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A-League clubs have been presented with a plan to facilitate a system of promotion – and, eventually, relegation – which would see the best clubs from Football Australia’s proposed national second division slowly introduced to the top tier.
Club executives were recently briefed on the blueprint, conceived by the Australian Professional Leagues, which closely mirrors the way Japan’s J.League grew from one professional division to three over of 21 years.
Melbourne City celebrate this season’s A-League premiership win.Credit: Getty
According to multiple sources who are familiar with the discussion, the APL told the clubs they were prepared to admit the strongest teams from the second division into the men’s A-League on an ongoing basis – provided those clubs were able to satisfy a set of strict criteria to prove their financial stability and other off-field bona fides, and demonstrate a capacity for sustained high performance.
There would be no limit to the number of clubs that could be promoted, but once it reaches a certain number of teams, most likely around 20, the A-League would then split into two leagues – tentatively called A1-League and A2-League.
From there, teams would be able to go up into A1 or down to A2, but they would be protected from relegation below A2, while second division teams which meet the criteria would continue to be promoted into A2 – albeit in a staggered fashion, since the A-League is played over summer and the second division is to be played through the winter, making a direct promotion-relegation system in line with European tradition unachievable.
One possible format could involve teams from A1 and A2 playing separate home-and-away seasons and an additional single round of matches against the teams from the other league – similar to the cross-conference structure in Major League Soccer – but only those within A1 would be able to contend for the top-tier title.
The plan was received favourably by club executives contacted by this masthead, who see it as an almost perfect compromise. In their view, it enables any successful second division clubs to be safely integrated into the professional system, and provides a much-needed degree of sporting jeopardy that critics say has long been missing from the A-League – but without the risk of losing the pulling power of a bigger club like Sydney FC or Melbourne Victory if relegated, or the damage that might cause to the A-League’s broadcast deal or the relegated clubs themselves, who may struggle to survive if cut entirely from the competition and sent to a lower tier.
The APL is determined to first expand the A-League from 12 to 16 teams – first through the introduction of Canberra and Auckland teams in the 2024-25 season as previously announced, and then through another round of expansion into new markets such as south-east Queensland, Wollongong and Tasmania – before any NPL clubs are promoted or admitted.
APL chief executive Danny Townsend refused to comment on the presentation or the plan, citing their commitment to allowing FA’s second division process to run without interference. Townsend has previously indicated the APL would be open to promoting second division teams but said that discussion was a “long way away”.
FA has sole domain over any final decisions on the implementation of promotion and relegation – or “access” to the professional tier – as stipulated in the A-League’s independence agreement, but has said it would only be contemplated once the second division reaches “maturity”. APL is yet to formally put forward their idea to FA for consideration, and for the time being, it remains exactly that – an idea, and one that could be adjusted or adapted to whatever form the second division eventually takes, and potentially even a hybrid-model youth league involving NPL teams which has been previously floated.
James Johnson and Football Australia are pushing for a national second division.Credit: Gregg Porteous
FA chief executive James Johnson has previously described the relationship between the A-League and the proposed new tier.
“You’ve got a closed league model where clubs have paid license fees, and their expectation is that they are able to continue to compete in top-tier football until 2034,” he said.
“Now, can rules and powers change that? The answer is yes. But we still need to remember that owners bought into that league thinking that they would be in the competition till 2034. On top of that, you’ve got the calendar issue with the A-League as well … I don’t know any other countries in world football that have a different top-tier season to the rest of football. So, that’s something that at one point we’re going to have to iron out one way or the other as a code.”
Earlier this month, FA revealed that 26 clubs drawn from the NPL ranks of NSW, Queensland, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania had progressed to the “request for proposal” phase for the second division, which will lead to a final recommendation of between 10 and 16 participating teams by September or October, and then kick-off in March 2024.
Doubts persist over whether the second division will actually get off the ground, as FA continues to hint that its backup plan – a Champions League-style group format in which participating clubs would remain in their state competitions – is a live option if clubs cannot afford a separate home-and-away league.
Many NPL clubs spoken to by this masthead are hopeful, but not confident, that the second division will work as envisaged, and hold fears that FA’s financial demands – which Johnson has warned would be “expensive” – could be beyond them.
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