Soccer: What's wrong and how do we fix it?

John Browne jbrowne@thetelegram.com
Published on May 13, 2011
Newfoundland and Labrador Soccer Association technical director Dragan Mirkovic (left) and NLSA vice-president Gord Dunphy pose in front of the King George V soccer facility in St. John’s. In the first part of a two-part series, Mirkovic and Dunphy offer their views on the state of soccer in Newfoundland and Labrador. — Photo by Gary Hebbard/The Telegram

Has Newfoundland and Labra­dor soccer fallen behind the rest of the country?

That’s one of the questions put to two local knowledgeable soccer personalities.

Dragan Mirkovic is the Newfoundland and Labrador Soccer Association’s (NLSA) technical director, while Gord Dunphy is the NLSA’s senior men’s vice-president.

The two experts offered decidedly diverse and sometimes provocative views on where the game is now and where it’s headed.

From minor to university to senior level of play, this province has had little to cheer about at the regional and national level in recent years.

The province will soon boast four FieldTurf surfaces along with an indoor soccer facility in St. John’s, so the days of using a short season as an excuse are over.

Mirkovic and Dunphy didn’t hesitate to elaborate on their areas of concern.

The first part of a two-part series:

The game weighed in the balance

Gord Dunphy didn’t pull any punches when asked if Newfoundland and Labrador is playing catch-up with the other provinces in terms of our overall soccer calibre.

“I feel, collectively as a province, we are behind most other provinces at most levels of the soccer game,” he says.

Dunphy, who has spent over 40 years in the game in a variety of capacities, said it kills him to say, “I feel we are nowhere near the national level we were in soccer during  the 1990s, 80s and 90s. 

“I think our expectations have diminished over the years and we have become too complacent,” said the former St. Lawrence Laurentians coach, now the Newfoundland and Labrador Soccer Association’s senior vice-president.

“Our Newfoundland teams no longer play with the same amount of heart or determination the older Holy Cross and Laurentian teams displayed. Right now, I would rank us on the national scene anywhere from seventh to eighth seed.”

Dunphy said he also sees the difference in the coaches as well as the players.

No longer, he said, are soccer players schooled under the demanding, but knowledgeable coaches such as Allan Ross, Brian Murphy or Jack Simms. Gone too, he said, are the days of Newfoundland’s soccer superstars in the mould of Wils Molloy, Al Slaney, Joe Turpin and the Breen, Reddy and Mullett brothers.

“These were players that were very much disliked — if not hated — by their opponents, but they were respected,” Dunphy said.

“Gone is the dedication of players to their team and to their teammates as they were in the past.

“Today, it appears to me many players are more interested in showcasing the name on the back of their jersey rather than playing for the crest on the front.”

And Dunphy wonders where Newfoundland’s Atlantic dominance at the university and senior level has gone.

For most part, he said, this province prevailed  at the Atlantic level during 70s, 80s, and 90s, “and we were always a serious contender at the Eastern Canadian and national levels during those decades.

“Today, I would have to say that the province of Nova Scotia is the king of Atlantic Canadian soccer.”

Dunphy said defending champion Holy Cross/Kirby women’s team is “basically” a provincial all-star team and doesn’t get any competition in the local St. John’s league, so it isn’t prepared for the tougher games at nationals.

He also feels women’s soccer teams need to be fitter for national competition.

Asked to assess Memorial University’s soccer program, Dunphy said it has become smug.

On the university level, MUN’s men’s and women’s teams, despite some genuine individual talent, have basically underachieved over the past several years — particularly the women’s team — and Dunphy says he knows why.

“I don’t think the expectations are high enough for both teams,” he said. “I think losing has almost become acceptable for the university teams

“We don’t demand enough from our university soccer program.”

Dunphy also said he doesn’t see the same intensity the players show with their club teams carried over to their university teams.

For his part, Newfoundland and Labrador Soccer Association technical director Dragan Mirkovic says, “To evaluate soccer, or any sport for that matter, and focus solely on its results would be very deceptive.

“When you talk about youth sport and you use results as a measuring stick, it gets even trickier,” said Mirkovic who helped guide his girls’ under-18 team to a fifth place finish at last year’s nationals in St. john’s.

“I always thought my first priority should be to work hard to decrease the importance of junior success and instead concentrate on developing conditions that will ensure a long-term success,” said Mirkovic.

“But, to clarify, I don’t think there is anything wrong with junior success … it’s how we get there.

“When you see that at age 15 all small, less physical, but more technical kids are gone and that 60 per cent of your athletes are choosing a lower level of performance, you realize that something is wrong.”

Why do these kids give up an opportunity to be challenged technically, tactically, mentally and physically?

Mirkovic says it’s because by the age of 16, due to high expectations of adults, the fun, motivation and love of the sport are gone.

Basically, he said, soccer culture has to change if we are going to see results.

“It does not take a scientific mind to conclude that today in our province, children are not even distantly suited for the increased demands as their parents were,” said Mirkovic.

“Overall, decline in the physical fitness of children is dramatic while the opportunities to develop the mental qualities (responsibility, dealing with failure, concentration, inner drive) needed to compete at the high level have decreased as well.”

The gap between what they need and what they have has grown, according to Mirkovic.

“Many will be consternated when they hear this, but those are the ones who don’t understand a true nature of competitive sport culture and the special fabric that is needed to make it to the top,” said Mirkovic.

“It is only in rugby these days that you see unity, pride, toughness, a streak of wildness and that’s how they get success,” he said.

Mirkovic explained that when Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) technical director David Benning was here recently, he mentioned he went to Quebec to look for players.

There are thousands of players in that province which has 70 indoor and outdoor turf fields, fully-paid soccer people in a numbers of regions.

“He said you’d think you could scoop quality players in an instant. But after three days of watching and evaluating, he could only come up with five names,” Mirkovic noted.

“He (Benning) said it was difficult to develop good players these days and while I agree, I also think that we need to be patient,” said Mirkovic.

“Newfoundland and Labrador has an excellent technical infrastructure for player and coaching development, but it took almost a decade to build it,” Mirkovic said.

He said, for example, out of 26 national B license women’s coaches in Canada, six are from this province.

“The mentorship program for women’s coaches has been ongoing for a few years and will continue to produce female coaches for advanced programs,” said Mirkovic.

Friday:  Part 2: The future

jbrowne@thetelegram.com