“I think 2021 was a mixed year for everyone,” says Luke Casserly.
The former Socceroos defender and Football Australia Head of National Performance joins Kick360 to reflect on what was an inconsistent year for Australian football; one which saw sweeping changes in the domestic game, historic victories and a triumphant return home for the international sides and also increased scrutiny as controversy once again reared its ugly head.
“Quite a lot happened in our game with the A-League ownership, new capital invested into the league, league branding, Olympic games, WC qualifiers, changes at FA board level, Ange at Celtic, Former player complaints, Matilda’s matches at home… All in all, I guess one could say a typical year in Aussie football, never a dull moment.”
“I wouldn’t necessarily say it was a good year for Australian football, I do not think we have made much of a dent in our ability to work as a collective for the greater good of the game which is our biggest Achilles heel though I also understand there is no quick fix as our code is quite complex. In most countries this is solved by top-down funding which we are probably a fair way off.”
2021 saw the APL finally take the reins as they completed their long anticipated ‘conscious uncoupling’ from Football Australia.
They certainly weren’t backward in coming forward when it came to bringing about change, finding a new home for football on Paramount/10, bringing the leagues together under a rebranded and united A-Leagues umbrella, partnering with PFA on a ground breaking CBA and investing heavily in digital engagement with the launch of KeepUp.
“The state of the game is an interesting one, I am hoping that the change in ownership with the APL will see a shift in mentality from our clubs. In general my experience was that clubs saw their football departments as a cost opposed to an investment.
“I’d like to see us invest more in our own players and coaches and have greater support for our national team programs which are a key platform for our best young talent to be recognised abroad.
“I’d also like to see a lot more invested in marketing and promoting the league and re-engaging with our fans, we desperately need the fans to be excited about the game and feeling as though they are genuinely important to the success of the game.”
And there were certainly plenty of opportunities for young talent to shine, the effects of the pandemic being clearly visible in teams recruitment policies, forcing teams to look inward for young, hungry domestic talent; giving fans one of the most exciting seasons in recent memory.
“I feel we are very hard on ourselves and think the quality on the pitch and the quality of our players is better than we give ourselves credit for.
“As an example, we see Cam Devlin, a good young Australian player, doing really well in the SPL with Hearts. In his position in the A-League Men’s many would probably have players such as Luke Brattan, Aiden O’Neill, Brandon O’Neill, Brillante, Mauk, Metcalfe ahead of him in the pecking order yet he is able to excel at a very solid club in the UK, so I have no doubt we have many other players who are also more than capable of making that step.
“I think Marco Tilio at City is ready to explode, the more game time he gets the better he looks, fans love to see players with his qualities. Jacob Farrell at the Mariners has been outstanding, Patrick Yazbek has made a solid start to his senior career at Sydney FC and I think Jake Brimmer at Victory is really starting to be a key influence at a big club that will be challenging for trophies.
“With the A-League Women, I feel we are in a different space… a large portion of our Matildas in Europe or overseas leagues… the level has dropped from a few years back and we are not seeing the profile of foreign players like Kim Little & Jess Fishlock coming here to play, so there is a fair bit of work to be done in my opinion.
“In saying that it has created a load of opportunities for young players, and we have seen the likes of Cooney-Cross, Taylor Ray, Hana Lowry really mature as footballers. A player that has caught my eye would have to be Jessika Nash. I felt having never attended a Matildas camp and thrown in against the USA was always going to be a big ask for any player but at 17 I think she has a really big future ahead of her, she seems to have a really good understanding of the game, reads the game very well and will be a Matildas regular moving forward.”
Internationally, the Socceroos made history in 2021, going on an 11 match unbeaten run on the road to World Cup Qualification. The success of the national team and their long awaited return to Australia had football fans jubilant for much of the year, only for things to sour in the final months; poor performances against Japan, Saudi Arabia and China putting a real dent in their hopes for automatic qualification for Qatar.
But Casserly, who has plenty of experience of the realities of the arduous road to tournament success from his time at Football Australia remains upbeat.
“I do see Australia qualifying. The logistical challenges never end, and this qualifying campaign has had the added complexity of COVID, uncertainty on where games will be played, limited preparation time with the playing group… in some cases it worked to our advantage, playing some away matches in neutral and more familiar territory, but it also meant we have had less games at home against teams that have traditionally struggled with long haul travel.
“The Socceroos obviously missed Mooy and Rogic in recent games and I would also add Massimo Luongo to that duo. Having players of this quality with the squad has its obvious advantages but importantly adds to our depth and the quality of players we can bring off the bench to have an impact on a game. Also, the delayed start to the A-League Men’s and long off-season meant some key players were not fit or available.
“The number of cancelled games in the A-League Men would no doubt also be of a concern for Graham Arnold for the upcoming qualifiers. He would’ve been hoping that the Australian based players who typically get the most minutes would be match hardened and at peak fitness leading into these games.
“Coming out of our record run we looked really good against a poor China in our first game of this stage, we were really dominant and looked like the team to beat following Japan’s loss to Oman. From that point we haven’t quite seen the Socceroos click, we struggled to break down Vietnam and we struggled with the first half tempo in Japan though we saw how vulnerable this Japan team is with the pressure they are under. I feel if we were more positive and aggressive in our approach that result could have been different. The big advantage for us is we play what looks like the crucial final match against Japan at home. Here’s hoping COVID allows that to take place here, as we need a massive turnout and huge support at this one to urge the boys on.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the Matildas performances under the stewardship of Tony Gustavsson.
“I think most of us have struggled to see any real progress in the playing style of the Matildas. With the ball and under pressure we seem to have become very direct which is a big shift from how the team had played for a number of years and without the ball we don’t seem to have a really solid structure and clear cues on when and how to press the opposition, this team has previously been really aggressive in this area and had a great ability to disrupt opponents and force a lot of errors lately though much of it seems off the cuff.
“In saying this, I do believe the Matildas will be successful at this Asian Cup, we have made the last three finals, we are the highest ranked team at the tournament as North Korea withdrew from qualifying, we have the quality of players who are highly experienced, the highest ranked team in our group (Thailand) lost 13-0 to the USA at the World Cup in France, so the group stage should be very comfortable for us if we have a reasonable level of focus.
“We know that these games can sometimes be banana skins, we did have a big scare drawing late and beating Thailand on penalties at the last Asian Cup but I can’t see that happening three games in a row against this level of opposition. The challenge at the Asian Cup may be the environment and conditions, I don’t recall the team having played in India previously so there is a bit of an unknown there.
“In regards to Tony Gustavsson, he was James Johnson’s first key appointment at the FA so I think he has strong backing from the CEO, James has publicly stated this is the benchmark tournament to judge Tony on and given the level at this Asian Cup with the additional teams and no North Korea I don’t see us not making the final.”
So, what do we need to see if Australian football is to enjoy a successful 2022?
“Number one is Socceroos World Cup qualification. I mentioned fan engagement earlier and nothing compares to the interest from the Australian sporting public than the Socceroos at a World Cup.
“From a domestic perspective I hope we continue to give young Australian players opportunities in the A-League competitions and really drive fan engagement both in stadium and in broadcast numbers. When we have good numbers going through the gates, the in-stadium atmosphere is our unique selling point, no other code can match the noise and colour we make.
“I’d like to see continued, genuine efforts towards unity in the game, I know it is not an easy one but we must strive to make this happen which requires real buy in and accountability from the State Federations in particular. We have now had a few years of discussion around the introduction of a national second division and domestic transfer fees so I am keen to see progress on these initiatives, an understanding of the funding and financial viability is crucial for the second division as it is a big financial burden and cannot start and fail.
“Finally, I would like to understand the next phase of expansion for the A-Leagues and further investment in our junior national team programs, male and female. Greater exposure to the highest level of the game is key to developing our best young players and puts these players in the international shop window as we are somewhat isolated here in Australia.”