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Numerous people have written many things about the future of football in Australia. A number of those people have said that we are heading in the right direction, and several have said that we are heading in the wrong direction. Others (usually those still wedded to State League Clubs around the country) say that we never should have given up on the National Soccer League, and a smaller group say that we have a series of other problems. There are also a lot of people that rubbish my sport of choice, on the grounds that Australian Rules, Rugby League and Rugby Union are more successful – to the AFL people I can point to the World Cup, to the AFL and Rugby people I point to world interest in the sport.

My view? I think that football in Australia is heading in the right direction. I accept that it has not all been roses – there have been stumbling blocks along the way, but the road to success is often a long and bumpy one.

As a Perth Glory fan, I’ve seen my club in existence for 16 years now. I’ve soared through the highs and slumped in the lows. I can admit to bursting into tears when walking into Tinbillys Bar after the Hyundai A League Grand Final on Sunday 22 April 2012 – I was hugged by a mate who I, along with about 30 mates, had chipped into to get him on a flight from Brighton in the UK to Brisbane for the grand final (read the articles here and here). I saw him and I cried and he understood completely.

While I am overall happy with the direction that the Football Federation of Australia has taken Australian football, there is one thing that is missing.

A cup system is something that the A-League and the State Leagues are in desperate need of. A cup competition in Australia is a big job to create, and I am not purporting to know better than the FFA, the various State and Territory Federations, clubs, leagues, etc. – I am just writing this to inspire discussion and debate, because I believe that it is the final step in combining the old National Soccer League teams with the current A-League teams in a form that satisfies old and new football in Australia.

One of the biggest hurdles that an FFA Cup would face is distance. Australia is a vast country, with West Australian teams having to travel thousands of kilometres to get to other cities to play games. This is why a model for the FFA Cup is so important – regionalisation is essential in the early stages to minimise the costs to the smaller clubs.

The FFA Cup doesn’t have a fantastic ring to it – it is my proposal that it is called the Johnny Warren Cup. Given the support he has had among the broader footballing community in Australia, it is my belief that all teams would want to compete for the Johnny Warren Cup. This could also lead to corporate bodies investing in the community and charitable offshoots of the Johnny Warren Cup.

While most people would point to the FA Cup as the model, I actually point in a completely different direction – to Japan’s Emperor’s Cup. I do have to thank Pete Nowakowski of The Football Sack for pointing me in this direction when I was discussing where I was getting inspiration for this post.

This is a regionalised model at the early stages that then moves to a totally random draw after the qualifiers – this is a model that is also used in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. If we apply a similar model to Australian football, I believe we would have:

  • 9 A-League Teams (Wellington Phoenix are not part of Australia, therefore they would not be able to compete, see the rules and guidelines section later on)
  • The 7 State Cup Champions (my model assumes that only the Cup champions from each state or territory would qualify at the Second or Third Round. This means 1) The Northern Territory would not have a champion to partake at this stage, and 2) Both New South Wales and Tasmania would have to find a way to determine a state champion. This model also assumes that where the State Cup Champions qualify in an earlier round, the teams would shuffle up the ladder one spot to replace them

At this point, we have 16 teams entering the Fourth Round – this would be the latest point of entry into the Johnny Warren Cup. I would have no teams entering at the Third Round Proper, to ensure that only the best teams are still competing at this stage.

If we assume the Fourth Round is the latest point of entry, the Second Round is when the last round of State League teams across the country would enter the competition. It is my belief that the top 4 teams from each State/Territory league, at the completion of the regular season, would be entering the competition at the Second Round. While the differences between Football New South Wales and Football Federation Northern New South Wales could be troublesome, Football Federation Tasmania has made it much easier by announcing the introduction of the T-League, which would harmonise their current Northern and Southern Leagues. For the purposes of this model, the top two teams from the NBN State League and the NSW Premier League would qualify at this stage – until such time that the two leagues are merged or combined to create one league representing NSW as a whole.

So the top 4 teams from each state and territory enter at the Second Round (a total of 32 teams). This means that all other State League teams in the top flight can enter at the First Round. I calculate that this would be a total of 65 teams (5 teams in the ACT, 6 teams from Northern NSW, 10 teams from NSW, 5 teams from the Northern Territory, 5 teams from Queensland, 6 teams from South Australia, 13 teams from Tasmania, 8 teams from Victoria and 7 teams from Western Australia).

Due to the introduction of National Training Centre teams dotted around the State Leagues at the moment, it is reasonable that there would be some debate as to their introduction to the competition – at this point; I propose that they are NOT included until such time that they are introduced into all State Leagues. There is a separate debate about the National Training Centre teams and their effectiveness – but this is not the blog post for this.

The Qualifying Rounds would be grouped around each State and Territory. This is where the guidelines for entry need to be set. These are my recommendations:

  • Any team wishing to take part must be based in Australia
    • This is the reason why Wellington Phoenix would not be able to take part in the Johnny Warren Cup. Yes, Welsh teams may take part in the FA Cup, but the Emperor’s Cup has been (since World War II) a Japanese club affair only and similarly, the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup (my other inspiration for this post) is for USA based teams only – despite the numerous Canadian, Antiguan, Puerto Rican and Bermudan teams that take part in the various leagues. This also means that if the Hutt River Province ever develops a population big enough to take part, they would not be able to compete either.
    • Some may view this as a harsh rule – I believe that such a rule encourages local support for local teams, and would encourage people to travel to their team’s away games where possible.
  • One team per club
    • While this seems self-explanatory, clubs at the State Level are known to have multiple teams in multiple leagues further down the skill ladders. This means that the best team from each squad is nominated. This means that the Newcastle Jets Youth Team would be ineligible to compete in the league, as Newcastle Jets proper would be competing in the competition.
  • To nominate, the team must be playing in an official Football Federation Australia accredited league.
    • This is to ensure that the clubs taking part are following FIFA and FFA rules. While this seems self-explanatory, the situation of the Brisbane Premier League needs to be dealt with. To the best of my knowledge, the Brisbane Premier League is affiliated with Football Brisbane, while the Queensland State League is affiliated with Football Queensland (which is appropriately affiliated with Football Federation Australia), so the teams in the Brisbane Premier League would be ineligible to take part in the Johnny Warren Cup. However, it would be inappropriate to set up a different set of rules for Queensland. If, in time, the Brisbane Premier League was to form part of the Football Queensland pyramid, those teams would become eligible to take part.
  • Any games must take place inside a stadium.
    • Again, this seems self-explanatory, but at the lower levels and lower leagues, the teams do not have an enclosed stadium to play in. Ground sharing should be considered as a way of ensuring that teams can get their cut of the gate and the bar when they take part in the Johnny Warren Cup – there’s no point playing a game in an open field where ingress and egress cannot be controlled.
    • When I talk of stadiums, I do not intend to restrict teams to the likes of A-League compliant stadiums. There is no reason why Brisbane Roar wouldn’t be able to play Manly United at Cromer Park, or Melbourne Victory couldn’t play Floreat Athena at E&D Litis Stadium. The definition of “stadium” would be one that would need to be defined by the member federations in conjunction with their leagues.
    • This rule would take effect from the Fifth Qualifying Round, with a view to, over time, have this rule take effect earlier and earlier as the quality of infrastructure in the leagues improves.
  • Each State and Territory Federation needs to rank each league below its top league in order of quality.
    • Due to the various leagues that each Federation deals with, it is only appropriate that those Federations are responsible for ranking them. This means that a sensible order can be created as to which leagues enter which stage of the qualifying rounds. I accept that this may cause problems further down the line but since the vast majority, if not all, Australian leagues below the Hyundai A-League play over winter, grading these leagues would generally only need to happen once with minor amendments from year to year.
    • For example, the Football West league ranking would be (given the limited football knowledge I have for rural and regional areas of WA, I have assumed that the country clubs fall within the structure below):
  • Any league affiliated with a Member Federation is able to apply to be ranked.
    • This means that the smallest of leagues in rural and regional Australia can take part in the competition.
  • A team is eligible if they have played at least three (3) seasons as a club registered with a Member Federation.
    • The intent of this rule is to ensure that clubs are able to support themselves – if they’ve lasted three years; they’re not doing too badly. It also means that there is a reduced chance of clubs falling by the wayside and forfeiting matches.
      • All Flags State League Premier Division
      • All Flags State League Division 1
      • All Flags State League Division 2
      • Mysolar Sunday League Premier Division
      • Mysolar Sunday League Division 1
      • Mysolar Sunday League Division 2
      • Mysolar Sunday League Division 3
      • Mysolar Sunday League Division 4
      • Mysolar Sunday League Division 5
      • Mysolar Metropolitan League Premier Division
      • Mysolar Metropolitan League Division 1
      • Mysolar Metropolitan League North Division 1 AND South Division 1
      • Mysolar Metropolitan League North Division 2 AND South Division 2
      • Mysolar Metropolitan League North Division 3 AND South Division 3
      • Mysolar Metropolitan League North Division 4 AND South Division 4

The key issue here is regionalisation – there is no point in sending Port Hedland FC to take on King Island United (team names have been made up) in the first round, because neither team would be able to afford to go to the other team’s home ground. It is my suggestion that by the time the First Round Proper starts, there are a total of 16 teams in each State or Territory (or less where appropriate) that have been through qualifying rounds, stretching the gamut from Division 1 down to the regional champions of a vast rural area.

This is the reason for ranking the various leagues in order, to ensure that teams are playing at appropriate levels. Consideration could be given to the Member Federations for making the draws during the Qualifying Rounds, to maximise the opportunities for teams to take part before having to fly to another state or territory to play their initial fixtures. I would suggest that this commence in early April, as it gives the leagues time to organise their seasons around these fixtures. For example, the 2012 FA Cup started on 20 August 2011 and finished on 5 May 2012 – a total of 260 days from start to finish. My proposal is that the Johnny Warren Cup Final is played on Australia Day (26 January) – no league anywhere in the country would be able to play fixtures on this day.

In summary, the rounds would flow as follows with my suggested timeline bolded before each round.

  1. (first weekend in April) First Qualifying Round – the lowest amateur leagues play their first knock out games, halving all competition
  2. (last weekend in April) Second Qualifying Round – the lower to middle amateur leagues enter the competition and mix with the lowest leagues
  3. (third weekend in May) Third Qualifying Round – the middle tier amateur leagues enter the competition
  4. (second weekend in June) Fourth Qualifying Round – the top to middle amateur league teams enter
  5. (first weekend in July) Fifth Qualifying Round – Top Amateur (and Second Division) League teams enter
  6. (last weekend in July) Sixth Qualifying Round – First Division League Teams in Member Federations enter
  7. (third weekend in August) First Round Proper – all other State and Territory League teams at the Premier level
  8. (second weekend in September) Second Round Proper – top 4 league teams from State and Territory Premier League teams (the 5th team qualifies at this point if the State Cup winner is in the top 4)
  9. (first weekend in October) Third Round Proper – NO NEW ENTRIES
  10. (last weekend in October)Fourth Round Proper
    1. All Australian based A-League Teams
    2. The 7 State & Territory Cup Winners
  11. (Third Weekend in November) Fifth Round Proper – at this point there will only be 16 teams left, 8 once the round is over
  12. (Second Weekend in December) Sixth Round Proper – after this round we are reduced to 4 teams
  13. (First Weekend in January) Semi Finals
  14. (26 January) Johnny Warren Cup Final

It is my belief that this particular time line and layout gives teams the opportunity to account for the games in advance, allows the leagues to adjust to the schedule on a regular basis and means that the winner of the Johnny Warren Cup would be able to partake in the AFC Champions League in the same year. That means that whoever wins the Johnny Warren Cup in the year that finishes 2015 (for example) would take part in the 2015 AFC Champions League. Because the Johnny Warren Cup Champions would enter directly into the group stage, there is no risk of having to take part in a play-off game within two weeks.

Finally, there is a matter of cost. All clubs wishing to take part in the competition should be required to pay an entry fee. This fee should not be exorbitant, but should not be so low that it cheapens the Johnny Warren Cup. The other question is whether or not this fee should be a flat fee for all clubs, or operate on a sliding scale, given the differing fortunes of the clubs in different leagues. I would suggest that the entry fee should range from AUD$200 (for the teams in the lowest leagues) to AUD$10,000 (for Hyundai A-League teams), operating on a sliding scale between these two levels. The fees are sufficient for club sponsors to cover without impinging on the club dramatically at pretty much every level. An alternative model could see the state or territory federations funding the entry fee for clubs at the lower levels.

There is also a cost of running the competition. The totality of the entry fees should cover the administrative or office costs of running the competition as well as go towards the prize money for the winner – in future years, money can be awarded to winners of matches further down the chain.

One of the biggest costs will be transport of teams. While at the early stages there will be few flights for clubs, in the latter stages, teams will have to fly to play games. It is my suggestion that the price of the naming rights sponsor of the Johnny Warren Cup is set to cover the costs of flights, accommodation and transport associated with the games. Ideally, a large corporate body would be able to afford the naming rights, which I would tentatively put at between $20 and $25 million a year (in terms of flights, accommodation, transport costs, etc.).

I would note that the Qantas’s and Virgin Australia’s of the world should not inhibit smaller airlines from assisting the smaller teams from getting to games in the early stages of the competition – they should be encouraging their use to link to their own services in the latter stages of the competition, particularly if teams in rural and regional areas do not have other options.

I do need to make one final note – the FFA could use this competition to test future expansion markets. For example, if Canberra City FC or South Hobart was regularly in the final 16 and attracting crowds in excess of 7500 people to their games, this could be used as an argument in favour of an A-League team in that region for the future.

While this has been a long post, I do have to again thank the following people for giving me some pointers and having a read over this post – without their help and feedback, this would have been much harder to put together:

  • Pete Nowakowski of The Football Sack  – his input is much appreciated.
  • Neil Sherwin of Back Page Football – an Irish expat whose cup knowledge and sense of humour keeps me thinking and on my toes
  • Gareth Morgan – a charming football journalist in Perth who is a great lover of Cup football and whose insights were invaluable
  • Peter Hugg, CEO of Football West – his feedback in how this might operate as well as his thoughts on a number of issues relating to the lower level clubs was food for thought.

As I said towards the start of this article, I write this as a football fan with some ideas as to how I would operate such a competition. I hope that the FFA reads this article and incorporates some of my thoughts into what is ultimately the Johnny Warren Cup.

Thanks for reading, and I hope that in the future, this goes a long way.