NSL lessons vital for A-League’s future

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    The RBB has been handed an ultimatum from Wanderers management. (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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    The Crowd Says (105)

    • May 8th 2013 @ 9:27am
      nordster said | May 8th 2013 @ 9:27am | ! Report

      Your last par is an important point. There was a time when the game needed a break from the NSL era as a way of buying these new clubs some time to build their audiences, especially as they were looking to do so in a more PG and AU NSL era fashion. So for Sydney and Melbourne it was important to have that window.

      Now the league is established any club be they NSL era or not needs a path to the top division. For me that means promotion and relegation (competition based) whenever its deemed viable by the centralised body. But in the meantime if one does want to buy their way in, it should be assessed case by case. SM has a pretty decent one…although u wonder if it would be more gratifying to be able to play their way into the top flight. As it would be for any club i imagine.

    • May 8th 2013 @ 9:50am
      Ian said | May 8th 2013 @ 9:50am | ! Report

      Have to say its a credit the NSL lasted 26 years for a competition that was probably largely ignored by the mainstream.

      • May 8th 2013 @ 12:23pm
        Nick from Sydney said | May 8th 2013 @ 12:23pm | ! Report

        And the “bad old NSL” clubs, are still the LEADING talent growing football clubs in this country, even after the rope was cut off 8 years ago.
        We are happy for them to provide our A-League clubs the newest talent, do the hard work, invest in these players at youth, but they are not good enoughto have involvement in some kind of frontline format with the A-League?

        It’s a two way street.

        • Roar Guru

          May 8th 2013 @ 12:27pm
          wisey_9 said | May 8th 2013 @ 12:27pm | ! Report

          I’d like to see figures backing this up?

          Does anyone have stats of former NSL clubs to Socceroos conversion? Or even former NSL clubs to HAL player conversion?

          • May 8th 2013 @ 8:25pm
            Nick from Sydney said | May 8th 2013 @ 8:25pm | ! Report

            Very hard to track an “official” stat, but just do some of your own research on where this new talent comes from to the A-League. They come from somewhere to step up in the A-League…

            • May 8th 2013 @ 10:21pm
              Titus said | May 8th 2013 @ 10:21pm | ! Report

              …….and there are leagues that the NSL would recruit from that went unrecognised.

              Schwarzer was from Colo, Emerton from Macarthur, Cahill from Balmain, Kewell from Westfield sports high, Neill from Manly, Viduka the AIS, Bresciano from Bulleen, Zelic from Canberra FC etc.

              • May 8th 2013 @ 10:37pm
                Nick from Sydney said | May 8th 2013 @ 10:37pm | ! Report

                Of course, no doubt, we could keep going further down the local divisions if that was the angle we look at it….

              • May 8th 2013 @ 10:42pm
                Titus said | May 8th 2013 @ 10:42pm | ! Report

                We’re all in this together, Nick.

      • Roar Guru

        May 8th 2013 @ 9:36pm
        Peter Wilson said | May 8th 2013 @ 9:36pm | ! Report

        The NSL lasted 28 years – started in 1977 and finished in 2004.

        A great testament to the dedication of Australian football followers and benefactors throughout that difficult period.
        No NSL club or the governing body Soccer Australia ever made a profit and poured a lot of their own money into the league to keep it going so long.

        Well done to you – you will always be remembered in Australian football.

    • May 8th 2013 @ 9:51am
      striker said | May 8th 2013 @ 9:51am | ! Report

      I am over the South Melbourne-NSL vs A-League Debate its getting boring.

    • May 8th 2013 @ 10:07am
      KP said | May 8th 2013 @ 10:07am | ! Report

      I had an amazing girlfriend when I was growing up. All of my mates were very jealous of me going out with her. She was very modern and ahead of her time, all of Australia knew about her. She was of European heritage and was stunning. She cooked the most amazing meals, was very close to her family and she was just a little crazy in her head which made her quite passionate. Boy was she passionate! The things she made me do were amazing- she had lights, screaming and she made me really happy. She even whispered that she would take me to a special place nobody had been for over 30 years! She was a dreamer, telling me the things she was capable of doing – incredible things. Unfortunately they never really eventuated.
      My mates didn’t like her, they said she’s too passionate and I should keep away. I’d have to defend her to my friends, but they never listened. Sure we had our bust ups, everyone does, but we stayed strong and the make up action was unbelievable. She did take me to that special place, it was in Germany, but only after we had broken up. I couldn’t keep up all the arguing and her family, she’d even pushed away my friends.

      Recently she’s been calling again, and my mates Joe and Apaway, have been saying “why not?” And I’ve been thinking of her again. I do miss the action she brought, she was steady – you really couldn’t knock her down, and boy that passion – that unrelenting passion was unbelievable!
      But to be honest, I dont think I can. I can’t go back to her. Her passion was what made her great but also lead to all those bloody arguments. She said she’d change and let us be “us” and not an extension of her family but they were always there, telling me what to do and trying to run things, not letting us create our own new family. And that little bit of her head that made her crazy, sometimes it would work out and things would go well, but as always, it would go a little crazy in her boardroom head and things would fall apart again.

      Another mate, Towser I think it was, mentioned – why dont you let her go out with a distant mate and see if she’s settled down, grown up a little? I might introduce her to a mate of mine – he’s not as popular but he’s a great sounding board. Let him see if she’s calmed down a bit, sorted out her head out.

      I’ve got a new girl now anyway, she was a little like a gold coast tart originally. All make-up but no real beauty. But she’s improving, maturing if you may. We had a great start, then things went a little rocky – she fell in love with a miner, but he’s left her now thankfully. She’s doing things now that she originally didn’t do and they’re amazing -no lights but she’s becoming a screamer. She’s also becoming more and more passionate and I’m really growing to love her. My mates like this one too. I can go out in public with her and she’s developing quite a following.

      Do I want my ex back? Its always easy to look back with rose tinted glasses at an old relationship that went for so long and think it wasn’t THAT bad. But there was a reason why we broke up. This isn’t a Hollywood Rom-Com, this is real life. And why go back when things are great with who we have now?

      • May 8th 2013 @ 10:36am
        Midfielder said | May 8th 2013 @ 10:36am | ! Report


        Falls to one knee … what a farking post …..

      • May 8th 2013 @ 10:43am
        Ian said | May 8th 2013 @ 10:43am | ! Report

        truly brilliant post.

      • Roar Guru

        May 8th 2013 @ 10:47am
        Cameron Kellett said | May 8th 2013 @ 10:47am | ! Report

        Wow… Hard to argue with that.

        • May 8th 2013 @ 12:22pm
          Kasey said | May 8th 2013 @ 12:22pm | ! Report

          Great post KP, A contender for post of the year? Roar mods?
          I’m ‘friends’ with most of my ex-gfs, even if its only on Facebook. One thing I know is that if you’ve ever truly loved someone, you never stop loving them. You might have a bit of a falling out and talk to them less often, but you never stop loving them. I harbour no ill-will to those girls that dumped me. If I couldn’t make them happy, then I hope that whichever direction they’ve gone in has made them happy.

      • May 8th 2013 @ 10:49am
        nordster said | May 8th 2013 @ 10:49am | ! Report

        Great post but not sure i agree with the conclusion lol…some folks still like the crazy ex even if it isnt u…should she be forever swept aside just because you’ve grown out of her? Different strokes and all that…

      • May 8th 2013 @ 11:10am
        Con Harismidis said | May 8th 2013 @ 11:10am | ! Report

        Excuse my writing English, because it is not very great. In 1973, I meet my wife in Melbourne. Usual story, fall in love, get house, get married. We have four children then and are very happy. Our children grow up and have success and happy life. My wife and me also have happy healthy life. Since 1973, I have seen many beautiful ‘gomenes’ and women. At work, at Chadstone and in the city. I even see new women at Safeway. But I do not leave my wife for these new women, even if the beautiful women are younger, skinnier with better body. I have made my choice in 1973 and I will never leave my wife. My wife and me will be together forever.

        South Melbourne Hellas is like this also. There is newer team in Melbourne than Hellas. This new team have nicer stadium, more newspaper report and bigger players. But Hellas is our team forever. The young people must remember that they make a choice also. When they were younger, they ‘married’ Hellas. And just like I do not divorce my wife, they cannot divorce Hellas. Stay true to your team, your family and yourself. South Melbourne Hellas forever, from 1959.

        • Roar Guru

          May 8th 2013 @ 9:29pm
          Peter Wilson said | May 8th 2013 @ 9:29pm | ! Report

          Excellent post Con,

          Good luck to South Melbourne whatever happens and keep up your support.

      • May 8th 2013 @ 11:13am
        realfootball said | May 8th 2013 @ 11:13am | ! Report

        Terrific piece of writing.

      • May 8th 2013 @ 11:18am
        Christo the Daddyo said | May 8th 2013 @ 11:18am | ! Report

        Post of the year.

      • May 8th 2013 @ 11:28am
        nickoldschool said | May 8th 2013 @ 11:28am | ! Report

        Great post really, although would have chosen a different ending.

      • Roar Guru

        May 8th 2013 @ 11:49am
        wisey_9 said | May 8th 2013 @ 11:49am | ! Report

        Brilliant work KP.

        I like the idea of introducing her to your mate… excellent way to see how she’s doing, before committing to a long term relationship again…

      • Roar Guru

        May 8th 2013 @ 12:00pm
        apaway said | May 8th 2013 @ 12:00pm | ! Report


        Can I have her number? 🙂

      • May 8th 2013 @ 12:29pm
        Australian Rules said | May 8th 2013 @ 12:29pm | ! Report

        Haha…great stuff KP

      • May 8th 2013 @ 12:47pm
        Towser said | May 8th 2013 @ 12:47pm | ! Report

        Cleverly constructed KP,agree with the ending also , its definitely not a “Sliding Doors” movie,no “parallel Universe’s ” in football unless your an Owls supporter like me & believe Wednesday have won the EPL every season since 1991,Champions league so many times the club had to hire a professional “Cup polisher” & we have players on the books who make Messi look like Les Murray playing in the “Geriatric Cup”.
        Ups just fell out of the train door,normal Wednesday service resumed,wheres the black puddin.

        • Roar Guru

          May 10th 2013 @ 9:48pm
          apaway said | May 10th 2013 @ 9:48pm | ! Report

          Just go back to 1992 and ’93, Towser, when the Owls finished equal 2nd in the title race and were runners up in both cup finals!

      • Roar Guru

        May 8th 2013 @ 12:51pm
        Fussball ist unser leben said | May 8th 2013 @ 12:51pm | ! Report

        Outstanding post, KP.

        I’m eagerly awaiting the ‘booty call’, when the FFA Cup commences!

      • May 8th 2013 @ 2:45pm
        MV Dave said | May 8th 2013 @ 2:45pm | ! Report

        Well done KP…close the thread.

      • May 8th 2013 @ 3:37pm
        Michael_Newcastle said | May 8th 2013 @ 3:37pm | ! Report

        Love it!

      • May 9th 2013 @ 4:38am
        Minister for Information for the Democratic People's Republic of Football said | May 9th 2013 @ 4:38am | ! Report

        HA,HA,HA,HA,HA……….. GOLD!!!!!!

    • May 8th 2013 @ 10:28am
      Towser said | May 8th 2013 @ 10:28am | ! Report

      The NSL remains a major part of the history/evolution of Football in Australia,it deserves to be recognised as such.
      But as a National competition it was a miserable failure full stop.
      Also Apaway lets not gloss over the ethnic element attached to the game that was a major part of that failure to capture a broader audience .The “Wogs game tag” was as much a factor in the apathy & at times hostility towards football as the poor administration was. How do I know because part of my following the NSL was to spend useless time arguing with “the Wogs game antagonists” & they came from suprising quarters at times.
      As such Clubs who were part of that NSL era should not be able to buy their way back in,they were part of its failure as a National competition whether we think the at times racist reasons are right or wrong.
      However they should be allowed to prove their worth to a National competition whereby clubs represent & gather support from as many football & general sports fans as possible in a specific geographic area.,via the NPL,another step in the history of the game here.
      Whilst I agree with Nordster in principle that the correct way is to step up from the NPL into a second division as it allows as he pointed out today & yesterday that clubs should be able to play their way into the top flight ,I dont believe in practice that football is strong enough yet throughout the country to do so,nordster disagrees as is his right.
      Hopefully via the NPL clubs like the Gold Coast, Fury,South Melbourne whoever, can build strong enough clubs over the next few years to make a second division a viable proposition.
      In reality though I dont like the heading as it implicates the NSL as the major cock up artist in the history of the game in Australia.
      Its just one part of the unique history of football, brought about by circumstances outside the game (post war migration) & also another major factor being in the OFC.
      I dont believe that whoever was in charge whilst we remained in Oceania would have done much better than those dedicated football loving migrants,simply because we were top of the heap. Unfortunately the heap was a pile of ant sh*t & there was no mountain to climb as there is in the AFC.
      Lets face it just as mistakes were made in the NSL so were they in the A-League,Gold Coast Fury & IMO Melbourne Heart,rushed jobs for reasons well documented ad nauseum.
      However as we learn from the NSL mistakes, we learn from the A-League mistakes.
      Matters not a jot where the mistakes were made,how long they went for,,only that you learn from them & the game moves forward.

      • Roar Guru

        May 8th 2013 @ 12:00pm
        apaway said | May 8th 2013 @ 12:00pm | ! Report


        Certainly not glossing over the monocultural nature of most NSL clubs, and some of their attempts to broaden support were either half-hearted or forced upon them by the NSL administration. I was just trying to see the other side of the picture; that these clubs survived due to the passion of fans who should not be dismissed because the league ultimately didn’t survive.

    • May 8th 2013 @ 10:41am
      Chairman Kaga said | May 8th 2013 @ 10:41am | ! Report

      Just some points.

      # Followed the NSL since I was young. But my real “club” was the Socceroos.
      # I just could not get behind a Greek, Croation, or Italian team they sees to throw up in Victoria. It was just silly that you come over to liv here and cling to something 15,000 kms away. I also had that heritage too, but you live here not there. They should have been proper clubs representing areas/regions. It ended up catching up with them. It always would.
      # NSL was “national” in it being mainly a Melbourne/Sydney/Adelaide competition to begin with. So not really “national”
      # Sheffield Shield cricket is the oldest domestic national competition starting in the 19th century.
      # AFL could not really cross state lines due to the problems of strong state leagues in SA and WA which would not allow it to occur. They did have the Australian football council which staged inter league competition a little like the UEFA Champs League up to the mid 1980s.

      • May 8th 2013 @ 10:56am
        Ian said | May 8th 2013 @ 10:56am | ! Report

        that’s confusing…..you said yesterday southern europeans thought they were ‘superior’ and northern europeans weren’t and could integrate….including the british………(why you think british would EVER have any trouble settling here is a mystery), however you have ‘their’ heritage.

        i was never really into the NSL, but you really don’t like it do you.

        • May 8th 2013 @ 12:45pm
          Chairman Kaga said | May 8th 2013 @ 12:45pm | ! Report

          To clarify, I would take a look at NSL and cheer for the Victorian clubs regardless. But I was not inclined to go along to their games regularly because I am not Greek, Italian, or Croat. I did go to the odd final if they looked like quality teams. The crowds ould be pretty wild let me tell you. Like the Melb Croatia team with Viduka, Skoko etc.. South Melb with that great 90s side and Carlton when they had a team. I always loved soccer and followed the never ending Balkans soap opera of intrigue, infighting, scandal which just thought would never end. Half the interest for me was all the problems within the Aussie game and the rise in quality to eventually qualify for the World Cup. It was like a 2nd, secret gf to me. Noone else I knew was interested in soccer. I sucked a bunch of my mates into becoming fans. I even purchased tickets for a couple of them to come along with me to that Iran/Socceroos match at the MCG as no one wanted to come with me. Now they are big fans and have been to a World Cup overseas.

          Actually am not British btw, they are too far south. They also have an attitude to them that does not sit well.

      • Roar Guru

        May 8th 2013 @ 11:56am
        apaway said | May 8th 2013 @ 11:56am | ! Report

        Chairman Kaga

        The Sheffield Shield is a competition between representative state sides who are selected from clubs. It is not, and never has been, a national club competition.

        • May 8th 2013 @ 12:35pm
          Chairman Kaga said | May 8th 2013 @ 12:35pm | ! Report

          It is an argumentthat has merit, but as far as Australia wide competition goes. The Shield was the first national domestic competition. Yes, they were representative teams, but they still played home and away annually which would constitute a league by many people’s definition so cricket should be getting the nod.

          As far as the footballing competitions in Australia goes, the NSL was the first. But it was still limited, it did not have a WA team till only recently and it changed teams so much over the years it was confusing. Frank Lowy said himself, he realised the architecture of the NSL was incorrect from very early on. They actually considered an A-League setup back when they established the NSL in 1977 but the powerful Sydney and Melbourne clubs pulled the rug out from that concept because the clubs wanted to keep their prestige in tact. It was never going to work, but it is easy to say that now. Maybe if they kept immigration up to the same levels from those countries it would still be going.

          For mine, the Shield followed by the NBL are the longest running annual national competitions in existence within Australia.

          • Roar Guru

            May 8th 2013 @ 1:35pm
            apaway said | May 8th 2013 @ 1:35pm | ! Report

            Not to belabour the point, Chairman, but it has been clearly established the the NSL was the first national club competition in Australia. The argument about there being no Perth team can be countered by the fact that Tasmania were not a Sheffield Shield state until the mid 1980s from memory.

            • May 8th 2013 @ 5:43pm
              Timmuh said | May 8th 2013 @ 5:43pm | ! Report

              Well, if Tasmania is considered a criterion for a national competition then basketball would probably get the nod from a club point of view. That and (field) hockey might be the only sports Tasmania has had clubs in. Does the BBL count as a club comp?

              If rep teams are considered, Tasmania had a limited overs team in the national competition in the early 70s, but did not join the Shield until 1979 (I think) and was not on a full time basis until 1982. There may have been other sports before that, although in national titles rather than league type competitions.

              With the advent of the FFA Cup, Tasmania may be included in a top tier club football competition (of any form of football) for the first time.

            • May 8th 2013 @ 8:15pm
              Evan Askew said | May 8th 2013 @ 8:15pm | ! Report

              1977-1978 for Tasmania.

              • May 8th 2013 @ 9:01pm
                Chairman Kaga said | May 8th 2013 @ 9:01pm | ! Report

                Cricket has it. It was first contested during the 1892–93 season, between New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria. Queensland was admitted for the 1926–27 season, Western Australia for the 1947–48 season and Tasmania for the 1977–78 season.

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