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The National Soccer League kicked off in 1977, thirty-four years ago this month. As we saw, the NSL was a brave and innovative step in Australian football, creating the first ever truly national football competition.
The early years were relatively successful, but the high cost of travel and the desire to create more local derbies led to some major restructures of the NSL by Soccer Australia.
Two conferences were created in 1984 – the National (or Northern) conference and the Australian (or Southern) Conference. The winners of each conference met in the NSL grand final.
However the changes didn’t bring about any drastic improvements in attendances or the financial viability of the competition, except perhaps for the end-of-season finals.
Many teams were weeded out and the competition was reduced from 24 to 14 teams in 1987. Sydney City then withdrew after just one match to further reduce it to 13.
Things weren’t too rosy, but what else could the NSL administration and Soccer Australia do to improve the competition?
In 1989, Soccer Australia agreed to move the NSL from a winter competition to a summer one. There were four main reasons why this came about.
1. Most football competitions around the world are played over the Northern Hemisphere’s winter from August to May, thus falling in the Southern Hemisphere’s summer.
2. This aligned the NSL with FIFA’s international calendar, so players could be freed from clubs for national team duty. The NSL off-season had previously disadvantaged local players who wanted to play in the national team.
3. Playing in summertime would avoid competition for fans and media attention with the other main winter codes.
4. Summertime provided better temperatures for spectator comfort, and a better choice and availability of grounds and playing surfaces. Better-grassed pitches made for better football quality.
The change to a summer league in Australia was made in October 1989. There were in fact two NSL grand finals played within eight months of each other in 1989-1990.
As we saw last week, Marconi played Sydney Olympic in the last winter NSL grand final in August 1989 at Parramatta Stadium, Marconi winning 1-0.
Just two months later, the first NSL summer competition commenced. Opening round attendances were good and the league’s average attendance rose for the first time to approach about five thousand per game.
It reached a high point in the grand final of the 1989-1990 season, with a sell out crowd of over 27,000 packing tightly into Parramatta Stadium.
Funnily enough, the first summer NSL grand final involved the same two teams as the last winter one. In May 1990, Olympic turned things around to win 2-0 in front of 27,348 fans.
The 1990-91 NSL season opened in October 1990 with some great games, including the South Melbourne v Melbourne Knights and the Sydney United v Marconi derby blockbusters, played in front of large crowds.
South Melbourne’s line up included Ange Postecoglou, Kimon Taliadoros, Paul Wade and Paul Trimboli, and the Sydney derby involved the young Ned Zelic, Tony Popovic, Stevie Corica and Tommy McCullough.
Melbourne Knights topped the league table by four points that year, but second-placed South Melbourne went on to claim their second NSL grand final in 1990-91. At a packed Olympic Park they beat the Knights in a penalty shoot out, after being held 1-1 in normal time, in one of the most exciting games of the year.
Around that time, changes at the helm at Soccer Australia and the need to widen their fan base had led them to force clubs to try to market themselves to a more mainstream Australia, as opposed to their own mostly ethnic following.
This included name and logo changes, as well as the banning of ethnic flags. These changes were not popular with the traditional clubs and some continued to flaunt their heritage regardless.
It was not helped by violence and football hooliganism around the world and in Europe in particular at that time.
An increasingly hostile Australian media were very keen to protect their own turf, sensationalising any trouble at local football matches, especially involving ethnic clubs.
The momentum of the new summer NSL league was not sustained by many clubs, and the likes of Brunswick Juventus, St George, Heidelberg, Preston and APIA Leichhardt left or returned to their state leagues.
But the NSL pressed on, with Soccer Australia and the NSL’s backers taking it all in their stride. They continued to keep the competition up and running, even without the hope of ever being profitable.
The Melbourne Knights again made the NSL decider in 1991-92 and yet again they lost on penalties after 0-0 at full time.
This time it was Adelaide City, who claimed their first ever NSL tile. Tony Vidmar, Joe Mullen, Ross Aloisi, Alex Tobin and Carl Veart starred for the champions, while Francis Awaritefe, Oliver Pondeljak and Damien Mori featured in the Knights line up.
1992-93 was another memorable year for Marconi-Fairfield who won their record fourth and final NSL title 1–0 against champions Adelaide City at Parramatta Stadium.
Andy Harper scored the winning penalty in the 53rd minute, but the penalty was thought dubious by many and it wasn’t a memorable match.
To top it off, some fans lit flares and a small fire in the grandstand, letting commercial TV stations and newspapers have a field day.
There were also pictures of the sea of Italian flags greeting both teams as they ran on, flaunting Soccer Australia’s new rules about losing their ethnic identities. Both sides were founded in the Italian communities of their respective cities.
1993-94 was Adelaide City’s year again and their second NSL title, beating the luckless Melbourne Knights 1-0, their third grand final loss in four years.
The Adelaide City side of the early 90s, coached by Zoran Matic and featuring Tobin, Aloisi, Mullen, Veart, Foster and Vidmar, was a very good team and had reached four grand finals in a row, winning two of them.
The Melbourne Knights team of that year featured a remarkable 17-year-old debutant, the young scoring machine Mark Viduka. But the V Bomber was kept very quiet in the title match by a vastly more experienced Alex Tobin.
Damien Mori was the star of the game, scoring a screamer from thirty yards out that goalkeeper Miller couldn’t get near.
The 1994-95 NSL title finally went to the Melbourne Knights, at their fourth attempt, as they beat Adelaide City 2-0 away at a packed Hindmarsh Stadium.
Mark Viduka carried great expectations for the big crowd and SBS TV audience, but again had a quiet game. The goals were scored by Joe Spiteri and Andrew Marth. A young Craig Foster played in his first NSL grand final for Adelaide.
After the 1995 grand final win, Mark Viduka left the NSL to play overseas in Europe, having scored 40 goals in 48 appearances for the Knights – still a phenomenal record.
The 1995-1996 NSL title again went to the champions Melbourne Knights, their second NSL title in five attempts. Runners up were Marconi, who lost 2-1 in their last ever NSL grand final appearance and featured players like Matthew Bingley, Gary Van Egmond, Andy Harper and Francis Awaritefe.
The 1996-97 grand final was a special affair and was attended by an NSL record crowd at that time of 40,446. The grand final that year was played between Brisbane Strikers and Sydney United and Brisbane were the NSL champions winning 2-0.
Brisbane featured Frank Farina, Casey Wehrman, Nick Meredith and Clint Bolton. Sydney United were coached by Branko Culina and featured Zelko Kalac, Jacob Burns, David Zdrillic and Jason Culina, who at 16 years of age was the youngest ever to play in an NSL grand final.
But of course you knew all that, since it’s been mentioned so often in the lead up to this year’s Brisbane Roar A-League grand final.
In the next instalment of A Brief History of the NSL, we will look at the final few years of the NSL, with a new look and new teams, right up to the last ever match on April 4, 2004.