Recent announcements surrounding the expansion of the A-Leagues and the progress towards a National Second Tier (NST) mean that roughly 250 more players across Australia and New Zealand that will get the opportunity to test themselves at a higher level come 2024.
That's more players, a sizable chunk of whom will be younger or previously overlooked, playing more games, at a higher level of competition. This is an unescapably good thing for Australian football. It's also, perhaps, the only way to reliably address one of its biggest areas of concern in the immediate term.
Introduced for the 2024-25 season, A-Leagues franchises in Auckland and Canberra will give around 50 players hitherto absent opportunities to play in the Australian men's top flight (yes, it is that, even if it will now have two Kiwi teams). When the Auckland franchise adds a women's team, and Macarthur FC gets itself into gear and does the same, the same number of opportunities will be added to the A-League Women.
Further expansion with two more clubs the following season, one of which is likely to be in Queensland, which fields the second most participants in the nation, will replicate this effect and boost the number of games being played in the men's league to 30, home and away. In other words, 51,480 more match minutes are on offer in the ALM in 2024-25, and 59,400 in 2025-26 through the new teams alone.
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A step down on the ladder and estimating that the minimum of 10 clubs that will be elevated to Football Australia's NST will carry 20 players (some will likely carry more and some less), then that's about another 200 opportunities becoming available for players, a number that will likely grow as the competition establishes itself and expands. Assuming a home and away season in a 10-team league, that's a minimum of 178,200 match minutes at a level that is a step up from the current NPL standard. And with Football Australia CEO James Johnson declaring that the new league will have a youth development focus, that's more opportunities for kids, in Socceroos' coach Graham Arnold's parlance, to start on their journey.
Some of the players granted these new opportunities will be foreigners or -- gasp -- well-travelled Australians with several clubs under their belt. There are only so many players of a requisite calibre out there, after all, especially those that are ready and willing to sign with Australian clubs. But the sizable contingent will be younger or overlooked prospects finally getting a shot at a higher level; representing one of the most tangible and potentially paradigm-shifting elements of the coming growth of Australian football's pyramid.
Admittedly, it needs to be acknowledged that the benefits of the expansion of the A-Leagues and the establishment of the NST go far beyond just the pure footballing side of things. There are new markets to tap into, more content to offer sponsors and broadcasters, new fans to be won over and old ones re-engaged with, an opportunity to give clubs below the ALM incentive to grow, wounds that have festered ever since the birth of the ALM to be addressed, the prospect of one-day uniting the pyramid, and more. And there's also no guarantee that expansion, the NST, or both, will work. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and the devil's domain is the details, and the two initiatives' fate will likely depend on the competence of those responsible for their implication. That's the future-proof disclaimer.
But given that putting the ball in the back of the net and preventing the opposition from doing the same is, ostensibly, the core purpose of this whole endeavour, it's worth reiterating why these steps are important, how they're going to make the Socceroos and Matildas -- what should be the ultimate end goal for all of Australian football's efforts -- better in the years ahead.
Per FbRef, the average age of the A-League Men, weighted by minutes played, is over 28 years old this season, a significant jump from the COVID-aided fall in demographics across the previous few campaigns. Elsewhere, speaking to ESPN in February, Australian Professional Leagues CEO Danny Townsend acknowledged that the lack of a summer competition for its academies meant that the league needed to fix what had become a "gaping hole" in its pathways. Normal, veteran-biased service is resuming. Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson has spent much of his tenure seeking to plug gaps in the side's depth identified by a Football Australia performance gap report and moves towards full-time professionalism in the A-League Womens are urgently needed if the APL envisions it as one of the world's best women's leagues -- a stated ambition for Townsend.
While it's all well and good to cajole (often rightly) coaches for their aversion towards playing youngsters in favour of more experienced heads due to a perception that the latter provides more of an assured baseline of performance, there's a limit to what can be accomplished by regulation when it runs up against patterns of thinking that have become ingrained in Australian football. Football is about the realisation of ideas and the revelation of character and values on the pitch. For both players and coaches. Take too much autonomy away, and football loses its essence; this isn't the E-League.
And meme-ified as it has become, Arnold's declaration in another coaching life that the ALM isn't a developmental league rings true. The Y-League is a developmental league. Premier League 2 is a developmental league. The Primavera is a developmental league. The ALM is a senior competition where silverware and careers are on the line and in which development occurs as a byproduct governed by the incentives and circumstances presented to participatory clubs, coaches, and football departments.
In an ALM in which there are no transfer fees between clubs and integration into the international transfer market remains stilted, the financial incentives -- cash for selling player's registrations -- that drive clubs the world over to develop talent are skewed. Combined with a salary cap that influences decision-makers to look at players less as assets and more as figures that need to be fit into a balance sheet, the multi-year investment of getting playing time into young players that clubs make the world over to sell for a profit are lessened. It's telling that the perennially and sometimes existentially under-resourced Central Coast Mariners are one of the league's best developmental sides despite their limited resources and NSW's crowded market: they have to be.
In addition, with 50% of the league making finals -- providing something close to a pass mark for coaches -- the inherent biases towards veteran talent (which of course has exceptions, but has existed as a general rule across the league's history) is magnified. The 2022-23 season serves as a case in point, with the sides sixth through 12th on the ALM table separated by just six points with five rounds to go -- even though none have presented a strong case that they "deserve" to be in contention for a title. By the time seasons are lost and youngsters are thrown into the fray, prevailing circumstances surrounding the team can be so Sisyphean that they're unable to impress and, despite not being put in a position to succeed, discarded.
None of these challenges are insurmountable, of course. But addressing them will inevitably take time for a shift in thinking to take place, both on matters such as squad management, utilisation of the international market, and the league's willingness to move away from a salary cap. The values that dictate coaching, meanwhile, what attributes and priorities a coach elevates, and their appetite for reaping the potential rewards from embracing risk (within reason) as opposed to minimising it, can easily take generations to address. And that in and of itself is highly dependent on the appetite and ethos of the individuals and bodies entrusted with guiding that evolution.
Therefore, in the shorter term, one of the few true ways to get youngsters playing more was more teams, more games, and more leagues. As referenced, there are only so many players of a requisite calibre to fill the roster spots that will become available by ALM expansion and the NST, especially if the latter features appropriate rules surrounding players that are homegrown and under a certain age. A version of this phenomenon has already been exhibited in the ALW: as the competition expanded and senior Matildas moved overseas, clubs had to find players from somewhere to fill the void, and they largely did so with younger or overlooked talent.
And these minutes are important. According to Football Australia's men's performance gap report, playing more than 2250 minutes -- 90 minutes x 25 matches -- in a season while under the age of 23 had a significant association with positive career progression. With more games and more opportunities on the way, this criterion will be met, by default if necessary, in the years ahead.
That's a good thing for Australian football.