Socceroos legend Alex Tobin and several other Australian footballing greats are at war with Football NSW over a highly controversial decision to relegate eight clubs from the state’s top tier of youth football without any prior notice.
- In recent weeks, Football NSW has informed NPL clubs that eight teams will be relegated from its first youth division instead of the usual two
- The move came as the pandemic forced an early cancellation of the season, but sparked outrage
- Alex Tobin says the decision will severely stunt the development of youth players in the state, and has promised to fight it
In a move that is set to gut several clubs of their prized young talent and take youth football in Australia to what Tobin calls “the lowest point it could get to”, the rules around relegation have been changed in the wake of COVID-19 forcing the cancellation of the season.
Teams started the season under the assumption only two sides would be demoted from NPL 1 as usual, but clubs received a letter from the Football NSW board on May 26 stating that a new format, not previously communicated, for relegating eight clubs was in play.
A fresh notice on August 16 laid out the teams to be promoted and relegated, taking into account only phase 1 of the NPL youth season.
In a sign of how contentious the call is, former Socceroo Nick Carle, who is technical director at Southern Districts — a club that has benefited from the decision by staying in NPL 1 — has spoken out against it.
Carle’s club has joined the affected teams in signing a letter calling for a reversal of the decision.
“We’re opposed to the ruling because of how it was done. I don’t understand how they came to this conclusion,” Carle said.
“I’m very disappointed. As a club we’re super happy to be in NPL 1 but we don’t agree with how it’s happened.
“It’s open slather on their players now. Parents and kids unfortunately don’t understand what good programs are. They just look for an NPL 1 club. When we were in NPL 2 we lost 95 per cent of our players.”
For the affected clubs – St George FA and FC, Northbridge Bulls, NSW Spirit, Hakoah FC, Bonnyrigg Eagles, Mounties Wanderers and Hills United, where Tobin is technical director — that impact has already been felt.
Hakoah said it had already lost half of its youth players since the decision was made a week ago.
Select few clubs to monopolise young talent
Tobin’s Hills United face a similar battle to hold on to young players they have spent several years developing, who now believe they need to leave for a top tier club.
Youth development in the state may now be funnelled to a select few clubs.
It has left 87-time Socceroo Tobin, who has devoted a large part of his life to the Australian game, fuming.
“Personally, it’s frustrating. I’ve been doing this for a long, long time. This is the lowest point I’ve seen the game get to in youth, based on this decision,” he said.
“Our argument is that’s not fair. That’s not football. That wasn’t previously communicated.
“Their overwhelming emphasis is that there are certain clubs that should have elite youth programs and the rest can go back to your local comps or drop down the leagues.
“They just decided to find another formula without any notice: The top eight from the first half of the season stay up and we’ll just go with that.
“People can look at which clubs were affected and they can make their own conclusions about why these decisions were made.”
Former Socceroos skipper Craig Foster has joined the opposition to Football NSW’s change.
He believes the decision strikes at the heart of a misdirection in youth development in the country.
“Is anyone really surprised? Even our 1974 Socceroos would be shaking their heads when they hear this news,” Foster said.
“My question at the moment is where is the overarching national program to achieve alignment? How are we still here? The pattern has to stop repeating at some point.
“What concerns me is that in 23 months’ time we’ll have a FIFA Women’s World Cup at home. What happens to the girls in these eight clubs, or the next eight clubs?”
Experts being ignored by administrators, Tobin says
Tobin believes technical directors with national team backgrounds and playing careers overseas — such as Carle and Aytek Genc at St George, who has been similarly affected — have been overruled by the administration.
At a time when there are fewer Australian male players in the top overseas leagues around the world than at any other period in the past 35 years, there are fears moves like this will only continue to stunt the nation’s youth development.
“They have ignored all the technical advice about this competition structure from qualified coaches. That’s the most frustrating part,” Tobin said.
“My issue is, who are the next Socceroos and Matildas? Where is the overarching plan to make that happen?
“I don’t see anywhere else in the world where technical directors are overruled by administrators, especially [on] something as simple, basic and important as the process to develop youth players.
“Football NSW tried this three years ago with the reboot. Halfway through the season they changed the platform, everybody pushed back and they rescinded the decision.
“If you asked me, ‘Could Football NSW have made a decision as damaging as the reboot three years ago which they retracted?’ I would have said, ‘That’s impossible.’
“But here we are three years on and they’ve done it again.”
Football NSW says move the ‘fairest option’
Football NSW remained steadfast in its decision.
The governing body says the reformed structure supports one of the key recommendations that emerged from Football Australia’s Performance Gap analysis, namely the desire to increase the number of match minutes played by the state’s talented young players.
“Football NSW remains firmly of the belief that this was the fairest option as at the time that football was suspended, phase 2 was incomplete and some clubs had played more of the stronger clubs while others had played more of the weaker clubs, meaning that standings at the time were not as equitable as at the end of Phase 1,” it said.
“Football NSW recognises some clubs may feel disappointed and aggrieved that they did not have the opportunity to complete the season and improve their standings ahead of the 2022 season.”
Tobin and the impacted clubs insist the fight for a reversal will continue.
“They haven’t justified it, they haven’t been prepared to meet, they haven’t been prepared to listen to the legitimate grievances of the clubs,” Tobin said.
“We’re not being emotional about this, we’re just stating absolute facts that are consistent with football, and we’ve been met with absolute silence.
“Hence, the battle is on.”