With seemingly the whole of Newcastle wanting to be a part of Saturday’s A-League Grand Final against Melbourne Victory, it’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time Melbourne and Newcastle teams have played a national club final.
Way back in 1984, the National Soccer League was a 24 team, 2 conference League. The NSL Cup was the knockout competition played midweek alongside the regular league competition.
The 24 teams were organised into six groups of four teams, with the group winners advancing to the knockout quarter-finals along with the two best second-placed teams.
Melbourne Croatia advanced to the NSL Cup final by defeating Brisbane Lions in the quarters and then Footscray JUST in the semis. Newcastle’s NSL representatives of the era, Newcastle Rosebud United, accounted for Adelaide City in the quarters and APIA Leichhardt in the semis, to set up a midweek cup final at Olympic Park against the Melbourne club.
In an era of part-time players, travelling to Melbourne for a midweek game presented more logistical concerns than just catching flights and securing accommodation. At the time, Newcastle Rosebud were coached by Willie Gallagher, a tough-but-fair, straight-talking, no-nonsense Scot who would go on to play a significant role in the city’s re-emergence as a National League club after the demise of Newcastle KB United.
Gallagher’s 1984 squad included names who are still mentioned with reverence by the city’s football aficionados to this day. Clint Gosling, a New Zealand international goalkeeper. Ralph Maier, a classy midfielder who represented Australia at the youth and local levels as well as lads Joe Senkalski, Simon Brandt, John McQuarrie and Neville Power, who had all been part of the KB United set-up.
Throw in Englishman David Jones, a rock-solid and skilful left-sided player who had called Newcastle home ever since, and there was a team that need not take a back seat to anyone.
Melbourne Croatia were and are a production line of Socceroos and international players – think Mark Viduka for starters. They were in their infancy as a National League club but would go on to become multi-time champions.
In 1984 they included such names in their ranks as Josip Biskic, Jim Campbell, Robert Markovac, Shaun Parton and Yakka Banovic. They were hot favourites to take out the NSL Cup, with home ground advantage and a team capable of turning it on up front.
They were coached by club stalwart Tony Vrzina, who had served terms as manager and club president in the 1970s before taking on the coaching reigns.
On a cold Melbourne winter’s night, Rosebuds upset the favourites 1-0 with a 30th-minute goal by Derek Todd separating the teams at the final whistle. The Newcastle contingent returned to their clubhouse opposite Adamstown Oval the next day, the Sid Foggs bus emptying out a tired but delighted squad, with captain Joe Senkalski holding the NSL Cup aloft to a waiting contingent of fans and media.
Inside the club, the players took turns sipping champagne from the trophy during a celebratory lunch and Senkalski lauded the efforts of the players, who played all their games away from home due to the vagaries of the draw.
34 years later, there is a fair chance that many of those Newcastle Rosebud squad members will be in attendance at McDonald Jones Stadium to see their home city try to do what they did successfully three and a half decades before. David Jones even joked to me a couple of months back that they’d named half the stadium after him.
He and his fellow 1984 squad members are the DNA strand that runs through the football fabric of the city. If Novocastrians are looking for omens for the A-League final, they could go back to 1984.