Y-League cancelled for 2021 as APL flags reform for Australia's talent pipeline

Largely driven by the economic imperative created by COVID-19, young A-League players have been seeing the field in hitherto unseen numbers in 2020-21, with figures such as Lachlan Rose, Yaya Dukuly, Josh Rawlins and Mohamed Toure stepping into the spotlight.

However, for prospects just not quite able to break through to the first team or those who require another year or two of development, their next opportunity to play will have to wait a little while yet.

Australian Professional Leagues (APL) commissioner Greg O'Rourke confirmed to ESPN what many in Australian football had long suspected: The Y-League has been officially shelved for 2020-21 due to health and safety challenges wrought by the pandemic.

"Yes, it has [been cancelled]," O'Rourke told ESPN in an exclusive interview. "And it was done primarily due to the risk of border closures and the possibility of us having minors, young individuals, caught in hotel quarantine situations -- which we wanted to avoid."

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Nonetheless, there's no suggestion that Sydney FC will serve as the final champions in the youth competition's history.

With the Y-League -- alongside the A-League, W-League and E-League -- now under the control of the APL following the conclusion of the long "unbundling" process from Football Australia, O'Rourke moved quickly to hose down any speculation over its future under the new paradigm: "We took control of the four leagues, and we intend to run the four leagues."

Newly independent league operators have instead now begun the process of seeking to reform the much-maligned competition and determine how it can serve as a more effective conduit between youth and senior football.

At present, the Y-League features an eight-game regular season of home-and-away fixtures between two, five-team conferences. The winner of those conferences then play off in a one-legged final to determine the champion.

These two conferences are divided by geography to control costs -- one effectively an NSW conference plus Canberra, who play in place of Wellington Phoenix -- and don't feature any crossovers. This means that the best youth prospects from Western Sydney haven't played their counterparts at Adelaide United or Perth Glory since the current model was adopted in 2015-16.

It's a format widely derided as woefully inadequate, with Socceroos and Olyroos coach Graham Arnold raising the current structure as a possible reason the production line of Socceroos has begun to sputter in recent years in October, asking ESPN: "How do you expect to get a physical body for elite sport when you're doing it for eight [Y-League] games?"

ESPN understands that internal, but still preliminary, conversations are taking place at the leagues surrounding several possible models that could be pursued in future years. These include concepts such as an extended competition staged during the summer months or a carnival-style tournament of multiple age groups staged at a different location each year.

O'Rourke said that the league format would ultimately depend upon what purpose it was given as part of the broader environment A-League clubs were seeking to create in the youth development space.

"I think we all agree that just having an extra eight games and a one-off finals game between the two conferences doesn't satisfy any purpose except just to have a few more games," he said.

"What we need to do is find a purpose which satisfies the pathway that we're trying to create, the opportunities for those players to make their way into their A-League team and how do we ensure we see the best of the best."

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For their part, A-League academy staff have largely been approaching the cancellation of the 2020-21 Y-League as fait accompli for several months, foreseeing coming National Premier Leagues (NPL) competitions as the next opportunity that their players will get to engage in competitive matches.

Thanks to restrictions put in place around Australia to fight the pandemic and the mothballing of the Y-League, it means that some players -- particularly those attached to Melbourne Victory, Melbourne City and Western United -- will be participating in their first competitive matches in over a year.

As part of its efforts to strengthen Australian youth development in the wake of its Performance Gap report, which was first revealed by ESPN, Football Australia has been undergoing a reform push in the NPL space in recent months -- pressing on regardless of the unbundling of the federation from the leagues.

These reforms include increasing A-League appearance and age eligibility limits on players who can play with academy teams -- which will combine with changes in A-League youth contract regulations to aid with retention of under-23 players -- an increase in season length and the placement of all academy sides in their local NPL1s.

Australian interim-national technical director Trevor Morgan told ESPN that while the latter reform has been mothballed after extensive consultation with member federations and NPL clubs, the others remained on track for implementation in 2021 in some NPLs or in a more staggered time frame in others.

These, he hoped, would help to begin to mitigate the loss of the Y-League in 2020-21 as well as provide a more fertile ground for development in the years to come.

"I think there's a tremendous opportunity to utilise the connections we've made around the country with member federations and NPLs to enable young players up to the age of 23 to play NPL if they're with an A-League club," he told ESPN. "Obviously, [Football Australia is] going to look at the NPL level football, as well, to identify talent, and they're two great opportunities for us at the current time.

"I think across the board, in meetings, member federations and the people running the competitions flagged that it was a concern to move [clubs] above the league that they were in. So, where A-League clubs have been in NPL2 in their federation, the opportunity for them is to be promoted via the process. That's the resolution.

"Then, we're saying we want 30 matches, we still want the opportunity for people to play the match minutes they need to play and we still want the amendment to the age groups that allow a 21-year-old to get experience within the A-League or the NPL; they can keep playing and get better.

"That's the way forward for everything, collaboration. Collaboration over compromise because at the end of the day sometimes it's not when you give something up but actually, you become aware of another opportunity because of the conversation."

Talks on the future of youth development and competition at league headquarters extending beyond A-League technical directors to Morgan, Arnold, member federations and their technical staff, and Football Australia, O'Rourke confirmed that the NPL looms as a significant part of a future professional pathway regardless of the structure that the Y-League adopts.

"We feel [the NPL] provides a natural pathway, an amount of games and an environment for those players to grow," he explained. "To actually try to replicate that in a separate system is a waste of resources and a duplication."

Due to the youth deals that the majority of its competitors operate on, Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) doesn't represent all Y-League participants like it does the A-League and W-League.

Nonetheless, with it in their best interests for there to be a growing number of professional Australian footballers, the union has released several studies into Australian pathways and how they can be improved in recent years and co-chief executive Beau Busch has welcomed the possibility of Y-League reform.

"Clearly the Y-League in its previous format did not serve our players, clubs or Australian football," he told ESPN. "Now is the time for a complete reform of the competition.

"Through our Y-League Report, our Player Pathway Study and our Cultural Amplifies Talent research, we have developed a deep and foundational understanding of both the current problems facing youth development but also the key ingredients to successful talent production in this country.

"Utilising this extensive evidence-base, combined with the will of the players, we have the perfect opportunity to build a fit for purpose youth league model via the next round of collective bargaining negotiations that delivers better outcomes for Australian football."

Regardless of what format it takes in the future, O'Rourke also confirmed that the APL was exploring avenues to packaging the Y-League as part of a potential broadcasting or streaming deal.

Not only would such a move give fans a chance to watch their generation next in action, but it would also provide a new shop window for prospects seeking to attract the attention of foreign -- or even local, with the introduction of a domestic transfer system -- clubs.

"We're definitely considering all the content we have being available through our future media platforms on all four leagues we have," the APL commissioner said. "Including to work with Football Australia to see if we can bundle up with the FFA Cup."