Last Saturday night in Sydney, Heartbeat of Football – a fundraising organisation founded and driven by well-known football identity Andy Paschalidis – hosted the first ever reunion of players, coaches and identities from the National Soccer League.
Heartbeat of Football is an organisation aiming to improve the safety of players in grassroots football clubs by educating about the risks and signs of cardiac arrest and by installing defibrillators at all sporting fields across Australia.
Paschalidis brings the same passion, enthusiasm and energy to his Heartbeat of Football foundation as he did to his wonderful on-air role at SBS in the days of the National Soccer League. He is a force of nature, a bundle of coiled energy, a driving force seeking to make sure players of all ages can continue to play the game we all love safely.
The night itself was a great success, with a hefty sum being raised to continue Paschalidis’ wonderful initiative.
The idea of an NSL reunion came to him early in the year and as the date drew closer, the night drew more and more attention as those who lived, breathed, played, coached and supported the era of Australia’s first national club competition confirmed their attendance.
And finally, last Saturday night at the Canterbury-Hurlstone Park RSL Club, the reunion happened. Three hundred people attended, including two dozen former Socceroos, among them arguably our greatest in Tim Cahill.
Current national team coach and former NSL star Graham Arnold was there, along with legendary former Socceroos gurus Rale Rasic and Les Scheinflug. A fourth Socceroos boss, Frank Arok, was scheduled to attend but was sadly unable to travel from Serbia. Instead, the 88-year-old recorded a typically funny and blunt video message from his reclining chair.
Former Australian powerhouse clubs St George, Sydney Olympic, Marconi and Sydney Croatia booked tables and traded old-time war stories with each other. Football NSW and the FFA both had tables in a night that truly represented a uniting of a code that has felt way too divided in its turbulent history.
The current issues confronting the FFA were not ignored but MC George Donikian repeatedly asked guest panelists what was the best way forward for the game even though we were all there to celebrate the past.
Tim Cahill’s response was spot on: “This room is where our football was born. Clubs in the old days were about family, culture and tradition. The game needs harmony and everybody coming together to help in any way.”
Graham Arnold was passionate and funny about both his current role and his days as a player in the NSL.
“I never played for Sydney United, it was Sydney Croatia,” he said.
Arnold recounted two wonderful stories which encapsulated the way the game was. He recalled turning up for training at state league club Canterbury Marrickville Olympic and was asked by then-coach John Xipolitas what he was doing there. Arnie soon discovered he’d been transferred to Sydney Croatia.
“I lived in Sylvania,” Arnold recalled. “I had no idea where Edensor Park was, and there were no Google Maps or GPS, so I had to follow the old Gregory’s Street Directory for an hour and a half. Back then, the ground was at the end of a dirt track!”
Arnold also recalled negotiating a contract with the club.
“How much do you want?” he was asked.
“Well, what are you willing to pay me?” he replied.
After some deliberation, officials responded: “We’ll build you a driveway.”
“But I don’t have a house.”
“Well now you have a driveway.”
Stories like this were swapped time and again as players who had faced off on bumpy or muddy pitches came together for the first time in 20 years or more.
The ethos of the NSL was best encapsulated by former St George and Australian striker Scott Ollerenshaw, who flew back from his home in Borneo to attend the function. Sharing the stage with fellow Socceroos Charlie Yankos and Scott Chipperfield, Ollie – as he is known to the football community – reminded everyone that players in the NSL generally held down full-time jobs and found a way to work their jobs around their football commitments.
“You’d start work at 7am so you could finish in time to get to a 6pm training session, then you’d train for two hours, shower and go home, have dinner at 9.30 then roll out of bed the next morning ready to do it all again.”
Chipperfield concurred, noting he went from full-time bus driver and part-time player with the Wollongong Wolves to a contract with Swiss club Basel.
“And now you own the bus company!” one former player called from the audience.
Dez Marton, one of the best strikers to ever grace the NSL and a former coach of mine, looked like he hadn’t aged a day in the last two decades. Marton was brought to Australia by Frank Arok and played for St George in the 1981 state league season. He scored an astonishing 42 goals in 26 games and helped St George to promotion to the NSL the following season.
On winning the old Rothmans Medal in 1981, his acceptance speech was: “Thank you very much.” They were the only English words he knew that were not swear words. Dez then top-scored in the NSL the following season, which may be the only time a player has top-scored in the state league and the national league in consecutive seasons.
A video tribute was paid to those of the era who we have lost. Among the many figures, the audience responded especially to two – Johnny Warren and Les Murray, even though they never took the field as players in the league.
Along with the night’s organiser, Andy Paschalidis, the contribution made by those men to the history of the NSL is incalculable. It’s a history that should be celebrated – with all its successes, failures, colour, drama and passion – for it paved the way for what was to come.
Much like that dirt road to Edensor Park.