Will Australia now finally put football ahead of power and pettiness?

Ange Postecoglou’s comments on ABC’s Offsiders Program in regards to putting Australian football first, were compelling and accurate.

The former Socceroo mentor and now coach of Yokohama F Marinos in the J-League was explicit, precise and curt when commenting on the necessary response to the COVID-19 pandemic within the Australian game. For Postecoglou, it is an opportunity to do something rarely seen. That being, an active positioning of football well above all the vested interests and personalities that for decades appear to have thought themselves bigger than the game itself.

The former South Melbourne player stated, “Never forget what your prime product is and your product is the sport……..If you devalue the sport, you can save as much money as you want, eventually that devaluation is going to cost you.”

For Australian football, the reference to money is the hottest topic of conversation right now. Foxtel appears to have reneged on its most recent payment due to FFA, with A$12.5 million yet to hit the savings account of the governing body.

With three years to run on a broadcast deal that was signed in 2016 and valued at A$346 million, the media giant is within inches of walking away and leaving Australia’s elite professional league without a host broadcaster.

That deal was originally cheered home in 2016 by then Chief Executive David Gallop, yet in the years that followed, little was done to advance, promote and forward the game by the powers at be. Postecoglou was on the sidelines in a coaching capacity with the Socceroos for some of that time and his comments were no doubt directed towards those whom he sees as having failed to keep football as the focus.

No doubt FFA were jubilant each and every time the Socceroos qualified for the World Cup and the subsequent financial windfall that came their way. However, little effort was made to bring the domestic game together as one. Despite increased awareness of and interest in NPL competitions around the land, the governing body baulked time after time when it came to making the essential leap to full promotion and relegation across the country.

Essentially, Postecoglou’s words ring true to all those who have observed the first 15 years of the A-League competition. Efforts were made to expand the game from the elite level and little done to engage with the grass roots and the hundreds of thousands of Australians who showed little interest in the top tier competition.

By providing pathways for clubs to advance in league play and the ensuing incentive provided for players not directly involved in the rather limited junior and developmental systems of the ten A-League clubs, football in Australia has the potential to become interconnected and united; something of which Postecoglou is well aware.

Instead, the elite men’s competition had a few highs, many lows and ended up treading water over the last five years with little change, growth or development. High hopes were placed on expansion and Western United have made anything but a weak start to their existence. However, with the financial realities of COVID-19 hitting home, it is now likely we will see some A-League clubs fold or tread close to extinction.

A third Sydney team was looking shaky in its infancy and with the current climate now leading to seven of the eleven A-League clubs unable to pay players and staff, their birth seems unlikely; most probably postponed indefinitely until the football landscape becomes a little easier to read.

Postecoglou’s comments were almost certainly a less than cloaked attack on many Australian football relics whose failures of the past are common knowledge; the men involved in the failed final days of an NSL competition that fell victim to infighting and power struggles that served no purpose to the game.

They were also undoubtedly a direct attack on the lack of vision shown by the FFA in recent history; a governing body hampered by risk aversion and people possessing little knowledge of football.

Mark Schwarzer alluded to those power struggles when he called for the abolition of state federations on April 20, citing them as the “biggest problem in Australian football” due to a reluctance to relinquish power and influence.

Both Postecoglou and Schwarzer know the landscape all too well and have been to places that very few Australian footballers and/or managers have even dreamt. Something tells me that we should be listening to them as an industry and taking the advice of people with knowledge that extends far beyond our shores.

FFA boss James Johnson shares such knowledge and experience and it will be interesting to see how he incorporates their advice with that formed by the ‘Starting XI’ think tank he has assembled in an effort to guide the game through the problems created by the pandemic.

Mark Viduka, Josip Skoko, Clare Polkinghorne, Ron Smith, Mark Bosnich, Paul Okon, Frank Farina, Heather Garriock, Vicki Linton, Joey Peters, and Connie Selby will no doubt have strong opinions.

Whether they have the nous and vision to right what currently looks like a sinking A-League ship after Foxtel’s clear intention to walk away is unclear. Hoping they do should be the wish of each and every football fan in Australia.

Staff Writer
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How the NPL can learn off the USL’s content deal with Footballco

The United Soccer League (USL) has launched a strategic content partnership with Footballco, a football media company, being designated as an “Official Content Partner of the USL.”

The company will showcase the league, which is the football pyramid separate to the franchised MLS in the US, through existing fan and player-led video content formats, original creatives, features and news.

Goal and Mundial will focus on the men’s divisions, while Indivisa will work on the soon-to-be-launched USL Super League and USL W League with a more lifestyle and community-led approach to its content.

Footballco is strategically aiming to expand in the US, with the next Men’s World Cup and Olympics taking place there, and a bid for the next Women’s World Cup possibly adding that to the mix.

USL Chief Marketing Officer Greg Lalas discussed the importance of fast-tracking the USL’s growth with the sport becoming more popular.

“The USL is the heartbeat of American soccer, and we are thrilled to partner with Footballco to help bring the story of our leagues and our clubs to new fans around the world,” Lalas explained in a USL released statement.

“Brands like Goal, Mundial, and Indivisa are massively influential in the global soccer community, and as we look to extend our reach both domestically and internationally, we were excited about the opportunity Footballco presents.

“Likewise, we look forward to supporting Footballco’s strategic expansion in the U.S. This really is a match made in soccer heaven.”

Jason Wagenheim, Footballco’s CEO, North America discussed the potential this deal has for both companies.

“The USL is among the most exciting soccer leagues in the United States. As we expand our U.S. footprint, we look forward to connecting at an entirely new level with the clubs, players and fans at the heart of the USL,” Wagenheim added in a statement.

“Our reporting goes beyond just news and scores to cover the intersection of soccer and lifestyle, and there’s a huge opportunity to put the USL at the centre of that storytelling – something we know our audience craves.”

There are a lot of similarities between the NPL and USL in terms of its place in the football pyramid of its respective country and attendance numbers, and whilst the funding is different, it begs the question, should the standard of NPL content be higher from the state federations and clubs?

NPL1 matches are currently being streamed on YouTube under the NPL.TV channel, with every game live and with commentary. There have been known issues in recent years with NPL.TV streaming on the now administrated Cluch TV and the absence of live games since had affected the pyramid.

After a return to YouTube in 2024, it’s good to see a healthy audience watching games live on a big platform but fan and club driven content is still so scarce.

Akin to the partnership between USL and Footballco, Australia’s state federations need to do more with website and social media content. Among all of the divisions in each state, there is plenty of opportunity for behind-the-scenes access, stadium news and promotion of big matches including derbies to draw interest to YouTube live streams.

The forward-thinking approach of the USL has provided the NPL with a good blueprint to expand the lower leagues and Australian Football pyramid.

It’s simple, providing the vast array of NPL fans with league-focused social media content on a popular social media channel like the state federation accounts and actively promote any signings, big club news or upcoming matches that fans could attend or watch on NPL.TV.

A lot of these suggestions aren’t particularly out of budget for the NPL, but rather are more of an effort-driven focus that can have a big impact on attendance, viewership and publicity.

Alex Wilkinson: A life after football with Sydney FC

Many professional footballers face a harsh reality when their playing careers come to an end.

So entrenched in the weekly routine of training and playing, they find it difficult to adjust to a new way of life without the activity which has dominated their lives and provided their livelihood.

Not so for Alex Wilkinson – the former Northern Spirit, Central Coast, Sydney FC and Socceroo defender who was earmarked for a career in football management at least five years ago by the management of Sydney FC.

As the club captain, he exhibited extraordinary leadership skills and always expressed a desire to be involved in the game after his playing career finished.

Furthermore, his contribution for a number of years as the President of Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) clearly indicated his interest in supporting players during their careers and was a natural progression to football management.

Consequently, it’s no co-incidence since his appointment as Head of Football Operations in July 2023, that Sydney FC are entering a period of renewed strength both on and off the field.

In this interview with Roger Sleeman, Alex Wilkinson discusses his role at Sydney FC, the new era for the club and other key issues in the game.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – NOVEMBER 20: Alex Wilkinson of Sydney FC heads a shot at goal during the A-League match between Western Sydney Wanderers and Sydney FC at CommBank Stadium, on November 20, 2021, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

ROGER SLEEMAN

Reflecting on your extensive football career, do you miss playing, and did you envisage a successful transition to your current position  at Sydney FC?

ALEX WILKINSON

I was lucky to have such a long, playing experience and if you had said to me when I was a 16 or 17 year old I would play at the top level for 21 years, I would’ve been happy with that.

I was fortunate to play with some outstanding performers, good teams and win some trophies.

Obviously, playing for the Socceroos was the pinnacle which gave me a great sense of pride.

Critically, if I could go back in time there are no regrets but the ball also rolled with me as I had very few injuries and the right coaches at the right time.

So many players with ample ability don’t necessarily have long careers either due to injuries, unfavourable coaches or luck just not going their way.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – AUGUST 30: Alex Wilkinson of Sydney FC lifts the A League Trophy after the 2020 A-League Grand Final match between Sydney FC and Melbourne City at Bankwest Stadium on August 30, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

R.S.

Can you elaborate on your duties and responsibilities as Head of Football Operations?

A.W.

For the last few years, retirement was on my mind but I had no desire to follow a coaching career.

I was more interested in the business side of the game so I undertook a degree in sports management and coaching.

During this process, I sat down with club management to discuss a future role which led to my current position.

I’m also very close to completing my MBA which has been of major assistance in my role.

The role involves looking after A-League squad member requirements, helping the Academy players transition into a full time environment and some involvement with the women’s squads.

For the Academy players progressing to the senior squad, it’s important they adjust to full time football, especially if they’ve moved away from home.

I assist them to have a stable life off the field which provides for better on field success.

R.S.

Since you commenced the role in July 2023, are you achieving your objectives?

A.W.

Wanting to cement a place in the business space of football, after 20 years as a player is a great challenge starting from scratch.

However, at Sydney FC the job has been made easier through my constant liaison with the football, marketing and media departments.

R.S.

Under the leadership of Ufuk Talay, the club is really capturing the attention of the football community.

How much input have you contributed to this success?

A.W.

It was a hard act for Talay to follow Steve Corica with three grand finals, a premiership and FA Cup.

However, he has brought a different way of playing and a definite style to the playing group. After 17 weeks in, the players are benefiting which is showing with the great run of wins and elevation up the table.

I’m confident in his playing methods and the players are enjoying it , even with the physical demands of pressing and how high up the park he wants them to play.

Opponents are finding difficulty with the relentless pressing , denying them time on the ball and consequent, increased turnover.

Dave Zdrilic has also made a major contribution with the critical experience he has gained overseas.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – JANUARY 16: Nicolai Muller of the Wanderers shoots under pressure from Alex Wilkinson of Sydney FC during the A-League match between Sydney FC and the Western Sydney Wanderers FC at ANZ Stadium, on January 16, 2021, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

R.S.

Are you happy with the transition of youth team players into the first team since your appointment?

A.W.

This year, especially, the young players are getting greater game time and you can watch the ceiling of their performance increase accordingly.

It doesn’t always work smoothly but we’re getting results now.

The jump from the Academy to senior football can’t be underestimated but its working for them and the club now.

R.S.

Which of the new players have made a big impact in the team?

A.W.

Jake Girdwood-Reich who isn’t even a centre back has really shone, Corey Holman has taken like a duck to water in the number six role and has the ability after ball winning to mount attacks. Jordan Courtney Perkins is making great strides in the left back position for the injured Joel King, even though he was previously a centre back, Hayden Matthews has shown great promise in the last few matches and Jaiden Kucharski is a great talent who scored 20 goals last year in NPL and is knocking on the door to play regularly.

R.S.

How important is Joe Lolley to the current run of Sydney FC?

A.W.

Lolley’s contribution has been critical to the team and I believe he’s been the best player in the A-League this season.

Under Talay, he’s taken his game to a new level with work ethic and desire to win the ball back.

His dribbling ability is unquestionable and the killer ball, shots on goal and one on one duels are a feature of his game.

R.S.

How closely do you work with Talay and Zdrilic?

A.W.

The football department is really working well and although I’m not out on the training ground every day, when I’m not in the office, I try to be there as much as possible.

The culture within the football department is solid so the coaching staff will listen to my input.

Both Talay and Zdrilic will let you make suggestions and they’re not close minded.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – JANUARY 12: Alex Wilkinson of Sydney FC kicks during the FFA Cup Quarter Final match between Sydney FC and Brisbane Roar at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium on January 12, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

R.S.

What was your take on the 4-1 win in the Sydney derby two weeks ago?

A.W.

A demolition and one of the better wins for Sydney FC over the years.

From the first minute we showed we wanted it more and were more aggressive and dominant.

They couldn’t get out of their half in the first 10 minutes and after we scored the two early goals, it was virtually all over.

We didn’t sit back after scoring those two goals and Talay has encouraged the players to be relentless, create pressure and aggressiveness which led to the third and fourth goals.

The pace of our game is really upsetting opposition which happened in this game so all we have to do is maintain consistency for the rest of the season.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – AUGUST 10: Alex Wilkinson of Sydney FC in action during the Australia Cup Rd of 16 match between Bentleigh Greens SC and Sydney FC at Kingston Heath Soccer Complex on August 10, 2022 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Graham Denholm/Getty Images)

R.S.

Does Sydney FC have the potential to become a super club like Melbourne Victory and the Wanderers?

A.W.

I think we’re already there but while the salary cap is present, it’s difficult for teams to maintain this status. When players want to be rewarded, it’s hard to pay them more so they leave the club. Therefore, you have to have this production line in constant motion to keep the club at the top of the ladder.

Overseas clubs can see the value of Australian players so if clubs like ours can continue to produce quality players through our Academy, we have a great source of revenue.

Also, fans want to see young players who have no fear, more than happy to dribble and take opponents on. As the players develop and they have opportunities overseas, the regular income stream for the club is guaranteed and the national team also benefits.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – OCTOBER 08: Alex Wilkinson of Sydney FC passes during the round one A-League Men’s match between Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory at Allianz Stadium, on October 08, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

R.S.

How did you regard the Socceroos performance in the Asian Cup?

A.W.

Great success in the last World Cup but the Asian Cup was disappointing, especially when we should’ve beaten South Korea.

However, the Asian countries are well ahead us in terms of investment in the game and in 10-15 years if we don’t invest more, they will be the favourites when we play against them.

R.S.

As immediate past President of the PFA, are we utilising the abilities of past players sufficiently?

A.W.

Probably not, but just because they played shouldn’t guarantee them a position.

The PFA has a past players program which players can access to find jobs plus well being initiatives.

In the business side of sport, the former players need to be qualified rather than being appointed because they played the game.

We need to grow the professional game so more money is attracted and an increase in A-League teams would provide more opportunities for former players in coaching and administration.

Notwithstanding, the transition from playing to the real world of football business can be difficult and I’m living it now.

However, I fully support the introduction of greater input and influence from former players.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – FEBRUARY 11: Alex Wilkinson of Sydney FC celebrates winning the round 16 A-League Men’s match between Western Sydney Wanderers and Sydney FC at CommBank Stadium, on February 11, 2023, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

R.S.

What is your opinion of the proposed National Second Division?

A.W.

It will certainly create more opportunity for players at semi-professional level and will bring more money into the game.

Also, with the proposed broadcast deal for the Socceroos, Matildas and National Second Division, it would be ideal if the clubs received some funding from this package to boost their operations.

In saying that, there will be significant costs with interstate travel, accommodation and general overheads.

There is also the question of promotion and relegation which seems to be in the too hard basket.

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