Johnson fast-tracks bid to solve Australia’s player pathway crisis

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FFA chief executive James Johnson is stepping up the search for solutions to Australia’s youth development conundrum, insisting five A-League matches a week “doesn’t cut it” in terms of producing top tier talent.

Johnson is beating the same drum as Socceroos coach Graham Arnold in the knowledge that a generation of players face falling by the wayside unless they can be given the match minutes to compete with their counterparts in Asia and Europe.

Despite the Olyroos’ qualification to this year’s Olympic Games, performances of Australia’s national youth teams have fallen well short of expectations in recent times.
 
And Johnson, who was a member of the 1999 Joeys squad, believes creating “a connected and interlinked football eco-system” is part of the answer.

His sentiments were reinforced during a Sydney FC Business Lunch by keynote speaker Richard Scudamore, who has been engaged by the A-League clubs to provide guidance throughout the ‘unbundling’ process of the A-League from the FFA.
 
“What we must begin to appreciate is that Australian football is made up of a number of constituent parts and these parts are all interconnected, similar to an ecosystem,” said Johnson.

“In its simplest form, our game is made up of grassroots football, organised football, elite football, and all of the actors which help deliver the game at these levels – players, coaches, administrators, referees and the like.

“As a member of FIFA and the AFC, we also operate within a broader global regulatory framework and there are decisions being made at regional and global levels which will impact the game domestically.”

He believes that the FFA’s past focus on growing the A-League has, as a byproduct, left a void in the middle tier of Australian football which has impacted on vital player development pathways.

“I just don’t think that five national level games per week cuts it,” he added.

“If you look at the UK, it’s night and day.  They have a four-tier professional system with 20 plus teams in each tier, playing one or two games every week.

“Just do the math and it shows how much of a gap there is in terms of the games we’re playing at the elite level.

“Part of what the FFA needs to do is to connect all levels of football in Australia.  

“This would encompass incentivising clubs to invest in youth development and the imposition of a national transfer system.  

“If we want to compete with the best countries in the world, we need to provide opportunities for young players to play and our competitions structures are integral to this.”

Referencing the much-discussed national second division, Johnson commended the work of the FFA working group – chaired by board member Remo Nogarotto - and will fast-track ongoing studies into Australia’s competition structures in an effort to outline a path forward.
 
“There’s been some good work done by the working group.  I don’t think we need to complicate things, it’s just working out the right vehicle to play outside of the A-League,” he said.

“The next step will be to test the market and see if there’s a real appetite from a group of clubs to fund it.  

“If there is significant interest I don’t see why we can’t do it, we should do it.

“We need to ensure that whatever path we take is in pursuit of legitimate objectives such as player development, encouraging clubs to invest in youth development and rewarding them for this investment.  

“We want to create a system that maximises opportunities for our players to play more often at the highest standard possible.

“Ultimately, we want the benefit of this system to flow back into our clubs and the further success of our national teams.”

Johnson also recognised the rich history of Australian football and how it has shaped the “football ecosystem” today.
 
“Australia’s football ecosystem is as complex, multi-layered and multi-dimensional,” he added.

“Our role as the governing body, is to protect this ecosystem so that it can flourish and thrive.  In order to do so, we must understand that none of these parts can operate in isolation and we must find the right balance.”