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  • Writer's pictureAntonis Pagonis

Player Performance Project: The 10-dollar-a-week program developing elite footballers

Based in Adelaide, a city with one professional football club, the Player Performance Project aims to create professional pathways for players who have slipped through the system. Front Page Football spoke to co-founder Josh Smith about his work in the community space and how it evolved into creating an elite pathway for footballers.

Jaiden Diamantis (left) and Arbi Mollas (right) taking advantage of the Player Performance Project facilities during their time with the Adelaide United Youth team. (Player Performance Project)

Josh Smith has been involved in football through several roles for years. In recent years, he has held coaching and developmental positions at the Central Coast Mariners, Adelaide United, Port Adelaide Pirates, Eastern United, Adelaide City, Adelaide Fusion, FK Beograd, and the Vanuatu national team.


However, Smith's likely most significant impact has been felt at the community level, having worked as John Moriarty Football’s Community Development Officer and Senior Coach while also dedicating time and effort to bringing football and futsal to local communities in the Pacific Islands.


In 2017, fuelled by his football passion, Smith co-founded One Culture Football, a multicultural community football program working in the new arrivals space. Over time, its scope has also expanded to initiatives in the disability and inclusion realms—the goal is to remove barriers that might hinder disadvantaged individuals and groups from playing football.


After seeing the program go from strength to strength initially, One Culture Football was granted access to a facility in Kilburn in 2020 with a gym, offices, and allied health rooms and resources to satisfy its client's needs in one convenient location. It was here when Smith decided to create an extra branch to the One Culture Football family, the Player Performance Project, which focuses on higher-end footballers who, for one reason or another, have not been recruited by the Football South Australia National Talent Centre system.

The One Culture Football Hub, located in Kilburn, where the Player Performance Project programs take place. (Player Performance Project)


"What I kind of found was that Adelaide has such a rich crop of footballers, no other state has the amount of multiculturalism in such a small area, and because rugby league and rugby union aren’t there, football is like this crazy sport that everyone is attached to here. But unfortunately, with one A-League club, the opportunity for guys to turn professional is not always there," Smith shared with Front Page Football.


"I looked at it and thought that in New South Wales, there are currently five A-League clubs and everyone is fighting over players, so we look at the market and think that if we can develop the guys here that are not in the system, within [the] NTC (National Talent Centre) and Adelaide United’s youth team, and then provide them opportunities to go and trial at other A-League clubs like Macarthur, Wanderers, and Mariners, and hopefully in the future overseas, then why not invest some time and effort, and resources, into these kids that really want to turn pro?"

During his time with Adelaide United's NPL set-up, working under current Adelaide City manager Paul Pezos, Smith used his One Culture Football facility to help some of the state's most talented footballers supplement their work in training with personalised sessions.


Former Adelaide United player Al Hassan Toure, who was not picked up by the club's system until relatively late into his development, was one player who worked with Smith away from the club at the Player Performance Project during his time in Adelaide and has high praise for the program.


"The Player Performance Project is the perfect mix of technical and physical training that all young athletes need to make the next step in their careers,” Toure states on the Player Performance Project official website.

Adelaide United players taking advantage of the Player Performance Project's services. (Player Performance Project)


Over the last three years, Smith and the Player Performance Project have launched their Elite Development Program to help young players forge their paths from local, semi-professional football into the professional game.


The Player Performance Project's Elite Development Program gives ownership of the journey to professional football to the players right from the application process, which Smith described to FPF.


"At the moment, we have an open registration that happens at the end of every season, roughly around October, and it is open for a month. This year, we are working with players born from 2005 to 2007 because they’re the kind of age groups that the Under 23 teams around the country are looking at. What happens is that they will register, answer a series of questions, and add their highlights as well," he said.


The group of players selected to participate in the program are put through two weekly training sessions for 45 weeks of the year, one focusing on athletic development, while the other works with players technically to help develop the skills and attributes required for their respective positions.


Smith made it clear that the program the Player Performance Project runs does not operate in a vacuum. Instead, it is meant to supplement the player's club-level work. He discussed how the program is designed to build grit in its participants while preparing them for life as professional footballers.


"It is really good to see the kids that turn up early. They’re going to train, they’re going to shower, they’re going to go to school after. That is not possible for everybody, and I think it is a good way to pick out the guys that have that elite mentality. If you throw them in a program interstate, overseas, or wherever, when they’re out of their comfort zone, and they wake up and have to catch two buses, they’re the kids that are going to make it," Smith explained.


"We could make afternoon sessions and make it easy for them, but the reality is that it wouldn’t be setting them up with the right mind frame to be successful in the future because that is how it is."


Another of Smith's goals, related to One Culture Football's origins, was making this program accessible to participants with the right mindset and ability to participate, regardless of their socioeconomic background. He stated that his mission was to create a cost-effective way to develop the players outside the elite development systems in South Australian football.


"This year, it is a $10 fee a week, and we still have four scholarships. The years before, it was totally free for all the kids that come, and we had actually paid for their trips to go over to Sydney, send staff, and those sorts of things," Smith said.


"Now, just to cover costs, we are asking kids that have signed up to pay $10 a week, and that gives them access to the two sessions, plus the gym for whenever they want to come to do their own recovery and anything else.


"For me, football shouldn’t be excluding people in this country that have mass potential but don’t have the funds."

When the program concludes, Smith and the Player Performance Project use their network to try to secure opportunities for their latest graduates. The most recent success story is Donatien Niyonkuru, who, after a strong season at the Adelaide Croatia Raiders, which saw him finish second on the State League One goalscoring charts and be offered a trial with the Central Coast Mariners, eventually signed for their Under 23 side.


As the Player Performance Project is based in South Australia, Smith shared that their first point of contact concerning their players is always Adelaide United, who he praised as receptive. But he understands the challenges posed by having only one professional team in the state with limited spots.


Thus, the Player Performance Project's ever-growing network comes into play, with the Central Coast Mariners, for example, trialling multiple players multiple times on Smith's recommendation.


Since identifying Brian Kaltak for Nick Montgomery and Sérgio Raimundo's championship-winning side, the duo he worked with at the Mariners, Smith's counsel has been of high value to the club. Kaltak's journey to the Central Coast was not a smooth one. After picking up an injury during his initial trial, Smith invited Kaltak to South Australia, where the defender signed for FK Beograd, where Smith was coaching. The move allowed Kaltak to use the One Culture Football Hub to supplement his club work.


"I think the difference we have always had in our approach is we always look at the person over the athlete," Smith stated.


"We have been able to create good staff around One Culture and PPP (Player Performance Project). It doesn’t matter if it is work or not work [or] the client is paying or not paying. We are prepared to go out there and support the person and whatever they need. The end result is that if they are a good person, they want to work hard, [have] the right mentality, and are respectful and humble, we will give that person the time they deserve.


"When Brian was injured, he came back here, he was in the gym every day, was using the physio, and it wasn’t like there was an expectation of us to do that because of who he was. This guy genuinely wanted to get better and genuinely believed in the mission of becoming a professional footballer, so whatever we can do, let’s do it.

"He was able to spend 12 weeks here and then jet off to the Mariners, and now when he comes back, he always comes to the gym, he always catches up with people."

Months before being a key cog in the Mariners' championship-winning side, Brian Kaltak was recovering from injury and supplementing his training at FK Beograd with the Player Performance Project. (Brian Kaltak Instagram)


Smith had high praise for the footballers who have used his facility in the past, not only as athletes but as individuals still invested in helping their communities flourish, which they do through engaging with the Player Performance Project.


"Another thing those guys do really well, Al Hassan (Toure), Kusini (Yengi), Gideon Arok, Valentino Yuel, is that every year they will recommend me players, young boys from their community that they think have the ability and that I should be looking at in terms of this program because I can’t get the information that I need just from a spreadsheet without having these guys thinking about the next generation of their community," he said.


"They are always coming back, always getting involved with [the] African Cup, so they are seeing the kids, know the ones with the right mentality, and they will tell me to look out for some of these kids that are going to apply and for me, it is like a perfect storm, we work with them, and we progress them."

 

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The Player Performance Project's support is not limited to the game's physical side. Smith prides his program on delivering a holistic approach to development. He is grateful to have three specialists in their respective fields volunteering to support the next generation of footballers.


"Omar Hassan is a player mentor who has played at multiple NPL clubs over the years; he is now the coach of [the] Northern Demons. He is involved as a player mentor, so anytime the guys are going through any issues like communication with the club, a coach, not being able to get into the team, not understanding the right terminology to use with coaches when asking for feedback, he is supporting us in that space," Smith shared.


"Another one is Ukash Ahmed, who works in that space outside of football in regards to health and wellbeing, how things are going at home, support around employment or youth opportunities.


"The other practitioner working with us is Brian Kaltak’s agent, Matthew Nemes. He was a former goalkeeper at the Mariners and started a business called Brain Play, which helps athletes transition after football. He is a neurolinguistic practitioner and works [by] providing monthly Zoom sessions and phone calls about the mental side of the game. Barriers, blockages, and how to approach things to be in the right headspace and perform at your best."


For Smith, it has never been about making a fortune. Instead, it is about prioritising opportunities for others while forging a space where he can work in football full-time. He understands the realities of his ever-growing project. He is already considering ways of raising funds to ensure young footballers whom the NTC did not identify in their early years can benefit from elite football-specific training.


"I think we’ve just been able to get some good people that share a similar mission, and if things aren’t always about money, you will find the right people to help out.

"At the end of the day, you still need to pay the bills. There is a model in the USA called Exos. It works on these guys training the kids there for free, basically, and if the kid goes on to be a professional in the NFL or wherever, they pledge like 1% of their wage to the gym. That pays for the next generation of kids.


"What we are hoping to do eventually, it might be five years down the track, is something similar. When one of these kids turns pro, to pledge 1% of their wage to help fund the next generation of kids."


While Smith is proud of the community he has built and is planning for its long-term future, he is taking immediate action to expand the opportunities his program's graduates receive into the international market.


"I am travelling to the UK in January for a couple of weeks to catch up with Monty (Montgomery) and Serge (Raimundo) at Hibs (Hibernian). But I am also going to try and travel to some of the other Aussie-owned clubs there, like Swindon and Southend, to try and build some proper relationships because I feel sometimes the A-League can be a bit of a blockage," Smith said.


He concluded by sharing his desire for the Payer Performance Project to be a space where players and coaches can engage with football-specific resources.


Smith's services are already making a difference for a state with an ever-growing football community whose single professional pathway regularly produces gold. But at the same time, it is naturally passing by many athletes who are more than worthy of an opportunity.


Click here to read more of FPF's coverage of various grassroots and community-level projects around Australia!

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