February 13, 2015 – 9:19PM
Cup joy: Adelaide United goalkeeper Eugene Galekovic (left) and Nigel Boogaard after winning the FFA Cup final.
Is lower-league football still relevant? Happily, we can say it’s more relevant than ever.
Think Asian Cup final. Mile Jedinak skippered the Socceroos, his career having been revived thanks to Sydney United. Fullbacks Ivan Franjic (Oakleigh Cannons) and Jason Davidson (Hume City) also used state league football as a stepping stone for different reasons. Likewise Mathew Leckie (Bulleen Lions) who – like his good mate Davidson – had been overlooked by hometown A-League club Melbourne Victory.
So four members of Australia’s Asian Cup-winning starting XI needed the NPL to help build careers having being missed by the elite development path. Look how far they’ve gone. I’d say that makes the NPL system as important as ever, don’t you?
This week in Adelaide, David Gallop launched the 2015 NPL season. Next week he’ll launch the FFA Cup. Before then, on Saturday, the first FFA Cup qualifiers will kick off in Queensland and Victoria.
Just weeks after we celebrated a huge achievement at the top end of the game, effort is going into strengthening the foundation. The FFA doesn’t always get things right, but Whitlam Square deserves to be congratulated for not letting the Asian Cup distract it from the business at hand. Gallop has just been given an extended contract and continues to proves he’s worth every cent.
Thankfully, belatedly, structures are being put in place to rejuvenate lower-league football 38 years after state league competitions were swept into obscurity by Australia’s first national sporting competition, the NSL. There are great possibilities.
Ratings for last year’s inaugural FFA Cup delighted, and surprised, many observers. Four blue-chip sponsors were brave enough to gamble on the potential. This year, the NPL competitions across eight states and territories will get their first naming rights sponsor, Sony. Get things right and the interest, and the money, will follow.
Fox Sports is so enamoured with the FFA Cup it is sending a camera to the Mornington Peninsula to cover the first qualifier of 2015 between Rosebud Heart and Old Ivanhoe Grammar. Speaking of schools, The Armidale School from northern NSW have entered their first XI to show how much the magic of the cup has evolved in such a short time.
It’s not beyond imagination that the NPL play-offs – which bring the various state champions together in September-October to determine who, in effect, will be second-division champions of Australia – will one day have television coverage as well. Playing this year’s final as an A-League curtain-raiser would be a smart move to open the door.
Certainly the FFA has learnt the long way not to underestimate, or undersell, the power of this level of football. That we could see historic clubs such as West Wallsend, Bardon Latrobe, West Adelaide and Brunswick Juventus reappear on the national stage via the FFA Cup indicates how quickly the game is coming together again. From that unity will emerge what’s always been the commercial game-changer for football in this country – its sheer weight of numbers. Don’t think the FFA is putting its shoulder to the wheel purely for altruistic reasons.
The next step in the process will perhaps be the most interesting – connecting A-League clubs to those below them. This year Melbourne Victory, Melbourne City and Adelaide United will field teams in their local NPL competitions for the first time. Central Coast Mariners, Brisbane Roar, Newcastle Jets and Perth Glory are already doing just that. Next year Sydney FC and Western Sydney Wanderers are set to follow suit.
There’s resistance to the move from existing NPL clubs who fear, with good reason, their role in the development pathway will soon become compromised. The best kids will inevitably start to gravitate to the A-League clubs, leaving the state league clubs behind. Take away their player development role, and some of these clubs argue they will no longer have any reason to exist. It’s a fair point.
Therefore the challenge for the FFA, in partnership with the state federations, is to provide a much more viable commercial environment for the NPL competitions as a way of compensation. The introduction of the NPL play-offs and the FFA Cup suggest they are beginning to understand the obligations. Jedinak would be the first to thank them for that.
Source : The Canberra Times