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Melbourne Victory W-League head coach Jeff Hopkins: “There are so many positive things happening in the game right now”

Hopkins spoke to Soccerscene about success in a season upended by the pandemic and the future of the W-League and women's football in Australia.

Jeff Hopkins coached Melbourne Victory to the most dramatic of wins in this years W-League final – a goal directly from a corner kick, in the dying seconds of extra time.

He speaks to Soccerscene about success in a season upended by the pandemic, his storied career throughout England, Malaysia and Australia as a player, plus the future of the W-League and women’s football in Australia.

Q: It must have been an ecstatic feeling to win the final the way you did.

Hopkins: Leading into the final, the week we had before that, was the game in Sydney which was a rearranged game that ended up being a decider (for the league title). We were on a real high leading into that game, on a run of wins, to have lost that, it was an emotional rollercoaster. To get ourselves up for the weekend to go to Brisbane, win that game, and the way we won the game in the final made it even more special. Leaving it until the last seconds of the game, when everyone thought we were going into penalties and the game becomes a little bit of a lottery, so to win it as we did was amazing. The harder something is to get the more special it becomes, and it was definitely the case in that game.

Q: How did you become involved in football, and into coaching?

Hopkins: I was brought up in the UK, came from a family with two older brothers, both of who are involved in football. My older brother was a professional at Bournemouth, and my other brother came through the ranks and was a schoolboy with Plymouth, so it was in the family and the blood. I played as a professional for 17 years before coming to Australia, after a year playing in Malaysia. In my last year of playing, I played in the NSL with Gippsland Falcons and progressed into coaching from there. As I was progressing through my middle to late years in England I was very interested in coaching and got into it, and started my coaching qualifications over in the UK with a couple of UEFA badges and finished it up while I was over here. I played as a professional for 18 years so it was a natural progression for me to go into coaching.

Q: How does winning the W-League final as a coach rank up against your career achievements, which included 16 caps for Wales?

Hopkins: It’s right up there. What I am doing at the moment, and it’s something I put everything into, this year was really special. We worked with a really special group of players and in really difficult circumstances with COVID hanging over us, and the uncertainty from week to week, not knowing what is happening with playing and training. I rate what we have done this season so highly, and it’s a testament to the people who are at the club and the playing group that we got through it and won the final.

Q: How important is the expansion of the W-League?

Hopkins: I think it’s something we have been waiting for a long time and it’s a natural progression for the league. To grow the league to maybe 12 teams would be excellent, it’s something we’ve been talking about and hopefully heading towards this season. Starting to work towards a full and home and away season gives the league more credibility. I think we are heading in the right direction, I think it is important for the game in this country. Leading into 2022 there is a great opportunity for us to grow the league and the participation levels. We’ve got our place to play in that picture as well. We’ve got to be a place in that pathway for young girls to look to get to that next level, and we are part of that pathway and a stepping stone to fully professional football, representing the Matildas and playing in world cups and Olympic games. It’s important there is a credible league for young girls to come into and aspire to their level. It’s important we make the league as strong as possible.

Q: Do you think the long off-season is a detriment to the league?

Hopkins: At the moment, hopefully in time will change as the league grows, we spend more time away from the players than with them across the year and it becomes a little bit of the problem. COVID added to that problem. There were options for players to play overseas and come back and play in the W-League with good opposition. But at the moment players are limited to the NPL competitions which are improving year on year. It is a problem because we then have to monitor our players in different environments and you lose track and control of your players. Over time we can make the league longer so we have more control, but also coaching in the NPL is improving so players are getting into better environments when they aren’t with us.

Q: With the new broadcast deal, the existence of the A-League and W-League is guaranteed for the next five years. How important is the security this has created?

Hopkins: The television deals all over the world drive the football leagues, it allows clubs to get out there to the general public. There are plenty of different components of football, especially in terms of getting the fans to see the product. The TV deal is important, and it’s great we have a free-to-air component so everyone can see it. As the game grows it’s important we get our product out there in the best way possible, and as many ways as possible. I think this deal is a big step forward for the game. Everyone in the game can see that and is happy with the work that has been on this TV deal.

Q: Do you think the deal will increase the professionalism of the W-League?

Hopkins: As the game grows, and the league grows and we head towards a longer season, the environments will have to grow. There is a lot of things happening in the game now, the growth of women’s football, and the women’s World Cup is going to massive as well. Companies wanting to jump on board, sponsorship, there are so many positive things happening in the game right now. The TV deal is a part of that, and the more money that comes in the game, and the women’s side of things will allow to do a bit more, create better environments. It can only make the game better.

Q: Will the Women’s World Cup be a catalyst for the W-League to reach new heights?

Hopkins: It definitely will. There is a massive opportunity to grow the game on the female side of things as we get closer to the excitement that it will generate. If the Matildas can do well at a home World Cup it will be a massive boost for the game. Participation levels will go up, and it’s a great opportunity for us in this country to showcase women’s football, but what we are doing in the W-League is a big part of that as well. The Women’s World Cup is a massive opportunity for us, and an opportunity we are all behind and pushing in the same direction for the women’s side of the game. It isn’t just a competition that will come and go, we are going to push hard to drive the game on, and when the competition is over we are hoping we will be in a much better place.

Marshall Soper – the Gifted Journeyman

When Marshall Soper, the former Socceroo great, witnessed the demise of Harry Souttar with his ACL injury in the recent Socceroo World Cup home clash against Saudi Arabia on November 11th, his thoughts flashed back to the 29th March, 1987 when he was playing with Sydney Olympic against Sydney City.

With one turn of his body early in the first half, Soper was writhing on the ground in agony after tearing the cruciate ligament in his right knee and was forced to sit out the season following a complete knee reconstruction.

It was ironic that Luke Brattan, the Sydney FC holding midfielder, also befell the same fate in the FA Cup clash against Sydney Olympic on 24th November.

A lot of water has fallen under the bridge since Soper captivated the football community after his first appearance for Apia-Leichhardt in the 1981 NSL season, followed by his rapid rise to Socceroo stardom in 1982.

Who could ever forget the matches against Juventus in 1984 when the Italian champions toured Downunder.

His performances, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne were simply mesmerising as he toyed with the Juventus defence, leading to the expulsion of Cabrini, the famous Italian left back, who had no answer to Soper’s skills in Sydney.

Yet Soper’s failure to capitalise on his huge talent was also exemplified after his outstanding display on the Socceroo’s tour match against Arsenal at Highbury in November, 1984. On the night he gave the England left back and captain, Kenny Samson, nightmares while scoring two goals for the Socceroos in a 3-2 loss to the Gunners.

In August, 1985, Red Star Belgrade, the Yugoslav champions toured Australia and the goal Soper scored at St George Stadium in the 4-1 win by the Socceroos was world class.

Beating two Red Star defenders at the half way mark, Soper sprinted to a position just outside the penalty area. The advancing keeper tried to narrow the angle but Soper pushed the ball with the outside of his right foot into the corner of the net.

First team players and coaches Marshall Soper front row, 6th from the right

 

It was at this time, people recognised that this man was no mere mortal as he made the big name Red Star players look ordinary that day.

Soper’s life has always been dedicated to the game he loves in his extraordinary playing career and for the many years he has spent in technical coaching roles in Australia and Asia.

He returned to Australia in March, 2020 from his three year stint as Technical Director at Yangon United in Myanmar due to Covid 19 and is currently weighing the options in his football life.

In this interview with Roger Sleeman, Marshall Soper discusses his experiences in Myanmar, the standard of football in Australia and how it can be improved, reflects on his playing career and outlines his aspirations in football.

ROGER SLEEMAN

In your three years in Myanmar, what was your experience of facilities, youth development and football standards?

MARSHALL SOPER

Like the rest of Asia, the country is pouring money into football while the investment in Australia is at a standstill.

Yangon United has a full time professional setup for the 1st team, U 21’s and U/18’s. They own their stadium, have an accommodation facility adjacent to the stadium complex which has 120 rooms, full time chefs, restaurants, coffee shops, swimming pool and gymnasium and support staff.

I had my own driver and the players would walk from their accommodation to the training ground while the club has a fleet of buses to transport supporters to matches.

The club plays in the National League and in 2019 we played in the Asian Champions League and topped the group.

The first year I joined the club, they hadn’t won anything but in that same season, they captured the three domestic trophies.

It was a full on job for me and not without stress levels while working with coaches, adapting players to professionalism and training seven days a week, sometimes twice a day.

The youth teams played during the week and the 1st team at the weekend so I was either at a training session or a match.

It’s a country which is crying out for help and so committed to youth development which is sadly not the case in Australia.

Here, there’s not the push to develop youth because clubs want to win on the day, rather than having a long term plan. Hence the drop in standards of our national team and our resulting poorer ranking in Asia where we struggle to beat countries like Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia.

Marshall Soper addressing coaches & players regarding pre-season

 

ROGER SLEEMAN

You attended the Socceroos clash with Saudi Arabia on November 11th.

What were your impressions?

MARSHALL SOPER

If you look at the positions the players take up on the pitch, there seems to be a startling resemblance to what the National Curriculum espouses.

The game is still too basic as we use very wide players to cross the ball from three quarters of the pitch at best and there is no attempt to beat opponents, especially through the middle of the park.

On the night, Mitch Duke and Jamie McClaren should’ve started the match to attack the heart of the Saudi’s defence, particularly with the speed of Martin Boyle.

If it hadn’t been for that great block in the first half by Harry Souttar which precipitated his injury ,Australia would’ve probably lost the match but overall our tactics were negative, while the Saudis were perfectly prepared and played us out of our comfort zone.

They dominated the middle of the park and we failed to penetrate from the wide areas.

The truth is, the Saudis had enough of the ball and chances in front of goal to win the game easily.

ROGER SLEEMAN

I performed a basic statistical analysis of A-League players four years ago and discovered that only 10% of them were competent on both sides.

Can you explain this, and what responsibility do technical directors have to improve this situation?

MARSHALL SOPER

At the moment, there is a poor understanding of how to develop the complete player in both the A-League and at NPL level.

As I mentioned previously, the emphasis is on winning rather than developing and in the A-League we’re importing questionable overseas players who are earning easy cash, rather than producing youth players of high quality.

In terms of the youth policy, are we coaching the coaches correctly?

Also, are we appointing people in TD roles with the right knowledge and philosophy to develop players to their maximum potential?

Do these people understand the full spectrum e.g. do they know what it’s like to be injured, what is required of a technical player or a hard working player to be successful and can they develop two sided players.

I doubt if we have the right people in this country to accomplish these objectives.

ROGER SLEEMAN

While you have been back in Australia, have you been approached to coach?

MARSHALL SOPER

I’ve had a number of calls and conversations from A-League clubs who have talked about the position of striker or front third coach but I prefer to look at starting my own academy where I can determine the structure and provide a transparent pathway to European clubs.

Recently, I signed an agreement with 90.1.1 Management Agency which is located in Central Europe and my name is now on their website.

The organisation is a group of licensed football agents who carve a pathway for young players and suitable movement for established players.

I want to cater for quality European players to come to Australia and Asia and for young players from Australia to play in Europe and Asia.

Currently, Kusini Yengi from Adelaide United is managed by the group.

 

Team coaches together with Marshall Soper for weekly match review

 

ROGER SLEEMAN

Not a year goes by when football supporters ask the question as to why you withdrew from the 1985 World Cup qualifiers. It’s firmly believed, if you, Craig Johnston and Tony Dorigo had been available for the two home and away matches against Scotland, our chances to qualify for Mexico,1986 would have increased considerably.

Your comment.

MARSHALL SOPER

I have to carry this burden on my shoulders but we were receiving a very poor pay deal with the national team compared to what the clubs were paying us.

If we were injured for the Socceroos we would’ve received small compensation so we had to ask ourselves, was it worth playing when you were feeding a family?

The answer for me at the time was no and remember there was no PFA in existence at the time to support the players.

ROGER SLEEMAN

Your rejection of the Arsenal manager, Don Howe’s contract offer on the Socceroo world tour in November, 1984 after you scored two goals against the Gunners and played mind games with the England captain and left back, Kenny Samson, is still something your followers can’t understand .

Can you please explain?

MARSHALL SOPER

I had other offers from other clubs, apart from Arsenal and as I look back at what could’ve been, the matter becomes purely hypothetical.

Did I make a difference in Australian football? History records, I was the only player to win five National Cup competitions, two each with Sydney Olympic and Parramatta Eagles and one with Apia-Leichhardt.

Australian Professional Leagues announce minority investment from Silver Lake

ALM

Australian Professional Leagues (APL), the entity responsible for the operation, commercialisation and marketing of professional football in Australia, have today announced that Silver Lake, a global leader in technology investing, has made a significant minority investment in the organisation.

The investment will drive technology enhancements and innovation aimed at improving the fan experience and driving further development of the game in Australia. The transaction values APL at approximately USD$300m / AUD $425M.

Silver Lake’s investment aimed at supporting APL’s sustained, long-term growth strategy for the leagues, with a measured deployment of capital over the coming years. Funds will be used to drive enhancements widely across many aspects of the professional game.

APL’s digital first strategy will continue to evolve with a focus on marketing, product development and strengthening its direct-to-consumer execution.

Funds will also be allocated to support the on-field enhancement of the A-Leagues including increased investment in all competitions with a specific focus on extended growth in the Liberty A-League Women and A-League Youth competitions. Additional investment is planned to be deployed for development of unique community engagement propositions to further connect the game.

Silver Lake Managing Director Stephen Evans will become a Member of the APL Board.

Commenting on the announcement, A-Leagues Chair Paul Lederer said:

“Silver Lake is a world-class leader in technology and media investing and this partnership is a testament to the compelling opportunities for growth and even better, deeper fan engagement that our leagues are cultivating. This valuation recognises the latent potential that has long existed in the professional game in Australia, and the ability of our board and executive team to realise that potential.

“We welcome the opportunity to work closely with Silver Lake to harness the team’s experience, including around new technology adoption and other growth strategies critical to realising the potential of Australian football.”

Silver Lake Managing Director Stephen Evans added:

“The Australian Professional Leagues has a large, growing and passionate fan base across its 13 teams and the organisation has made great strides as it focuses on leveraging technology to strengthen Australian football and enrich the fan experience.

“We are excited to partner with the Board, Danny Townsend, and the entire executive team to help further accelerate APL’s digital transformation and support its continued momentum and ambitious vision for long-term sustainable and inclusive growth.”

The Silver Lake transaction has been approved by the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB) and Football Australia.

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