Tuesday 23 May 2017

Geelong and Newcastle: A study in soccer contrasts

Published as ‘Geelong must follow Jets into A-League’, Geelong Advertiser, Tuesday 26 February 2008, p. 35

On Sunday the Newcastle Jets won the third A-League Grand Final at the same time as Geelong’s leading football (soccer) clubs were wrestling for a spot in the finals of the local competition which has replaced the long-running Geelong Advertiser Cup. The contrasts could not have been greater in terms of playing standard and local organisation of the world game. Yet the two cities are not dissimilar in a host of ways so a look at the reasons why Newcastle has been successful and Geelong has not is instructive.

First however the similarities betwen the two cities. Both draw on a region of around a quarter of a million people and are located almost equidistant from the state capital and metropolitan centre. Both have strong industrial and commercial bases with extensive educational and service supports. Newcastle used to be a major mining centre which helps explain its historical development as a centre of soccer, almost independent of Sydney in its own Northern New South Wales hinterland. Geelong had its western district wool growing, a very different demographic structure and one much less conducive to the emergence of what was for many years an immigrants’ game. This difference more or less disappeared after the Second World War, when Geelong attracted thousands of migrants from Britain and Europe, who brought their soccer with them, while the significance of the mines around Newcastle declined relative to iron and steel and engineering. Both cities are homes to major teams in other codes of football. Geelong has the Cats in the AFL and the Newcastle Knights have been a powerhouse in Rugby League.

So objectively the two cities have similar potential as far as soccer is concerned but the outcomes have been very different. Newcastle has had a single team which is the focus of the local interest and involvement, even though the name has changed several times. The Jets succeed Newcastle United, KB United, and several other iterations at National League level since the 1970s. Geelong is completely divided along what are largely ethnically-based lines and only North Geelong, backed by the Croatian migrant community, has reached the Victorian Premier League, a long way below the national league. Yet Geelong, and particularly North Geelong, has produced a string of international and national level players including Edi Krncevic, Steve Horvat, Kris Trajanovski, Josip Skoko, the Cervinski and Didulica brothers, Adrian Leijer, Matthew Spiranovic and many more. Certainly enough to form a quality national league team had they all been available at the same time.

In the 1960s, the early 1980s and again in the early 1990s serious attempts were made to form a combined Geelong soccer organisation capable of supporting a team at national league level, but each time the strongest of the local clubs helped scupper the initiative believing that it could go it alone. Each time that club had some initial success then equally quickly fell away and the game went backwards.

The message is clear. The window of opportunity for the formation of a top-level soccer organisation in Geelong is open now for a brief period. The A-League will see the successful Melbourne Victory franchise come to the end of its exclusive period in two years. If the league is going to expand to 12 teams, probably the maximum possible given the available talent pool, then Geelong needs to have a viable proposition available within that time. Government money and interest is likely to be available, given the acceptance by the Rudd government of a bid by Australia to host the World Cup in 2018. This implies a serious development of the game at the local and regional level. Interest in the game has never been higher. For the first time this is driven by the domestic population, not a wave of inward migration, though that is helping to support grass-roots growth at the moment.

My fear is that the local clubs do not have the capacity or the will to be part of such an exercise and hence it will require, as it has in Newcastle, the intervention of an individual or a corporation prepared to throw its support behind the concept of a regional organisation. This will have to bypass what exists now as Frank Lowy and his colleagues did, again with large scale government support, in setting up what is now the Football Federation of Australia and its A-League.

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