Sunshine Coast FC is considered to have one of the best football acadamies in the country. PHOTO: Provided/DESIGN: Madeline Irwin

Sunshine Coast FC is considered to have one of the best football acadamies in the country. PHOTO: Provided/DESIGN: Madeline Irwin

Kicked out of their local divisions and missing the out on an initial place in the National Second Tier (NST), Sunshine Coast Football Club is faced with the proposition of having no competitions to play in for the 2024 season and beyond.

Sunshine Coast FC was founded in 2007 by Noel Woodall to provide a development pathway for players after a massive flux in footballing interest following the 2006 FIFA World Cup.

In July of 2020, the club partnered with Peregian Beach College to launch their full-time academy, providing 26 kids with a fully intertwined footballing and education program.

Today, the club invests $1.4 million annually into their youth program for 130 students, providing high-quality training, sports science capabilities and fully funded private education.

On October 10, 2023, Sunshine Coast FC were notified by Football Queensland (FQ) that they were no longer permitted to participate in FQ competitions.

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A Nation-Leading Academy Setup

The man behind the implementation of Sunshine Coast FC’s full-time academy, is experienced footballing educator and administrator Melvyn Wilkes.

Having integrated similar footballing programs into educational systems for Manchester City and West Bromwich Albion FC in England, Wilkes joined Sunshine Coast in 2014 with the vision to create an academy process that was unique in an Australian setting.

“We’ve just mirror imaged what a European academy would be like, Manchester City’s academy is the exactly the same as what we do here,” he said.

“It’s very rare [in Australia], we’re the only one at the moment that do it full time to this magnitude.”

From under 9s through to under 16s, students’ fitness and athletic capabilities are tracked and monitored regularly in a professional-like environment.

“They have their height and weight, their vertical jump, they have their muscles scanned every week.”

The available sports science technology is comparable to academies in Europe. PHOTO: Provided.
The available sports science technology is comparable to academies in Europe. PHOTO: Provided.

Whilst Sunshine Coast FC are already reaping some of the benefits of this academy system, there has always been a long-term vision for the future of the football club.

“Our focus has been on the academy and the implementation of the academy because we were always preparing for the end game,” said Wilkes.

“In the event that the A-League expanded … or the National Second Tier [became a reality], this was always the end game.

“Not only do we invest in the juniors and develop our own players, we also develop our own facilities, our own staff.

“We have a full time sports science department and an associate professor who’s full time with us.

“We have everything, the actual fundamental building blocks, to put a robust program and football club together, which is sustainable financially and logistically.”

A National Opportunity hits a Roadblock

When Football Australia (FA) opened up expressions of interest for the NST in February, there was no question that Sunshine Coast FC would put their hand up.

However, as the process progressed, Wilkes encountered an unforeseen complication.

“There was a strong rumour that Football Queensland had indicated that anybody proceeding with the National Second Tier application would have their juniors removed,” he said.

“People talk, football’s a village … from that point on, it made a lot of clubs extremely nervous.”

Whilst other Queensland organisations withdrew their application from the NST process, Wilkes and Sunshine Coast FC stayed the course.

On 10 October, Sunshine Coast FC received notice from Football Queensland (FQ), through their legal representatives, that they would not be invited to submit applications for participation licences for 2024.

This effectively ended the club’s affiliation with FQ and left them without any state league competitions to participate in.

Eight days later, FQ released their provisional declaration of leagues with Sunshine Coast FC nowhere to be found.

However, a new club appeared that Wilkes believes is a direct replacement for Sunshine Coast FC.

“Football Queensland then confirm that Sunshine Coast United is a new entity run by Football Queensland, and they will be entering the advanced league pathway stream,” said Wilkes.

“We knew about Sunshine Coast United prior because [FQ] did exactly the same in the early part of 2020 when we had female SAP (skill acquisition phase) players in the under 9s to under 12s.

“This Sunshine Coast United cropped up and took all of our junior girls, causing our SAP girls program to cease, to shut down.

“After 12 months, that Sunshine Coast United disappeared … so they’ve had form on this.”

Sunshine Coast United also appear in a number of other junior categories. PHOTO: Football Queensland.
Sunshine Coast United also appear in a number of other junior categories. PHOTO: Football Queensland.

Later, FQ’s new rules of competition outlined clubs that would be relegated from a National Second Tier would only be able to re-join NPL Queensland with the condition that the club was originally promoted from the top tier.

Clubs that came from below NPL Queensland would have to return to the pyramid from the lowest level.

The Sunshine Coast FC senior team currently play in Football Queensland Premier League 1, the second tier of competition.

Brisbane United FC (a bid consisting of a potential merger between several Queensland clubs) also illuded to significant operational challenges that prevented their entry into the NST, in a statement after the eight inaugural teams were confirmed.

“During the application process, the club identified what we consider to be significant risks to a successful entry and sustainable future in the NST,” read the statement.

“While these clear and obvious risks are small in number, they concern operational imperatives critical to providing certainty and confidence to sponsors, directors, players and supporters alike.

What is the Role of State Federations?

Football Queensland are within their rights to exclude Sunshine Coast FC from competition, due to the affiliation policy that the club has agreed to.

Football Queensland Affiliation Policy 2023, Clause 3.1

In addition, Sunshine Coast FC’s participation agreements are also explicit that the year-on-year licencing system provides no guarantee of future participation.

Football Queensland Premier League Men’s & Women’s Participation Licence Agreement 2023 between FQ and SCFC, Clause 3.3

Wilkes argues this reality puts into question the role Football Queensland is playing in the development of Australian football.

“It’s the only country in the world that operates like this,” he said.

“You try to explain to people what’s going on here, you couldn’t make it up, they think you’re lying.

“These kids are on full-time education scholarships, so it’s not just football this, you’re talking about kids’ education.

“There’s a lot to be answered for with Football Queensland at the moment.

“Why would you take a flourishing programme that invests $1.4 million a year in youth development, provides funded education, is breaking the mould in every aspect of youth development in Australia … and just cut them loose to set their own academy up five minutes down the road?”

What Next?

There of course is still hope for Sunshine Coast FC to gain admission into the National Second Tier before the competition kicks off in 2025.

FA have left the door open for two or four extra teams to join the inaugural eight in the first edition.

The Inner Sanctum can confirm that Sunshine Coast FC is in communication with FA about amendments to their proposal for the NST, the details of which are currently bound by a confidentiality deed.

In addition, the club’s dispute with FQ is now the subject of a legal matter.

For the short term, Wilkes says that there is a legitimate possibility of Sunshine Coast FC participating in Football Victoria (FV) competitions.

One possible plan is to fly the clubs under 23 and senior teams into Melbourne every week to play in FV leagues, whilst juniors would also make the trip once or twice every 10 weeks in addition to local programs organised by Sunshine Coast FC.

There were even talks at one stage for under 9s all the way to under 16s to join the advanced teams in Victoria every week.

Wilkes estimates that the additional travel for the academy teams would cost between $500k-750k per season and could be perpetually maintained if required.

“It’s something that the owners and the managing director were willing to do to ensure that we provided the best provision for our athletes,” he said.

“Not withstanding we wouldn’t want to re-enter the Football Queensland competition if common sense did prevail, or intervention happened.”

The club is also exploring other participation options.

Sunshine Coast FC could be playing competitive football in Victoria next year. PHOTO: Provided.
Sunshine Coast FC could be playing competitive football in Victoria next year. PHOTO: Provided.

The uniqueness of their program is one of the reasons why Wilkes believes they have the firm backing from the majority of their community.

“We’ve kept our parents up to speed with everything we do here, that’s one of the strengths of how we operate,” he said.

“From the very first moment we got those letters, we’ve been open with the parents.

“They trust what we do. We’re not perfect, we don’t get everything right. But we’ve got the best interests of the kids and the players at heart.

“We are still recruiting players and adding players to our program even though our competition structure has been disrupted by FQ for 2024.

“Which demonstrates both the strength of our program and the trust we hold from our parents/guardians and players.”

Following the confirmation of the inaugural eight teams for the NST, FQ released a statement welcoming the announcement.

“Football Queensland provided supporting endorsements and contributions to several Queensland NST club applications that formed part of their bids, alongside appropriate advocacy and endorsement to Football Australia,” the statement read.

The full statement can be read here.

Football Queensland has been contacted for comment.

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