If there were any doubts about the validity and value of the new National Premier Leagues competition they were dispelled in Hobart, where Sydney United took out the inaugural grand final against South Hobart. I was fortunate enough to be there to present the John Kosmina Medal (to Glen Trifiro), and despite some very inclement weather a reasonable crowd turned up to watch a good game of football.
Sydney United were worthy winners, but the locals had them on the ropes on a more than a few occasions. What South Hobart lacked was experience playing against teams of Sydney United's quality, and they couldn’t maintain the concentration or intensity required to get a result. But despite being battered and bruised, they played to the end. Their shape and structure were good, and I could see why they got this far.
The point is they would not have been exposed to this standard of football but for the instigation of the NPL. It is the only way the game can develop at the lower levels, and it’s the only way to close the gap between the A-League and the next tier in each state. Western Australia, Northern NSW and Victoria aren’t involved just yet, but providing Victoria sort out their issues they'll all be part of it in 2014. That will give us a clean sweep (eight) of the states.
To make the top tier better, the underpinning competitions need to be good. It is no good having a decent A-League and then a massive drop in quality and standard at the local level. Hopefully the NPL will narrow the development pathway, and the considerable investment in the coaching and development structure over the past five or six years won't be wasted.
If we really want to become a strength in world football we need more than one level of professional competition. The hundreds of thousands of juniors that are playing, and those that will be playing in future, need to have somewhere to go as they grow older. I dream of the day when there is promotion and relegation in the A-League and we have professional tiers below. You need that survival of the fittest, cut-throat, environment to really hone the edge on a player. A tough NPL in each state is a good place to start.
Which brings me to my next point. Recently I was on the mid-north coast of NSW to visit an old teammate of mine, and we got to talking about the opportunities for kids with talent living in the area. The topic came up because he’s got a teenage son that can play a bit. Ask the kid what he wants to do when he grows up, and straight to the point he says he he wants to be a professional footballer. But he lives just outside Coffs Harbour, which is a long way from the big cities and even further away from the opportunity for recognition. It's a problem for all country kids.
This is an interesting topic. I used to have the odd chat about it with a guy called George Negus, who had a close involvement with the game about a decade ago, and lived in the same area as my friend. At the time we thought Coffs Harbour might one day be able to sustain a team in what was then the NSL. I know it may sound like a bit of a pipedream, but there is no progress without dreams and vision. It's a region that's growing fast and has strong participation rates in football. At the time having a team in a national competition seemed like a good idea. But things have changed. The NSL is long gone, and obviously the A-League is a different story.
Enter the NPL. Coffs Harbour is part of the Northern NSW Federation, who will unveil their NPL next year. But they've only chosen teams from Newcastle. Nothing from the Hunter River to the Queensland border.
Why haven't Coffs Harbour been included? Especially given a team from the region, Urunga Raiders, this year won the NNSW Cup competition - the first time the trophy has gone outside Newcastle. The population of the Newcastle-Gold Coast corridor is constantly growing, and Coffs is smack bang in the middle. A predicted one million-plus people will be living in the region within 30 years. That means a lot of potential footballers, and it also means money because of the economy needed to sustain the population. Certainly enough cash to maintain a semi-professional - if not fully professional - club.
This isn’t a plug for Coffs Harbour. It is about regional development, because there's huge potential in the areas outside the major cities. If you want proof, look at Queensland. Frank Farina, Steve Corica, Wayne Srhoj and Clint Bolton are all from country Queensland (where there exists an excellent regional program), and they've all played at the highest level. Queensland's NPL has teams from Cairns, Townsville, Gold Coast, Rockhampton and Ipswich. To me, that's what the second-tier is all about.
In a country where the competition from rival codes is intense, we need to make sure we don’t miss any opportunities to grow the game. More and more resources are becoming available, so we need to make sure they are spread evenly. Kids from the country deserve to live the Socceroo dream as much as anyone else.
In Hobart, I saw that the dream was alive and well. I was impressed, and encouraged. That's the real potential of the NPL. To bring everyone into the fold.