James Johnson has confirmed that Football Australia has settled on two models for a national second tier, and the federation now is in the final process of determining the shape of the next significant chapter in Australian football.
The pursuit of a national second tier has long served as one of Australian football's white whales, an introduction supposedly "imminent," according to its advocates, for almost two decades.
Competing for attention with the existential crisis that subsequently gripped Australian football, as well as the bid for the 2023 Women's World Cup and the unbundling of the A-Leagues from Football Australia -- the latter of which Johnson told ESPN in Aug. 2020 was a necessary step before a second tier could eventuate -- the push seemingly began to lose traction, especially when the Delta variant of COVID plunged New South Wales and Victoria back into lockdown in mid-2021.
But Johnson confirmed in an exclusive interview with ESPN that tangible decisions about the structure of the long-awaited competition were imminent after progress on a nationwide competition below the A-Leagues had been slowed by the pandemic.
"A second tier is on the table," the Football Australia CEO told ESPN.
"We said it will happen, and it will happen. Has it been delayed? Of course it has. There's been a lot of things that have been delayed through COVID.
"But we've done a lot of work on it now; we've spoken to clubs both in the A-Leagues and outside the A-Leagues. We've spoken with the AAFC [Association of Australian Football Clubs], we've spoken with our member federations, and we're really at a point now where we're crunching numbers and we're looking at two different models that could evolve into a second tier.
"One is your traditional home-and-away season like you see in many leagues around the world. This one is going to be a more expensive competition, particularly for the clubs that would participate. The other is something more along the lines of a conference-style system where you might play a conference in one part of the country and another conference in another part of the country, and then you come together for a group of playoffs.
"There's two concepts on the table and at some point, we've got to choose one.
"I think both can deliver football outcomes. Football outcomes are ensuring that we're playing more, ensuring that young players, in particular, get more time on the pitches. Ensuring that referees get more time to referee at that level and for coaches and also administrators to have a national level competition where they can get more experience.
"[A second tier], either way, delivers football outcomes. Where we need to really drill down is what is practical. Sure, if we can have a home and away, I think like any football fan, that is a more favourable model. But ultimately, we've got to talk to the clubs about it and we've got to find a model that not only football in Australia and Football Australia can afford, but also the clubs can, too.
"Once you put dollars and cents on the table, you'll often find that not only Football Australia has a view on that but also the clubs that would participate would too."
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If the establishment of a national second tier now appears to be a case of "when" not "if", the details behind the "when" remain a significant question in and of itself.
In January, the AAFC, a collective of National Premier League (NPL) clubs that have been advocating for the introduction of a second division, released a report outlining a model for a competition they declared was both "affordable and feasible" and capable of launching in 2022.
Football Australia chairman Chris Nikou -- whose organisation is the ultimate arbiter of the "who, what, when and where" of a second tier -- told a Melbourne Knights club function in May that he envisioned a model being presented to his board by the end of the year, with the competition, in an ideal world, starting in 2023.
A placeholder for the competition -- running from late January to early June -- was then inserted for illustrative purposes into Football Australia's newly introduced Domestic Match Calendar for the 2021-22 season, giving a preliminary indication of the months in which Football Australia envisioned the competition being staged in future years.
Johnson stopped short of making firm commitments but told ESPN that he would personally welcome a 2023 start date for the second tier, linking its potential introduction with a series of other, landmark events.
"2023 would be a great year to start, right," Johnson said. "2023 is really lining up to be a really memorable year for the sport.
"We've got the Women's World Cup in 2023; 2022 will be a year for the Men's World Cup and a good lead into 2023 [the 2022 iteration of the tournament will run from Nov. 21 to Dec. 18].
"Will it be 2023? I would love to see that be the case."
Of course, beyond the "when," there is also the matter of the "who" -- the select group of clubs that will become the founding members of a new chapter in Australian football.
Ostensibly, the most obvious candidates are the strongest sides already competing in the NPL, the AAFC-established partner group of 35 clubs that helped to fund and develop the report into their preferred model featuring the likes former NSL heavyweights Marconi Stallions, Melbourne Knights, South Melbourne, Adelaide City, Brisbane City, Preston Lions and Wollongong Wolves.
This partner group, however, has never formally been positioned by the AAFC as being the pool from which participatory clubs for their envisioned competition would be drawn.
Outside existing NPL clubs, youth sides of A-League Men's sides have been floated as possible participants; this would boost the prospects of the APL supporting the competition, but it would also meet significant resistance from existing aspirant clubs.
Newly created teams representing perceived "underserved" markets that don't yet justify an A-Leagues licence, but are still areas the game wants to develop a footprint in, have also been floated.
Johnson clarified that discussions had yet to even commence on which entities would fill the second tier.
"We're not into [discussions on entrant clubs] at the moment," he said.
"We're literally looking at what the model will look like, what the number of matches would be, what the format is, what the governance structure would look like, and where in the calendar this competition would sit.
"We've got to settle on those items first. We've got to decide on the model and then we can have a conversation on what kind of teams could participate."
Yet perhaps even more vexatious than the entrants to a national second tier is the matter of, one day, linking it with the A-Leagues: Promotion and relegation is, perhaps, the most fiercely debated, controversial, and emotive topic in Australian football.
Frank Lowy, in his role as Football Australia chairman, spoke as far back as 2009 about a national second division that would allow movement between tiers, and he declared in 2014 that the concept was an "inevitability." But his successor, Nikou, stated in a address to the 2019 Football Writers' Festival that it was unlikely before the midpoint of the 2030s.
Though the implementation of relegation is ultimately the domain of Football Australia under its purview as the leagues' regulator, attempts to implement it in the previously closed A-Leagues would almost certainly meet significant caution, if not outright hostility, from APL clubs that have only just taken over the operation and control of the competition and are now taking steps to monetise their new asset.
"Any football fan will always attest that some of the most compelling football matches are relegation battles and promotion battles," APL managing director Danny Townsend told ESPN in July. "So if our game can sustain that then we would always be open to looking at that when the time is right.
And while the concept may come across as turkey's voting for Christmas, as part of my chat with APL Managing Director Danny Townsend I asked if the organisation would consider welcoming promotion and relegation from the #ALeague pic.twitter.com/ZFcuczvBd7— Joey Lynch (@joeylynchy) July 5, 2021
"I personally think it's a way off. I think there's a lot of work to do to rehabilitate the game at a professional level. We've taken control of a game that's probably not on the most sound financial footing, and we've got a lot of work to do as APL to ensure that it is in a position to deal with the current and future state in an appropriate manner, let alone re-engineering the entire pyramid at this point in time.
"But we'd welcome the opportunity to work in the broader football community to ensure that that pyramid is a really connected one, and we're all working together to help each other."
Sensing the fraught nature of promotion and relegation, and its ability to dominate and derail discussions, the issue was side-stepped in the AAFC's January report; for Football Australia, it remains a long-term aspiration without a timeline and subject to significant change depending upon the landscape.
"One day [promotion and relegation] does need to be viable in Australia," Johnson told ESPN.
"What's been agreed between Football Australia and [APL] clubs as part of the unbundling agreement ... is that there would be a conversation around access to the competition.
"And access looks different in different parts of the world. Of course, if we go into Western Europe it is promotion and relegation. But if you go into the Americas or you go into parts of Asia, access does look a little bit different.
"Ultimately it's a conversation we've agreed to have; it's one that we've not had yet, but it's something we need to talk about with the APL going forward."
Johnson was clear when asked to clarify if A-League club licences prevented their relegation. "No. It doesn't," he said.
"What we've got to remember is that we play in a global system.
"The global system is regulated by FIFA, and one of the principles is sporting merit and that needs to be seen throughout the world at the appropriate time. You can't contract out of that."