Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Elitist But Not Elite

In the week FFA Technical Director Eric Abrams was critical of the NPL it's opportune to take a look back how Victoria came to adopt such a flawed version of it.

The part of the Why I've Arrived Where I'm At piece that seems to have struck a chord with many was the passion, dedication and loyalty of those who get deeply involved with a club. While it may have resonated with football people who have been in similar situations, it probably wouldn't be understood by the architects of the FFV's original NPLV model.

That model was an attempt to supplant the existing VPL club structure with a zonal franchise model. The first push in this direction was the old Summer League, which later became the Victorian Champions League. These leagues were only able to get off the ground as junior competitions, with the senior component dropped due to lack of interest in anyone willing to establish and run these teams.

People volunteer at clubs for all sorts of reasons. It may be a link to a particular ethnic community, it may be because they live within a goalkeeper's clearance of the home ground. Some will stay on at a club in various roles after playing, others are drawn by family members being involved. Whatever the reason, most are loyal to their club and will only ever perform the duties they do at one club during their lifetime.

It's an indictment on those running the game at the time that they thought it possible that there'd be a groundswell of people willing to set-up and run new zonal clubs just because they would be part of some kind of "elite" pathway. The lure of being labelled "elite" is not enough to sway your typical club volunteer to shift their loyalties. It may induce a parent looking to give their child's career a "leg-up", but that alone would not secure the numbers and dollars required to get the venture up and running.

The FFV would have preferred to have installed a zonal set-up when introducing the NPLV a few years later, but settled for a system in which existing clubs would be chosen to represent the respective zones. Again it's staggering to believe that supposed football people thought this would be a workable idea.

With the new top tier to be a closed league, the "elite" clubs would sit above subservient "community" clubs in their zone. Even with the obvious issues posed by the ethnic backgrounds of many clubs, it was a concept that would alienate all those not included in the new league. How could you expect clubs that may have been rivals to another for years that they would now have to be a feeder team for that club? That they could no longer aspire to promotion back to the top tier?

So not surprisingly, there was rebellion. Clubs took the FFV to court to have their own version of the NPLV implemented, and the resulting compromise has largely been a disaster. Instead of an actual elite competition we have a watered-down, bloated debacle. Have kids with genuine talent been priced out of the game by the significant fees required to be involved? Will extended seasons involving plenty of travel see others burnt out before they are even ready for senior football?

The compromise saw a two-tier NPL established, to include any club (from the existing VPL and State League Division One) which may have had a grievance at being left out. Regional teams were included, in a manner which has not enhanced their future prosperity. Somehow, after a few years, Nunawading City were added despite having slid down the State League.

Looking at the areas of the regional teams, the first thing one may wonder is how is it that Gippsland could have a team in the NSL but not a spot in a bloated NPLV? Similarly in suburban Melbourne, why not a team for the Frankston/Mornington Peninsula area? That is because of the loyalty factor. In both areas there are several clubs that could make a claim to be number one in the region. This means those involved would prefer to stand by their club, whatever league it plays in, rather than ditch it to be a part of a new representative team. Also, in the case of the La Trobe Valley, officials there were concerned about the financial viability of the venture, fears which were warranted given the issues later faced by some of the regional clubs.

I understand why the FFV felt it needed to add the regional teams upon the league's inception, but feel it has lead to them being lame ducks. Perhaps a better way of introducing them would have been to include them in only the junior competitions to begin with. After three or four years, when hopefully the inaugural Under 16's and Under 18's may be ready for senior football they could then have been added to the second tier. Allow them an extra visa spot to alleviate the issue of being able to attract players from Melbourne. Maybe a mini-tournament amongst themselves in the interim to develop the best older talent. They were included from the beginning to make a statement, but will this prove to be detrimental in the long term?

As it is, the best local players are not necessarily playing for the local country NPL side. The best players can enjoy the game winning more (and earning more) in their local competition than by turning out (with the associated travel) for their local NPL outfit. FC Bendigo became Bendigo City and now Ballarat Red Devils have been replaced with Ballarat City. There is still no La Trobe Valley representation. Have the benefits for these areas being included in the NPL been diminished by the whole thing being poorly implemented?

Elsewhere, the second tier has been particularly lopsided. With no prospect of relegation meaningless games clog the two divisions. Nunawading were introduced and won just one game in two years. Does the paying public want to watch glorified training sessions? Probably not. Luckily junior fees are quite high so that gate takings don't have to fund the whole scheme. Now that promotion/relegation is on the agenda even the Mahoneys Road Philosophers are splashing some cash to attract players.

In terms of best practise for juniors, with the most development coming from the best playing against the best, we have gone from a 12 team Superleague back in the day to 32 teams spread over two divisions. Divided between East and West, clubs only play the teams from the opposite side once a season. So the best team in one division plays the best team in the other once, it's a long way removed from what "Best v Best" really should be. It is so watered down it should be sponsored by Yarra Valley Water not PlayStation 4.

It should not surprise that with the whole concept being poorly executed it is hardly attracting plaudits.

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