A-Leagues put youth competition on hold, Townsend eyes national second division progress

Australian Professional Leagues' (APL) chief executive Danny Townsend has confirmed to ESPN that the A-League Youth (ALY) competition -- formally the Y-League -- will not return alongside the A-League Men (ALM) in 2022. Instead, the leagues are awaiting further information on what Australian football will look like in the years ahead before it re-introduces its youth arm.

Last staged during the 2019-20 season, when a Marco Tilio-led Sydney FC secured their third youth title, the ALY was mothballed in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the last two A-Leagues seasons passing without a youth format included and imminent reforms touted.

A-Leagues clubs have continued to field academy sides in their local NPL competitions during this period, but these leagues have also faced significant disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic; 2022 the first full campaign since 2019 that the majority of the nation's NPLs have been able to complete in full.

While youth minutes saw an increase in the ALM during this stretch to somewhat compensate for this -- Tilio, now with Melbourne City, earning a Socceroos call-up off the back of his form -- it has nonetheless exacerbated an increasingly concerning dearth in match minutes as outlined by Football Australia in its Performance Gap report.

Heading into what it hopes will be its first pandemic-free season in control of the A-Leagues in 2022-23, the APL has instigated a series of reforms and initiatives in its properties such as the expansion and extension of the A-League Women competition and a marquee player strategy.

However, Townsend told ESPN that there were a number of factors beyond the APL's purview it needed clarity on before it felt it could be in a position to bring back a youth element to its domain.

"We won't see it in 2022," the executive said. "Obviously, we're a long way down the path in terms of resetting ourselves on the back of the COVID pandemic.

"As we look to plan out the youth development pathway for our clubs, it's about understanding how that orientates with the state federations as well through the national second division [NSD].

"We've been in consultation with Football Australia around their plans on NSD and how that can potentially complement the ALY system that we know we will bring back imminently.

"But there's no point in us re-launching something and then changing it based on what happens with the NSD."

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For so long the white whale of the domestic scene, Football Australia and its CEO James Johnson have repeatedly gone on the record to commit to the introduction of an NSD, with the competition tipped as either being introduced in late 2023 as a summer competition or in 2024 under a winter staging.

Unlike the now independent A-Leagues, the federation will be responsible for running and operating the newly introduced competition and will serve as ultimate arbiters of its who, what, when, where, and why.

In recent months, it has been conducting a series of meetings with aspirant sides across the country, presenting what Johnson described as "detailed financial work" and consulting on potential coatings and models. Preston Lions president David Cvetkovski has told ESPN that he had been impressed by the amount of information being brought to clubs during these sessions. The appointment of Ernie Merrick as chief football officer was also briefed as one to help drive the process forward.

However, the prospect of A-Leagues youth teams being made foundational parts of any such competition is a highly contentious topic. Speaking to ESPN about his club's preparations for and NSD's introduction, South Melbourne president Nick Maikousis declared that while he wouldn't object to them winning their way in after its establishment, his club would likely walk away if youth sides were included in its formation and given protected status.

No A-Leagues youth sides mounted a major challenge on their local federation's senior title this year, with several spending 2022 in lower tier leagues.

For his part, Johnson told ESPN when asked about youth sides in an NSD in June that he envisioned it being "a senior competition with a youth development flavour throughout it."

But given the significant upheaval that an actual NSD would be for the Australian footballing ecosystem, Townsend said the APL needed more information before it forged ahead with its own work.

"I think the most important thing is the season timing," he said when asked what he needed to know.

"At the end of the day, our youth players are currently playing in the NPL system throughout the winter and getting 26, 28 games in that environment.

"And then at the moment they go into the summer season where we want them to continue to remain fit and healthy so they can fill in in the A-League Men's competition if they're required and, at the moment, they're not.

"The ALY would normally slot into that summer schedule and they would then go into the winter NPL. So, depending on where the NSD lies; if it is in the summer then we'll obviously want to have a conversation with Football Australia about how that can work with our competition.

"If [the NSD] goes in the winter then we'll obviously rebirth the ALY during that summer period."

Pressed specifically on if he wanted A-Leagues' academy sides in a newly introduced NSD, Townsend made clear that it ultimately wasn't a decision he could make but that the conversation should at least be had.

"I think it's sensible to consult on things," he said. "Whether [youth sides in the NSD] are where you end up or you don't remains to be seen.

"That's obviously up to the FA and the Member Federations on where that lands. It might make sense for everyone to do that and it might not.

"I think all that we've suggested to Football Australia, and have had an excellent conversation with James Johnson on, is what makes sense and what might work depending on that seasonality of the NSD."

Regardless of what happens in the NSD space going forward, though, Townsend said that the old ALY youth format of two, geographically aligned conferences playing eight games each would not return.

Introduced when the league was still under the control of Football Australia, the format was almost universally derided as being inadequate for purpose of development, with Socceroos coach Graham Arnold one of its fiercest critics.

"We all know that that system wasn't the right one," Townsend said. "What we're focused on is match minutes. That's what this is about. You absolutely want a great competition for our youth to play in that is A-Leagues orientated.

"But at the same time, it doesn't really matter who they're playing and when they're playing as long as they're playing high-quality opposition as regularly as they can.

"Essentially, if we're playing a 30 match NPL season in the winter or an NSD or however that lays out, we'll want to play at least another 12-16 matches to get up to that 40, 42 matches that we know is going to develop the right amount of talent for Australian football."