A brief history of the NSL: Part IV

ItsCalledFootball Roar Rookie

By ItsCalledFootball, ItsCalledFootball is a Roar Rookie

 , ,

69 Have your say

    Related coverage

    The Australian National Soccer League (NSL) kicked off in 1977 and by 1998 the league had gone through a 21-year roller coaster of football highs and lows.

    The league itself had been a success in finally establishing a national football competition that raised the profile of the sport.

    Football was also attracting interest from business, sponsors and major benefactors. Participation rates amongst junior players was steadily climbing to seriously start rivalling the other major sporting codes for the first time.

    But apart from major league matches, such as playoff games, grand finals and championship deciders, the crowds over the length of the journey had not risen to the levels that gave it any sustained profitability.

    Over the twenty one years various changes were introduced to the NSL including creating two separate conferences, introducing a play-off series and switching to a summer league, but the financial breakthrough was still not achieved.

    During the nineties there was also a growing opinion from sponsors and benefactors and the new board of Soccer Australia, that the NSL would not become a mainstream competition because of the overt ethnic flavour of many of the clubs and the league itself.

    Some of the NSL clubs were seen as introverted, self concerned with their own ethnicity and not welcoming to the general follower of Australian sports.

    Ethnic flags and logos were banned and clubs were even asked to change their name to be more like American baseball or football clubs and forget their countries of origin.

    The NSL’s cause was also being seriously wounded by a wolf pack of local newspapers who savaged the game at every opportunity with back page headlines and stories of “Ethnic Soccer Hooligan Violence”. So much so that mothers started to fear for their children’s safety if they went anywhere near a football match.

    Football fans themselves started to wonder if these “sports reporters” had even attended the same NSL game, so dramatic were the newspaper reports of serious trouble.

    So around that time we saw the gradual reformation of the NSL into a homogenised and sanitised non-ethnic NSL, with only fair dinkum Australian football clubs.

    The NSL Club attendance roll started to look like this: South Melbourne Lakers, Carlton Blues, Football Kingz, Adelaide City Zebras, Sydney United Pumas, Marconi Stallions, Wollongong Wolves, Melbourne Knights, Perth Glory, UTS Olympic, Gippsland Falcons, Brisbane Strikers, Newcastle Breakers, Canberra Cosmos, Collingwood Warriors, Northern Spirit, Parramatta Power and the West Adelaide Sharks.

    Another major change around this time was that clubs like Canberra Cosmos and Perth Glory moved to being full time professional football clubs with full time employees and professional players, as opposed to a lot of NSL clubs and players who were only semi-professional or even amateur in some ways, up to that time.

    The 1997-98 season saw the South Melbourne Lakers top the league table with big spending newcomers Carlton Blues runners up at their first attempt. Carlton and South Melbourne met in the grand final at a packed Olympic Park in an all Melbourne NSL decider.

    Ange Postecoglou’s side won their third NSL title 2-1 and first as a manager for Ange. The Carlton Blues team contained a young Marc Bresciano and Simon Colosimo.

    Northern Spirit joined the league in 1998-99 and were an immediate hit with the fans of northern Sydney playing to packed stands and a record average attendance in their first season.

    Sydney City Pumas topped the league table that year ahead of the South Melbourne Lakers, but newcomers Perth Glory and Northern Spirit made the top five and the NSL playoffs.

    Perth Glory also attracted big crowds with 28,000 attending their Semi Final win over Marconi. However, Glory lost in the preliminary final to Sydney City. South Melbourne picked up their fourth NSL title with the Lakers 3-2 win in a great grand final at Olympic Park in front of a big crowd.

    Wollongong Wolves won their first NSL title in 1999-2000 beating a gallant Perth Glory. The match was hailed as the greatest ever NSL grand final after a 3-3 finish in regular time and a penalty shootout win only after eighteen penalty kicks were taken. It was also a memorable game for the record NSL crowd of 43,242 in attendance.

    Wollongong repeated their title victory in 2000-01, their second NSL crown in a row. This time beating South Melbourne at Parramatta Stadium in front of relatively disappointing crowd of 13,400 fans, given the Perth Glory semi final was watched by 31,710.

    The Sydney Olympic Sharks surprised everyone in 2001-02 winning their second NSL title by beating runaway league leaders Perth Glory one nil in front of 42,735 fans.

    Glory finally won the NSL title they richly deserved in 2002-03 extracting their revenge on the Olympic sharks in from of 38,211 fans. Jamie Harnwell and Damien Mori put two goals past Clint Bolton to win two nil.

    Glory repeated that effort in 2003-04 beating Parramatta Power 1-0 on the 4/4/2004 in front of 9,700 football fans. That was it, the last game of the NSL and the end of the competition.

    So why did the NSL fail?

    1. Apart from the high profile games, the NSL and its clubs were never able to attract the large enough fan base to the games to produce enough return on their investment. Large investors, benefactors and sponsors finally ran out of patience and ended their involvement to cut their losses.

    2. High profile Australian players started to leave the NSL in larger numbers, due the ever growing overseas football markets and to take up more enticing offers from overseas leagues. Up to 200 of Australia’s best footballers had left the NSL to go overseas to seek their football fortune.

    3. Soccer Australia was judged to have been poor administrators of the NSL. The lack of direction and leadership at times did not help the competition, particularly in its declining years.

    4. There were a number of controversies and indecisions and finally when Soccer Australia decided to abandon the ethnic flavour of the NSL, it tended to alienate some of the larger and more traditional ethnic clubs, who started pulling in opposite directions.

    5. The Australian press were not totally supportive of the NSL and probably sold more papers when they ran negative stories about the NSL, particularly the ethnic soccer violence angle.

    6. There was not a proper process to assess the clubs’ financial and structural viability when they applied to join the NSL and so there was a high turnover of NSL clubs.

    7. Australia is a very complex and very competitive sporting market with limited fan bases and financial returns. The other competitions were well entrenched and financially more stable.

    8. The Australasian competition with teams from Perth to New Zealand had very large operating and travel expenses and required large ticket and merchandising sales to remain profitable in the long run.

    The National Soccer League (NSL) kicked off in 1977 with so much promise, thirty four years ago this month. Despite all its misgivings, problems and financial woes it ran for twenty eight years, creating a historical and lasting legacy for the many football fans of this country.

    How will you remeber the NSL?

    This video is trending right now! Submit your videos for the chance to win a share of $10,000!

    Have Your Say

    If not logged in, please enter your name and email before submitting your comment. Please review our comments policy before posting on the Roar.

    Oldest | Newest | Most Recent

    The Crowd Says (69)

    • April 19th 2011 @ 8:22am
      Futbanous said | April 19th 2011 @ 8:22am | ! Report

      Personally I will remember the NSL as part of the evolution of football in Australia.
      A competition heavily influenced & moulded by Australias post war migration.
      Does any football fan in this country really believe that the game could take the next step up on the World football ladder without the NSL & its migrant input.
      But like migrants themselves the game moves on as the first generation becomes second & third generation.
      In regards to the nineties my gut feeling was that this was the decade when the so called mainstream started to realise the pull of the World game. Due in no small part IMO to SBS’s coverage of Football. In particular the EPL started to make its mark & the decent crowds at Perth Glory & Northern spirit starting to reflect potential in the mainstream.
      Regardless of poor at the top administration,ethnic influence on the game & importantly the Socceroos failure to qualify for the World Cup presenting somewhat of a losers sport to the so called mainstream, I dont believe these were the deciding factors in determining the sport could progress.
      We were still in Oceania. A confederation in which it was always impossible to provide the platform of high profile regular meaningful matches needed to provide gate/TV/sponsor revenue in order for the game to grow on & off the park.
      Joining Asia gave us this & everything we do now involves competing within this region.
      The deficiencies in the technical ability of our Players be that domestically in the ACL or internationally in the Asian Cup would never have been exposed in Oceania. Therefore none of the programs to improve the technical tactical ability of our players & improve the professionalism of our clubs would have been introduced.
      Regardless of whether it was the NSL or the A-League IMO we would still have bumbled along in Oceania & our youth would have still hopped on the first plane to some icy field in the Scottish lower division,hoping Sir Alex was wiping an icicle off his nose in the 300 year old stand.
      Ask Erik Paartalu the better option Greenock Morton or the Roar at Suncorp & the winning goal at the death in this years A-League grand Final.
      Now if they dont make it their coming back rather than dream the impossible dream overseas.
      I dont blame the NSL or our football administrators entirely before for our players not coming back just see it as part of Australias football history & indeed Asias football history.
      Because its not that long ago that the AFC wiped the floor with David Hill.
      Timing,the right time is everything. The NSL had its time in a different era,but played its part in offering something to the AFC that they saw as beneficial to them.

    • April 19th 2011 @ 8:49am
      Roarchild said | April 19th 2011 @ 8:49am | ! Report

      “Northern Spirit joined the league in 1998-99 and were an immediate hit with the fans of northern Sydney playing to packed stands and a record average attendance in their first season.

      Sydney City Pumas topped the league table that year ahead of the South Melbourne Lakers, but newcomers Perth Glory and Northern Spirit made the top five and the NSL playoffs.”

      I don’t remember the Pumas at all.

      Have really enjoyed the series.

      • April 19th 2011 @ 9:06am
        Futbanous said | April 19th 2011 @ 9:06am | ! Report

        I believe its Sydney United Pumas,mentioned earlier in the piece. Former Sydney Croatia.

        • Roar Guru

          April 19th 2011 @ 10:04am
          RedOrDead said | April 19th 2011 @ 10:04am | ! Report

          Yeah, he mentions them as Sydney United Pumas at first and later refers to them as Sydney City Pumas, which I believe is an accidental mistake. Sydney City were originally Sydney Hakoah, a Jewish club founded in 1939. They joined the NSL as a foundation member in 1977 as Eastern Suburbs, but changed their name to Sydney City two years later. They pulled out of the NSL one game into the 1987 season because in-spite of their success (winning 4 titles in 6 years), they never managed to draw in a crowd.

          I thoroughly enjoyed each part ICF, thanks for doing all that homework and writing these articles. My only constructive feedback is that Part IV finished too abruptly, “Glory repeated that effort in 2003-04 beating Parramatta Power 1-0 on the 4/4/2004 in front of 9,700 football fans. That was it, the last game of the NSL and the end of the competition.” There was no warning that it was the final year or that it was quickly coming to an end, all we got was “That was it”. 🙁 hehe

          • Roar Guru

            April 19th 2011 @ 10:56am
            ItsCalledFootball said | April 19th 2011 @ 10:56am | ! Report

            Thanks RedOrDead, glad you enjoyed it.

            I really enjoyed doing the research and writing it – I certainly know more about the NSL now. There were a whole lot of interesting things I had to leave out because the articles were getting a bit too long.

            It was a bit of an abrupt ending, but that’s how it was at the time for me.
            There was no real indication that they would pull the plug on the NSL and it just kind of died as far as I can remember. It was a long 18 months till the A-League started too.

            There are a whole lot of interesting side issues and politics around that time with the Soccer Australia and Crawford investigations etc, which I could have added, but these have been covered in other articles.

          • December 22nd 2013 @ 11:41pm
            peter care said | December 22nd 2013 @ 11:41pm | ! Report

            I think Eastern Suburbs Hakoah became Sydney City. At one point when they had those “Americanised” names (think Lakers, Stalions etc) they were known as Sydney City Slickers.

        • April 19th 2011 @ 10:04am
          Roarchild said | April 19th 2011 @ 10:04am | ! Report

          Cheers for that Futbanous.

        • Roar Guru

          April 19th 2011 @ 10:51am
          ItsCalledFootball said | April 19th 2011 @ 10:51am | ! Report

          Thanks guys,
          it was indeed at typo, should have been the Sydney United Pumas.

          Sydney City were also known as the Sydney City Slickers – where did “slickers” come from?.

          • April 20th 2011 @ 11:22am
            apaway said | April 20th 2011 @ 11:22am | ! Report

            ICF, great series.

            The name “Slickers” was thought up by some marketing student in 1979 when the NSL first attempted to “Americanise” the names of NSL clubs. Funnily enough, it was the only nickname that seemed to stick, as Sydney City were known as the Slickers right up to their demise in 1987. I bet no-one referrreed to Marconi as the Leopards after that first season.

            And Sydney United/Croatia adopted the nickname “Pumas” as a result of a sponsorship with Puma boot and clothing company.

    • April 19th 2011 @ 9:31am
      whiskeymac said | April 19th 2011 @ 9:31am | ! Report

      i only became aware of the NSL at the end. Mainly due to location, mainly due to poor media coverage and so the first nsl game i saw was the ‘gong Glory final. I raved about it at work. No one else saw it. Even a mate who played footy and lived in the gong didnt watch it or know about it. Despite that i was impressed with the big crowds, entertaining game. Then the Spirit with large crowds and favourable initial profile… then the NT at the confeds cup coming runners up. there was a lot of promise there 10 years ago before players paid to go to the Solomon Islands and lost to NZ.
      the reasons you state for the NSL’s failure seem eerily familiar… fingers crossed the FFA have learnt their history.

    • April 19th 2011 @ 9:33am
      MelbCro said | April 19th 2011 @ 9:33am | ! Report

      “Sydney City Pumas topped the league table that year”

      Thats Sydney United, not CIty

      “This time beating South Melbourne at Parramatta Stadium in front of relatively disappointing crowd of 13,400 fans”

      Thats because Soccer Australia in all its wisdom denied Wollongong the right to host the Grand Final on their home turf in Wollongong, moving it to Sydney instead.

      Good work with this series of articles, was a pleasure to read

      • April 19th 2011 @ 10:47am
        Whites said | April 19th 2011 @ 10:47am | ! Report

        Exactly. I was at the game and the crowd jeered any sight or mention of Soccer Australia officials. Not having the game in Wollongong was one of their many idiotic decisions. WIN Stadium would have been packed and instead they had a half empty Parramatta Stadium. On a side note, if I recall correctly at televised Wolves home games they insisted the cameras be set up on the eastern side so that the western grand stand would be in the background rather then the eastern hill.

        The Perth-Wollongong grand final was just epic. Don’t forget Perth were up 3-0 at half-time. The Wolves came back in the second half for 3-3 at the end of normal time. After extra-time it was still 3-3 and it was into the penalty shootout.

        Now we need a Wollongong/South Coast team in the A-League. There should have been one before NQLD and the Gold Coast.

        • Roar Guru

          April 19th 2011 @ 11:21am
          ItsCalledFootball said | April 19th 2011 @ 11:21am | ! Report

          Thanks, I remember the Perth Wollongong game – it was a beauty.

          Alvin Ceccoli, Scott Chipperfield, Paul Reid, Noel Spencer and Saso Petrovski all played for the Wolves that day with Jason Petkovic, Jamie Harnwell, Scott Miller, Troy Halpin, Alistair Edwards, Bobby Despotovski, Kasey Wehrman and a very young Ljubo Milicevic in the Perth team.

          Glory leading 3-0 by half-time but what a second half from Wollongong in front of 43,000 screaming away fans. They could have easily lost from there and no one would have expected otherwise, but funnily enough the turning point was the ‘gongs first goal.

          It silenced the big crowd, Glory heads dropped and Wolves were on a roll.
          A 3 goal lead was not enough with Paul Reid scoring the equaliser in the 89th minute.

          No goals in extra time, then 18 penalty kicks in the shoot out.

          Great game, great advertisement for the game.

          I remember wanting to talk about it at work with the boys, but no one had even seen it on TV, not even in the news sports highlights.

      • Roar Guru

        April 19th 2011 @ 7:36pm
        ItsCalledFootball said | April 19th 2011 @ 7:36pm | ! Report

        Thanks MelbCro,
        you should be proud of what Melbourne Croatia did for football and the NSL and the role they have played in Melbourne’s football history.

        They won NSL titles and Cups and produced some great players like Mark Viduka and kept going all through thick and thin.

        How is the club doing these days and do they have any A-League aspirations?

    • April 19th 2011 @ 10:58am
      Brett McKay said | April 19th 2011 @ 10:58am | ! Report

      ICF, I’ve really enjoyed this series you’ve presented, but there’s a burning question I need to ask:

      How can a ‘brief history’ run to a fourth part??

      • Roar Guru

        April 19th 2011 @ 11:52am
        ItsCalledFootball said | April 19th 2011 @ 11:52am | ! Report

        Cheers Brett,
        I could have written 20 articles on it.

        Just look at mds’s excellent long post below on just one of the 42 NSL clubs and they only lasted a few years.

        Some great stuff in the NSL’s history.

    • Roar Guru

      April 19th 2011 @ 11:02am
      mds1970 said | April 19th 2011 @ 11:02am | ! Report

      I was one of the people who jumped on the Northern Spirit bandwagon during their first season – my first interest in an Australian soccer club. In those days, Friday nights at North Sydney Oval were a huge event, the Bob Stand a cauldron of noise. The team made the finals in their first season, playing a 2-legged series in front of sold out stadiums at North Sydney Oval and Marconi Stadium, going down 2-1 on aggregate. To think we thought Northern Spirit was going to be the revolution the game so desperately needed.

      A Roar Promoted Comment This comment has been promoted to a Roar of the Crowd article.

      Read and respond to it here: Northern Spirit’s story of failure in the ashes of the NSL

      Please suggest worthy comments to be promoted to article status by contacting The Roar.

      Great series of articles ICF. Gets a cheer from me.

      • April 19th 2011 @ 11:46am
        whiskeymac said | April 19th 2011 @ 11:46am | ! Report

        good post.

    , ,