Injection of youth is the big idea in NPL

The inclusion of Hyundai A-League youth teams in PlayStation 4 National Premier League (NPL) competitions continues to roll out across Australia and should be celebrated as a breakthrough in Australia’s elite player development.

There are Foxtel National Youth League (FNYL) teams already playing in NPL competitions in Northern NSW, Western Australia and Queensland.    This season South Australia and Victoria join the trend and in conjunction with Football NSW and Sydney’s Hyundai A-League clubs we are working towards this goal in NSW next season.   As part of this process, Football NSW conducted a Competitions Review. From FFA’s point of view, there are three key elements that go to the heart of NSW ensuring it plays its rightful role in the elite player pathway:   1. Introduction of the HAL Youth Academies – Central Coast Mariners, Sydney FC and Western Sydney Wanderers FC with their NYL teams and academy teams into the NSW NPL.   2. Establishing a youth competition structure with a paramount focus on development that entrenches the genuine adoption of the national curriculum through removal of promotion and relegation for the U-13 through to U-16 age groups.   3. Increasing the talent pool at the right ages - broadening the base of the “talent pyramid” by providing opportunities for more players below 16 to train and play in the best environment. This involves increasing the number of approved Skills Acquisition Programs and the number of clubs/regions represented in the NPL youth competitions (U-13 to U-16). FFA envisages this to entail the NPL youth competition to be increased to between 30 and 32 clubs, including the current 24 NPL clubs, the two Sydney A-League clubs, Western and Southern branches and potentially two to four clubs from under-represented areas. It would be mandatory for all clubs to meet NPL criteria.   The inclusion of A-League NYL teams in the NPL is a critical project to give our elite youth players the 40 weeks’ of competitive matches and consistent high-level training that is needed for proper development. In this regard, this partnership between FFA, Member Federations and their clubs, and the Hyundai A-League is a central pillar in our national game.   Keeping the players in their A-League club environment is also a critical feature, so their coaches and medical staff can monitor their progress and well-being. Scattering the FNYL players across several NPL clubs each winter unfortunately won’t bring the same benefits.   The NPL has a broad role in Australian football, as the engine room of player development in Australia and the level where coaches and referees gain experience for the professional tier.   The NPL also has an important role in connecting with the ever-growing football community.   I can see that for a long time the Member Federations and affiliated clubs have carried a big load for the game. They have invested in development and produced good players, even when the national structures lacked the right co-ordination.   The FFA National Competitions Review addressed these issues and the NPL has taken us a long way forward. I commend the Member Federations and their clubs for doing the hard work on policy and implementation.   The next round of improvements will once again see clubs embracing change. It’s very important that all stakeholders in the NPL project keep an eye on the future possibilities, not the present transition. It’s about the players at the end of the day.   For example, coming from a relatively small nation like Belgium, which is half the size of Tasmania, there’s an even spread of clubs and easy distances to travel. Australia doesn’t have these advantages.   Even Australia’s cities are huge and spread over great distances. We must take account of this problem in our youth structures.   Is it right that a young player spends more time in a car travelling than playing or training? Is it fair for parents to have to make these long journeys? No, it can’t be.   That’s why we need to take a look at our structures to ensure 13 to 16 year-olds can get development opportunities in their local area.    FFA takes a considered view that 30 to 32 clubs fielding teams in the NSW NPL junior competitions is about the right number across the sprawling Sydney metropolitan area and its 4 million population.   I notice there are some people worried about the level of competition. Let’s be clear – all these players will play for points and all competitions will have a league table. That’s normal in football!    We just don’t want to see a large region relegated and no longer represented because their under 12s team lost a few games.   In terms of the competitive gap between existing NPL and those who are introduced, it’s again natural in football. How can a new club find its benchmark unless it joins the fray? Competition drives improvement, so let more teams and players come to the NPL, in time we will have 32 teams in NSW delivering quality programs and competing at a good level - not just 12.   From my point of view, Australia needs to make a fresh start on the challenge of youth development.    My experience in Belgium tells me it took 15 years before the system was working efficiently between the governing body, the national teams, professional clubs, semi-pro clubs, amateur clubs, youth academies and schools.   We have much to do, but we have made a very positive beginning. The Asian Cup has shown that Australia has a pipeline of quality players. Socceroo coach Ange Postecoglou gave many of these players a chance and look what happened.   We saw an exciting and skilful Australian football style emerge, providing opportunities for young talented players with very positive result.   FFA, through its High Performance and National Team unit and national coaching staff consider the three measures being proposed as at the beginning of this article are critical to ensuring that Football NSW maintains and increases its contribution to the growth of the game generally and, specifically, the production of the next generation of professional club players and national team players.   The entire FFA national coaching staff want the system to increase the talent pool from which the junior and ultimately senior national team can draw upon.    A system in the largest state which concentrates the U-16 and below age groups into a pool of only 24 clubs, with 12 only in the top tier, does not meet these objectives.   We all want the system to open up and give as many children the opportunity to play in the right environment to identify, nurture and develop their talent before the more elite selection process takes place at the older ages.   Additionally we want the players at the lower ages to be taught the national curriculum and taught to consistently apply it, particularly in the heat and pressure of critical points in matches.    A system which incorporates promotion and relegation in these age groups does not do that. It sacrifices the development of creativity, fine technical skills and decision-making ability for the immediacy of winning at all costs.   Finally, we want the selection process of talented players not to be too narrow at these younger age groups when the long-term realisation of a player’s potential cannot be known.    The risk with a system where the focus is on promotion and relegation and therefore, winning at all costs, is that the selection of players will be determined purely on their physical maturity and development. However these players may prove only to be “better” at that age because of their physical maturity and not real “talent”.    Strength and physical capacity at these ages should not be wrongly assumed to equate to “talent”. The ultimate playing capacity of the stronger, more developed players may be more limited than that of smaller, less mature players with greater natural potential and the capacity to become the type of technically skilled, intuitive player who can advance in professional and international football.    Such players, through being “selected out” too early, must not be lost to the game.   I thank all those NPL clubs who are doing the right thing for the future of Australian football and I look forward to seeing as many of you as I can in the year ahead. The fans at NPL games get to see our next generation of stars.