The growing divide between NPL and A-League

by Damir Kulas 0

Photo: Matt Johnson

A day after Victoria saw one of its member federation clubs make the Round of 16 for the seventh time – the most out of any state federation – the conversation has once again opened up about the divide between the A-League and the NPL.

Bentleigh Greens were patient zero in the FFA Cup’s inaugural year in 2014, as they were competitive, but ultimately bowed out at the hands of Perth Glory in the Semi-Finals, while yesterday’s heroes Hume City proved more than a handful at the same stage against Melbourne Victory in 2015. Given their impressive run that season and subsequent performance against the then reigning A-League champions, the sentiment was that the gap was fast closing between state and national level.

However, fast-forward to now and we’ve seen a clear direction with player recruitment; those within the largely watertight A-League system favoured over the talent mulling within the member federations. With promotion/relegation still seemingly a long way off in the future, the argument can be made that the A-League is proving a negative breeding ground for Australian talent, in which players have not learnt to truly fight for their careers, and for the future of their club. Given the recent success story of Jai Ingham, who ironically made his name in the FFA Cup for Hume, why is it that A-League clubs aren’t looking closer to home?

Almost six years ago, Football Federation Australia (FFA) introduced the National Competition Review (NCR) in October 2010 with its main objective being to review the current structure of football competitions in Australia, and to monitor and improve elite player development.

This inquiry involved extensive consultation with the football community, all of whom highlighted many grievances and concerns they believed the game in the country had. One of the most common concerns expressed by clubs was that they did not feel part of the development pathway. In May 2012, the result of the NCR were released with the major proposal being to rebrand and revitalise state-based competitions around the country.

The following summer, the FFA announced the establishment of the National Premier Leagues (NPL) with each state premier league being branded under the one banner. Much of the talk following this announcement centred on the newly-implemented NPL bridging the gap between the A-League and its state league counterparts in the hope of creating a promotion/relegation system between the two leagues from 2022 onwards (the 2015 Whole of Football Plan has subsequently cast doubt as to whether that aim is being actively worked on).

The other main intended ambition of the NPL was to enhance elite player development in the select number of clubs across the country who met the rigid criteria involved in gaining an NPL licence. In theory, one of the by-products of this was that players in the NPL senior system were meant to be knocking on the A-League door due to the increased professionalism and quality designated in the premier league/state league competitions. In practice, this has failed to materialise and one must only look at the player movements in the current A-League transfer window to realise the extent of this.

So far this window, there has been a total of 51 additions made between the 10 A-League clubs. From the 51:

  • 35 had previously played in the A-League (69%)
  • Four of the players that had not had A-League experience featured in the National Youth League last season, taking the total number of players with any previous experience at an A-League club in any capacity to 39 (76%)
  • Filtering out the foreigners, 32 out of 38 additions have A-League experience (84%)
  • Only 1 player moved to an A-League from an NPL environment and that was Brisbane Roar’s teenage signing Kye Rowles from Palm Beach Sharks although the Young Socceroo spent 2015/16 with the FFA Centre of Excellence and is represented by the PFA.

This highlights a growing trend of player recycling between the ten A-League teams with a number of new signings ticking off another club to their growing list of experience. Liam Reddy’s move to Perth makes the Glory his seventh A-League club while fellow shot-stopper Danny Vukovic joining his fifth A-league in Sydney FC – albeit for personal reasons. Outfield players such as Steven Lustica and Michael Zullo are now at their fourth A-League club while Rostyn Griffiths returns to Perth Glory for a second time having previously featured for Adelaide United, North Queensland Fury and the Central Coast Mariners.

While many at FFA HQ in Sydney struggle to find effective marketing strategies to promote the competition in the best light possible, there is strong cause for concern that the season 12 might not reach the same heights of previous season’s quality wise given the sheer number of talented players to have left the league this off-season. Aaron Mooy, Matthieu Delpierre, Craig Goodwin, Mark Bridge, Corona, Stefan Mauk, Romeo Castelen, Shane Smeltz, Bruce Djite, Dario Vidosic, Mark Birighitti, Henrqiue, Harry Novillo, Ali Abbas and Pablo Sanchez have departed Australian shores.

Popular fan favourites and former internationals Patrick Kisnorbo, Shane Stefanutto and Ben Sigmund have all retired, while the future of the competition’s all-time top goal-scorer Archie Thompson remains in limbo. Kevin Muscat expressed his frustrations last week by arguing that it is tough to recruit players to come play in the A-League due to the increased financial incentives now offered in countries such as Malaysia and Thailand, in addition to top Asian leagues in China, Japan and South Korea.

The host of big-name departures coupled with the low profile of many new signings, many of whom have been tried and tested in an A-League environment, has led many to feel less than excited about the forthcoming season. While the welcome return of fringe Socceroos such as Neil Kilkenny and Rhys Williams to Australian shores is a welcome boost to the competition, as is that of highly touted youngsters such as Joshua Brillante, Bernie Ibini and Adam Taggart, serious questions need to be asked about the quality of the competition and how players are continuously kept in the professional environment, despite showing little to justify their place. This is evident with the recent signings of Kwabena Appiah (Central Coast Mariners), Jesse Makarounas (Adelaide United) and Jacob Pepper (Brisbane Roar) amongst others, with the aforementioned trio being fringe players in the A-League for the past four seasons without ever securing regular game time in the competition.

Meanwhile at an NPL level, the lack of player promotion from the premier state league competitions into the national league goes against the intended aims of the NPL as stipulated upon its implementation in 2013. With the exception of Rowles, no other NPL player has so far made the step-up to the A-League for the upcoming season, a major cause for concern in the eyes of many Australian football fans, particularly those involved at an NPL level.

Based on their recent FFA Cup performances and general strength of the league, Victoria is meant to have the nation’s second strongest competition behind the A-League however not one player has been picked up a professional club this off-season. This despite the success stories of state league graduates such as Sasa Ognenovski, Rodrigo Vargas and Ivan Franjic, all of whom later become Socceroos having initially spent the early years of the A-League plying their trade in the VPL.

While critics might point to the perceived ineffectiveness of the Mariners four Victorian NPL signings last season, it is important to add that timing and the right environment are important ingredients to success with the league cellar-dwellers not being a suitable surroundings for the likes of Bray, Heffernan, Stella and Uskok to thrive in. In addition to this, Ingham has put on a number of respectable outings following his January move to the Victory after joining the club from Hume. This culminated with a goal against reigning 5-time Serie A Champions Juventus last Saturday night after some solid contributions in the Victory’s Asian Champions League campaign.

However their appears to be a general lack of faith from A-League managers regarding NPL talent, a trend that has continued into this off-season and is now more noticeable than ever before. To suggest this is due to NPL players being far inferior to their professional counterparts is questionable given a player like James Brown who made over 80 A-League appearances in seven seasons has so far struggled in his time at Avondale, failing to make any telling contributions in his first five games for the club.

Brown is not alone and many other former top tier players have dropped down to the NPL after years of being recycled in the A-League without ever showing the quality needed to succeed at the top level. With the absence of a promotion/relegation set to continue in the near future, pressure-cooker environments seen elsewhere in the world are unlikely to be replicated Down Under when the A-League itself breeds player complacency and unashamedly harnesses mediocrity in its standards.