Ethnic ties remain strong in NPL

Not quite the Maksimir, but there was more than a whiff of 'cevapi' in the air as the full-time whistle sounded at boutique-sized Blacktown Olympic Park last weekend.

Not quite the Maksimir, but there was more than a whiff of 'cevapi' in the air as the full-time whistle sounded at boutique-sized Blacktown Olympic Park last weekend.

Mixed in with the chants of 'C'mon you Reds', and 'U.N.I.T.E.D, United are the team for me', were the familiar cries of 'Cro-at-zia, Cro-at-zia' from a small knot of Sydney United fans who brought a reminder of the joys of active support to the decisive final round of the normally sleepy NSW Premier League.

As it happened, the noisy throng on the hill were rewarded with an unlikely sequence of results which catapulted their team from third to first - although it wasn't until a few minutes after the full-time whistle that Sydney United coach Mark Rudan got the news that the minor premiership, and with it a place in the inaugural NPL play-offs, had been secured. Now I've known 'Rudes' for a while, but I've rarely seen him as excited as he was when he launched himself into the heaving moshpit of celebrating fans and players once confirmation arrived that Marconi Stallions had done him a favour by beating Bonnyrigg White Eagles. More on 'Rudes' in a moment.

Thus Sydney United - who did their bit by putting Blacktown Spartans to the sword (Luka Glavas succeeding Graham Arnold as the club's all-time leading goalscorer in the process) - will now represent NSW in the keenly-awaited NPL play-offs in what promises to be a real game-changer for second-tier football in this country. The former NSL giants join South Hobart (Tasmania) and Olympic FC (Queensland) in the series, with Canberra FC (ACT) also virtually certain to qualify, perhaps this weekend. South Australia's representatives will go to the winners of the local grand final, with runaway minor premiers MetroStars the clear favourites.

Looking across the list of qualifiers got me thinking. The era of ethnic-backed clubs is not over. Not by a long shot. In fact it's conceivable four of the five inaugural NPL finallists - Sydney United (Croatia), Canberra FC (Croatia), Olympic FC (Greece) and whoever qualifies from South Australia (four of the top five clubs have strong Italian heritage) - will be drawn from ethnic communities.

Those communities are still providing the passion, enthusiasm, finance, support, determination and vision to set the benchmarks for others to follow. Look further afield at the non-aligned NPL states - Western Australia, Victoria and Northern NSW - and it's the same story. The ethnic-backed clubs continue to clean up.

The point here is to make sure nature takes its course. As the NPL revolution gathers momentum, my sense is some state federations are being tempted to airbrush history, and force ethnic clubs out of the equation. They're trying to over-engineer an outcome. Wrong.

By far the best solution for the rebirth of second-tier football is to bring the best of the ethnic clubs along for the ride. Those clubs which are willing to be inclusive, not exclusive. Around the country, I see plenty of them. And those clubs which don't broaden their base? They'll join the long, long, list of ethnic-backed clubs in the mausoleum. That's a dead certainty. The reminders are everywhere. Ringwood Wilhelmina, Yugal Prague, anyone?

I've got no doubt the NPL has the ability to unlock the huge potential of state-based competitions - competitions which will not only underpin the Hyundai A-League, but possibly spawn a national second division. But to get the right outcome requires a delicate process. It needs to be handled with care. First base is to respect those who have made a significant contribution.

Which brings me back to Rudan. A trophy in his first full season as a head coach. A young coach on the way up, you'd imagine. But here again, there's an issue of respect. Sadly, I see a glass ceiling for coaches at this level of football - something that also needs to change.

The thrust if the NPL revolution is to provide a better pathway for players, but shouldn't that apply to coaches as well? What incentive, for instance, is there for the likes of Jean Paul de Marigny, Branko Culina, Robert Stanton, Sam Saif, Damian Mori, Ivan Karlovic, Stuart Munro, Goran Lozanovski, Andrew Marth, Chris Coyne, Damien Smith, Peter Tsekenis, Grant Lee and Graham Ross to work towards higher levels if coaching at state league level actually counts against them?

Second-tier football has as many clever coaches as talented players. It's also full of clubs with proud histories, and big plans. Put that all together, and you can understand why the NPL has the potential to transform the game as much as the Hyundai A-League, or the Socceroos qualifying for the World Cup. It's only a matter of time.