Walking down memory lane

23.05.2017

Before I moved from Auckland, New Zealand to Sydney many moons ago, my impression of Australian sporting culture was rather one dimensional and naive.

My viewpoint was purely based on what I'd seen of Australian national teams in sports such as rugby union, rugby league and netball, codes that enjoy a popular following in my homeland.

Back then, whenever New Zealand lined up against Australia in each of these sports, those who wore the green and gold were predominantly white Australians of British heritage. Players with names like Shaw, O'Connor, Lynagh and Hawker. Rogers, Cronin and Reddy. To me, that was normal.

Australian football (soccer) meanwhile, was completely different. 

As a youngster, my first sporting love was football (soccer). I played for Mt Wellington, one of the most successful clubs in the country, and represented Auckland at the Under 16 nationals.

I remember watching my senior team, the national league champions of New Zealand, play a Trans-Tasman challenge match against Australian NSL champions Marconi. I also remember looking through the match program and noting that while every Mt Wellington player was of Anglo-Celtic heritage (plenty of Poms and Scots in that lineup), the Stallions' team was very different. European names such as Prskalo, Jankovics, Krncevic and Vieri jumped off the page and hit me squarely between the eyes.

Being a curious fellow, I wondered where these players with the exotic names had come from and wondered why they were playing for an Australian team.

Little did I know that my interest in that Marconi Stallions side was the beginning of a love affair with Australian football and a journey that would lead me to write a bit about a game that I'd come to adore.

Not long after watching the Trans-Tasman stoush, I moved to Sydney and realised that not only was multiculturalism alive and well in Australia's largest city, the sporting landscape here was vastly different to the one I'd left behind.

Unlike New Zealand, rugby in Australia was dominated by private school old boys and university-educated chaps who earned a crust in the professions. Doctors, lawyers and stock brokers were a dime a dozen within the Wallaby ranks.

League and Aussie rules were the most popular winter games, the games for the masses. And finally, there was football - working class to the core but often regarded as the black sheep on the local sporting landscape.

Why? Because unlike the others, football was the one and only sport that truly represented the multicultural melting pot that is modern day Australia.

I even turned out for a South American side in an Ethnic Cup tournament (apparently my Maori genes gave me the look required to qualify for the team) and couldn't believe the popularity of the event and the technical brilliance showed by the Latinos and continental Europeans. The Brits weren't too bad either and part-timers or not, the talent on display was astounding.

Fast forward to 1996 and I'm a rookie photojournalist earning a crust contributing words and pictures to a weekly rag called Inside Soccer. As part of my beat, I don't miss a home game involving NSL giants Sydney United, Sydney Olympic and Marconi Stallions.

I also cover various games in the NSW state leagues, visiting clubs such as Blacktown City, Bonnyrigg White Eagles, APIA Leichhardt Tigers, Manly, Melita, Rockdale and Sutherland.

I gradually learn the storied histories of clubs that were established by ethnic communities as long ago as the 1950s, when an avalanche of European immigrants flooded into the urban capitals of Sydney and Melbourne, changing the demographic of a nation.

Italians, Greeks, Croatians, Serbians, Macedonians, Maltese and the Jewish community formed their own football clubs across Sydney and those clubs played a huge role in the assimilation process. These communities identified with their football clubs as outlets for social interaction and a sense of belonging. The clubs also attracted to their games large and boisterous crowds that were both the envy and the bane of the locals.

My football journey continues as I attend matches and training sessions and press conferences. I read about the history of the local game and like every self-respecting "football addict" get my TV fix on SBS. I speak to people involved at all levels, from grass roots to the top end, enhancing my football education and enjoyment of the game. I can't get enough.

In 1996, Branko Culina's Sydney United are the aristocrats of the Australian game and with the likes of Zeljko Kalac, Tony Popovic, Ante Milicic, David Zdrilic and Kresimir Marusic, it's no surprise that they play a sublime brand of football that takes them all the way to the NSL Grand Final. Unfortunately, Culina's men suffer an upset away loss to Brisbane Strikers in front of a record crowd of 44,000.

At Olympic, I admire the goal-scoring nous of Kris Trajanovski and Abbas Saad, the skill and majesty of Milan Blagojevic, and the industry of Peter Tsekenis. There's also a 17-year-old kid by the name of Brett Emerton who will go on to play almost 100 games for the club before forging a career at Dutch giants Feyenoord, and Blackburn Rovers in the English Premier League.

Meanwhile, over the coming years I also grow to admire the Wollongong Wolves, who claim consecutive NSL Premierships in 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 with a talented roster that includes Scott Chipperfield, Matt Horsley and Paul Reid. The Wolves capture the imagination of the local football community and prove that even a club from regional NSW can foot it with the best.

Olympic win their second NSL title in 2001-2002, with Ante Milicic grabbing the winner in the Grand Final against Perth Glory before 42,000 fans in the far west.

But despite the big grand final crowds, the NSL is struggling and by early 2004, the competition is shut down and replaced by the new A-League.

The collapse of the NSL sees the likes of Sydney United, Sydney Olympic, Wollongong Wolves and Marconi reacquaint themselves with other former national league clubs APIA Leichhardt, Blacktown City, Parramatta Eagles and St George in the NSW Premier League, the elite state competition that kicked off way back in 1957. 

Today, Marconi and Saints no longer play at the state's elite level, having been relegated to the second tier; but another former NSL club, and the most successful of them all, Hakoah Sydney City East, has re-emerged from the wilderness to again take their place in the sun.

Established by Jewish migrants in 1939, Hakoah Sydney City East won five state Premierships and four grand finals before emerging as the most successful club in National Soccer League history, winning four Championships under the name of Sydney City in 1977, 1980, 1981 and 1982.

The club boasted some of this nation's finest footballers, including Ray Baartz, Jim Patikas, John Kosmina, Jimmy Mackay and Joe Watson. But unfortunately, despite the incredible success of the team, City just couldn't draw a crowd and due to financial considerations, the club made the decision to withdraw from the national competition.

After some years in the wilderness, Hakoah Sydney City East two years ago won promotion to the PlayStation4 NPL NSW Men's competition and have since managed to hold their own against the best of the best in NSW.

Meanwhile, I discover that Blacktown City is by far the most successful club in NSW state league history, winning more Premierships and more Championships (i.e. grand finals) than anyone else.

Sydney United 58 are a close second on the leaderboard, while other clubs such as Parramatta FC, Bonnyrigg White Eagles, Hakoah Sydney City East, APIA Leichhardt Tigers, Sutherland, South Coast Wolves, Sydney Olympic, Manly United, and Rockdale City Suns also have their names proudly engraved on the honours boards out at Football NSW.

Meanwhile, it needs to be said that while the ethnic clubs established by European migrants all those years ago provided the foundation stones for football in NSW, (indeed, in Australia), district/association clubs such as Manly United and Sutherland Sharks have been just as important to the local game, providing opportunities for players and fans alike and boasting rich histories dating as far back as 1930 (Sutherland).

There's also a misconception that the Brits, the Irish and the Aussies haven't had too much of an influence on local football, but nothing could be further from the truth, as players, coaches and administrators from those backgrounds have been at the forefront of the local game for decades. 

This weekend Heritage Round will be celebrated at various grounds around Sydney. It's a round that holds special significance for NSW clubs and celebrates their history and the contribution they've made to the football landscape since the start of the 20th century.

So to the players and fans who are involved this weekend, enjoy the football and regardless of the history of your club, take a moment to remember the significance of the occasion. Not just in a footballing sense, but also in an historical sense.

After all, football history is Australian history and for me, it's a rich one that I've been blessed to enjoy ever since that Marconi side with the exotic names rolled into Auckland all those years ago.

-By Derek Royal, Football NSW Reporter