NSL, success & failure, Pt 1

The NSL has had its fair share of highlights through the years so what went wrong? What caused this calamity, which led to the death of the dream and swayed the very man who had conjured it, Frank Lowy, to dream up a replacement?

In the opening round of the opening season of the National Soccer League in 1977, a Sydney club called Western Suburbs hammered a Melbourne club called Mooroolbark five goals to nil.

That season Mooroolbark finished bottom of the 14-team league, then called the Philips Soccer League (or PSL), losing 16 of its 26 games, and thence disappeared forever from the elite tier of soccer in Australia.

Yet for all its modest suburban status and short-lived flirtation with glory, Mooroolbark played a critical role in the birth of the national league and, thus, in football's overall evolution in Australia.

When the conspiracy to form a national league, and spark a revolution in the game, was on, it was Mooroolbark that broke an impasse that threatened to kill the move dead in its tracks.
No Melbourne club at the outset was prepared to join the league and the conspirators, Frank Lowy, then of Sydney Hakoah, and the late Alex Pongrass, of St George, knew that without the crucial Melbourne market the league was a non-flyer.

Along rode Mooroolbark, like Galahad on a white horse, to the rescue. And once one Melbourne club was in, the big Melbourne clubs of the day, all with populous migrant followings, Hellas (South Melbourne), JUST (Footscray) and Alexander (Heidelberg), were forced to fall into line.

They simply couldn't afford the prospect of a Mooroolbark monopolising the entire Melbourne market and they grudgingly joined the club. The rest is history and little Mooroolbark played a huge role in it.

They were exciting times. Ambition and visionary adventure drove the sport.

The league was launched in April 1977, as a quasi-independent off-shoot of the Australian Soccer Federation, with its own identity and regulations. Among the regulations were that no team could wear a so-called 'ethnic' tag.

Thus Hakoah became Sydney City, St George dropped its Budapest suffix, Juventus became Adelaide City, Wilhelmina were now Brisbane Lions and so on.

The 'Croatia' clubs, both Sydney and Melbourne, could have joined but didn't, having refused to change their names.

Channel Ten came on board as a broadcaster, with a weekly Saturday night show called Philips Top Soccer. It was a one-hour magazine package, featuring one Sydney and one Melbourne game. The two feature games were chosen by television and had to be played at either Middle Park in Melbourne or the old Sydney Sports Ground (forerunner to today's Aussie Stadium).

(I was chosen from a bunch of other hopefuls who sent in audition tapes to be the Sydney end commentator. It was my first gig in football.)

The league was a revolutionary concept in Australian sport, the first club-based competition in any sport that went national. Until then all other sports, save for Sheffield Shield cricket, were strictly state based. The nationalisation of other games, like Aussie Rules, rugby league, basketball, netball etc came much later.

What the league did was to give birth to the concept that in Australian sport all geographical regions have a right and a competitive say, and explode the notion that the big centres of Sydney and Melbourne had a divine right to rule.

In the NSL, centres like Adelaide and Brisbane emerged as equals to Sydney and Melbourne. Huge crowds came to the games in those cities. West Adelaide, aka Adelaide Hellas, won the league in its second season. The suggestion that the rest of the country was to play second fiddle to Sydney and Melbourne had been blown apart.

Canberra became a competitive force in the early years, attracting crowds to the swish Bruce Stadium that were the proportional equivalents of 90,000 crowds in Sydney. Newcastle, entering the league in its second season, drew attendances nearing 20,000 and setting records that stood until the heady days of Perth in the late 1990s.

The National Soccer League was galloping forward and the sky appeared to be the limit.

Those were still the days of crowds and headlines being fattened by 'big name' transfers, like a young Eddie Krncevic moving to Marconi, St George snapping up a teenage Peter Katholos and Sydney City snaring every piece of talented flesh that moved.

City, or the Slickers as they were dubbed (what a good name, Sydney Slickers. maybe it should be revived), dominated the early years through the astute coaching of the late Eddie Thomson but also through the acumen of their millionaire manager, Andrew Lederer, and his yen for recruiting class and glamour.

Players like John Kosmina (West Adelaide), David Mitchell (Adelaide City), Kenny Boden (Newcastle) and Frank Farina (Canberra) all migrated to Sydney City and were to form the apex of a dominance the like of which the league has not seen since.

It was also the era of so-called 'name' guest players. It was fashionable, though only for the richer clubs, to sign some celebrity, usually from England, who would come for a few games, generate some turnstile activity, pick up their pay and go home.

Malcolm McDonald, of Arsenal, flew in to play for South Melbourne and, as I recall, the Channel Ten on-air people scrambled over each other to interview him. Charlie George, a bon vivant pin-up boy if ever there was one, guested for St George. Justin Fashanu, he who died so tragically many years later, was a guest of Adelaide City. He was a charming boy, a player of great skill and poise, who brought much joy to soccer fans of that city.

Kevin Keegan came and went after two games for Blacktown. One match in which he played, between Blacktown and Sydney Croatia, so packed Marconi Stadium that it was hard to breathe much less move.

It was in those early years of the NSL, the early 1980s, that the Socceroos came to gain maturity as a team and a brand. The national coaches of the time, at first Rudi Gutendorf, then Les Scheinflug and finally Frank Arok, were able to eye players from the one competition and select them ecumenically, from a level playing field, as opposed to the fragmented, multi-tiered terrain of State Leagues that existed pre-NSL.

Between 1983 and 1989, Arok built a Socceroo outfit he called a club team', all thanks to a league of uniform visibility and unrestricted player availability. When a squad was called, all players came and reported for duty. There was zero dissent. This was an era when country came before club, before times when players started to gravitate to rich overseas pastures and began to ponder that their own career interests over-rode those of their national allegiances.

The national league was then the centre of our football. If you made it there, as club or player, you were in, and that is all there was to your ambitions.

It was in that domestic realm that players excelled and became true stars, as they could in a world where they didn?t live in the shadow of an army of compatriots who were earning 50 times as much in Europe. Right up until the mid-1980s, the only active Australians who had 'made it' in Europe were Craig Johnston, Tony Dorigo (both of whom became English), Eddie Krncevic and David Mitchell.

But the Australian public deemed them to be an irrelevance and was content that, by and large, our best were at home, plying their trade in the NSL. The league was a showcase for celebrities and entertainers who swelled the terraces. Players, all locally bred, like Marshall Soper, Peter Katholos, Frank Farina, Robbie Slater, Jimmy Patikas, Peter Tsolakis, Andrew Koczka and Manis Lamond. And a handful of class imports, like Joe Watson, Dez Marton, Vedran Rozic and Zarko Odzakov.

In short, if you were the best player in the NSL, you were the best Australian going around. Imagine that today.

It was a different time to now but, at the bottom line, it was an exciting and stirring period and, despite the massive and well-documented administrative difficulties, the opportunities to be harnessed remained there for many years after the Lowy-Pongrass vision established the NSL as a brave and pioneering force in Australian sport.

But there was no harnessing and, quite the reverse, all was squandered as the league went into a slow and agonising process of implosion and eventual collapse.

What went wrong? What caused this calamity, which led to the death of the dream and swayed the very man who had conjured it, Frank Lowy, to dream up a replacement?

That answer to that requires more website space than I have been given here. Let's leave that for the next column.