The inconsistent implementation of the National Premier Leagues system has left regional Australia shortchanged when it comes to football pathways, according to Association of Australian Football Clubs president Rabieh Krayem.

That has proven especially true in North Queensland.

Krayem, who served as an interim CEO of the North Queensland Fury during the club's A-League stint, believes the lack of oversight from Football Queensland with the implementation of the NPL program at a junior level allowed the creation of a divide between the “elite” junior talent in the area and the local community.

This culminated in a situation where NPL clubs in Townsville and Cairns could not field their junior teams in either the junior NPL Queensland competitions or in the local regional competition, making games hard to come by for the clubs players.

“When the NPL started six years ago, with Cairns and Northern Fury as they were back then, both were running successful programs,” Krayem told Football Today.

“The unfortunate thing was that there was a disconnect between the local football community and the NPL. The local community did not want the NPL, to the point where the NPL teams weren't allowed to play in the local competition.

“Football Queensland didn't enforce it, so you'd have kids who would train together in a quality environment, but who weren't allowed to play.

“Cairns had a very successful NPL program for the first couple of years, and then the same thing happened. They struggled to put junior teams together because they had nowhere to play.

“You can't just put teams together and give them nowhere to play.”

Krayem said that the local clubs in both Cairns and Townsville were against the NPL teams playing in their local competition because it concentrated the region's best talent into one club.

Instead, the local clubs wanted to revert to the old system, whereby players would play for their local teams and be selected for regional representative squads instead.

To try to achive compromise, Northern Fury's NPL license was handed back to the representative zone and rebranded as North Queensland United FC for the 2018 season.

“We thought if the zone owns the license then maybe the zone could get the clubs to coordinate but it didn't work that way.

“The program struggled, there was little structure, the kids weren't playing together, and there were no younger kids coming through.”

The struggle at a junior level had a tangible impact on the senior programs of both Cairns and North Queensland United.

As the 2018 NPL Queensland season came to an end, the competition was rocked by the news that Cairns FC and North Queensland United FC would be handing their licenses back to Football Queensland at the end of the campaign.

Five regional teams competed in NPL Queensland last season, with South West Queensland Thunder faring the best of those in seventh place in a 14 team competition. That means that five of the seven bottom half places in the league were occupied by regional teams.

Krayem said that the senior struggles were symptomatic of what is occurring at a grassroots level in northern Queensland.

“The pathway was there if you look at the NPL when it was formed,” Krayem said.

“There were talented kids, boys and girls, who went on to play in Brisbane or the A-League or W-League. They were training three or four times a week and then playing as a team.

“They'd get trips to Brisbane, Cairns and Mackay and playing in good competition against the other teams offering the NPL pathway.”

However, Townsville and Cairns are 350 kilometres apart, and Townsville and Mackay 380 kilometres, so it was not feasible for the three teams to playing one another every weekend.

“The disconnect isn't because people don't want it, or because there was no program in place. The disconnect came because the governing body didn't enforce the local competition allowing the NPL teams to take part in the competition.

“This is about creating opportunities and pathways for local kids, not about which local club wins the local trophy.”

With the NPL licenses being handed back by Cairns FC and North Queensland United FC respectively, Krayem said the health of junior football in northern Queensland is a massive blow to the sport.

“Every other sport is investing in the country and regional areas, but in football, we're going backwards.

“There's no pathway in northern Queensland. There's no local, full-time program that provides talented kids in the region with an opportunity to train and play at the highest level available and that is fundamentally going to hurt the sport for men and women,” he said.

“You just have to look at how many girls have come out of Townsville and Cairns to play for junior Matildas or other junior representative teams.”

As part of the AAFC national roadshow the organisation completed last year, Kayrem met representatives from regional clubs across the country and said that while the geography of Queensland makes it unique, the consensus is that regional clubs are positive about the NPL and the potential pathway it represents for their community.

However, the lack of uniformity in its implementation means some regions are being left short-changed.

“Every state is different. Queensland is so spread out, it's unique and then you've got the example of Northern New South Wales where they have their own NPL competition,” he said.

“There's no doubt the clubs want to have that pathway, but it's about getting all the layers uniform.

“It's about creating consistency. This is what the AAFC is all about. It's about making sure that whether there's a kid in north Queensland or a kid in northern New South Wales, they're given the same opportunity as a kid from Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, or wherever.”

Categories: Opinion | Local

npl, aafc, regional football

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