There is a lot to like about the concept of the National Premier Leagues, which recently had its first champion club, Sydney United 58 FC. It’s great that new standards are being set at club level, with the improvement of facilities, better governance and youth development programs, as well as criteria to make sure coaches have the tools to teach players, rather than screaming and shouting to motivate them. It’s also fantastic that the best teams from the various state competitions meet at the end of the season for the right to be crowned national club champions.
But as we prepare to introduce the NPL to Western Australia next year, I also have concerns about its success over the short and long term.
The biggest issue for me is the speed at which changes are being forced on clubs, particularly relating to the creation of positions for young players in our senior elite competition through a Player Point System. For as long as I can remember, our best young players have been given opportunities in the state league regardless of any rules or regulations. It’s always been the case that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. A coach’s aim should be to pick the best players and play the best football to give the paying public value for money, and not to go checking date of births on passports or drivers’ licences.
In theory, if the NPL rules on youth development and better coaching are effective, over time we will produce more young players good enough to play in the top division regardless of the points system. It doesn’t seem right to me that the NPL, which is supposed to be a senior competition, makes it harder for coaches to fit players over 25 years into their squads because they attract higher points values.
I would love nothing more than to field a team of homegrown players, who wear the club shirt like a badge of honour. But the reality is that the very best young players at club level will be attracted to Perth Glory, to play in the National Youth League, or to the Football West junior teams associated with Glory’s NPL team. I’m all for players getting opportunities with our A-League club but the concentration of players at Glory (they will have 30 or 40 of WA's best young talent) will force other clubs, trying desperately not to breach the points system, to use players who can’t cut the mustard in the NPL. For me, there shouldn't be Perth Glory and Football West teams in the NPL.
It also concerns me that a lot of time and effort will be spent in the administration of the points system. From a coaches’ perspective, I don’t really want to be working with a mathematician to work through the points every week. We are coaches, who should be working with players, not crunching numbers. And how much work is this going to create for the state federations? Will they check every team sheet before kick-off, or will they dish out punishment on a Monday morning if a club has got it wrong?
The points system will cause even more headaches for players over the age of 25. I can’t understand how this particular age was chosen as the apparent starting point of a player’s decline. In my experience, players don’t reach their peak until 27. It would have been much easier to limit the number of older players in a squad by creating a quota of youngsters, such as having five players under-23 in every squad.
We all want young players to progress to the NPL and beyond, but we also want good, experienced, players to add their qualities to the competition. I fear the points system will distort the balance so heavily in favour of young players that it will have a negative impact on the standard of the competition and, ultimately, that can’t be good for the game.