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  • Writer's pictureTanner Coad

Football Tasmania: New CEO, new changes? Everything to look out for in 2024

Tasmania's 2023 season has ended, but there is much intrigue surrounding football in the state following Tony Pignata's appointment as Football Tasmania CEO. Former CEO Matt Bulkeley stepped down in September, and with Pignata at the helm, the moment for change is now.


Front Page Football's Tasmanian correspondent Tanner Coad looks at all the major topics surrounding the round ball game in the Apple Isle as a new era in the state begins.

Pignata faces the media during his time as Perth Glory CEO. (Perth Glory)

A rectangular stadium


The first item on this list is securing funds for a rectangular stadium in the state. Being the only state in Australia without one hurts Tasmania's chances of hosting any international friendlies or World Cup games, with the state left out of hosting any games during the FIFA Women's World Cup. UTAS Stadium in Launceston held a glimmer of hope to host at least three games and made the shortlist. But FIFA opted not to pursue this avenue further.


In December 2022, Kingborough Lions President Brian Downes said the club were in talks with Football Australia about hosting a pre-tournament friendly. But it never came to fruition in what was another blow for expanding interest in the game.


Speaking to FPF recently, Glenorchy Knights manager James Sherman says securing a rectangular facility is necessary.


"We need a boutique facility that can host and maximize football matches," Sherman said.


"Our culture is different. We aren't a makeshift sport, and part of the appeal is just that. Atmosphere is key, and if done well, [it] can be very marketable. We only need to look at the NBL's Tasmanian JackJumpers."
An artists' impression of what the proposed AFL purpose-built Macquarie Point Stadium could look like. (AFL)

NPL expansion, and promotion and relegation


Pignata has already told WIN News Tasmania reporter Brent Costelloe that expanding the NPL to ten clubs, with promotion and relegation, interests him.


"There is a real push of clubs to move up, but here there's not, and I want to know why," the new CEO said recently.


"Everyone here seems to be quite comfortable in playing in their own division and not moving."

Representatives from Devonport, Clarence Zebras, Glenorchy Knights, Launceston City, Kingborough, and South Hobart at the NPL's 2022 season launch. (Tanner Coad)

Pignata raises a good point: Tasmania has clubs that are happy to stay in the Southern or Northern Championships rather than aspiring to enter the first division.


"There are currently eight (in the NPL), and that can grow to ten. How can we go to ten? I understand the implications from a financial restraint, but I'd like to grow both the men and women over the next few years," the former Perth Glory CEO told WIN News Tasmania.


The case of Launceston-based side Northern Rangers and their stint in the NPL is a prime example of why expansion is essential. After some promising signs in the then Victory League, achieving consecutive fourth-place finishes in 2014 and 2015, results began to slip. After a disappointing sixth-place finish in 2018, Rangers Vice President Marshall Pooley informed Football Tasmania they would drop out of the NPL and return to the Northern Championship.


Rangers' return to the third tier has come with success, as they won the league in 2019 and 2022. But it does beg the question, what can the powers that be do to encourage clubs to jump up to the first division?


An expansion of clubs mixed with the uncertainties that come with promotion and relegation battles would be fantastic for the NPL and WSL competitions and grow the interest of the footballing public, giving the sides more desire to play with more at stake.


But, at the moment, clubs are not interested in going up, with the increased travel requirements and performance uncertainty as the new faces in the NPL both unappealing factors. We already saw Launceston United struggle by finishing bottom in 2023, their first year in the NPL, with two points and a -73 goal difference.


With three Launceston teams in the NPL in Riverside Olympic, Launceston City, and Launceston United all having disappointing seasons this year, the question of how the NPL can be strengthened should be raised.


Is it time to bring the Olympia Warriors back into the NPL and WSL?


Before a ball was even kicked in pre-season this year, the Olympia Warriors were informed by Football Tasmania, moments before the 2023 NPL and WSL launch, that their licences for both leagues had been terminated. Communication from the federation came less than five minutes before the decision would be made public, which caused uproar amongst Olympia's players and supporters.


Olympia appealed the decision to help return their club to Tasmanian football's top tier for men and women. But there was one problem. Football Tasmania had no appeal process, meaning the decision stood, thus dropping Olympia down to the Southern Championship divisions. It is baffling to not have an appeals process in place for such a situation. This example also shows why Football Tasmania's communication with clubs needs to be amended going forward, and one would hope Pignata is the man to turn this aspect around.


An Olympia representative had the following to say about the reasons they were given for their licence being revoked.


"Infrastructure lacking in [the] perimeter fence not [being] fully enclosed, and [the] artificial turf does not have a current FIFA certification. A question mark over coaches credentials and a presumption we would not have enough players to meet our youth criteria,” the representative said.


“The club does not agree regarding coaches' credentials and is fully committed with its appointments as they are some of the best people going around to develop our players.”

Olympia struggled to hold onto some of their key players, with many leaving because of their continued desire to play in the NPL and WSL.


Their season in the second division was seen as an opportunity to rebuild. They finished third and fourth in the women's and men's Southern Championships. The men reached the Southern Championship semi-finals, going down to eventual champions New Town White Eagles.


Olympia President Matt Sly said the following about the club's demotion.


"Olympia was devastated with the exclusion of the 2023 premier competitions, and being outside of the premier competitions has certainly added additional layers of difficulty," Sly said.


"Olympia has a goal to return to both premier competitions within the Tasmanian football landscape. [Both] NPL and WSL; we see NPL entry in the short term very possible, with each NPL license granted on a rolling one-year term.


"We are looking at our women’s program and what is required underpinning the WSL to ensure long-term viability and success. We have been actively working within the club and with the Clarence Council in the areas that Football Tasmania highlighted as concerns for the 2023 NPL season."


Should a part of this rebuild be bringing Olympia back into the NPL and WSL setups? It should be. The league has missed the Greek side, and personally, Warrior Park is one of the best grounds to watch local football.


Should Olympia be given this second chance to return to the top divisions, they must take it with both hands and show the state they can still hang with big clubs like South Hobart and the Devonport Strikers.


South Hobart's NST aspirations


South Hobart shocked NPL champions Devonport 2-0 away from home to claim the Finals Series trophy. However, there is still a nervous wait around the club as it waits for Football Australia's response to its National Second Tier application. With a second-place finish in the NPL and an inaugural WSL title where they went undefeated, it seems like now is the time South can regularly represent Tasmanian football on a national stage.

South Hobart manager Ken Morton and his son Nick are all smiles after their Finals Series win. (Vicki Morton)

South Hobart could not comment on their application. But excitement is high around the community as they strive to be included in the potential NST.


Darcy Street would be a perfect boutique ground for a higher level of football. It would give the Tasmanian public a reason to get out and watch some of the best NPL-level sides from the mainland. It could create the pathways needed for Tassie's talent, who may get more eyeballs on a bigger stage.


But it is puzzlingly why the Tasmanian NPL's most successful side, Devonport, did not opt to apply.

Devonport captain Kieran Mulraney is presented with the Milan Lakoseljac Cup by the Lakoseljac family. (Tanner Coad)

Their captain, Kieran Mulraney, says potentially joining an elite class of NPL clubs wasn't financially viable.


"Whether it was right or wrong, time will tell. I and most players would love to be involved in the NSD, and if clubs like Gold Coast Knights are pulling out due to financial viability, then that's a large concern," he said.


"I personally don't know any of the exact details for [the] criteria, and if Football Australia gave any presumptuous dollar figures, but my guess is the players would have to be semi-professional, then I'd guess it would cost at least two million a season with player wages, expenses, travel, accommodation, etcetera, and that would require some huge sponsors that are very limited in Tasmania."


Mulraney still wished South Hobart the best of luck with their NST aspirations but can't see them being included.


"I honestly wish South Hobart the best in their pursuit of the NSD; however, I don't think they'll be included. I hope I'm wrong for football in Tasmania, but I don't think it would be viable for South Hobart," he added.


"It would also increase costs to the whole league, which I think the NSD will look at closely. I believe they'll get through to the last round of selections but won't make the last cut. [It's] mainly for optics for the NSD to seem like they (FA) fully considered giving a Tasmanian team a chance, but in reality, they most likely didn't."

Meanwhile, speaking on the Front Page Football Podcast recently, James Sherman said South has all the ingredients for a successful application.


"I would go as far to say that South Hobart are probably as well a run football club as there is outside the A-League. They have an exceptionally strong academy. The football aspects, the technical components, they are really, really strong, especially for the area that we are in, and in terms of the administrative side, they are exceptionally good operators," he said.


Tasmanian football would surely benefit from South Hobart featuring in the National Second Tier, speaking as a home-grown journalist with aspirations to see the game grow. South can undoubtedly make it with a manager like Ken Morton at the wheel and impressive young talents in Bradley Lakoseljac and Daniel Arnaiz.


An A-Leagues club


An A-League Men's and Women's side representing the state must also be on the priority list. Without one, Tasmania could continue to miss out on its chances to develop further an already strong player pool in the north and south.

A concept design of a Tasmanian A-League kit. (Daily Football Show)
It's fantastic to have clubs like Western United in Tasmania for games, but it's not the same. Yes, it may only be a few games a year, and it's all good for Tasmanians to watch a professional football game in their backyard. But it's not a part of the state's identity. How can Tasmanians invest all their interest into a team that does not represent them?

The better players in Tasmania have historically gone on to play in the NPL Victoria, for example, as there is no A-League Men or Women's pathway yet. Should players be under the WNPL or NPL mainland banner, they are more likely to be scouted by an NPL club with a link to an A-Leagues side. For example, South Hobart NPL goalkeeper Nick O'Connell signed for Brisbane Roar's youth side last year, which has done wonders for his development by playing in the NPL Queensland and even being involved in one A-League Men squad.


Even though O'Connell is back in the NPL Tasmania and had a great season, the Apple Isle needs something similar. It requires a full-fledged side that wants to represent the state in the nation's premier men's football competition without players having to travel to the mainland for these opportunities.


Tasmanian football needs an A-League Men's and Women's side. With proper investment and government support, the dream could become a reality.


A tick for U21s pilot season but there are still crosses

Devonport celebrate their U21s Statewide Cup triumph. (Tanner Coad)

This year, we saw the NPL Under 21s league debut, with South Hobart taking out the league title. It was an optimistic inaugural season, which allowed some clubs to develop their young players further as they tested their might across the state.


Although a great new initiative by Football Tasmania, it has still come with its flaws, with rules meaning up to three players over the age of 21 can be involved in the competition.


Is such a mechanism healthy for a league trying to develop young players? Why should players over the age bracket be allowed to compete? It limits the game time for youngsters, and older players can still play in competitive competitions, such as the Southern or Northern Championships, should they not receive regular minutes in the NPL.

It's not fair they could take U21 spots, especially in the first year of the competition. Instead, perhaps only one overage player should be allowed, in the age range of 22-25, with no one older allowed to play.


Devonport's U21s manager Cameron Heazelwood says the number of overage players is a concern.


"The 21s league has been introduced for player development. It showcases local talent that clubs develop from a variety of ages and rewards [the] club who put positive work into the youth space, as it should. I feel that we don't need three overage players, and the number should be reduced," he said.


There will always be room for improvement, but this area must be reviewed.

 

READ MORE ON FPF

 

Revamping the WSL and Southern Championships


Finally, we come to the Southern Championship and Women's Super League.


Tasmania's pathway for players in these leagues is very different to the norm. In all honesty, it shouldn't be this complex. In other states, players can develop in their second division to push for a move to the NPL or WNPL. But it's different in Tasmania.


Last year's introduction of the NPL and WSL development leagues has since ceased, and the Women's Super League is not under the WNPL banner. It would have made more sense to have these players in the Championship ranks, work on their trade there, and then progress into the first team.

Lions' Leila Hickman is surrounded by teammates after her match-winning goal against Ulverstone in the Statewide Cup. (Tanner Coad)

Instead, the NPL U21s competition was formed, which has been great. But with the WSL Development League no more, Tasmania still needs a league its female footballers can use to prepare for the WSL. Expanding the WSL would be a great start. But Kingborough Lions WSL manager Simon Edwards says more things need to change.


"We need WSL licensing requirements in line with NPL requirements. This results in the WSL licensing coming in line with the national NPLW standards, and that is where we should be aspiring to [be]. Clubs wanting to be part of that competition and journey need clarity on these expectations. Critical to this is the underpinning development league, possibly U18s to start with," Edwards said.


"Football Tasmania have the data to figure out what should work if they have resources to work through it. Roster alignment between the WSL and a WSL development league needs to be tight - it might not be perfect to start with due to the North/South challenges - but if we never take a shot, we will never score!


"Rostering needs to allow better alignment of youth competitions with the WSL and WSL development fixtures to bring the female game together and build support, and this needs to take precedence over alignment of other female rosters."

Edwards said women's football should have a standalone day for its fixtures and be kept the same.


"Whatever day that is, for example, if it is Sunday, make it Sunday and optimise the rosters for that day for the WSL outcomes. No more throwing games over the whole weekend and expecting players to give up [their time] while weakening the benches. Football Tasmania rostering principles need to be equitable and foster exposure to the statewide competition to female players, coaches, and families," he added.


"Application of equity review tools (for example, the Football Australia Club Changer program, which is part of the WSL licensing requirement) should also be applied by Football Tasmania to itself ensure there is some leadership being developed and transparency in this area by the state’s governing body."

New Town's Zoe Nichols (left) in action. (Walter Pless)

Rostering is affected in the WSL and the Southern and Northern Championships. Former WSL player and now New Town White Eagles star Zoe Nichols says the scheduling affects everyone involved.


"We need more organisation. Why can't the Championship men and women, as well as Southern Championship 1 men and women, play on the same day? [At the] same venue like they do up north? Make it more of a day for the clubs. Then all social games [can] be played on one day together too," Nichols said.


Adding to this point, South East United's men's manager, Nick Taylor, says the Southern Championship leagues have been ignored for too long.


"We need to start respecting the way other countries and mainland run football. There is an arrogance in thinking Tasmania knows better than Europe, South America, etcetera. Promotion/relegation would see clubs building for the future and having a reason to pay fees. [The] NPL has seen the same teams at the bottom and Championship with the same team winning the league," he said.


"Employ promotion and relegation and give the teams a chance to meet criteria once promoted. It’s the perfect motivator for clubs to build and grow. If you get promoted and can’t or don’t want to go up, then [it] goes to second place, etcetera. But the Championship is the forgotten league, [we] don’t even have a judiciary system, so [you] can be fined with no appeal. It's an easy fix for me; let’s get the romance back into our beautiful game."

There are many ways to improve the Championship, like fixing scheduling and the appeals process, along with working to encourage clubs further to want to come into the second tiers. These strategies are the same for the WSL. How does Tasmania get its first tier for women's football under the WNPL banner and give those hard-working players the pathways they need to progress to higher levels?

 

All these topics and much more will undoubtedly be raised next year, and it now lies in the hands of a new boss for Tasmanian football to initiate change. Tasmania needs some changes, and the football community wants to believe Tony Pignata can make it possible. Should the state ever be taken more seriously in football by its counterparts on the mainland, now is the time.


Click here to read more of FPF's coverage of the NPLs across Australia!

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