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  • Writer's pictureBen Horvath

12 simple and practical reforms to improve Australia's men's youth pathways

Everyone has an opinion on how to improve youth pathways in Australia. One point all agree on, though, is that there is an urgent need for reform. Season after season, the state federations discuss and implement small changes around the edges, but substantive reforms are few and far between. Australian youth footballers need more opportunities, a more significant player pool, and many more catchment areas. Below are 12 simple, practical reforms that could be introduced immediately to improve Australian football's youth development system.

More young players receiving minutes in the A-League Men equals better results for the Young Socceroos, per last year's Marbella Tournament in Spain. (Image: Football Australia)

Play more games at all levels

The A-League Men season is too short; there are not enough games. Australia’s premier men's competition has only 26 games per season (not including the Finals Series), followed by a five-month offseason.

The league needs to expand to provide more games and opportunities. A minimum of 34 games in the A-League Men each season is required for young Australian talent to compete with the best in Asia and Europe.

Clubs within top European footballing nations are playing 40 to 50 games with one month off. Until Australia's youth products play 40-odd games a year, they will always come up short in their development compared to their European counterparts.

Further, A-League Men clubs haven’t progressed beyond the group stage in the Asian Champions League in recent years, with one primary reason being a lack of match conditioning.

In the NPL NSW, to their credit, the men’s and youth first, second, and third tiers moved from 12 to 16 clubs per tier last season, guaranteeing a minimum of 30 games.

A minimum of 34 or 36 games would be better because adding the four or five pre-season trial games would bring Australia closer to most top European and Asian nations.

In Victoria, they only have 14 teams in the NPL. Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia, Northern NSW, and the Illawarra region only have 12 teams in their top tier, whilst in Tasmania and Canberra, there are only eight teams. Youth need more games to develop.

In most states, the grassroots club season runs from mid-March to late July; in some, it runs into August or early September. That is barely five months with somewhere between 16 and 20 games, the absolute maximum.

Give youth more opportunities at senior level


It was somewhat ironic that due to COVID and the drop in crowds and revenue, A-League Men clubs were almost forced into giving local Australian youth players more game time and exposure to the competition with more minutes, and what occurred, as a result, was perhaps the most positive thing to happen to the development of Australian youth football in years.

The dozens of youth players given a chance performed better than many imports during this period.

Furthermore, last season's $10 million generated in transfer fees was a positive step towards creating a new revenue stream for clubs, whilst the Central Coast Mariners' Grand Final win with a youthful squad under Nick Montgomery's guidance is a successful blueprint for most clubs to follow from now on.

Football Australia is supposedly working on a domestic transfer system that will encourage development, with transfer fees from the NPL to the new National Second Division (NSD) and A-League Men and from the Second Division to the premier domestic competition, a move that should continue building revenue and enhance playing and coaching standards dramatically in years to come.

The 30-player list of young Australian players who have transferred from the A-League Men to Europe over the last two years is impressive. Headline-grabbing transfers of Garang Kuol to Newcastle United, Nestory Irankunda to Bayern Munich, and Jordan Bos to KVC Westerlo have been joined by more than two dozen other talents being signed by European clubs in England, Germany, France, Belgium, Scotland, Norway, and the Netherlands.


Nestory Irankunda's move to Bayern Munich enhances the developmental reputation of the A-League Men. (Image: Adelaide United)


The positive examples above relating to the recent burst of fresh young talent in the A-League Men have surprisingly yet to filter into the NPL system. The NPL would be better served by blooding more 19 to 23-year-olds and playing, for example, more 25-year-olds than 35-year-olds.

The state-based NPL competitions should focus on serving as development leagues for the upcoming NSD and A-League Men.

Mandate a minimum number of U23 players starting and in first-team squads across the NSD and NPL

The time has come for Football Australia to lead by introducing a rule that all the state federations must mandate a minimum number of underage players, both starting and in every NPL senior squad. FA need to ensure all the state federations are aligned.

FA have recently won support by taking the initiative and announcing the inaugural eight foundation clubs participating in the NSD, which is set to start in March 2025.

The NSD is a massive step forward, providing more opportunities for hundreds of players and connecting the football pyramid.

Australian football and its young talent need more clubs playing competitive, high-stakes professional football ahead of what can be perceived as semi-serious NPL state leagues, acting as a bridge to the A-League Men.

No matter what happens in the first year of the NSD, whether it is eight, 10, or 12 clubs, it will be a massive improvement for football's ecosystem. It is a win for players, coaches, and even administrators' career paths and development.

However, Football Australia may have missed an opportunity to set things up differently. They may have been better served setting up the new NSD as a fully professional U23 or U25 league. That is the most glaring missing link in Australia's current football landscape.

One could argue that eight, 10, or 12 NSD teams full of mostly 25 to 35-year-old NPL journeymen will not necessarily plug the developmental gap. But you never say never; it’s not too late to change tact. Australian football would benefit more by providing dedicated full-time professional places for its best and brightest young talents.

Should Football Australia be looking at improving and developing more young talent in the country and providing more games, then they should, as a minimum, introduce a rule mandating a minimum number of underage players at clubs in the NSD and across Australia's NPL system.

If they do not mandate the NSD to be a U25 league, the next best rule to introduce is ensuring every team starts at least three U23 players and signs at least six to their squads.

Continuing with that developmental theme throughout the semi-professional NPL leagues, they should expand the numbers to a minimum of four U23 players in the starting XI and eight in squads.

Simple new rules like those suggested above ensure clubs develop more talent while saving a little on squad expenditure, as younger players generally cost less than older, experienced players.

Ultimately, the NSD and NPL competitions should be about developing a broader base of potential players that could produce the goods for the future of Australian football.

Modify and limit the maximum number of visa players

Everyone agrees quality visa players like Thomas Broich, Besart Berisha, Shinji Ono, Alessandro Del Piero, Diego Castro, Alessandro Diamanti, Marcelo, and Tolgay Arslan undoubtedly lift the quality of the A-League Men.

Quality imports like Marcelo enhance the A-League Men's quality. (Image: Western Sydney Wanderers)

Bringing in entertainers and educators like those above is fantastic. But below-average imports, and too many of them, can also mean fewer opportunities for Australians in an already limited calendar.

Under current rules, A-League Men clubs can have five visa players, NPL 1 can have two, and NPL 2 and 3 are allowed four. So far, no official word about the NSD visa player numbers has been given.

Football Australia, together with the state federations in support, should seize the moment and introduce clear new mandates across the leagues, again with developmental outcomes at the forefront.

The A-League Men should pull back to a maximum of four visa players per club; the NSD clubs should only allow one or two, NPL 1 clubs should only be allowed one, and NPL 2 and 3 should not allow any. The current allowance of four visa players in NPL 2 and 3 is staggering. Can you believe some cash-strapped NPL 2 and 3 clubs often spend up to half their player budgets on average imports instead of local young talent? That is a travesty.

With simple reforms to the visa rules outlined above, Australian football can continue down the path of a local-flavoured, youth-focused reboot.

Implement a national loan system across the A-League Men, NSD, and NPL

In recent seasons, quite a few A-League Men academy players in the NPL have progressed and have had their contracts upgraded to be fully professional. This trend is another positive.

Both Football Australia and the state federations can work together to implement a national loan scheme that enables U23 or U25 players to get more game time. Implementing a national loan system would enable young prospects on the fringes of A-League Men squads to drop down and play in the NSD and even NPL 1 clubs.

Every player develops at a different age; if a 21-year-old is not quite ready for the A-League Men, allow them to play in the NSD or even the senior squad in an NPL 1 club.

It is imperative for 19 to 23-year-olds aiming to play professionally to play against grown men in, say, the new NSD or at the NPL level. How can Australia’s best young players progress in their chosen profession if they are not receiving enough match minutes?

Football Australia, state federations, and clubs should work together to do everything they can to increase game time for young players, and this initiative would do so.


Eliminate or minimize bottlenecks where possible


The grassroots player pool is healthy, but the considerable drop-off rate needs to be improved to ensure Australia's best talent makes the professional stage.

Parents, players, and national team bosses have long complained about the existing bottlenecks in youth football. The 16-20 age group is the biggest problem. Too many talented players leave the game at the age of 16 or 17 whilst facing challenges like the latter stages of high school. You lose more again with those aged 18 or 19, just out of school, who move into work or tackle first-year university studies.

The bottlenecks exist because there are no U17 and U19 age divisions, making it harder for older teenagers to secure a U18 or U20 spot when adding two extra age divisions would be so easy to keep more talented youngsters in the game. Similarly, the number of players dropping NPL divisions or returning to park football is enormous in transitioning from U20s to senior men’s football.

An NPL NSW U20s match between the Macarthur Bulls FC Academy and NWS Spirit in July 2023. (Image: Ben Horvath)

Therefore, adding U23 leagues to the NPL system in all states is arguably the most crucial reform to ensure Australia keeps more talent in the game. A lack of games and minimal opportunities for teenagers and those in their early 20s is a harmful player production combination that requires immediate action.

The solutions implemented must be uniform across the country, all the state federations must align, and the governance model must be streamlined nationally so all states have the same age divisions. All states must add U17, U19, and U23 age divisions nationally if they do not already have them.

Many players move interstate or overseas for development opportunities, so it makes sense for all states to be aligned as they move up through the pyramids, whether from NPL 2 into the first tier or an A-League Men academy.

Regarding international setups, most Asian and European countries boast U21 and U23 developmental pathways that are currently missing in Australia. For states with U20s, like NSW, it would mean implementing U17s, 19s, 21s, and 23s, thus dropping the existing U20s. Queensland has U23s, but nothing in between this age group and U18s. Victoria has U18s and 23s this year, and so it goes.

Players mature at different ages and stages in their physical and athletic development. Australian football must consider physiological and mental maturity when planning a broader development pathway.

“When I took the Olympic team, I was gobsmacked by the lack of kids available for the Olympic under 23 age group. I truly believe that any type of person in their trade, whether it’s in building or law, from the age of 17, 18, to 22, they are talented apprentices still studying their trade,” Socceroos manager Graham Arnold famously said.

Graham Arnold has been very vocal about the need for more games and opportunities for young Australian players. (Image: Hector Retamal)

There are so many kids running around in the NPL system every weekend in the U18s or U20s in recent seasons that are close to senior men’s level, but too many are not receiving senior minutes anywhere. If they do not secure a position with an NPL 1 club, they are forced to drop to NPL 2 or 3. Inevitably, a substantial percentage of players at that crucial development age can lose their passion for the game because climbing back up the pyramid becomes a mental and often financial struggle.

The current system allows too many talented players, who probably would have developed into excellent players at 21, 22, or 23, to slip through the cracks.

Bring back the Club Championship system


In recent years, promotion and relegation have been based entirely on the senior men’s team's results across most NPL competitions. Should state federations be serious about bedding down a development-based culture, they should bring back the Club Championship system, ensuring the U23s and U21s play some part in the senior promotion and relegation points system.

It is not about changing to first past the post on the senior men’s ladder, with first being crowned champions of their respective league. Instead, the U23s and 21s (once established) form part of the senior club championship, which should form part of a points system determining promotion and relegation.

This reform, or in this case, return to previous ways, would ensure the club chairman with the deepest pockets does not always rule the roost; there are also incentives around development to ensure all age groups are competitive and the whole club is competitive.

Of course, a club championship should also be the case in the juniors so that clubs build a positive culture, brand, and style of play with added incentives to develop and retain the best youth, with additional rules, star ratings, and competitive tension for club academies.

Stop the player merry-go-round

What exactly do I mean by that?

Everyone in the NPL system has heard stories of standout SAP (Skill Acquisition Program) or other junior teams broken up by politics or the giant holes in the current pathways system. Tales of U13, 14 or 15 teams winning the league undefeated but only retaining three players the following year, or a 15-year-old player's parents driving from one side of Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane to the other so their kid can play NPL 1 because the local club or the next nearest did not retain them are still all too common.

Incentives need to be mandated so NPL clubs keep their youth at the same club, develop them, and are then rewarded for their efforts through domestic transfer fees. They need to be put in place: transfer fees between the now three tiers, NPL, NSD, and A-League Men, will lift revenue for clubs and playing and coaching standards dramatically in years to come.

Retention is incentivized by rules and benefits like domestic transfer fees, so clubs that develop promising talent will be rewarded.

The $10 million generated through transfer revenue across the A-League Men last season is a significant improvement. But it is still the tip of the iceberg when you witness how much more talent is out there. The league must understand it is a development league, and the NSD also must realise it. The NSD should develop players for the A-League Men, and the NPL should do likewise for the NSD and the top professional competition. By introducing domestic transfer systems, clubs at the NSD and A-League Men level will also be incentivised to develop and sell players to create a new revenue stream.

No parents coaching


No parent coaching a youth team in which his or her son plays in the team is self-explanatory. This practice has to be outlawed immediately; it is unprofessional and helps no one.

The same rule must also apply to assistant coaches.

Abolish the Player Points System


Scrap the counterproductive Player Points System (PPS). It is one of the main reasons young Australian players at the NPL level lack match minutes.

It was initially introduced to stop players from changing clubs and giving younger players opportunities, but it is doing the opposite.

Currently, every top-tier NPL player is attributed a PPS value. This ridiculous PPS is adopted Australia-wide, with each player beginning on 10 points and that total rising or falling depending on various factors.

Deductions are available for youth players (U23), homegrown players, and loyalty players. Visa players and switching players (anywhere from one to five points) are added depending on which club or league the player has been signed from and his age.

NPL Victoria, NPL NSW, and NPL WA clubs must keep their squad of 20 to 23 players within 200 points. In Queensland, clubs only have 185 points. NPL 2 and 3 in NSW also adopt the PPS, while Victoria’s second and third tiers do not. However, all state league clubs are subjected to the PPS should they qualify for the Australia Cup Round of 32.

Promoted clubs can receive points deductions, with that number depending on youth academy setups. NPL clubs can promote players from their youth teams. But those players are only allowed to play a maximum of 40% of first-team matches that season (11 games in Victoria) unless they are added to the senior list – in most cases, a player must then be replaced.

Most coaches are frustrated with the PPS rules, believing it robs breakout players and emerging teenagers from crucial senior match minutes.

Clubs must stop picking "politicals"


“Politicals” in NPL football parlance refers to players who may pay above and beyond the usual $2,500 to $3,000 registration and season coaching fees. Some of the bigger NPL clubs have senior men’s team wages bills up around the $900,000 mark, whilst some smaller clubs operate on a lesser $300,000 to $400,000 player payment budget.

For NPL clubs, revenue streams are limited to minor gate receipts, junior fees, sponsorships, raffles, club canteens, golf days, and the like, so “politicals” is a term applied to parents who sponsor clubs or pay extra fees as silent donors to ensure their children get game time.

It is not the intention for this piece to get bogged down in the age-old argument of how expensive NPL youth registration fees are and why because, as yet, the powers that be have yet to come up with an immediate, simplistic or viable solution. So, it has been left towards the end.

Everyone questions the cost of playing junior football and wonders why it cannot be fee-free. Football has by far the highest participation rates in Australian sport, but domestic club football is still only ranked as the fourth biggest commercial sport behind the AFL, NRL and cricket. There are myriad reasons why NPL clubs are not in a healthy enough financial position to offer fee-free football, but that is a complex story and will have to be for another day.

Hopefully, one day in the not-too-distant future, government funding levels will increase, along with corporate sponsorship and TV rights revenue, and maybe, just maybe, some of that will flow through to the NPL youth pathways and grassroots to bring some much-needed fee relief for parents. Right now, though, the fact is that governments of all persuasions, local, state and federal, grossly underfund football.


In the meantime, NPL clubs and state federations must prioritize making fees more affordable and accessible to as many kids as possible. The existing model that Australia's elite young players have been brought up on in the last two decades (since the demise of the NSL) is a bottom-up pay-to-play model that exists to enable clubs to survive and be able to afford to pay their senior players and coaches so they can continue developing youth in a semi-professional environment. Unfortunately, the current pay-to-play NPL youth model does leave the door open to tales of favouritism and nepotism.

Tales of some NPL clubs keeping room for three or four "politicals” in junior divisions to help pay the senior men’s teams' wages are all too common. Every year, without fail, stories circulate of clubs that have had junior teams win the league but only retained two or three players the following year, the “politicals".

Clubs or rogue individuals within clubs that sign “politicals” are rewarding mediocrity and creating second-rate football environments not conducive to maximizing development.

Too many NPL youth teams chop and change their squads excessively every season. Teams or clubs that build development-based cultures retaining most junior players as they progress through their developmental pathways each year generally develop better playing systems, individuals, results, and development outcomes.

Football Australia and the state federations must work on some fresh initiatives and rules to ensure member clubs are incentivised to prudently trial and select the very best junior players available to them each year in a genuine attempt to outlaw or minimise donations from parents who pay extra for their sons to play junior football.

Thankfully, most A-League Men academies are now in a strong enough financial position to offer fee-free NPL youth football, and that’s a hugely positive development that has only occurred in the last decade.

Should state federations and clubs be serious about youth development, the measuring stick will always be the number of players progressing through individual club pathways into their senior men’s teams.



Outlaw Expressions of Interest

Representative NPL clubs should give the best of the best within a federation a chance to represent their region or club. So, the state federations again should exercise their influence by ensuring all clubs follow a rules-based structure of conducting annual open trials with proper, qualified technical directors in attendance.

Rules must state that qualified coaches or technical directors assess the trialling players over a minimum of three sessions and at least one or two trial games during a specified time window before the season commences. Technique, ball control, vision, passing, movement, speed, and decision-making must be assessed, not the size of mum or dad's bank account.

Yes, this system is supposedly in place currently with all the state federations, but everyone knows there is no one policing the rules. The state federations could start today by outlawing Expressions of Interest.

That would signal a simple and positive step towards changing the culture immediately.

An example of advertising for Expressions of Interest from Rockdale Ilinden FC in NSW, which is not a sole criticism of this club as most follow this process. (Image: Rockdale City Suns Football Club - Ilinden)


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