Steadfast Johnson stares down obstacles on resurrection mission

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It’s been a testing and turbulent first seven months in the job for FFA chief executive James Johnson, and the nature of the game in Australia ensures it’s not likely to get any easier.

The former Australian youth international turned international football executive has had to juggle the ongoing fallout from COVID-19, the mass desertion of sponsors and enforced renegotiation of the Fox Sports TV deal.

He’s navigated stormy waters with a measured and calculated approach which has won admirers as he seeks to unite the sport’s factions whose often competing interests have proved a long-standing roadblock to progress.

Helping to land the 2023 co-hosting rights with New Zealand for the FIFA Women’s World Cup has already ensured his legacy.

But Johnson is just getting started.

The latest item on his plate - other than the ongoing debate over the festering sore of youth development and when a promotion/relegation model will be instituted - is the search for a new Matildas coach following the exit of Ante Milicic.

Johnson is aiming for the very best to replace him, and has - it’s understood - wasted no time in reaching out to two-time World Cup winner Jill Ellis in what’s looming as a battle with England for the former USWNT magician.

The World Game caught up with Johnson this week to discuss some of the game’s ongoing issues.

TWG: What’s your time line to lock down a new Matildas coach?

JJ: We will begin the recruitment process and move as swiftly as possible. The position is a high-profile and a very important one for Australian football, because we have a team that can do something special on the global stage in the coming cycle.

TWG: Do you have a preference for a coach with big match international experience?

JJ: The Matildas are a globally recognised team competing internationally, so we need to look at well-credentialled candidates from both Australia and abroad. If we want to be the best in the world, we will need to consider the best in the world.

TWG: Jill Ellis is one who’s available, would discussions with her be high on your list?

JJ: It is important that we appoint somebody who can help the Matildas optimise their potential. The Matildas mean a lot to all Australians and have the ability to unite the nation so appointing a coach who believes in both the on and off field vision for the Matildas will be paramount.

The collective jubilation which followed the successful announcement of our bid to host the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2023 was there for all to see and we want to replicate this feeling for all Australians. A coach who can bring out the best in our team and make them successful is vital to this.

TWG: Socceroos coach Graham Arnold has been working hard to bring a better level of football to emerging players on the cusp of Young Socceroos and Olyroos, can you bring us up to date on that?

JJ: We want to be able to provide better opportunities for our young elite players and to create the best conditions which allow them to reach their potential. We conducted an analysis of 35 professional men’s leagues around the world and we outlined some of our findings within our XI Principles for the future of Australian football discussion paper. What this research tells us is that we need to be giving our young elite players more opportunities to play regular football, particularly between the ages of 17 to 23.

In the 18/19 season, Australia only had three players under the age of 23 (out of a possible 93), who played 2250 (approximately 25 games) or more first division match minutes. This is comparatively low compared to countries like Holland, which had 22, Japan, which had 23, and Belgium which had 13. This is a situation which we need to address, for both our elite young men and women footballers.

COVID-19 and the rescheduling of our competitions across Australia this year has presented some real challenges in ensuring our young elite players are playing regularly, particularly in the lead up to the Olympics in 2021. We are considering potential short-term solutions to this immediate challenge.

TWG: Central Coast Mariners owner Mike Charlesworth has been critical of Western Sydney Wanderers U-21s elevation to the NPL 1 for the remainder of this season. Can you provide some clarity on the rationale there?

JJ: We reached out to the Member Federations to seek their support in ensuring that our elite footballers have the best opportunity to prepare for Tokyo.

In the case of Football New South Wales (FNSW), we sought its assistance to allow the youth teams belonging to Western Sydney Wanderers, Central Coast Mariners and Newcastle Jets, within its NPL 1 competitions. These clubs have 26, 7 and 10 players respectively, involved in the Australian National Youth Team programs and we believe it imperative that, in the absence of the Y-League this year, they have the opportunity playing in the most competitive competition available to them.

FNSW’s decision to invite Wanderers into its competition was streamlined by the fact that a vacancy had been created because of Sutherland Sharks withdrawal from its NPL 1 competition this year, and it had made a policy decision not to implement promotion and relegation for the current season.

Ultimately, we are grateful to FNSW for doing what it could to support our National Team Programs and the players.

TWG: A-League ratings have been poor and coverage diminished in its scope since the restart, does this concern you particularly?

JJ: Ratings are something which we always want to be aware of. Whatever the numbers, we have chosen to use this as an opportunity to learn about our fans and how they are interacting with our game. We have learnt that our fans are consuming the game via different platforms so lower coverage via one medium doesn’t necessarily mean poor coverage overall.

TWG: How difficult has the decoupling from FFA control to the clubs proved? How advanced is that process?

JJ: In general, I am a supporter of unbundling of leagues. The unbundling process is often a result of a maturing football nation. Specifically in relation to our professional leagues, this is an ongoing process that we are working through with our clubs. Significant work has already taken place.

As we highlighted in our XI Principles for the future of Australian football discussion paper however, it is prudent to consider a model for the professional leagues in light of the impact which COVID-19 has had on the game.