Former Socceroo defender Ljubo Milicevic knows Australian football better than most and that is why he is determined to see the introduction of a second division in the country.
Talk of a second-tier competition has dominated discussions since the Association of Australian Football Clubs (AAFC) – a lobby group representing National Premier League clubs from state federations and the ACT – unveiled plans for a national division to be aligned with the A-League by 2019.
In the blueprint published last week, the league, named 'The Championship', would consist of between 12 and 16 clubs from the existing state league setup, with the target of introducing promotion and relegation in five years.
Football Federation Australia (FFA) have been quick to dismiss the idea but eight-time international Milicevic – who enjoyed European stints with Hajduk Split, FC Thun, Zurich as well as Melbourne Victory and Newcastle Jets in the 10-team A-League having also played for the likes of Melbourne Knights, South Melbourne and Dandenong City at state level – is adamant it is time to provide more opportunities for emerging talent.
Speaking to Goal, Milicevic said: "Seeing it from the outside-in, I definitely believe there can be a second division and there needs to be.
"There are players at the moment not getting the opportunity because there's not enough clubs. Basically, the way the A-League currently works, every team has their maximum quota of foreigners and they're generally all in the first XI. Because if they've recruited well, that's where they should be. You don't recruit foreigners to sit on the bench. That restricts places for young Aussies coming through.
"What happens and it happens all over the world in every league, those players are generally in key positions. Whether it's your centre midfielder, number 10, number nine and centre-back, there's less opportunities for players who we really need to drive our game forward. A second division would give those kids coming through exposure and also extend the careers of some of other guys that still have a lot to offer.
"There shouldn't be this ageism that sometimes exists in other sports in Australia. Footballers can comfortably play until the age of 40 if they're physically, emotionally, spiritually able to. It has many benefits. It would also keep more of our top-line ex-pros in the game. A lot of them are leaving the game also. If they haven't been clever enough to play the game as some others have, they are no longer involved. We are losing a lot of knowledge and our major asset. We have a lot of players who spent 10-20 years in Europe. Where are they all now? If I look through all the teams in the A-League, there's a bare minimum involved and quite often, they are not actually the ones who played at the very top. It's more the ones who were focused on getting a gig at a club.
"We aren't just losing the quality from a point of view where players aren't getting an opportunity at a young age. We're also losing the quality because there aren't chances for our ex-players to stay involved. As soon as you go to a two-tier professional set-up, of course it is going to be beneficial to our game in general."
If the AAFC gets its way, promotion and relegation from the A-League will be implemented by the 2024-25 season, and Milicevic added: "It's important to have relegation. You actually see who has the quality to deal with those moments and who doesn't. If you're always just playing for basically participation, without naming names there's a few teams in the A-League in the last five years who have only been receiving participation awards, you get rid of that. When you get rid of that, you have players who generally strive to be better coming through. When you have two divisions, you have enough room for them all and more exposure.
"It also makes you always play under that pressure you need to be the best. Whether you're playing for the title or trying to avoid relegation, you are no longer taking it easy in games as a coach, player or administrator. It works in Europe so why not here? Obviously, you need to put structures in place to make it work. Sooner rather than later, it needs to be done. Because from all angles, 10 teams isn't enough."
The AAFC also plans to apply to the AFC for an Asian Champions League berth to be awarded to the winner of the proposed Championship.
"I guess they're using it as a carrot. But the problem is with that, they're probably not up to it," the 36-year-old said. "Then again, they could go through the east Asian path. You don't play all the Singapore teams straight away. They only get in if they win the East Asian Cup. So they could use that route.
"But to get direct qualification, that might mean taking a place away from an A-League team and they don't deserve it."
Could we see Milicevic running around in The Championship in two years' time? The experienced defender will return to Newcastle in 2018 after leaving junior club Dandenong for NSW NPL outfit Charlestown City.
"As far as me playing in those leagues anymore, it's kind of the furthest thing from my mind. I'm happy to still play and share the joy of playing whatever club I'm involved with. It's an absolute pleasure to sign for Charlestown. I get to reconnect with a community I genuinely loved and loved to be a part of. I'll continue to contribute in my own way.
"As far as hoping for any kind of league to appear as though I can be involved in a more professional way is not a concern for me. If it was, I'd already be doing all my coaching badges and licking a** like the rest of them to get a gig but I don't do that."