Football Rambling
2:15 PM Mon 23rd Jan, 2006 - Sweeper
Speaking with an old football friend of many years recently from my home town, Lismore, on the beautiful Far North Coast of NSW, as so often happens I was once again struck by the benefit in exchanging ideas with the heartland of our game, football people at the grass roots level.

A player, coach and administrator from the area for over 30 years, Armin Sandmann is typical of many in that he has spent years battling the bureaucracy and incompetence of the NNSW Federation who have an almost legendary capacity to see past sound strategic ideas.

Whilst with the Lismore Soccer Association some years ago, and fed up with repeated frustration at the lack of support for country areas, Armin was instrumental in the local area taking control of its own destiny and undertaking a strategic reorganisation of the local league.

A league which this author owes much to in developing a football career.

Armin had three attributes that were threatening to the NNSW blazer brigade, he wanted the best for the game above personal glory, had enormous passion and commitment to work towards a stronger regional game, and a sound frame of reference and knowledge base having come from the West German football system.

Not surprisingly he found the road to football progress a difficult, almost impossible one to hoe, with a multitude of strategic ideas falling on deaf ears.

That was some years ago, yet today I challenge the NNSW federation to take a true barometer of their performance outside Newcastle in management, regional support, and particularly coaching education, and find anything more than a fail mark for their work from their regional constituents.

As Johnny Warren is fond of saying, twenty years and still the same problems exist.

Hence the reasons why when NNSW Chairman Bill Walker argued for the Federation’s survival, I could find no great reason as to why they should. I assure you I very much look forward to the ASA casting its attention to the administration of the game in NNSW and implementing the State constitutional changes under the Crawford Report. There will be more than a few administrators judged harshly when past records are assessed.

Anyway, in talking about the future of the game at the grass roots with a passionate and knowledgeable supporter there was a solution proffered which would solve a number of problems in our game.

Speaking about the large number of teenage players who leave the game in regional areas, Armin says that the secret lies in the reinvigoration of the local club structure, alongside the high performance elite level where the game has always preferred to focus its resources.

There are two key problems:
1. the thousands of teenage players deserting the sport; and
2. the lack of focus on, and support structures for, the local club.

I know from my elder brother who has coached and played in the local area for the last year or so, that after the local competition the aspiring young player has practically no avenue to pursue their footballing dreams in their home environment. Representative honours are for 16 and under, after which there is only the yearly local league title to play for.

Any kids who show promise, and there are a large number, must travel out of the area to Brisbane, Newcastle or Sydney in search of higher honours in the game. A move which is not ideal and many never recover from, and what of all those who will never make paid ranks but who want to play at as high a level as possible and feel as though there is something worthwhile for them to achieve in the game?

For many players there is no pathway and not surprisingly thousands drift away from the game. Players can be forgiven for believing that the football system is skewed entirely towards the elite player and as such that they are not valued for their support and participation in the game.

As to the clubs, it is well known that the affection of players and fans is to their club. Not just an APL club they choose to support or an EPL or La Liga Club, but particularly to their local club where they train and play day in and out. A place where their friends and family play, administrate and support. Where the heart lies.

Yet over the last two decades of maladministration of our game it is this very relationship between the player and their local club which has been damaged through neglect. Neglect of providing a meaningful pathway for local clubs to compete for higher honours above their local league, something for local players and fans to aspire to and work towards every season.

A higher level too, that would act as a barometer of the strength of the local club against others around the country.

Armin believes that we need to introduce an Australian Amateur Club Championship alongside an Australian Football Cup knockout competition and like Armin I believe that both, along with the reintroduction of Senior Amateur Representative football, would do much to strengthen the player, fan and community’s ties to the local soccer club.

For a club like my first, Goonellabah Soccer Club in Lismore, NNSW, the opportunity to represent the Far North Coast Competition as winners in a regional, State then National Amateur Club Championship would not only be enormously exciting to the players themselves, but to the local community as well.

And I wouldn’t mind backing our local champion against the best from the Mid North Coast, Newcastle, or even metropolitan areas in further rounds to find the NNSW Amateur Club Champion. I believe we would give it a very good shake indeed.

More importantly though, all the seventeen year old and above players who have something to offer would have the chance to play for something meaningful and match themselves against the country’s best.

Kids who only years before were promised a future in the game and played at junior representative level would then finally be able to achieve in the game beyond the local area. W hat a wonderful opportunity for local clubs to anticipate in the long pre-season training schedule…an exciting prospect indeed.

From a strategic viewpoint, a game between Goonellabah FC and a Newcastle or Sydney club for the State title would not only be a sensation for soccer locally, but a major competitive advantage in the area against other, often more powerful sports. Such advantages are too few.

An Australian Football Cup competition would be a suitable and exciting adjunct to the Australian Amateur Club Championship, and another vehicle to support our local clubs.

Such an Australian Football Cup would, at local levels, be able to piggyback many existing cup competitions such as the pre-season Anzac Cup played in our local region.

Already a prestigious competition how much more keenly contested would it be if the Anzac Cup Champion was in line to play against the region’s best in the second round?

An opportunity to become the State Cup Champions and then take on the pros would be a major boost to our local clubs. Imagine the pride if Goonellabah S.C., or another regionally based local club, were ever able to win the Australian Football Cup?

In later rounds all State League and APL Clubs would take part, giving the local club an FA Cup style chance to beat the professionals, while a National Cup for strictly amateur clubs would complement the broad based competition.

In know from my time in UK that an APL Club won’t relish the task of playing an amateur club on home soil with passionate home support and typically a playing surface that is below what the players are used to. Upsets abound and feed the hype and culture of the Cup Competition, making it a highlight of the football season at the grass roots level.

Let’s not forget, either, senior representative football which has also lapsed into decay. For the sake of regional areas we need to reintroduce senior amateur representative football so that the Lismore Senior Team, or its equivalent in the South of Tasmania for arguments sake, can match themselves against the State’s finest Representative sides.

There was a time when as a youngster I would join a packed crowd to cheer the Lismore Team taking on the region’s best and dream that I would be good enough to do likewise.

We need to give our regional players the chance to be selected for a higher level again, and make selection in a regional Representative team a source of great pride. Again, the boost in the hundreds of regional areas who currently have no such opportunity would be incalculable.

Three simple concepts, an Australian Amateur Club Championship, an Australian Football Cup and Senior Representative football, all of which have been mooted before.

The difference is that through the too often neglected perspective of a football man at grass roots level the competitions are seen to solve major football issues while supplying significant assistance where it is most needed, at the local Club level.

The Crawford Report was largely about the sport engaging the grass roots participants by giving them a say in the ongoing administration. Armin Sandmann is not alone in believing that we must also support them with meaningful competitions to strengthen the player, supporter and community connections with the game.

Now that makes sound strategic sense.
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