, Wellington Phoenix and Western United.

There will also be a reformed contracting model that allows for greater capacity in squad investment for clubs, with an allowance for up to two “Designated Player” spots, which will allow clubs to invest between $300,000 and $600,000 in players whose salaries will be excluded from the A-League salary cap.

These “Designated Players” will be in addition to the current exemptions, such as “Marquee Players”.

Furthermore, there will also be greater capacity for clubs to contract youth players with an increase in the cap on scholarship players.

The CBA also provides for guaranteed funding for player welfare and development programs, as well as greater support for the PFA Past Players Program.

APL Managing Director Danny Townsend said the deal was proof that the APL was living up to its promise of greater investment since taking control of Australia’s professional leagues.

“When APL took control of the leagues, we promised it would herald a new era of investment and this agreement shows the progress that has already been made,” he said in a statement.

“This is a clear example of what can be achieved when we work together with a common vision to realise the potential of Australian football.”

APL Leagues Commissioner Greg O’Rourke added the investments would help clubs deliver a much-improved on-field product.

“Players are partners with us in the game and central to its growth. Having all of our partners on-board with the re-imagined future of the game is vital, and this agreement marks an important milestone in our new relationship,” he said.

“There will be immediate improvements across the men’s and women’s leagues, most notably for women’s football, all of which will flow through into improved experiences for players, and ultimately into growing and improving our game.”

Carlos Salvachúa: “Playing without promotion and relegation is a big problem”

Carlos Salvachúa was Victory assistant coach under Kevin Muscat, before taking over as caretaker manager. He has coached professionally in Spain and Belgium, including six years at the Real Madrid academy, overseeing the development of the club’s rising stars.

He spoke to Soccerscene from Spain about his impressions of the A-League, where it could be improved, and how Australian youth need to play more football to reach their potential.

What were your first impressions of the A-League?

Salvachúa: Sometimes the big issue is knowing if it’s a professional league or not – and definitely the A-League was professional. I’m talking about games, organisation, talking about flights or hotels, and training. I was lucky to arrive to Melbourne Victory – one of the biggest clubs there is – and everything in the club was like in Europe and in Spain. Good facilities, good organisation, and a lots of staff in the office. For me the first impression was really professional.

What was the level of professionalism like compared to other leagues you have coached in?

Salvachúa: Belgium is a hard competition. I’m talking about the games, not about organisation – it’s similar to the A-League or in Spain in the La Liga. The competition is tough in Belgium if we compare the level of the players, the games and the competition.

After leaving Melbourne Victory, Salvachúa was Muscat’s assistant coach at Sint-Truidense V.V. in Belgium.

What were the biggest challenges you faced while coaching in Australia?

Salvachúa: One of the biggest for me was the distance to play a game. It was funny because here with Atlético versus Real Madrid they travel 15 minutes to go to sleep at home, and for Victory we spend three days away to play a game, for me this was really hard. In the Champions League we spent five days away to play a game in China or in Japan. For me and and European players as well this was hard, because it was not easy. I remember the long pre-season because the schedule of FFA Cup was really hard for us. We trained two to three months before the first game in the A-League, just to play one round in the FFA Cup.

How do you think the league could be improved?

Salvachúa: For me, playing without promotion and relegation, is a problem, a big one in my opinion for the league. You need to improve the league from the basement – you cannot start the building of the house from the roof, you must start building the house from the ground up. I’m talking about the NPL. They are tough competitions, and you need to give promotion to the A-League, and I think that the competition will be better with this system like in Europe. I think a competition without promotion and relegation is only working with the MLS in USA. In Australia I think that it would be great to create another kind of competition to improve the league.

Another thing for me that is one of the biggest issues was that sometimes the players were receptive – they are professionals about training and have a good attitude to learn, but for me as a coach sometimes the players don’t know how important it is to win – compared to a draw or a loss. Without promotion and relegation, in some games as a coach, in the second half the players don’t understand how important it is to get a win over one point. I think that is probably one of the solutions to change the model of the competition.

How would you rate the level of young talent being developed in Australia?

Salvachúa: Like in other countries, you have good players with talent at 14, 15, and 16 years of age, but in my opinion they need more games. Some players arrive to A-League at 19 years old – playing 18 to 25 games – and it’s not easiest time for the coaches to start these young players in the first 11. If they are not playing every Sunday, they need another tough competition. You need competitive games with a second team like here in Spain or with the under 18s or under 19s – it depends. I think that they need more games here. A 14 or 15 year old kid normally finishes the competition in Spain with 45 official games. 45 games is more than the professionals in the A-League. I think one of the big issues is they do not have enough games and training sessions to develop the players. But the talent is there like in other countries.

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