Why FFA must get the next technical director appointment right

The departure of Eric Abrams as technical director of Football Federation Australia this week has re-ignited two of the most important, albeit Groundhog Day-like debates in Australian football.

Firstly, why aren’t we developing more technically and tactically-proficient junior players? And secondly, what is the style of play those players should be executing at the elite level?

The technical director’s role is one of our most important football jobs. In terms of long-term planning, it is perhaps the most important. Everybody else in the game tends to be distracted by the sugar hits.

Abrams was an affable figure with a strong resume that suggested he knew his craft and made a big impact in Belgium. However, while the rest of Asia is carrying out industrial-sized renovations to their youth programs, for now, I'd struggle to define his legacy.

There’s a few reasons for why this might be. One, he was hardly seen or heard from, so we scarcely have any idea of his football philosophy. It’s hard to know if he was muzzled, felt he couldn’t speak out or didn’t think it was part of his remit.

Normally, one need not preach thunderously to be a good technical director, but Australia is not like other countries. The role here is better suited to somebody who can collectively inspire, guide and mentor whilst providing a road map and identifying effective ways to manage our very unique problems.

Easier said than done? Sure. Han Berger was a skilled communicator but lamented that what most people extracted from the National Football Curriculum was little more than adopting a 4-3-3 and “playing out from the back”. If he had his time over, he’d fight much harder to avoid the message getting hijacked and pilloried.

There has been a push for the technical director to be Australian, but it should be Australian only if the standout candidate happens to be a local.

Ange Postecoglou is to be discounted for now but would one day be ideally suited to the role – maybe even more than was suited to coaching the national team. Ernie Merrick certainly ticks a lot of the boxes but is tied up with Newcastle.

Craig Foster has the vision, knowledge and profile (and is achieving exceptional results with NSW’s junior female teams) but has never been shy in critiquing the governing body. Unfortunately, many of the “Golden Generation” shied away from coaching; Ante Milicic and Tony Vidmar appear the most aptly credentialed from that time.

One advantage of choosing Australian is that they understand the complexities of the landscape (which always perplexes foreigners) and grassroots coaches seem to prefer taking directions from somebody they trust. There’s also the perception that unless a foreigner goes full-Frank Arok, they’re only in it for a short-term cash-grab. Still, if there’s an obviously brilliant candidate from abroad, it would be folly to ignore them.

Our technical director needs to have an unusually broad range of skills. And they need to understand we’re still a nation that often confuses junior development programs with expensive, unregulated services that are little more than glorified child-minding services. In some aspects, we really are at square one.

Australia needs somebody who is both a visionary and a pragmatist, without getting lost in the noise at either end. Somebody who isn’t afraid to paint a clear picture of what can be done, how it should be done and the time frame we can achieve it in.

Whatever the message, it needs to be as digestible in Port Hedland as it is in Port Macquarie. Our challenge is a unique one on just about every level. But in 2018, with the many tools now available, it’s not impossible.

Equally, the game is moving so fast at the top level that it’s important find somebody who is well versed in the latest trends whilst understanding how the game is likely to develop over the next 20 years.

For over a decade now, we’ve made the mistake of trying to understand the latest trend rather than being at the vanguard of the next. Is the next revolution going to be tactical, technical, strategic, psychical or psychological? And where are our critical gaps?

The FFA, pleasingly, has announced an urgent review into youth football, although it does grate that Abrams was assigned a brief four years ago to improve that very field, specifically in coaching. May we get this appointment right – and not be having this discussion once more in 2022.

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4 min read
Published 30 July 2018 at 8:47am
By Sebastian Hassett