Football can be United

After a hiatus in 2021, the Football Writers Festival 2022 was a major event in the diary of any football writer, fan or anyone with an interest in the Australian game. Not only a forum to present new authors and to discuss books, the festival has quickly become a way of sharing ideas, and this year many seeds will have been planted amongst the audience. A coming together of the wise and the experienced, former players and administrators of the game, this is my annual Imposter Syndrome weekend. I have to remember that I do write football books, I endulge in semi-serious football journalism and that I am a player, a referee, an active fan and a football dad. I think that qualifies me as someone who understands and knows the sport, but it is still not my profession.

No, this is not a recap of the weekend, this is simply what I took from the weekend, what tickled me and what provoked thought. There is already a marvellous article here on the Roar website by journalist Stuart Thomas that details the weekend and the characters that made this such a worthwhile event.

The Friday evening Portaits exhibition hosted by Bonita Mersiades was a lovely relaxed way to start the weekend. A selection of the thousands of Australian photos acquired from the US adorned the walls of the Jamberoo School of Arts. A selection of the attendees took in dinner at the Jamberoo Pub afterwards where we watched Sydney FC’s demise in Newcastle on a selection of mobile phones over dinner. How fitting that the pub, which doubles as the Johnny Warren museum and is steeped in football tradition, does not have a Paramount Plus subscription.

Saturday saw an early morning pre-festival meet at the Novo Hotel in Kiama, and a marvellous breakfast for an audience with Football Australia director and former Matildas star Heather Garriock. This was a chance to find out what we have planned in the lead up to the World Cup in 2023, as well as what is expected as a legacy. Heather was on her way to the airport to fly out to a FIFA meeting in Lausanne, but was relaxed as she fielded questions from a knowledgeable crowd. We didn’t get too much in the way of breaking news as the questions veered away from the main topic, but it was a lovely start to a big day.

The first day of the festival was terrific. Panel sessions, one-on-ones and a slideshow presentation were organised back-to-back, with a short lunch to catch up with fellow football people. Andy Bernal, or “Birch” to everyone who knows him, inadvertently dropped some news about a new an exciting venture at an A-League club which is happening soon. He is a confident man who has a thousand anecdotes and his book is a rollercoaster of a read. He has an healthy obsession with ‘firsts’, having trailblazed in whatever he has done in his life. His enthusiasm and charisma needs to be harnessed in Australian football.

I really like Danny Townsend. Not just because of his Sydney FC connections. He is so articulate and has the best ‘management speak’ of any football person I know. This could have been quite a tricky session for him, but his ability to deliver a convincing response, despite often failing to deliver an answer, had the audience enthralled. Aside from the magnificent assertion that there were “no politics in football”, we were treated to some cracking sayings, continuing on from the “keys to the car” theme of his last appearance at the event. “Fix the aeroplane while it’s in the air” was a lovely one, “whack the crocodile closest to the canoe” was a beauty, and when describing the separation of the APL and FA, he referred to them as a divorced couple – “they look after the kids, but don’t want to speak in the driveway.” It was also interesting to hear some progress reports. A 3/10 for the APL’s deliverables so far, only a score of 15% for the digital infrastructure. It was very refreshing to hear such candid assessment of the progress to date. Such low scores at school would have a note at the bottom saying ‘See me’.

Andy Howe was excellent, he revealed that his kids names were “Ollie” and “Rueben” – that makes Olyroo – and gave us a “stats party time” of some of the more obscure fun facts to do with player names. Fabulous stuff and a light-hearted self-deprecating session.

An entertaining panel of authors was then led by Stuart Thomas to discuss the methods used and the style adopted in each of their non-fiction and fiction books. I was on that panel, the book Anna Black – This Girl Can Play having a new fiction stablemate in Michael Fiddian‘s The End of the Game. Exciting times for Fair Play Publishing as the number of titles expands and we see more and more football books released.

Craig Foster gave us a session of hard-hitting realities. We are “believing our own bullshit”, stated one attendee during the session. The Lisa De Vanna issue deeply disappointed him with the communication from the top that was a “response from ten years ago.” The fact that the football media has been smashed to virtually nothing means that there is no debate any more and the choreographed answers from the administration to serious issues are not challenged. Foz called for a national summit. We seemed to be in a summit at the Football Writers Festival, this was hard-hitting self-reflecting content for the football community. The title of “Prime Minister of Football” was bestowed on him as he left the stage.

Someone I have never heard speak before is Brendan Schwab, and it was clear that he is a fantastic orator and academic. He has decades in fooball, a union leader, a visionary for an Australian Premier League during his time with the NSL. The quote “Australia does not have a football voice globally” was insightful. At some point in the session, a call was made for Brendan and Schwabby to be the next CEO and chairman of our sport. A popular call, both brimming with excellent ideas.

A brilliant panel for Be My Guest featuring the authors Jason Goldsmith and Lucas Gillard gave the collection of former players and managers an opportunity to share anecdotes of the overseas imports who graced the Australian game. The enigmatic Rale Rasic came up with a gem when he wanted to be heard. “I want to say something without you asking me a question” had the audience and the panel cracked up. John Kosmina was adamant that Romario shouldn’t have joined his Adelaide United team but was overruled despite the player being a “busted arse”. The eloquent George Harris recounted a time when Franny Lee was left in a lay-by after a pit stop in the team bus. There were anecdotes galore, and this was a teaser for the happy hour to come. Kossie warned us not to knock the Australian greats off their pedestals (Tim Cahill, Harry Kewell et al) as they’re worth too much to the game.

The Happy Hour had a big panel who were asked about their bests and given two minutes each to plot out a future for football. Again Kossie was excellent and there was a lot of love for Alen Stajcic who is just a fabulous football person. There was a round of applause for his achievements with the Philippines women’s national team and we got an insight into how that came about. Rale was anointed the “Godfather of Australian football”. The conclusion of happy hour saw a number of people disappear, off to have dinner elsewhere and to catch up with old friends, but the majority were there until the minibus left for Kiama at the end of the night, after the Hard Quiz organised by the Ladies League. That was a laugh a minute, a heavy Chilean influence to the questions and some question rounds that would have taken some time and effort to put together. A quick drink in the RSL after being turned away by every other establishment in Kiama, and a massive day was brought to an end.

An expert panel discussing women’s football.

The Sunday morning sessions started at 9am, and the theme was Code Wars, a debate following the subject of Hunter Fujak‘s book of the same name. The main theme was the successful way the AFL was run, and discussion of how they had an independent commission, Archie Fraser having been a CEO in that realm in the past. The suggestion was that AFL is always wary of football, and other codes for that matter, and its potential. Some classic quotes came from this, “participation is a bullshit metric” an example, but the most telling words came from former NRL man Rabieh Krayem, who was head of North Queensland Fury’s A-League venture. A very articulate and charming man, he spelled it out simply : “rugby league listens to its people”, “no one believes our story” and “we are worse off now than we were 11 years ago” were telling statements. This is a man who came across to football from rugby league only a decade ago, but someone who believes that “football is better than rugby league”. Fascinating stuff.

Some stark realities were also voiced : “Expansion should not be on the table”, “Better to stick with a sub-optimal strategy than flipping strategies”, as well as a fantastic thought-provoking statement “we don’t need to be the number one sport, it’s okay to be number two.” Hunter’s book had definitely opened a lively debate, and the panel could have run all day.

Football commitments, an NPLW Under 15s game in Moorebank and an A-League Women Grand Final meant that we left the festival early and missed a good chunk of a panel on women’s football. We did hear some insight into why Elissia Carnavas left the sport of football at such an early stage of what was a successful career. Looking back on the Lisa De Vanna situation of 2021, it appears that Sport Integrity Australia has many more instances of questionable conduct in our sport that could and should be investigated.

There was a session on history that we missed that was well received, and an online hook-up with Football Australia’s CEO where James Johnson stuck to the script. A weekend of football talk was concluded with the A-League Women’s final live on TV, but we were already there, singing our way to defeat as Sydney FC were picked off by Melbourne Victory for the second year running.

The 2023 edition of the Football Writers Festival is set to take place just before the FIFA Women’s World Cup arrives in Australia and New Zealand. This will be a return to Sydney in an iconic location and big names are set to be part of the weekend. This is a writer’s festival with a difference. It is a meeting of football minds, people with great knowledge of the game on the field as well as behind the scenes. The books spark debate, the people bring their ideas and the result is lively debate that can only be of benefit to the game as a whole. Well done Bonita Mersiades for conceptualising this excellent event. See you all next year.

It’s all over! All of our problems are solved.

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