Wanted: The next Craig Johnston

The Hunter is looking to produce world-class footballing talent once more thanks to a partnership between Northern New South Wales Football Federation (NNSWF) and the Newcastle Jets.

The area has produced some of Australia’s greatest footballers over the years, including Reg Date, Ray Baartz and Craig Johnston, but the production line has slowed in recent times.

According to NNSWF outgoing director technical director, David Smith, it’s all about developing an early passion for the game.

“You come into the program you get a ball,” Smith said. “That’s your ball. You go to bed with the ball. You don’t turn up to training without a ball. Everything you do is with a ball. In the end if the ball’s wrecked, I’m happy. It’s just a little principle we have.”

That said, they are still some way off reproducing the region’s glory days.

“I think it’d be fair to say at the moment we’re not producing world class players,” Smith added.

“This one is really hard, we all want to produce the best world-class players.

“In the short term I believe our major role is to develop the best male and female players who can come through the talented player program to represent the Newcastle Jets and Australia at all levels.”

The Emerging Jets program, a player development initiative between the Jets and NNSWFF, was rolled out in September 2012 with the aim of providing a pathway for young footballers from the region to reach the Jets A-League and W-League sides as well as Australia’s national teams.

The program was the first of its kind between an A-League side and a state federation and connects the grassroots with the topflight.

Smith said the Emerging Jets program had a long way to go but has set lofty goals in helping the Hunter Region develop quality players.

The recent appointment of former Jets coach Gary van Egmond as a full-time Emerging Jets academy director demonstrated the commitment to producing players of the highest technical and tactical level, he said. 

Adding: “It is good to have 33% of the current Newcastle Jets squad born in Northern NSW but none have gone on to become full Socceroos.

“This is an area we are sure will change but it will not happen overnight, this is a long term project.”

The NNSWFF launched under 10s, 11s, 12s, 13s, 15s and 16s teams for boys, and under 13s, 15s and 18s for the girls last year.

Smith, who is joining Football Federation Victoria as its technical director next month, believes the Emerging Jets program is still “two to three years off where we want to be with it”.

“It came about because we couldn’t get constant games in Sydney and we needed to provide a pathway for kids,” he said.

“We had the old NSWIS program but NSW pulled the funding, so we had to find different ways. We had the Emerging Athlete Program and got permission to bring the Jets into the NBN State League but there was no real link to it. We had to find one. We set it up to have a pathway. 

“Our biggest problem is we don’t have the player depth in numbers. It’s going to take some time to get there.” 

Smith admits there is a problem with coaching quality in the state federation, but that is changing.

“We’ve got some good coaches but not enough and most of those are not working with youth players, and a lot of them haven’t being re-educated for a lack of a better word,” he said.

The NNSWFF has also been proactive in setting up a coaching fund using money from the NBN League grand final takings.

Smith said: “In the short term, over the last six months, we have had around 80 coaches who have completed AFC advanced courses.

“The majority of these guys will be working in the National Premier League clubs or our zone Skill Acquisition Program (SAP), which will help greatly with the delivery of the updated curriculum.

“We're trying to mirror what we do with the Emerging Jets in the zones. Six of the seven zones (in NNSWFF) have agreed to it. Each zone is running a SAP program for around 100 players in the 9-12 age groups.

“Every zone works on the same core skill that week. We’re then judging the players on the same training. The idea being that each zone has its own technical director and that the technical director reports back into me.

“Unless we build the core base we’re not going to get anywhere because like most things, (there's the belief) that if you’re not in the Emerging Jets you can’t get anywhere. And that’s so wrong.

“Unless they’re doing the work we’re doing, they can’t make the jump.

“It’s like I take a kid to England and unless he’s better than the players there, nice, fine, great if you want to come back but it’s at your cost.

“We’ve expanded it to under 8s and 9s. We’ve got to get them in much younger. We’ve got to build the base.”

Smith believes the new program is starting to have an impact.

“If I look at our 9s, 10s and 11s compared to our 12s, 13s, and 14s, there is a big difference technically and confidence-wise,” he said.

“There’s no fear. It’s also an education of parents, it’s a dual purpose. They talk about the 10,000 hours, we can only do six to seven hours a week. So we have to encourage the kids to do another five to six hours on their own but give them the ammunition to go and do it.

“In Australian football at age nine and 10 and 11, those kids, they really want to learn. Once they start to see this, then the circle, this comes in, this comes in. Parents will take kids anywhere at nine and 10 and 11. We’re very fortunate of the support base we’ve got.”