Does Australian Football Need A Relegation System?

Australia, it's time to look to Europe.

The A-League is stronger than ever but it's not perfect yet. There are three main issues.

ISSUE 1
  • The first issue is that teams are concentrated too much in our big cities. Four of the 10 current clubs are in Sydney Melbourne. The league is talking about expansion, yet five of the six bids are also from Sydney and Melbourne.
  • Meanwhile, Queensland only has one professional team and Tasmania doesn't have one. Another worrying statistic is only two A-League clubs out of 10 are based in regional areas.
ISSUE 2
  • There aren't enough clubs offering young Australian footballers the opportunity to play professional football at the highest level.
  • A professional second division would offer these youngsters the chance to prove themselves against experienced professional footballers.
ISSUE 3
  • But perhaps the biggest issue is the lack of a promotion/relegation system which exists in the top European leagues.
  • As things stand now, there is not enough of a disincentive to stop teams finishing on the bottom of the A-League ladder. Nor is there enough of a chance for up-and-coming teams in lower divisions to get a shot at the professionals.

But one man is trying to change all that with a proposed new second tier professional competition called "The Championship" -- which takes its name from England's second division of football.

Four of the A-League's ten teams come from Sydney and Melbourne. Photo Credit: AAP

Former A-League chief Archie Fraser is the Head of The Championship bid. He sees it as an opportunity to bring professional football to other parts of the country.

"We very much see it as a national competition, that shouldn't just be Sydney, Melbourne-centric and I think that's an important part of what we would like to create."

Under Fraser's vision, The Championship would be a second tier national football competition which would sit one level below the A-League.

Right now, the nearest thing Australian football has to a second tier below the A-League is a competition called the National Premier League.

Unlike the NPL however, The Championship would be fully professional. After a teething period of a few years or so, the league would evolve to be part of a relegation and promotion system with the A-League.

The Association of Australian Football Clubs argues the lack of professional football clubs around Australia is causing a paucity of top-level Australian talent. It's a difficult sentiment to argue with. Out of the Socceroos players based in the top five European leagues, only Daniel Arzani started his career with an A-League club. 

Under one proposed rule of The Championship, teams will have at least 50 percent of their squads aged 25 or younger. This will allow more young Australian footballers to experience the professional game and its standards.

"It will give a lot more opportunities for younger guys to hone their skills and therefore get contracts both here and internationally."

There are of course questions over funding. The A-League has seen attempted regional franchises such as the North Queensland Fury fail before. Fraser, however, doesn't believe that'll be a problem due to the fact many of the clubs interested in joining the Championship already run and fund themselves in the National Premier League.

North Queensland Fury and Gold Coast United both failed to become long-term fixtures in the A-League. PHOTO CREDIT: AAP

“I think that a number of the clubs that have expressed interest have their own stadiums which they’ve got control over. They know what it costs to operate, they're still safe, still secure, still can deliver the integrity of the game, but I don’t think we’ve got the cost problem the A-League clubs have got.”

There is also the question of the quality of football. In this year's FFA cup, four clubs in the quarter finals were from outside the A-League. Two of the A-League sides in the competition, including one of the league's biggest sides, Melbourne Victory were knocked out by National Premier League sides.

APIA Leichhardt knocked Melbourne Victory out of the FFA Cup earlier this year. Photo Credit: AAP

This is of course different from a league format, where consistency is required to succeed and not one-off upsets. This is why a second division would need time to catch up. With A-League clubs currently contracted to play in the league until 2034 however, there's time for the Championship to raise its standards.

This will need to happen before relegation and promotion between the two divisions could be considered, however, Fraser believes it would benefit Australian football as a whole when and if it's brought in.

“I look all round the world and I see the excitement that takes place in every league where there’s promotion and relegation and I believe the aspiration that allows in football and the natural aspiration that football has all around the world adds to the excitement of the game.”

There's a long way to go before we see a second division in Australian football. But after a turbulent year that's seen failed A-League expansion bids, three different Socceroos coaches and yet more VAR controversies, it may just add the right sort of excitement back into the beautiful game.

Feature Image: AAP

Contact the author: mgay@networkten.com.au