A-League clubs and players deadlocked. PLUS: Foundations for The Championship, W-League and the Nix

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There's enough drama, plotting and subterfuge going around the FFA, APFCA and PFA right now to fill an entire season of Neighbouring. It therefore must be time for another Australian football wrap!

Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield

The biggest story in Australian football, as it seemingly always is, continues to be one of malaise; negotiations between the Australian Professional Football Clubs Association (APFCA) and Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) over a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) dragging on.

Though believed to be close to consensus in some areas of discussion, clubs and players remain at a significant impasse over proposed cuts to player wages for the season ahead. A-League owners are seeking reductions of up to 30% in individual player salaries and a lowering of the cap and floor, a move they insist is necessary for the continued survival of clubs in an environment of economic contraction.

The PFA, in turn, says that players have already shouldered a significant burden during the COVID-enforced downturn and that, though belt-tightening is needed, the current proposals place an inequitable burden on individual players. Subsequent PFA counteroffers of rolling cuts of 5% to the salary cap over a three-year period or the possibility of a salary cap/floor free year in 2021 have done little to break the deadlock.

The union's membership formally voted to reject a proposal from clubs that would have empowered them to make their proposed reductions to player salaries, with players able to leave the club within seven days if they didn't want to accept the offer, earlier this week. The vote wasn't close, with sources telling ESPN that roughly 90% of the votes cast were against accepting the proposal.

In its aftermath, reports surfaced on Wednesday that the majority of A-League clubs had moved to withhold 50% of player salaries in an effort to force players to relent in their resistance, with only Brisbane Roar, Melbourne Victory and the Central Coast Mariners paying players their full entitlements for the month according to SBS. Most surprising, and disappointing, amongst the clubs slashing player pay was Melbourne City; who as part of the mega-rich City Football Group aren't exactly hurting for funds. The report has been confirmed to ESPN by a City source.

Sydney FC CEO Danny Townsend has since taken to social media to deny the reports of his club slashing pay.

"As per the players' individual and legally-binding club contracts, the clubs are required to pay the players' full entitlements and any reduction would be a breach of their contract," a PFA spokesperson told ESPN. Given past litigation threats and the tone struck by the union, a legal showdown over contract violations will likely loom in the coming weeks.

FFA CEO James Johnson, who alongside the rest of the FFA has attempted to take a step back as clubs take over CBA talks as part of their transition to independence, will now almost certainly be forced to intervene in an attempt to salvage proceedings. But even if Johnson does ride in on a white horse and fix everything, the entire saga has turned into yet another fine example of how the game in Australia is its own worst enemy.

The A-League is moving into a 2021 season in which it will be looking to find a new broadcast partner and fresh sponsors to replace the host that have departed in recent months. To do this, not only will it need to put forward an attractive product that generates excitement and emotional investment -- hard to do without good quality players -- but also get its house in order. In the current economic climate, no potential sponsor is going to want to get into bed with a partner that is constantly teetering on the edge of an abyss.

While it can't be said that COVID-19 has given the game the best hand when it comes to delivering on this task, it also can't be said it's doing much to aid its own cause -- an embarrassing misstep from those that long agitated for independence.

Monty can't buy me love

Multiple sources with knowledge of the CBA negotiations have told ESPN that, despite the fractured nature of the discussions for the men's game, there is a tacit understanding between the various parties that the W-League's regulations will remain largely untouched by the talks.

Though it would likely have been superfluous for the coming season anyway, the deluge of Australian women that have made their way overseas meaning that the best remunerated of the competition's local contingent were already off club books, it's a small positive as the W-League looks to forge ahead and build a new identity ahead of the 2023 Women's World Cup.

Though a number of W-League sides have begun announcing their squads, the uncertainty surrounding next season's dates is leading others -- including defending champions Melbourne City -- to keep their powder dry when it comes to W-League news.

The Trouble with Trillions

The 2023 Women's World Cup will also represent the end-date for a newly agreed CBA between the FFA and Australia's national teams, who announced an extension to their deal on Thursday. The hard-won gains in the last CBA, that saw the Socceroos and Matildas receive an equal split of the revenue generated by national teams, are set to continue under the new deal.

"Preserving a world-leading CBA during a challenging period for the industry was of critical importance to the players as we seek to work in partnership with FFA to rebuild the sport in the wake of COVID-19," PFA co-CEO Kate Gill said.

"The National Team CBA model was designed with the flexibility to allow individual entitlements to be redirected, meaning we could find a solution that dignifies the Matildas as professional footballers and ensures an equal distribution of revenues to the players, whilst maintaining the high-performance environment. Importantly, this outcome can help our sport build the foundations for a once in a generation opportunity; hosting the FIFA Women's World Cup 2023."


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The Day the Violence Died

It got somewhat lost in translation when the identities of the 30 members of the AAFC's Partner Group were first revealed, but it's important to note that the clubs involved in the newly announced group do not represent the final pool from which a National Second Division (NSD) -- which will be named The Championship -- will be drawn from. The 30 clubs named, who have since been joined by at least five more, are instead contributing financial and intellectual resources toward the development of league design, modelling, and criteria that can be taken to the FFA and other relevant stakeholders in an attempt to help kickstart the process of introducing the competition.

The Partner Group plans to present their findings within months, although AAFC President Nick Galatas qualified to ESPN that they weren't going to allow themselves to be rushed when it came to the delivery of a sufficiently detailed final product.

FFA CEO Johnson has previously welcomed the work the AAFC is undertaking to provide more concrete information, however, following the announcement did move to reassert some level of control over the introduction of a national second-tier when approached by the Sydney Morning Herald.

"We encourage the AAFC to work collaboratively with FFA who, ultimately, will need to sanction any such competition and its composition," he said.

Galatas, who told ESPN back in August that the work the AAFC was doing in no way constituted a break with the FFA, said he welcomed the chance for the newly formed Partner Group to collaborate with other stakeholders such as the PFA and Football Coaches Australia. The AAFC, he then went on to say, is under no illusions that it was the FFA that would lead the introduction of a national second tier.

"We're going to seek [feedback]," he said. "Not only do we welcome it, but we will also seek it out and it will make what we do more robust -- that's the purpose of this."

Despite the sense of momentum building, however, the excitement surrounding the potential introduction of a national second tier has been tempered in many quarters by recollections that it represents just the latest in a series of pushes to introduce one -- with all before it failing.

"Why is it different this time?" Galatas said when this was put to him. "It's different because the FFA has now said categorically, through James and through the board, that they favour an introduction.

"Not only do they favour it, but they've also all decided they're going to have one. James has been very supportive and has openly said that the FFA is working towards the introduction of a NSD. So, we, therefore, think it will happen, we have confidence in the FFA.

"All we're doing is we're assisting that process. We're basically providing the FFA with as much information, modelling, and resources as it requires so that we might assist the FFA to adopt the necessary resolutions as soon as possible.

"I know it's always been said, but what's happened before doesn't mean it won't happen now. Never before have we had the momentum we've got now, the open support of what is 35 clubs and growing for this to happen. There's public support, there's media support, there's support from every stakeholder -- every stakeholder has said that they support the introduction of a NSD."

Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily

But while the AAFC is doing a lot of the preparatory work, NPL clubs are not the only entities that could possibly serve as potential entrants for a national second division -- with A-League youth sides and new clubs representing geographic areas floated as alternative options in past discussions.

Southeast Melbourne entity Team 11, which narrowly missed out on one of the two A-League licences on offer from the FFA during the last round of expansion, is an example of the latter. Though having been largely quiet in recent times, Team 11 Project Officer Matt Windley confirmed to ESPN that though there hadn't been any formal discussions between themselves and the FFA in recent times, the group nevertheless still remains committed to its goal of bringing professional men's and women's football to the region.

Socceroo Jackson Irvine, who was one of the bid's ambassadors during the expansion process, remains hopeful about the chances of Team 11's prospects.

"For someone that grew up out in that area, the idea of a professional domestic team, whether in the top league or if they bring in a second division, that's an unbelievably exciting prospect for myself," the Socceroo, who is currently a free agent, told ESPN.

"The idea of coming home to play [for them] in Australia one day, that would be something that would be very attractive."

Hurricane Neddy

With the CBA negotiations continuing along at a spiteful pace, it should come as no surprise that players that have options to head overseas are doing so; now-former Wellington Phoenix captain Steven Taylor is one of the latest to part ways with his club. Though Taylor had previously signed a contract that would tie him to the club for the next two seasons and clearly enjoyed living in windswept Wellington, he told Stuff on Wednesday that the murkiness surrounding the league had made his position untenable.

As is the case for all A-League's clubs, the Nix remain in a state of limbo until a new CBA agreement can be reached, with Taylor joining former Celtic hitman Gary Hooper in departing in recent weeks. Midfielder Matti Steinmann has returned home to Germany and is off-contract, seemingly unlikely to return, and although David Ball and Ulises Davila remain on-contract their status for the next campaign must now be called into question.

Head Coach Ufuk Talay, one of the coaches of the year in 2020-21, now faces the prospect of a second rebuild in as many seasons in New Zealand. Unfortunately for the 44-year-old, there are a number of COVID-enforced challenges that will be unique to he and his side among A-League clubs.

"I think that the salary cap is going to affect the majority of the squad," Kiwi football commentator and Newstalk ZB host Jason Pine told ESPN. "But the revenue streams are going to be affected because will they have any home games?

"If they don't, they lose all that ticket revenue and they lose leverage with sponsors because sponsors get benefits that are based on game days, matchday advertising and hospitality. So, their revenue streams are reduced and therefore they do have to look at what they can do.

"My gut feel is that, at least for the next season and probably the one after that, the strategy of the club is probably going to have to be young Kiwis and, to a lesser extent, some young Australians as well. In the absence of being able to pay for these big money marquees, and even get them here and have them agree to spend all or some of the season in Australia, they almost have to go down the path of trying to find another Liberato Cacace or Sarpreet Singh.

"The other part of that is that they then kind of endear themselves to the New Zealand public in a different way because they may not have a Davila or Hooper but they'll see what they're doing with these young Kiwi kids and giving them a crack in professional football where they might have otherwise not got an opportunity."

Luckily for Nix fans, the youth crops in New Zealand appear bountiful; the nation reaching the knockout stages of the 2019 Under-20 World Cup and Pine singing the praises of the Phoenix and Ole academies.

You Only Move Twice

With every member of the most recent Matildas squad now attached to European clubs, the W-League is set to look very different next season as Australia's women strike out abroad seeking further opportunity.

But at Melbourne Victory, the exodus isn't being seen as too great an impediment to this year's recruitment.

"I think for us, we're in a fortunate position," Victory football general manager Drew Sherman told ESPN. "We've had a strategy for the last two years which has always been around the girls that are maybe on the fringes of the Matildas, having some talented local Victorian players in the group and supplementing that with a few quality foreign players that we can fit in the salary cap and budget.

"Our strategy hasn't really changed. We've not been targeting and going after the best Matildas and thinking we can compete to keep them here from Europe. Ours is the next group that, really, what we want to do is give them regular game time in the W-League, get them in the Matildas, get them overseas and be that platform.

"Angie [Beard] is one of those girls that exactly fits that bill: right on the cusp of the Matildas, one we feel that should be in that group and has been important for us."

The Colour Yellow

The Socceroos and Matildas officially have new kits, with Nike unveiling the latest Australia national team threads with the aid of Sam Kerr, Ellie Carpenter, Caitlin Foord, Kyah Simon, Hayley Raso, Trent Sainsbury, Awer Mabil, Adam Taggart, and Jamie Maclaren on Thursday afternoon.

Constructed with 100% recycled polyester from plastic bottles, the home kit features the classic green and gold design, with a collar for good measure, while the away kits feature a green kit reminiscent of the Socceroos shirts of 2004. More importantly, however, green shorts have returned for the home kits.

The home kit, in particular, has already drawn comparisons to the beloved threads worn by the Matildas during the 2015 Women's World Cup and the Socceroos during their 2015 Asian Cup triumph, and Maclaren, who will be refraining from popping his new collar unless he bags a hat trick, says that they served as a fitting tribute to the latter.

"When I was 17 and got the first phone call after playing two games for Scotland, it didn't feel right not putting the green and gold on," Maclaren told ESPN. "This will be my sixth Australian jersey now and it's something that I take pride in and it's a fantastic way to even reminisce about the 2015 Asian Cup winners.

"They deserve that recognition. Past and present players at the moment do recognise that that was the most successful period Australia's men have had and those guys deserve to be appreciated - the experienced leaders that have passed on the baton to guys like myself and the new generation.

"There's a couple of names that stand out, Mile [Jedinak] and Millsy [Mark Milligan] were fantastic for us and it's definitely a nice tribute. I love the jersey and I'm itching to put it on in a real game."