Mike Cockerill

Not quite the Maksimir, but there was more than a whiff of 'cevapi' in the air as the full-time whistle sounded at boutique-sized Blacktown Olympic Park last weekend.

Mixed in with the chants of 'C'mon you Reds', and 'U.N.I.T.E.D, United are the team for me', were the familiar cries of 'Cro-at-zia, Cro-at-zia' from a small knot of Sydney United fans who brought a reminder of the joys of active support to the decisive final round of the normally sleepy NSW Premier League.

As it happened, the noisy throng on the hill were rewarded with an unlikely sequence of results which catapulted their team from third to first - although it wasn't until a few minutes after the full-time whistle that Sydney United coach Mark Rudan got the news that the minor premiership, and with it a place in the inaugural NPL play-offs, had been secured. Now I've known 'Rudes' for a while, but I've rarely seen him as excited as he was when he launched himself into the heaving moshpit of celebrating fans and players once confirmation arrived that Marconi Stallions had done him a favour by beating Bonnyrigg White Eagles. More on 'Rudes' in a moment.

Thus Sydney United - who did their bit by putting Blacktown Spartans to the sword (Luka Glavas succeeding Graham Arnold as the club's all-time leading goalscorer in the process) - will now represent NSW in the keenly-awaited NPL play-offs in what promises to be a real game-changer for second-tier football in this country. The former NSL giants join South Hobart (Tasmania) and Olympic FC (Queensland) in the series, with Canberra FC (ACT) also virtually certain to qualify, perhaps this weekend. South Australia's representatives will go to the winners of the local grand final, with runaway minor premiers MetroStars the clear favourites.

Looking across the list of qualifiers got me thinking. The era of ethnic-backed clubs is not over. Not by a long shot. In fact it's conceivable four of the five inaugural NPL finallists - Sydney United (Croatia), Canberra FC (Croatia), Olympic FC (Greece) and whoever qualifies from South Australia (four of the top five clubs have strong Italian heritage) - will be drawn from ethnic communities.

Those communities are still providing the passion, enthusiasm, finance, support, determination and vision to set the benchmarks for others to follow. Look further afield at the non-aligned NPL states - Western Australia, Victoria and Northern NSW - and it's the same story. The ethnic-backed clubs continue to clean up.

The point here is to make sure nature takes its course. As the NPL revolution gathers momentum, my sense is some state federations are being tempted to airbrush history, and force ethnic clubs out of the equation. They're trying to over-engineer an outcome. Wrong.

By far the best solution for the rebirth of second-tier football is to bring the best of the ethnic clubs along for the ride. Those clubs which are willing to be inclusive, not exclusive. Around the country, I see plenty of them. And those clubs which don't broaden their base? They'll join the long, long, list of ethnic-backed clubs in the mausoleum. That's a dead certainty. The reminders are everywhere. Ringwood Wilhelmina, Yugal Prague, anyone?

I've got no doubt the NPL has the ability to unlock the huge potential of state-based competitions - competitions which will not only underpin the Hyundai A-League, but possibly spawn a national second division. But to get the right outcome requires a delicate process. It needs to be handled with care. First base is to respect those who have made a significant contribution.

Which brings me back to Rudan. A trophy in his first full season as a head coach. A young coach on the way up, you'd imagine. But here again, there's an issue of respect. Sadly, I see a glass ceiling for coaches at this level of football - something that also needs to change.

The thrust if the NPL revolution is to provide a better pathway for players, but shouldn't that apply to coaches as well? What incentive, for instance, is there for the likes of Jean Paul de Marigny, Branko Culina, Robert Stanton, Sam Saif, Damian Mori, Ivan Karlovic, Stuart Munro, Goran Lozanovski, Andrew Marth, Chris Coyne, Damien Smith, Peter Tsekenis, Grant Lee and Graham Ross to work towards higher levels if coaching at state league level actually counts against them?

Second-tier football has as many clever coaches as talented players. It's also full of clubs with proud histories, and big plans. Put that all together, and you can understand why the NPL has the potential to transform the game as much as the Hyundai A-League, or the Socceroos qualifying for the World Cup. It's only a matter of time.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not reflect those of Football Federation Australia.
Comments (10)
Thanks for your statement John but NCFC u9-u11 charge a reasonable price. They receive 2 session (75 mins) per week from March-September plus a game. They are coached by former VPL players that played for the club plus they are trained by C license coaches. Check out our website for our www.northcotecityjuniors.com.au. Then tell me if its not inline with other victorian premer league clubs. Our u12-u18 academy teams practice 3 times per week from February-September with licensed experienced coaches and former NSL players. Not to mention they receive jersey (2) shorts, socks, tracksuit, bag plus licensed coaches. If you check the clubs standings you will find that our seniors, u21, u18, u17, u16, u14 and u12 are first in their respective divisions whilevplaying and modeling the new curriculum. The club must be doing something right. Remember John coaches are asked to take time of from their jobs to get their licenses . Licenses cost anywhere between one thousand two hundred dollars To over four thousand dollars plus expenses. I don't think four hundred and ninety dollars for 6 -7 months of football is a lot of money. Thanks for your comments but in the end we need an NPL model that is Australian based not state based, I disagree with comments made by the FFA that allow each state to decide how to roll out their version it should be a National version . At NCFC we also funded over a dozen scholarships for underprivileged players. Our seniors have an average age of 22 years and we have one of smallest budget for senior VPL squad.
Socrates nicolaidis  |  
24 Aug 2013 06:10 PM
SOCRATES, doesn't Northcote City charge their juniors obscenely priced fees? Isn't this the real reason you want to have SSF? Bring on the NPL and end this unnecessary spending. Maybe clubs can invest in real value items to make football better like facilities and synthetic pitches.
John Myer  |  
21 Aug 2013 03:20 PM
I think the NPL is a great FFA initiative, i'm looking forward to the Victoria Edition next year. Ethnicity has never been mentioned in any NPLV documentation, it focuses on representing your geographical region, how is that air brushing? No mention of changing logos and names anywhere so no need to worry there Tony. Terry What's wrong with the Victorian version of the NPL?It's the VPL clubs that have the egos because they rape the juniors to pay their senior players, why? Tell me something, why do VPL clubs spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to win a $30 thousand dollar prize, I would classify that as ego.
John Myer  |  
20 Aug 2013 04:42 PM
A thoughtful and nicely presented account of what appears to most observers of the state based, 2nd tier level of football as being the status quo for players and coaches alike. Very little is ever reported by the press unless it is a disturbance of an ethnic background. The NPL has so much to offer the state leagues allowing the clubs to showcase their playing and coaching talents and all football supporters await the flow on effect to establish a quality second A-League division with promotion & relegation and a truly national FFA Cup competition. We need to hear more from the FFA on influencing and developing the NPL brand.
John  |  
20 Aug 2013 02:15 PM
Fantastic article Mike and hopefully the FFV Board and its staff have read it. What a great opportunity for local state league clubs to be a part of the national play-off. Not only will this envigorate the local communities but I am sure sponsors will come on board. We have NSW and Queensland federations allowing NPL clubs to run their SSF team (U7-U11) in NSW , NPL clubs can operate Development squads (B teams) but in Victoria the FFV does not allow us to register u7-u11 players thus reducing member numbers and volunteers. These players will then be asked to leave our club. This does not make any sense at all. In my opinion, what could happen is that all Victorian NPL clubs should be allowed to foster coaching and player development through their small-sided football teams U7-U11 while developing and helping local community clubs through a local zone affiliation using the SAP program to develop and identify players for the skilleroos program and for the NPL Elite clubs to create pathways for the talented players from U12-U18. At the same time we help develop local community club coaches and their players while also offering local clubs affiliated memberships for their local NPL senior club, thus bringing in more members to watch games. The NPL clubs should also be allowed to operate a development squad ("B" teams) that play against other NPL development squads, they also should practice 3 times per week this way it allows clubs to have a larger pool to train while being able to move players from Development squads to the Elite squads. The Development squads will be made up of players that live in the area and are affiliated with their local community clubs, thus allowing the local clubs to be identified and recognised for their efforts in developing the players as they enter their next phase.... promoting them to the NPL club in their region. Development squad players could wear their local club badges on their arms as an appreciation and recognition of their players being selected. This will bring more unity between clubs in a region because they have something in common. FFA should then look at a national youth club model that allows all NPL clubs and development squads to play in a National Youth Club Championships in October..eg. it would be great to see Sydney United U14 play Northcote City U14 or Marconi U16 playing South Melbourne U16 for the National Title in that age group in a National Youth Championship..we would have all age groups (except U12) compete from U13-U18 for the right to call themselves National Youth Champions..This has many benefits both commercially and developmentally..future socceroos could be indentified at this national youth club tournament ? The onus should be put on clubs to develop players and this is just one way we can accomplish this at a national club level. Regards Socrates Nicolaidis Technical Youth Director Northcote City FC
socrates nicolaidis  |  
20 Aug 2013 01:22 PM
Ethnic communities living in outer-lying suburbs have been a non-stop production line for quality Socceroos for decades. They are a key component of our footballing future. In outer south-western Sydney, the landscape from Fairfield out to Bonnyrigg is a footballing mecca, a litany of boutique stadiums established by proud ethnic communities. Don't forget, one H. Kewell grew up in neighbouring Smithfield. Today's young prodigy from the outer suburbs will want to play for the Wanderers tomorrow.
Spenceroos  |  
20 Aug 2013 03:17 AM
Sure Mike, these clubs have done a lot for Aussie football in the past and may continue to do so in terms of player and coach development. But in terms of supporters, exactly how does an ethnic club 'broaden its base'. By definition, it is a club that exists to represent a particular ethnic group. This is the exact opposite of the strong multi-cultural ethos of the A-League since inception. If these clubs were really serious about broadening their base they would become true regional clubs at all levels, including juniors. As to the joys of such 'active support' , I still remember my young son almost being hit by a live flare by some such idiots. We've moved on - never again should we let such people trash the name of football in Australia.
True Blue  |  
19 Aug 2013 08:17 PM
Brilliant article Mike. Unfortunately i have a horrible feeling the FFV are one of the federations trying to air brush the ethnic clubs.
Tony Argiriou  |  
19 Aug 2013 05:02 PM
"my sense is some state federations are being tempted to airbrush history, and force ethnic clubs out of the equation." Mmmmm - I have a sense that I will win the lottery next week? Doesnt make it true. Can you be more specific Mike - especially the claim that ethnic clubse are being forced out? I am particularly interested in any evidence that proposed NPL competitions (of which there remain only 3 more excluding the NT) have any criteria which discriminate against "ethnic clubs"- however that if defined?
mahonjt  |  
19 Aug 2013 04:54 PM
Very true Michael. Great to hear that the NPL has been embraced in NSW. Except for the case of Victoria and the mess both the FFV and VPL / state league clubs have made of the potential to move forward with the beginning a new dawn. Instead, politics and people with money who have the power are putting up all the obstacles in the world to satisfy their egos. Officially there are 15 applications in the final stages for the NPLV inaugural season. Which is very poor considering there were over 50 expressions of interest. All the traditional clubs you speak of along with a lot new ones, have formed an alliance thinking they will get a court injunction to stop the running of the NPLV. For the good of the game, the FFA as the over ruling body has to step in and show some authority and bring Victoria out of the cave. The FFV has lost the trust and respect from it's stake holders (players, parents, coaches, clubs) as an organisation to be able to deliver on it's word. I fear that if this isn't resolved, it could put the game in one of the key federations under the FFA umbrella back 10 years or more. FFA please help. For the good of the game !
Terry  |  
19 Aug 2013 04:36 PM
How far will Western Sydney go in the AFC Champions League?

Michael Cockerill

Former Sydney Morning Herald chief football writer and current Fox Sports commentator, Michael Cockerill is the associate editor of footballaustralia.com.au. He has spent 27 years reporting on Australian football, including six FIFA World Cup finals, seven FIFA World Cup qualification campaigns by the Qantas Socceroos, three Olympic Games football tournaments, the National Soccer League, the Hyundai A-League, Westfield W-League, and grassroots and community football.