Since he was appointed Football Federation Australia Chief Executive in late 2019, James Johnson and the organisation he now heads have made no secret of their desire to bring a ‘football first’ mindset to their work; one that features a newly empowered cohort of ‘football people’ at its vanguard.
It’s easy to understand why this mindset of defiance and belief in those already within the game - ‘Football IP’ as Johnson puts it - would bring plaudits to the perennially embattled organisation.
Australian football’s past is littered with examples of a struggle to develop and, more importantly, embrace its identity in both a local and international context and thus it has frequently looked to foreign leagues or rival domestic codes for inspiration.
Johnson’s three predecessors as FFA CEO – David Gallop, Ben Buckley, and John O'Neill – came from outside the footballing tent and, while all had their successes, their lapses were easily magnified by perceptions they were an outsider; without a proper understanding of the Australian game’s nuances, peculiarities and insanities that would allow the sport to truly thrive.
And though a football focused cultural shift had seemingly been in its nascent stages before Johnson's arrival, most notably through the appointment of former internationals Mark Bresciano and Amy Duggan and veteran figures Remo Nogarotto and Heather Reid to the FFA’s board, the process has accelerated under one-time Australian junior international Johnson.
Individuals such as Robbie Middleby, Peter Filopoulos and Sarah Walsh have been hired/elevated within the organisation in the past 12 months and, in the wake of Socceroos’ legend Mark Viduka slamming the federation’s lack of footballing nouse, a ‘Starting XI’ advisory group of Socceroos and Matildas was formed to help guide footballing policy creation such as the newly released XI Principles document.
But just what constitutes a 'football person'?
Does an executive that professes a hitherto unknown love of a middling European side and once visited the San Siro on holiday make a football person?
Conversely, do the incontestable ‘football person’ qualifications of a long-serving volunteer in the Capalaba FC canteen suddenly mean that they are well-placed to hold a leadership role within the FFA?
Does being a Perth Glory fan mean you’re a better accountant than a Fremantle Dockers fan?
As is the case with so many phrases the corporate world recognises as resonating with the public, is there a danger the ‘football person’ qualification is being so commonly touted that it’s losing all meaning?
“I think the first thing that I talked about from day one was bringing football back into the heart of the organisation,” Johnson explained to The World Game when that question was put to him.
“What I meant by that is we have to be a football organisation, which means the centre of all our discussions needs to revolve around football first.
"If you can build the game and develop the game and build football, then the commercial discussions will come as a consequence of building football.
“If we talk about ‘football acumen’, for example, for me what that means is someone that has a specific understanding of issues and can come up with solutions around football commercial issues as well as football sporting issues.
"People that understand how a transfer system, how club licencing works, how competition structures work, I think that when we talk about football acumen, that’s what we’re talking about.
“It doesn’t mean that every person that comes into the organisation needs to come from football – I think that’s certainly helpful – but I think we need an infusion of new people at the FFA that have fresh ideas, have energy, and can create or help us create a strong platform for a fresh start and to focus on bringing the game together and discussing football issues.
“It depends on the position. If I’m recruiting a Chief Financial Officer, point number one is that the person needs to understand finance and accounting. This is the priority. If it’s a competition administrator position, then it swings the other way; you want something that understands the nuances of the sport but, in particular, our own sport.
“I think we need a good balance of skill sets, direct knowledge from sport, direct football acumen from sport and we need to mix that together with good skill sets and good experiences from other industries and other sports.”
The former Brisbane Strikers captain points to FFA Commercial General Manager Tom Rischbieth and Head of the 2023 Women's World Cup office Jane Fernandez as examples of “top operators” that didn’t possess a playing background but had added significant value to the organisation.
Nevertheless, it must be noted that just because people with skin in the game have their hands on the wheel doesn’t necessarily mean that a footballing panacea will follow.
It’s doubtful that anyone on either side of the bitter Collective Bargaining Agreements between Australian Professional Football Clubs Association (APFCA) and Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) would declare themselves as anything but ‘footballing people’, but that hasn’t stopped the negotiations from threatening to spiral out of control.
The talks took another troubling turn on Sunday when Perth Glory owner Tony Sage wrote a letter to Perth Glory fans stating that he may seek to stand down the club’s players and staff while simultaneously launching a broadside at the PFA’s stance in ongoing negotiations.
The letter quickly earned a stinging rebuke from the player’s union, who declared it to be “misleading commentary” that was “unhelpful and damaging”, while an FFA spokesperson admitted that the events were the latest episode in an underwhelming transition to independence by A-League clubs.
The spokesperson also challenged Sage’s declaration that “clubs are the only group prepared to put money into the game at the moment”, reinforcing that A-League owners spoke for the A-League, not the broader game and that many others, such as participants, club members, and sponsors, were willing to invest at all its levels.
Johnson has previously declared that FFA would not intervene in the ongoing CBA negotiations between clubs and the players unless it began to bring the game “into disrepute”, with his focus instead on the accelerating attempts to unbundle the leagues from the federation.
Nonetheless, it can be quite convincingly argued that COVID-19 simply accelerated, not caused, the civil war engulfing Australia’s professional leagues.
It serves as yet another example of the pandemic throwing best-laid plans into chaos – which includes Johnson’s attempted cultural shift. But he insists that the future for Australian sport can be a bright one.
“If we go back to March, we had to, unfortunately, stand down 70% of our staff and while we’ve been rebuilding since. It’s always very hard to bring someone new in when you’re having to stand down staff that currently exist,” said the FFA CEO.
“This has been a challenge, but we have been able to make some good appointments. I’d ask you to think about the base of our pyramid. We’re the number one club sport in terms of participation in the country, we often forget that, and that number is growing every year.
“We’re a two gendered sport, we’re multicultural, and we have a Women’s World Cup on the way that will inevitably grow girl’s participation which is less than 25% - so there’s a big growth opportunity there.
“We have a team in the Matildas that are number seven in the world and they’re playing on home soil in 2023 when our players are peaking. I don’t think that’s a bad position to be in.
“There are areas of the game that are challenged, I think at the moment the challenge is with the A-League, but I think if you look at the overall position of the sport, particularly ahead of the 2023 World Cup, I’m not so sure it’s as dire as [some may say] it is.”