Australian football must hold its leaders to account as it emerges from COVID

Simplified from its more verbose origins, the idiom "no plan survives contact with the enemy" has become commonplace in modern society. And it's fair to say that COVID -- and more recently weather and continental commitments -- has presented an enemy that has laid waste to the best-laid plans of Australian football.

As the nation approaches the two-year anniversary of the first restrictions on public gatherings being introduced, Football Australia (FA), the Australian Professional Leagues (APL), state federations, and community bodies continue to count the cost of the coronavirus on their balance books and plans, while grappling with the ongoing challenges presented by the, mercifully waning, pandemic.

Under the shadow of COVID, long-advocated reforms such as the leagues' unbundling have been forced to take place under a cloud of uncertainty, while the closure of borders forced Australia's national teams to play outside their homeland for almost two years. The FFA Cup, junior representative sides, the youth league, and grassroots and NPL football, have been put into various states of hibernation.

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The current A-League Men and A-League Women seasons were subsumed by the emergence of the omicron variant and, more recently, wild weather and Asian Champions League commitments. Almost 50 fixtures have been rescheduled this season alone. Changing viewing habits, latent apprehension, and the constantly changing fixture, have all been nominated as reasons for falling crowds at non "event" fixtures, and the growing pains, to put it charitably, with new streaming service Paramount+ have left viewers at their wits ends.

Add to this the declining form from both the Socceroos and Matildas, acknowledged own-goals such as stopping play for advertisements, a lack of progress on signature reforms such as a domestic transfer system (DTS) and national second division (NSD), and an overarching lack of technical direction and soul in the actual footballing portion of this entire affair, and one can tell why there's malcontent lingering in the air.

But a light in the darkness is supposedly near.

As the anchor that has been COVID begins to lift, Australian football's major figures are assured in their belief that good times are ahead given the chance to work without a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic hanging over their head and deliver on the plans that were dashed by the onset of the pandemic imminent.

You only get one chance to make a first impression but -- as outlined during a three-episode series on ESPN's Beyond The Lead podcast -- Australian football's major figures have assured everyone that a second date will make up for things. For their sake, that needs to happen soon.

In his recent conversation, FA CEO James Johnson was confident that proposed reforms to the DTS and club licensing, as well as the introduction of an NSD, would serve to boost Australia's flagging developmental problems. The executive declared the time for consolidation was over and that, with the FA's role post-unbundling of the leagues now made clear, the years ahead were a time of growth. The timing and the model for the NSD, for instance, was promised by the end of 2022.

Elsewhere, Johnson has talked on numerous occasions of using the 2023 Women's World Cup to supercharge the development of the women's game. He has told Nine that FA will provide imminent clarity regarding the national technical director role and resurrection of the junior national teams. Gender equality, greater inclusivity for those with disabilities, recognition of the LGBTQIA+ community, and action on reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are also priorities.

APL managing director Danny Townsend, for his part, dived into the challenges faced by the current A-Leagues season and sought to remind the public that this was only the beginning of his organisation's tenure. KEEPUP, a $30m investment in a digital space that has been largely derided, was said to be at just 15% of where it was going to be. Plans are in place to bring fans back into the stands and get them watching -- as well as better bring them along on the journey -- and Paramount+ fixes are coming.

Investment in development and a proper youth competition was flagged. A roadmap for the growth of ALW into what Townsend says can be a top-three league was touted for the coming offseason, while the target is for ALM to become the biggest league in Australia, out of any sport, by 2030.

Though acknowledging that his organisation doesn't have the ability to implement reform so much as help shape it, players' union chief Beau Busch told ESPN that "it's not about being popular, it's about getting it right," when it comes to changes to the landscape and that his organisation was committed to the game's objectives.

None of the above requires interpretation or inference. They are on-the-record statements from the major figures in Australian football showing where they stand on the major issues in the game. They are declarations about what they are going to do and what sort of effect they believe they will have. They are largely measurable or yes/no propositions.

And it's absolutely in everyone's interest that the three officials, as well as everyone else involved in Australian football, succeed. Declarations that the sport is a sleeping giant have long since transitioned from genuine declaration to meme, but untapped potential clearly exists.

Yet at the same time, it's not bad faith to aggressively hold them to account in the event that the above don't materialise. Administrators should always be reminded that they are simply the latest in a long line of figures entrusted with the role of custodians of the game -- not its owners.

If FA is unable to deliver their proposals, or said reformations are packaged in a manner that means they are unable to deliver the promised outcomes, football fans should start to question if this new regime's legacy will be any different to the old ones; looking for the steak beyond the sizzle.

Should the APL's troubles continue and the improvements and growth that have been promised -- in recent communications and, more broadly, since they started advocating for independence -- aren't delivered, they should be placed under significant pressure. They promised they had the knowledge and skills to be better and it's not unfair to want to see that.

If it becomes clear that the PFA's objections and stances are less about a high-minded commitment to the good of the game and more about cynically drawing up the drawbridge to protect the narrow interests of its members, its respected place in the Australian game as an advocate and thought leader should take a significant hammering.

Johnson, Townsend, and Busch, hopefully, will acknowledge this is fair. If they and their organisations are going to ask the Australian footballing public for their trust, backing, and patience, then, short of another cataclysm striking, there has to be a point where they deliver.

Loyal fans who have stuck with the game through thick and thin have earned the right to expect this. They don't owe it to anyone to support an A-Leagues side, the introduction of an NSD, or even uncritical support of the national teams.

Yet despite this, there has been a nascent narrative (not from any of the above figures, to be clear) that supporters and media should also shoulder some of the blame for the state of the game. That by not turning up, not tuning in or not presenting a positive narrative around the game, they are contributing to the malaise.

Yes, ne'er-do-wells exist, but this is largely nonsense. In how many other industries would the act of dismissing consumers or critics as ungrateful or entitled, and refusing to change course, be an acceptable reaction? It's their wallets, eyeballs, time, passion and commitment are needed. It's incumbent on anyone competing for those metrics to find a way to earn them. If anything, fans and the media shouldn't be lumped in together: Fans should absolutely expect more of the media -- especially its more entrenched and well-platformed members -- when it comes to quality, thought-provoking coverage and critique.

Remarkably, barely any of the above actually involves actual matters of football -- another topic in which Australian football needs to engage in hard conversations. But Australian football, reflective of broader global trends, has increasingly resembled pro-wrestling in recent years in that backstage politics and manoeuvrings are given more focus than the actual product.

If nothing else, that will keep eyeballs on the powers that be and with it, hopefully, a layer of accountability.