After years of lusting over a National Second Division, the Australian football fraternity’s frustrations began to boil over last week after tiring of seeing the concept buried behind committees and endless media releases.
Last Tuesday, the Association of Australian Football Clubs announced they had launched a “Championship Partner Group” which had the support of 35-plus National Premier League clubs across the country - all advocating for a second division.
It’s not difficult to read between the lines here and recognise that AAFC were left feeling exasperated by the lack of progress Football Federation Australia have made in this space ever since the governing body’s National Second Division Working Group first met on the 28th of February, 2019.
When I interviewed the Chairman of the AAFC, Nick Galatas on Thursday, he echoed those sentiments.
“What’s happened is, there’s been pent-up frustration, pent-up demand. We represent these clubs and these clubs are telling us that they want to get on with the National Second Division,” Galatas said.
“As a representative body, it’s our job to represent that position everywhere that we need to represent it, particularly to FFA.”
Off the back of the AAFC’s suggestion that they would submit their final blueprint to FFA for “ultimate approval”, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that feathers were ruffled on Oxford Street which prompted CEO James Johnson to respond.
"It is important that we move the discussion from the conceptual level to a practical level but we do so collaboratively and in unison,” Johnson said.
"We encourage the AAFC to work collaboratively with FFA who, ultimately, will need to sanction any such competition and its composition.”
When it comes to that practical level, we are still bereft of a draft structure. Depending on who you speak to, sources close to the steering committee will tell you that “very little” has been done beyond the development of the White Paper in June, 2019.
Apart from the three recommendations, one of which stated the obvious need to establish a National Second Division, and 22 considerations, we are still no closer to an assessable product.
Which begs the question: why has it taken this long?
Some will say that the COVID-19 pandemic has scuppered more advanced discussions but that doesn’t account for the previous 12 months they’ve had to work on conducting the relevant research and developing a model.
When I spoke to the president of a prominent NPL club back in May this year, he told me that no one from FFA had made contact with him to seek his views on a second-tier competition.
“It’s been over a year and no one from FFA has called me to ask what our situation is.” He said.
“We’ve already crunched our numbers and come up with our own solutions for travel and the like but no one has reached out to even have the conversation about a second division.”
Worse still, the AAFC proposed its initial concept in October 2017 but when I asked Galatas about the intricacies of what the second division might look like, he couldn’t give me clear answers and I walked away with more unanswered questions than I would have liked.
According to Galatas, the original model they proposed three years ago was just a “starting position” and that it will be “stress-tested” together with the clubs in the coming months.
This still left me none the wiser as to why it has taken AAFC almost three years to partner-up with the very NPL clubs they claim to represent and look to progress discussions around the model they proposed.
But it’s important to remind ourselves that irrespective of any work AAFC does, it’s FFA that have the final say and the bigger storyline out of this, is not the work that AAFC are doing but that work that FFA is not.
So when could we expect to see a full operational second tier?
Prior to the pandemic hitting in March, the White Paper outlined a potential start date by 2021/22 and now as October beckons, no one knows.
When I asked Galatas about a timeline of when we could expect to see a model presented to FFA, he was reluctant to commit to one, at first saying “we’re a few months away” before suggesting it could be by the end of this year and then settling on “early next year”.
Almost 20 minutes earlier he had said “enough is enough, we’re ready to go”.
When Craig Foster and I interviewed James Johnson in May this year, he said it was at least “two to three years away” but national team boss Graham Arnold later conceded to us that “we can’t wait that long.”
Arnold has been publicly agitating for the creation of a national reserve grade for some time now and told the SMH in December 2019 it should serve as an opportunity to help junior players in Australia “fulfil their dreams and give them a journey in life, is a reserve grade competition.”
"That has to happen as soon as possible because there is still too many in the grandstand in suits, watching games, and a national youth competition with only nine games is not enough,” Arnold said.
On the subject of youth pathways, Galatas said he doesn’t want age requirements imposed on second-tier clubs, saying “I personally don’t like that but I will be governed by what the model shows. I think it’s restricting, I don’t think it’s necessary. If you set a structure that responds to where we sit, that will happen naturally.”
“Most players we think will be young because of the nature of the competition.”
"If you allow the clubs to develop in a particular way and within a particular environment, we don’t need to then make rules.”
This didn’t sit well with me at all.
The White Paper has already stated it does not want the second tier to be a “retirement league for A-League players”, but without rules in place, what’s to stop clubs from recruiting whomever they wish?
Furthermore, NPL clubs are already in the business of paying a host of former A-League players and foreigners large chunks of cash and if promotion and relegation is eventually introduced, clubs will do everything they can to make the jump to the top flight.
Unfortunately, that won’t involve fielding young players and as Arnold famously once said in January 2018: “I don’t see the A-League as a development league” - the same rule will apply to “The Championship” once the carrot of promotion is dangled.
Also, Galatas’s view directly contradicts recommendation 4.1 in the White Paper, a document that AAFC, PFA, Member Federations and FFA all contributed to:
“A National Second Division design should consider having age-based targets in mind, including within a matchday squad. For example, there could be a requirement to have three (3) to six (6) junior age Australian players”.
"This type of format would provide greater opportunities for young Australians to grow and develop.”
So where to next?
From FFA’s perspective, it appears as though conversations surrounding the second tier’s future are stalled, with the head office attending to more pressing issues like the infamous “unbundling” of the A-League which was supposed to be completed in June last year.
Add to that the hostile pay dispute between clubs and players, the highly embarrassing public relations disaster with the Matildas away jersey and uncertainty surrounding the upcoming A-League season - it appears as though our time in Australian football purgatory isn’t over yet.
The economic impacts from the last six months have been devastating on our game but I do take great comfort in knowing that our historically rich and storied NPL clubs are hungry to take the next step.
I really do want to see them succeed.
For so long we have been used to the powers-that-be making grand promises for football but they must outgrow this wretched business of forever reacting to the outcries of the football community and instead, become proactive.
I am so tired of the talking - it’s time for action.
In spite of my questions over the process, I truly hope we can see a second division sooner rather than later but you’ll have to forgive me, dear reader, if I choose not to hold my breath.