The day that Frank Lowy took his ball and went home

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It is not unprecedented for the wealthy owner of a club to walk away from the game and refuse to play by the rules in place at the time. In 1987 one president did just that after one round of the league season. His name was Frank Lowy.

There are many differences between what happened with Sydney City and the Australian Soccer Federation (ASF), and the situation with Clive Palmer and Football Federation Australia (FFA) today, but some interesting similarities too.

In both cases the club owner/president believed that the authorities were taking the game in the wrong direction. In both cases they had strong objections to the financial model under which the league was operating and they could see no prospect of improvement. In both cases their clubs could not sustain attendances to match their playing performance.

The National Soccer League (NSL) began in 1977. Sydney City Hakoah was the most successful team on the field in the first ten years of the NSL, and Frank Lowy was president of the Hakoah Social Club for much of that time. The Social Club and its wealthy members bankrolled the soccer team.

Sydney City won the championship four times, finished top of the home and away leagues on six occasions and played some of the most entertaining football in the history of the league. But it could never attract a crowd to match its playing ability. The demise of Hakoah was a long time in the making.

In 1982 the Hakoah Social Club was fire-bombed by people opposed to its support of Israel. In 1985 there was a riot at Pratten Park during a match with long time rival Sydney Olympic, which led some older members of the Jewish community to consider whether the association with soccer should continue.

In 1984 after pressure from the various states, particularly Victoria and South Australia, the NSL was split into two conferences in a vain hope that more local derbies would increase attendances. It did nothing to increase crowds for the league and for Hakoah it was a disaster as average crowds fell from 2011 in 1983 to 1019 in 1984.

In 1986 Hakoah signed Israeli star Eli Ohana on a short term loan for five matches, but the team only finished fifth in the league. By the end of 1986, Lowy’s mind was made up. If the crowds did not pick up he would pull the plug on the Hakoah Social Club support of the football team, which had been the original raison d’etre for setting up the Social Club. That decision caused a heated and prolonged debate in the Hakoah ranks.

The 1987 NSL season began on Friday 28 March and the following day Sydney City played Sydney Olympic at E S Marks field. The crowd was 5,187 and Tommy McCulloch scored both goals in a two-nil win. On Sunday 30 March Hakoah Social Club held its Annual General Meeting. Lowy had already sent a letter to members in which he wrote:

‘I say without qualification that we cannot afford to maintain a professional team any longer. Despite the sentimental arguments I can see no justification for our current level of funding. The cost of running the team could be $300,000 and $500,000 would be needed to maintain a top-line professional team in the near future. The decision of your board of directors to bite the bullet on this issue is a sad one. But we must be realistic. Our support for Sydney City will have to end sooner or later.’

Lowy won a two-thirds majority for his proposal to the AGM to withdraw from the NSL forthwith. That caused an outcry in the wider football community with many saying that Hakoah had treated the league with disrespect. Attempts to rescue the situation by transferring the ownership to Blacktown City or to a consortium led by Harry Michaels, who offered to buy the team for $650,000, failed. Meetings with the chair of the NSL Sam Papasavas proved unsuccessful.

Frank Lowy said at the time and in his biography that he was frustrated because the ASF and NSL leaders did not share his vision for the game. He had stood for the presidency of the ASF against Sir Arthur George and lost, and he withdrew from both football and the presidency of Hakoah at the end of 1988.

He did not engage in a public campaign to undermine the ASF or the NSL and he did not try to set up a breakaway organization, as Hakoah had done successfully in 1957 (that is another story) and Palmer has tried to do in 2012. Lowy left the Hakoah Social Club in a healthy state, but his influence on the game of football was not restored until 2003, following the Crawford Report and an appeal by the Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard.

Sydney City Hakoah attendance 1980-87 and Gold Coast United attendance 2009-2012:

Sydney City Hakoah

Year Aggregate home crowd Highest Lowest Average
1980 3328 2558
1981 40683 6892 1200 2712
1982 33700 5658 1018 2246
1983 30169 6712 400 2011
1984 14267 2101 543 1019
1985 25442 8420 635 2312
1986
1987 5187 5187 5187

Source: Anthony Thomas Hughes, The Rise and Fall of Sydney Hakoah Soccer Football Club: A Case Study of Sport and Identity in Sydney’s Jewsish Community 1923–1987, PhD thesis, University of New South Wales, 2003, p. 213.

Gold Coast United

Year Aggregate home crowd Highest Lowest Average
2009-10 75347 10024 2616 5382
2010-11 51505 14783 1658 3434
2011-12 30218 6927 1141 3022

Sources: Hyundai A-League Media Guides 2009–2012

Andrew Howe, by email, 3 March 2012.

Roy Hay is a member of the History Panel of the Football Federation Australia. This is his personal view.

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