NSL lessons vital for A-League’s future

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Pirtek Stadium's limited capacity is keeping potential football fans away. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

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Joe Gorman’s excellent article on South Melbourne’s attempts to buy into the A-League via the Melbourne Heart have raised some fascinating and spirited discussion on the legacy the National Soccer League (NSL).

It’s worth remembering that the NSL was a truly ground-breaking concept for sport in Australia; the first-ever national domestic competition, launched in 1977.

In comparison, Australian rules did not cross state lines until 1982, and rugby league’s first club outside of New South Wales came in 1988 (I know the Canberra Raiders came into the competition in 1982, but they played all their home games in Queanbeyan for almost a decade).

The NSL should be applauded for its audacious vision, even if that wasn’t backed up with sound management for a lot of the time.

The fact the competition survived as long as it did was due to the dedication and hard work of a host of administrators at many of the foundation clubs, who were no more than fans of the game fueled by their passion for football.

To me, it’s immaterial where that passion was born, whether it was imported from Europe with Australia’s first wave of 1950s migration or whether it was a second or third generation passion developed in Australia.

These were rusted-on dedicated football people and their contribution to the game should never be buried under the hysteria of crowd violence or so-called ethnic clashes.

There is always the argument about many NSL clubs being ‘mono-cultural’. No doubt this is true and it was both the clubs’ and the league’s greatest strength and greatest weakness.

Many of the clubs who were built on the backs of European migrants were, towards the latter stages of the competition, caught in the classic bind of being unsure or unable how to expand beyond their traditional roots.

There were notable exceptions such as the early days of Newcastle KB United, the first few seasons of Northern Spirit and Perth Glory, but in the main, the biggest crowds at NSL games were drawn by clubs with firm ties to the Greek and Croatian communities of Sydney and Melbourne, as well as the Adelaide derby between West Adelaide and Adelaide City.

The NSL’s greatest problem was not its ethnicity but its management. There was more tinkering than a Rafa Benitez selection meeting in the format, the number of teams, the criteria, club names, stadium requirements, you name it.

The original league had 14 teams for the first four seasons, then 16 teams for the next four, blowing out to a 24 team, two-conference system for the next three, before culling 10 teams to go back to a single competition in 1987 (and then being reduced to 13 when Sydney City pulled out after one round).

It was chaotic and by 1987 was “national” in name only, with only Adelaide City representing any area outside of Sydney or Melbourne.

From a pioneering position, the league had fallen behind the other codes, who were more professionally run and administered, and were far less haphazard with their expansion models.

It is miraculous that clubs were able to survive this management vacuum, let alone prosper.

The NSL’s enduring gift to domestic football and one that the A-League adopted without question was “summer soccer”. It was a no-brainer in 1990, and to this day is the saving grace of top-level club football.

However, think of the work needed to get a team ready for an NSL season if a club won promotion from one of the state leagues only a couple of months earlier.

Many fans regard Western Sydney Wanderers as a latter-day marvel in being able to command an A-League place on six months’ notice.

The likes of Newcastle Breakers, Brunswick Pumas and Morwell Falcons took an admittedly existing structure into the NSL on about six weeks notice in the 1990s!

There are hard-learned lessons from club football’s 26-year ‘experiment’ with a national competition. However, it’s pointless being revisionist about how the early NSL clubs were born.

That they were conceived out of a collective passion for a game by people who left their original homes to come to Australia makes absolute sense.

That’s no different to Asian cities with their ex-pat communities or seemingly having an ‘Irish’ rugby club in the main cities of rugby-playing nations.

Were those same clubs equipped to prosper in a professional national competition?

Clearly they were at the time, though the winds of change blowing through both the game and general society by the early part of the century were terribly hard for most to negotiate.

The A-League has just had its most lauded and successful season in its eight-year history. It has built on the hard work, successes and mistakes of the National Soccer League.

It has made mistakes of its own but its acceptance and visibility as a club competition is higher now than ever, and certainly greater than the NSL had at any time in its history.

Crowds are bigger, the quality is better and the media coverage is more widespread, and dare I say, more positive.

The A-League has advantages that the NSL never had; a more professional administration, a lucrative TV deal, an involvement with Asia, and the profile of a national team that now plays regular, meaningful qualifying games in the World Cup.

That NSL clubs of any demographic survived and at times thrived as long as they did without those assets should be celebrated, not denigrated.

And if any of those former NSL clubs put themselves up for inclusion in the A-League at any time in the future, their application should not be assessed by what they offered in the past, but what they can offer now and in the years to come.

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