Our archives show you played a bit of Aussie rules football at Tallangatta and cricket for Yackandandah, did soccer come along later for you?
Ha ha you’ve obviously dug deep into the archives to find anything on my Aussie rules days! ?
Soccer, which I will refer to as football, was actually my sporting passion throughout my childhood as well as cricket. I started playing at Twin City Wanderers when I was about 10 years old and played there until I was 17 when I actually won the senior best and fairest and then stopped playing.
I was fortunate to have my Dad coach me at Twin City for many years and I played with Archie Thompson for two or three seasons and there were some incredibly talented junior teams at Twin City in those years. We won the title most years and had some great contests with St. Pats who had Peter Ritchie who was one of our regions greatest football exports and played in junior national teams.
Throughout my junior football days I played in AWFA rep teams and Riverina branch rep teams which I enjoyed however in the end I stopped playing football when I was 17 due to the lack of professionalism in the AWFA seniors at that time which was really disappointing so I went to Aussie Rules where the environment was much more disciplined and harder even at Tallangatta League level.
Did you play in AWFA at all? Committee role at a club?
So I dropped out of the sport as a player quite disillusioned at age 17 and really focussed on my study and career and lived in Melbourne and London for a few years. During those years, I always continued to love the sport as a fan and followed it closely on a national and international level.
It wasn’t until my two daughters wanted to play MiniRoos in 2013 that I got back involved in an unexpected way when I somehow got myself into becoming the MiniRoos Co-Ordinator at Twin City Wanderers.
I ended up being the MiniRoos co-ordinator and coach of multiple teams at Twin City for 6 years and we took our player numbers from about 22 up to the mid 80’s at end of 2018 season when I handed it over.
Were you involved in the founding year of Murray United in 2014?
I first knew of Murray United when I read the story in the Border Mail about the region getting an NPL license in early 2014 which I immediately thought was a very exciting opportunity for the region.
My childhood memories of the frustration of lack of opportunity to develop as a young footballer in this region was the primary motivation to be involved to help out and I chased up Paul Millyn’s contact details and emailed him that morning to offer my support.
Can you recall the feeling around the soccer community when the club got off the ground? Were people against it?
The feelings were very polarised to say the least which really surprised me considering I didn’t understand the political landscape of the sport locally at the time.
There were many who were ecstatic that this opportunity was coming to our region and there were others in the community who did everything they could in the background to make it difficult for the club to survive and unfortunately still do. These people do not think about the players best interests sadly.
Vested interests, personality clashes and egos create conflict and politics which is similar in most sports I suppose. I don’t tend to get caught up in all that and just focus on what is best for the player and what is best for the game.
When FFA created the official NPL pathway across the country they allowed state federations to retain their legacy association representative programs which effectively results in NPL clubs in regional Australia constantly being in conflict with their local community clubs and associations. It is the same or worse at Geelong, Ballarat, Shepparton and Bendigo! FFA should have completely removed old pathways to make it clear for parents.
Mark Byatt was the founding chairman, did you serve on the board with him?
The initial board was formed in March 2014 with Paul Millyn, Linda Marks and Pedro Afonso doing a fantastic job as the three drivers of the project to get it to that stage. I was the fourth person to join as treasurer and we then targeted Mark Byatt as our inaugural Chairman.
Mark had a great profile in the region having been Mayor and was well connected with state government and local businesses and we knew he was the best possible candidate for the role and after a series of meetings we were able to convince him in the project and Mark understood what this club meant for Albury-Wodonga economically and for our local youth. Mark is a real visionary and I learnt a huge amount from him.
The first couple of years were really tough and there was an incredible amount of work put in by Mark, Linda, Pedro, Paul and Tracy Pawlik to get it all up and running as well as David Afonso and Elliot Jones who were at the club coaching from the beginning in the seniors and remained for the majority of our five years.
When did you take over as chairman?
I took over from Mark in early 2017 after a well planned out succession. Hopefully I can pass the baton on to the next chair as professionally as Mark did. It has been a privilege to hold the position however the time will come to hand over to someone new to keep moving the club forward.
The 2017 remains the best in the club’s history from a senior point of view finishing fifth, how big was that for you?
That season was certainly very gratifying. It was my first year as chairman and we were starting to see some real progress after a really tough first two years. James Coutts was an outstanding senior coach considering it was his first ever senior coaching role and he was quite young and he assembled a strong squad and instilled a real winning culture. He was actually player coach in that season and he then moved on to pursue an opportunity at Gold Coast United at the end of that season. Our first five years has proven that it is very difficult to retain good people at the club whether they are coaches, players or administrators as people either move on to pursue greater opportunities or get worn down by the level of commitment required. Every club needs to retain good people for a long time to be successful and needs to keep attracting new quality people.
The Baranduda Fields project has been a long time in the making, you’ve certainly spent a lot of time lobbying for that?
From a board perspective this has certainly been our biggest achievement off the field. Our directors Steve Chaffey and Pedro Afonso deserve all the credit for this outcome which will realise our club dream of having its own home and our region getting three more high quality football fields which is sorely needed. Having our own home will allow the club to have a clear identity and it will clearly be the premium football facility in our region.
Steve and Pedro had countless meetings with state election candidates in late 2018 and then federal election candidates in early 2019 which raised the profile of this project which had stalled for nearly two decades. This lobbying was integral to the outcome and I truly believe Wodonga would not have obtained the funding without their work.
People often do not realise the significant economic contribution our clubs makes to this region with thousands of visitors coming here each year and pending money which is a key return on investment for Baranduda Fields.
Is that hard work in jeopardy without a senior program and the current impacts on the economy due to COVID-19?
The Baranduda Fields project with three football fields is not in jeopardy at all and we look forward to the work commencing later this year which will certainly make it more real and exciting.
Do you feel the club continued to make progress up until this season when the senior program had to be stopped?
Yes certainly the club has progressed each year in all aspects of the club from junior development, coach development, finances and our partnership with Melbourne Victory and Football Victoria. Having the concession of 22 junior home games in Wodonga each season is recent example of the further progress we have made in our ongoing petitioning with Football Victoria.
Can you describe how you felt when the call ultimately had to be made to not run a senior program in 2020?
The emotion was sombre disappointment really and a sense that we really could not have done any more that we did over the 5 years to make it work. We made all the key people know weeks in advance that this was the situation we were facing and in the end there just wasn’t the appetite from those people to put the effort in that is required to have a senior NPL presence.
The change in license requirement to have minimum 54 players above Under 17 is well beyond our region’s capability. We made that quite clear to Football Victoria however no concessions were forthcoming unfortunately.
It is important that we try and support the senior structure at Goulburn Valley Suns to keep senior NPL football alive in regional Victoria after our departure and Bendigo City two years earlier.
After 5 years it was very clear that our junior players that came through our entire program were not staying to play seniors with us. Many relocated or focussed on other areas of life like study, work, socialising and didn’t want to the commitment.
Has COVID-19 made things more difficult for a revival of the senior set up?
The financial resources required to put a competitive senior NPL team on the park is significant, especially when we do not have the player base living locally that wants to commit to NPL football. COVID-19 impact obviously makes it more difficult to find sponsorship.
The reality is that if we want to re-enter seniors then have to start back at the bottom of the pyramid at State League 5 which will not be attractive to players or coaches. More likely option is to have a training base here in Wodonga for another senior NPL club to continue to give players that opportunity.
Is the Football Victoria requirement to field under-18s and under-20s sustainable in regional areas?
It certainly wasn’t sustainable for us due to our remoteness from Melbourne. Hopefully GVS and Ballarat can survive with this requirement or FV provide concessions before losing them.
If senior football does return at Murray, does there need to be a better relationship with AWFA for it to be sustainable?
Our focus is very much now on the juniors. We have gone through extensive strategic planning twice over the past four years and established that the purpose or our club is to produce future Socceroos and Matildas and that is where our focus will remain.
Of course a better relationship with AWFA makes complete sense however that is very difficult when the governance of football in this country effectively makes us compete against each other for players and coaches for the alternative pathway that is promoted.
Does AWFA having its own rep pathway take away from Murray United? Would it make more sense to have all the talented juniors under one umbrella?
Yes of course. There is constant competition for players and coaches which is completely insane. It requires a governance overhaul at the very top that allows FFA to control the game across the country. State Federations have far too much control and retain old legacy models like this which is not for the good of the game or in the players best interests.
It is the equivalent of a talented Aussie rules footballer in our region deciding it is better for his development to play thirds at Wodonga Raiders and play a couple of Ovens & Murray interleague games rather than play and train all season with Murray Bushrangers with and against the best players in the state.
It makes no sense at all and no player should ever believe that there is an easier path to achieve your potential. Intense competition and challenge brings out the best in players.
The pathways of a generation ago for Archie Thompson and Josh Kennedy is very different today, the world of football has progressed so much since back then.
Do you feel if we didn’t live on the Border and have two state bodies overseeing our competitions we wouldn’t be facing as many hurdles?
Certainly, being on the state border presents additional challenges for us compared to other regional centres in Victoria like Shepparton and Bendigo. Governance changes to allow FFA to lead the game across the country would fix things virtually straight away. AFL run their sport across the country (hence the Murray Bushrangers being the clear pathway).
Sadly, people involved in the sport are protective of outcomes for their state and get very parochial about their state and do not have the interests of what is best for the players as their first thought.
From an outsider’s point-of-view cost and travel seems to be a stumbling block for parents sending kids down the Murray pathway. Do you feel that’s the case?
Yes, to an extent. We play 22 of our 33 games per season at home in Wodonga now which is fantastic. There are now only 10 or 11 trips to Melbourne for the full year which is quite acceptable considering the development opportunity available.
The cost is prohibitive for some families however we have a lot of success in helping find sponsors for players who need assistance. We will help any player who is desperate enough to chase their football dreams and we have had many examples where we overcome the cost and supported players.
The cost is $34 per week to get 44 weeks of high intensity training twice a week and games with and against the best players in the state, playing and training at the best facilities and being coached by B License or C License coaches. Is that too excessive to find a sponsor for that amount, considering the alternative is to not have the opportunity and realistically give up on reaching your potential as a footballer?
Has there any reputational damage from the 2018 incident regarding the club’s under-20s and Tyler Curran? That must have been a tough period?
No, I don’t think so, your question is the first time I have heard it mentioned in two years. The coaches in the senior structure made the wrong decision at the time and accepted that. Fielding senior teams was a major challenge in each of the 5 years and sometimes poor decisions are sometimes made when desperate.
You’re also heavily involved in the junior side of the club? Are you still coaching a junior side?
Yes, I really enjoy the coaching and would actually much prefer to be out on the grass with the kids than around a boardroom table. I’ve learnt a great deal from Adam Carty as our Technical Director who has created a strong coaching group at the club who are committed to continually learning and development and we have a group of coaches who have the right values for the club.
This club provides great opportunities for coaches to develop as much as players and I look forward to completing the B License soon.
I coach the Under 13 team which is full of very talented and hard working players including four female players. We have started the season very well and currently third on the table which is really pleasing.
Having your children involved at Murray and seeing their progression as players must be nice as well?
Yes, for sure. Their progression as people and good citizens is more important to Rea and I than their progression as footballers.
Being around the high performance environment 3 times per week for 44 weeks of the year with like minded athletes has given our three kids a lot of confidence in life that they can take on huge challenges and achieve great things through hard work and dedication and they are building strong lifelong friendships at the club. Physically they work very hard and understand the importance of nutrition, sleep, hydration, strength, mobility etc. which will hold them in good stead in life.
The opportunity for the girls to be able to play against the best male players in the state has been critical to their success up until now.
It would be good if more regional players wanted to take on the challenge and improve however some prefer to be the big fish in the small pond at times.
Where do you see Murray United in the next 5, 10, 20 years?
It’s very difficult to predict more than 1 year in advance really. I’d like to think in 5 years the club is recognised as the one of the best junior sporting clubs in the country in terms of the quality of its program and by then we have produced many more players who graduate to ALeague and WLeague clubs as well as national junior team and ultimately Socceroos and matildas.
We are not about quantity, that is the role of community clubs, our focus is entirely on quality.
The future of the club will really depend on local individuals putting in the effort to nourish the club and keep moving it forward. Our club requires strong volunteer effort as we do not have the top down funding of other sports. People like Pedro Afonso, Adam Carty and myself will not be around for ever and it is up to others to put their hand up and offer themselves to help grow the club.
A strong focus for the next 12 months is building our Bright Red SAP program which we will have an exciting announcement about soon and offering a lot of club tournament football for our Bright Red SAP players in the second half of 2020 year.
What are the main goals for the club in 2020?
We still have 26 games left in our 33 round season and we are expecting all 26 games to still occur starting again soon so we are focusing on developing our players to get more into A-League clubs for boys and Victorian state programs for girls.
We have opportunities to top up our Under 15 and Under 16 squads with some new players which we will look to do in over the next few weeks and we will have a strong focus on building up our Bright Red SAP program with tournament opportunities later this year for Under 9’s, Under 10’s and Under 11 players.
We also aim to have an outcome for local based players still wanting to pursue senior NPL football whilst living in our region.
What have been the best achievements for Murray United FC on the field?
We are pleased that so far three of our players (Alec Mills, Linus Bourke and Ryan Kemp) have progressed to A-League clubs which is our goal. We have had around 15 male players who have played for Victoria at the National Youth Championships over the past 5 years also.
The female pathway is quite different with no W-League academies however we are equally please that three of our female players have had Victoria state program representation (Amelia Yates, Annabelle Yates and Poppy O’Keeffe).
I’m confident there will be many more of our players who will reach greater heights in the years ahead.