Tyranny of distance challenges Cooma Tigers

FFA's launch of the National Premier Leagues (NPL) in February was widely labelled as a new dawn for the sport and the development of future footballers.

Football Federation Australia's launch of the National Premier Leagues in February was widely labelled as a new dawn for the sport and the development of future footballers.

Speaking at the launch of the planned overhaul of semi-professional football in Australia, FFA CEO David Gallop claimed the NPL system would be 'a vital conduit from the grassroots to the A-League'.

Already NPL competitions have begun in New South Wales, Queensland, ACT and Tasmania, while they are set to start in Victoria, Northern NSW and Western Australia in 2014.

Although the initial response to the NPL concept was one of excitement, clubs involved, particularly those based in regional areas, have already noticed issues with the requirements of the competitions.

The Cooma Tigers, the reigning ACT Premier League champions, have to drive over 100 kilometres every second week to compete in the top tier of football in the ACT and president Harry Hovasapian believes the conditions regarding junior football are problematic for clubs like his.

The NPL system requires clubs to field teams in six divisions: under 12s, under 14s, under 16s, under 18s, under 20s and seniors.

Based south of Canberra, the Tigers attract players from places as far apart as the nation's capital and Thredbo, which means parents of junior players have to make a big commitment to see their kids compete at the NPL level.

"The (Under) 12s and the (Under) 14s, they're the ones that are a problem with the NPL, especially in our area," Hovasapian says.

"Everyone needs to understand, these players come from very young families and not necessarily from a football background...so to increase the length of the season the way we have and include the younger players and expect them to be part of this long season that is a concern to us and I think it is a concern for most of the other clubs as well."

Cooma has gotten around the travel issue for the youngest two age groups by working alongside Canberra-based club Weston Molonglo.

Weston Molonglo provide the Under 12s and Under 14s for Cooma, while the Tigers' own juniors play locally each week rather than at an NPL level.

The ACT NPL includes two regional clubs out of eight with Queanbeyan-based Monaro Panthers also from outside Canberra.

In the past, Canberra's top level of football also included teams from Griffith and Wagga Wagga, regional towns over 300km away, and although Hovasapian would happily include more sides in the ACT NPL, he believes travel will always make it hard for outlying clubs.

"I would love to have as many clubs in (the ACT NPL) as possible because that will only improve the football...but the trouble is, it's the geography...how many games are we going to play and that could cause problems, especially for the Under 12s and 14s and 16s," Hovasapian says.

Geography is a problem that Griffith's two biggest clubs, Hanwood FC and Yoogali Soccer Club, continue to deal with.

Hanwood FC and Yoogali Soccer Club both competed in Canberra in the 1980s before switching to play in the Shepparton-based league in Victoria until the end of last year.

Vince Rugari, sports editor of Griffith's local newspaper, The Area News, claims there is talk of putting together a Griffith conglomeration to compete at NPL level but 'logistics' will always make it tough.

"It's a three-and-a-half hour drive and to do that every other weekend and to ask other clubs to do that same trip in reverse for your home games, it takes its toll," Rugari says.

"If you could pick up Griffith and move it to within an hour of Canberra then you're laughing, basically.

"The distance is one of the big reasons why the recent involvement in the Shepparton competition has fallen through; nobody could be bothered anymore.

"It's probably Griffith's Achilles heel in terms of football.

"You remove that distance and the possibilities are endless because this place is football mad."

Michael Schmid has been a part of football in Wagga Wagga for decades and was involved with a representative side that previously competed in Canberra.

But with a round trip of 600km required to play in Canberra, Schmid does not believe it is viable for a team representing Wagga Wagga and the Riverina area to compete in the ACT NPL, while he adds club politics could also hinder the concept.

"Years ago, there was a Wagga team that played in the ACT competition and that only lasted for two years maximum and that was a rep team," Schmid says.

"It was a bit of a battle to get that team set up and get the players you wanted.

"Players seem pretty club parochial around here."