Behind the game – Can Australian football learn from its past?

Australian football remains in something of an identity and governance crisis. A stale 10-team top flight is failing to capture the imagination and the hearts and minds of the casual sports fan, Football Federation Australia is under increasing pressure from FIFA to change their governance structure and now the second tier – the National Premier Leagues – is seeking greater representation in the game’s governance. To better understand what has pushed the game to this point, Matthew Galea spoke to Sydney Olympic great and current Football Director Grant Lee.

Football in Australia today is very different to the game Grant Lee grew up playing. When Lee was 16 he was being blooded into the Sydney Olympic FC first team, a dressing room filled with men like former Socceroo Bobby Hogg.

Back then, Olympic was a founding member of the National Soccer League – Australia’s national football competition which ran from 1977 through to 2004 before the birth of the A-League. Olympic would play in the first two seasons of the NSL, before being controversially relegated to the NSW State League in 1979 as the league cut back on the number of Sydney-based teams.

They took out the State League championship in their first year back in the state competition, beating Premiers Melita Eagles 4-0 and returned to the top-flight in 1981, but even while they played in the State League, Olympic was able to attract high-quality players.

“When I came through the system, I played state league with Olympic initially,” Lee said. “I came through to the first-team squad through the 16s and 17s and then the next season I was in the first team.”

“I’m 16 and here I am in a team with men! There are guys as old as 34 all the way down to me and some of them have played pro-football in England, Ireland, Scotland and all around Europe and even Brazil. All these guys were good players and they taught me how to play in an amazing environment and everyone was were there because they deserved it, not because you were the same age. There is none of that today.”

For Lee, his experiences are more than just happy footballing memories, but examples of how Australian football lost its way.

A hall-of-fame inductee at Olympic, Lee has gone on to coach the first-team in the National Premier Leagues New South Wales competition before his current role as Football Director.

His experience in the game chasms some of the most turbulent times in Australian football as a player, a coach and an administrator and he has made little secret of his disillusionment with the running of the game in Australia in recent years.

For the most part, his frustrations lie with the game’s administrators to recognise the rich history and success of Australia’s football past.

“For me, personally, I think there was a time where we genuinely had one of the best youth development programs in the world. There was a time when the AIS [Australian Institute of Sports] and the NSL was producing outstanding footballers, despite the fact that they were competing for the country’s best athletes with AFL [Australian rules football], rugby league, cricket, swimming and just about every other sport.”

“We were producing world champions in every sport” he continues, “and we were matching that with football, even with our limited population and after all the players that were playing other sports. We had Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka, Mark Bosnic…even Josip Simunic! He played over 100 games for Croatia, 40 of them as captain, but he was a Canberra boy and he came through the NSL and the AIS.”

For Lee, one of the most crucial turning points was the creation of Australia’s premier league competition, “Despite all that, in 2006 we get the A-League and now it is all about the A-League. Everyting the FFA does is about the top end. When the A-League came in, they didn’t care about the history of the game and that’s frustrating.”

“They brought in their national curriculum, their pseudo-Dutch coaches like Jan Versleijen and in effect they said, ‘this is how we’re doing it now, you guys didn’t know how to do it properly.’ But that system, those clubs, they produced the Kewells, the Vidukas, the Bosnichs. Those kids all went on to play for massive clubs, so how can you turn around and say they didn’t know what they were doing?”

Slipping standards

As far as Lee is concerned, the inception of the A-League has been good for raising the profile of the game in mainstream Australia, but not in raising the actual standard of football.

“The media it attracts, the marketing and the coverage of the games is fantastic,” Lee said.

“They’ve packed it up and they’ve made it look beautiful, but has the standard of games improved that much? I don’t think so, I think it’s boring.

“Every game is a bit of the same. Everyone plays to these rigid structures and everyone is scared to make a mistake and you get these games that are a bit bland until there’s a moment of open play a moment of creativity, but that’s it. The creativity is lacking for most of the game. So sometimes you end up with 80 minutes of boring football and then you get a flurry of 10 minutes of exciting stuff and all you hear about is what a great game it was. No one wants to hear the negatives.”

Lee attributes that to the lack of diversity of experience in the league. According to UltimateALeague.com, the average ages for A-League clubs is between 24.99 and 26.64.

“If you look at the make-up of senior A-League players, most of them are kids,” Lee said.

“A-League players don’t get that mentoring from senior pros they used to when I was coming through. They don’t have to be better than a guy who has played the majority of his career in a top European league to earn their spot in the team. When I think back to the teams I played in and the teams that were around when I was playing, I think a lot of these kids would struggle to make the bench, not just because of the international players, but the Australian’s were fully-fledged internationals too.”

Lee feels another problem is the FFA-directed youth development pathways, which he believes have been an unmitigated disaster.

“I don’t think our A-League clubs are great developers of youth,” was Lee’s blunt assessment.

“You’ve got to cast the net as far as you can. You can’t afford to be so single-minded about where the best players are going to come from and if you look at all our youth development in the last number of years, we’ve gone into a black hole. There are only nine Australian A-League clubs.

“Look at our national youth teams. We don’t qualify for the Olympics. We don’t qualify for the junior competitions in our region. Where are the prospects?”

A-League clubs typically pick out what they believe to be the best players from NPL outfits to compete in their National Youth League teams – a national competition for players between 16 and 21-years-old that runs over 10 rounds plus finals – who now also play in the NPL senior divisions within their respective states.

That has been taken a step further in New South Wales, where Lee’s Olympic must now compete with A-League outfits such as Sydney FC and former Asia Champions League winners Western Sydney Wanderers from an under-12 level up.

A similar move is being considered in Victoria, although NPL clubs in that state are strongly opposed to the idea of A-League clubs Melbourne Victory and Melbourne City having junior teams that will compete against their own.

“I think it is poor that the A-League competes in our competition,” Lee said.

“It’s even worse that there is no promotion or relegation. How are we meant to compete? If you’re a kid playing for Olympic and Sydney FC knock on the door and say, ‘Hey, we like you, come and play under-13s with us’, who are they going to choose? It would be like Manchester United knocking on the door. It dangles that carrot of an A-League future, but how many will actually go onto that level? Probably not many. The track record of National Youth League players moving into the A-League is poor as it is.”

Lost in the wilderness

The change has left NPL clubs in the wilderness. At times as a first-team coach, it made Lee question what the point of the NPL was.

“We aren’t a threat to the A-League. We can’t get promoted and we don’t get any compensation for developing players, so why do they need to come and play NPL? They can get the best of what we produce anyway,” Lee said.

“And the money it is costing the A-League clubs…they have to find coaches, they have to find facilities to train and play matched. It’s double dipping. It’s a waste of money and it takes away from clubs who have a proven track record of producing good footballers.”

Lee said that it was often frustrating to see players developed by NPL clubs make the move into an A-League National Youth League set-up only to stagnate in the youth competition and end up back in the NPL to gain senior experience.

“We have had some good kids come through Sydney Olympic like Hagi Gligor [formerly Sydney FC and Perth Glory]. They end up in NYL squads and they play against kids and ultimately they’re mishandled. They end up back with us,” Lee said.

Lee said the introduction of the FFA Cup – a concept based on England’s FA Cup, in which clubs from all levels compete with the dream of making the final – has been a good first step to reintegrating Australia’s rich football history with the modern-day football. But still, the overwhelming feeling for NPL clubs is that their involvement is for exhibition value.

“I think the FFA Cup is a fantastic concept, but it falls over because it is so heavily geared in favour of the A-League clubs,” Lee said.

“At the moment, the final is in February, which isn’t fair on semi-professional NPL clubs. For them to get that far, they have to keep their players training past the end of their season in August or September.”

“They don’t have any serious matches to keep them match-fit and when they come up against the A-League clubs they’re at the business end of their pre-season, training every day and back into competitive matches. How is an NPL club meant to compete? It makes the gap between NPL and A-League look bigger than it is, simply because the A-League clubs are fitter at that point of year.”

Moving forward

Lee believes it is important for the NPL clubs to have a more organised voice to ensure they are better considered by the powers that be, but said he did not know enough about newly formed Australian Association of Football Clubs to say if they were the right vehicle.

“I think we definitely need that voice,” Lee said. “We’ve been in the dark for way too long. But I just keep going back to our history. We have produced some great players and some great teams and I think we have to take the positive lessons from that and re-apply them today.”

Author Details

Matthew Galea

A former full-time journalist who crossed to the dark side of media and communications. Fortunately, football, Manchester United and freelance writing keeps me sane.

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