Harsh lessons for NPL girls

Even before the final whistle sounded on the final day of the 2023 Football NSW Girls Youth League Under 16 season, all the girls could think about was 2024. Moving into the most important years of schooling, skipping an age group to Under 18s, or in the case of Division 2, straight to Under 20s, this was a tense period of uncertainty cast upon a large proportion of players. Clubs had already made their minds up about player retentions, most clubs had even earmarked a number of players to join their squads for next year, scouted from the huge pool of eager talent at youth level. The fervour of the Matildas’ incredible run in their home World Cup had reignited passion for the beautiful game across the state, and the interest to play was at an all-time high.

With no Under 17s at club or NPL level, the number of openings available to the girls was instantly slashed. Clubs from around Sydney conducted trainings sessions, inviting players of interest to join. These were not trials – the official trial period in NPL youth football tends to be a strict timeline that forces trial dates to clash all over the state – and sometimes they were simply training sessions to assess one or two potential new recruits and to confirm that players were or were not wanted. For those players in Division 1, a full squad of up to 18 players from the Under 16s would join together with the remaining 17-year-olds, and any potential star recruits, to make a pool of upwards of 35 players hoping to fit into a 2024 under 18s squad of 18. That’s half of the current players instantly frozen out.

And a number of those players were never going to make it. In the meantime, to the unsuspecting parents, who had not had their girls trial for a number of years and had happily parted with handsome fees every year for the privilege of playing at the top level, this was a sudden shock to the system. Some wily parents got in quick and accepted that there was a reason their daughter was not going to be retained, and took offers from elsewhere ahead of the trial period. When the trial period opened, others pinned their hopes on trials at their own club, or at other clubs, where the same groups of players would be seen going from trial to trial, club to club, some even attending three trial sessions with different clubs on the one Super Sunday in early October. There was also a group of players who simply decided to call time or press pause on their football careers, and the quality of some of the players who fell into that category was simply unforgiveable. The natural attrition at this age group, due to the upcoming school commitments of HSC, the decision to concentrate on other conflicting pursuits and the physical demands on changing bodies is perhaps a factor as to why the Under 17 age group does not exist, or even why Division 2 jumps from Under 16s straight into Under 20s football. But in 2023, of all years, the abrupt curtailment of a fledgling career is hard to understand.

Trials would often be oversubscribed, lengthy, and unproductive. By the third trial session at a club, had there been not even a glance in a player’s direction by the coaching staff, it was time to move on. By the end of the trial period, there was either a panic to find a spot anywhere, or an acceptance that natural selection had just taken place. The Facebook group, a real meal of a name in Trial Information for Football NSW Boys & Girls Youth League, AYL & (G)SAP, but a fantastic resource for finding remaining trials and squads requiring players, became the go-to page on social media for anxious parents and their daughters. The rumour-mill was in overdrive too, tales of players accepting positions, but then deciding to move on when something better came up. Were Sutherland Shire FA in or out for 2024? Had Blacktown Spartans recruited a number of Bankstown players? Why were the Hills United trials on so late? How would the Central Coast Mariners recruits manage playing in Sydney? Why did Inter Lions and UNSW have their trials on the same night? Did clubs regret offering so many positions to 2023 players before the trials, given the enormous interest?

Hopefully everyone has now settled on a direction that continues their involvement in football at an appropriate level. Club football will be booming in 2024 with an influx of skilful players with National Premier League experience, and also on the back of the most incredible year for female football in this country. Whatever happens, the class of 2023 for Under 16s has just negotiated the choppiest of waters, and must be congratulated for their resilience, patience and persistence. Pre-season training is underway, and we will see the first pre-season hit-outs before Christmas that set the scene for the coming year.

For the Under 16s class of 2024, take heed.

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