The National Soccer League of Australia (NSL) was formed in 1977, soon after the euphoria of Australia qualifying for the first time ever for the World Cup finals held in West Germany in 1974.
Interest in the sport was growing and there was plenty of business interest in running a national football (soccer) competition. They took a big risk because this was the first national football competition in this country.
The NSL was administered by the sport’s new national body, Soccer Australia. Throughout the years the NSL competition was also known by various names including the Philips Soccer League, Coca-Cola Soccer League or the Ericsson Cup.
Coincidentally, the current A-League competition kicked off in 2006, also after the euphoria in 2005 of qualifying for the World Cup finals of 2006, held in Germany once again.
This was only the second time Australia had qualified for the World Cup Finals and it was thirty two years between drinks for Australian football fans and an appearance at the finals.
This April 2 will be the 34th anniversary of the historic first ever NSL game; thirty four years since the NSL match between Canberra and West Adelaide at Manuka Oval witnessed by 1550 football fans. It created history for the sport in establishing a national football competition – the first of its kind in Australia.
Johnny Warren was the captain coach of the Canberra side and Mike Johnson managed West Adelaide. The first ever goal scored in NSL history came from John Kosmina in the seventh minute as Adelaide went on to win three goals to one.
I was just a kid when the league kicked off and remember the excitement of my day and big brother taking me to my first ever NSL game to see Western Suburbs beat Mooroolbark five-nil at the old Sydney Sports Ground. This was the first of many NSL games for Dad and I, and what fantastic memories we have of football and the NSL over that time.
The inaugural NSL champions were Eastern Suburbs (Sydney City as they became known), with runners up Marconi (Stallions).
From 1977 until 1983 the NSL was run as a first past the post championship and there were no finals series or grand final. Eastern Suburbs and Marconi finished the season on equal competition points, but Eastern Suburbs had the superior goal difference and were crowned the first ever NSL champions.
In fact, the first years of the NSL saw Sydney clubs dominate by winning six of the first seven NSL titles.
Average attendance for the first ever NSL season was about 3900 per game with a peak attendance of 14,500.
Interest in the NSL grew in its second year and Newcastle entered a team in the national competition for the first time.
That year West Adelaide topped the table and Sydney City finished just one point behind them.
Average attendances for season two rose slightly to 4300 with a peak attendance of 17,200.
1979 was Marconi’s year, coached by Rale Rasic, the Socceroos World Cup finals hero. This was the first of their four NSL championships. Winning four NSL titles is a record they share with South Melbourne and Sydney City. They managed to finish four points clear of Heidelberg United.
This season also saw the first NSL appearance of Marconi’s traditional Sydney derby rivals APIA Leichardt.
However, average attendances for season three fell slightly to 4250 with a peak attendance of 18,300, which remained an NSL regular season match attendance record that wasn’t broken till 1999.
The 1980 season kicked off with a large Melbourne crowd of 8565 at Middle Park to see South Melbourne battle it out with Heidelberg.
Blacktown City also joined the NSL that year and kicked off their national league debut with a 4-2 win over Raul Blanco’s St George at Toongabbie Stadium in front of 3478 loyal fans.
Sydney City finished top that year by one point and Heidelberg and South Melbourne rounded out the top three.
Preston and Wollongong joined the NSL in 1981 to take the NSL competition to 16 teams.
The 1981 NSL Champions were again Sydney City and they won their third NSL title in four years. They finished four points ahead of a gallant South Melbourne side coached by John Margaritis.
South Melbourne opened their season with a memorable 1-0 win over Marconi at Middle Park in front of 5500 supporters. They just lacked the consistency over the 30-round season in the end to push Sydney City for the title.
The 1982 season opened with the APIA versus Marconi derby in front of 4300 fans at Lambert Park, APIA winning 2-0 on this occasion. But the biggest crowd of 5339 for the opening round of the season were on hand to see Sydney Olympic beat Newcastle KB United at the Newcastle International Sports Centre.
Sydney City went on to win the title yet again in 1982 with a massive nine-point margin over St George and Wollongong City. This was a Sydney City three-peat title win and their fourth NSL title in the first five years of the competition.
The Eddie Thompson coached Sydney City side celebrated their title win by beating West Adelaide 5-2 in their final round match at the Sydney Athletic field, but in front of only 650 fans.
St George exacted their revenge on Sydney City in 1983 and finished one-point ahead of them in one of the most exciting seasons of the NSL to claim their first ever NSL title.
In the final round Sydney City looked like making it four titles in a row and five out of six after a 3-0 win over the Brisbane Lions, but Frank Arok’s St George came from behind playing away at Newcastle to win 2-1 with Robbie Slater scoring one of the goals for St George in their historic win.
It was a great year on the field, but the NSL attendances and finances were diminishing up to this point as average attendances for NSL games fell below 3000 for the first time.
In the next installment, we’ll see how Soccer Australia changed the structure of the NSL to help it continue into the next century.