Bundled out of the FFA Cup on the Gold Coast last Wednesday night, South Melbourne Football Club bounced back in style and cruised to a three nil victory over rivals the Oakleigh Cannons in Sunday’s Dockerty Cup Final.
But it wasn’t just the highs and lows of cup competition making headlines for the former National Soccer League (NSL) powerhouse this week. With a new broadcast deal set to be negotiated by 2017, expansion of the A-League is again a hot topic and South have received plenty of air time following the Herald Sun’s announcement of the club’s ‘all in’ attempt at elevation to the game’s top flight.
“We believe we are ready. We’ve got Lakeside Stadium, which is a more than adequate stadium to cater for an A-League team; we’ve got the facilities, the junior structure and we’ve got the fans and the financial support.”
“So a good cup run will be a huge shot in the arm. This is ‘all in’ for the club.”
– South Melbourne president Leo Athanasakis speaking to the Herald Sun, July 2015.
This news of course comes as little surprise to almost anyone that has followed Australian football over the last decade.
While a magical FFA Cup run didn’t eventuate, the South Melbourne players’ resilience to bounce back four days later to claim the Dockerty Cup parallels the resolve behind Athanasakis’ and the South board’s ambition for the club.
South were one of only two clubs to compete in all twenty eight seasons of the NSL; the demise of the competition and the club’s subsequent banishment to Victoria’s state leagues was a humiliating fall from grace for the four time national champion. Despite making it as far as the 2004 semi-final, South finished the season in voluntary administration; with (the then) Soccer Australia spruiking a one team per city model for its imminent successor to the National League, the decision was taken not to apply for Melbourne’s single license in the new competition.
Even if South Melbourne had applied, it is impossible to imagine the game’s new John O’Neill led administration having room for such an icon of ‘old soccer’ in its vision for ‘new football’. Years of political infighting, crippling debts and the stigma of ethnic violence had left the game on its knees. The new moniker was “it’s football, but know as you know it” – and the traditional, ethnic backed clubs were not invited.
There can be no arguing that the game hasn’t flourished from the all-encompassing reform that followed. ‘New football’ promised to get the game financial and deliver it to a mainstream audience; it’s success can be measured in levels of sponsorship, attendance and television viewer numbers that the NSL had only ever dreamt about.
“Tinkering with Australian soccer was never going to be an option. We’ve got to have radical change.”
“I understand that the cultures that have embraced soccer are, by and large, not Anglo-Celtic. We want to bring these tribes with us, with all their culture and all their colour. There is no desire to try and homogenise football. That passion is one of the great benefits of this game.”
– former Football Federation Australia (FFA) chief executive John O’Neill speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald, May 2004.
But while the A-League has been successful in taking the game to new markets, it has at the same time ostracised many of the old NSL clubs and their fans. Having already suffered the ignominy of losing their places on the national stage, they have also been largely written out of the game’s history. Indeed anyone new to Australian football during the A-League era could be forgiven for thinking the domestic game had no prior history of note – a fact underscored by the FFA’s own website only citing records from 2005/06 onwards.
If the perpetual sleeping giant of Australian sport is to ever truly realise its potential – yet alone its self-stated goal of becoming the largest and most popular sport in the country – it will need to not only reconcile its past but embrace it.
The introduction of the FFA Cup has been a significant first step. The competition’s popularity has demonstrated that the football public has an appetite for the domestic game that extends beyond the A-League – and that it yearns for tradition and legitimacy.
So are South Melbourne Football Club a serious contender for an expanded A-League?
The Club has made moves at inclusion before; in 2008, as part of the Southern Cross consortium for the second Melbourne A-League license they were overlooked in favour of start-up franchise Melbourne Heart (now Melbourne City). In 2013 it was revealed that Heart management had rejected an offer in excess of excess of 3.5 million dollars from South to take over the club. Earlier that year South was also linked to the cash strapped Central Coast Mariners but negotiations ceased when businessman Mike Charlesworth took a controlling interest in the Gosford based outfit.
Ten years exiled from Australian football’s top tier has given South Melbourne time to strengthen the club’s foundations and improve its fiscal position.
Underpinning the club’s financial security is its much vaunted forty year lease agreement at the redeveloped 15,000 capacity Lakeside Stadium. A social club and futsal centre are due to be completed at the venue in the next eighteen months and would allow the club to generate match day and midweek returns that would be the envy of many of the A-League clubs today.
At a time when the majority of A-League clubs are only now beginning to develop their junior structures, South are well established with teams in all grades of the Victorian NPL. The club has a clear pathway for progression through to the First Team, highlighted by a competitive Under 20 side with an average age of just 17 and a number of players pushing for First Team spots. Regular engagement with the clubs media team (South have a weekly TV show on Foxtel’s Aurora channel and a significant on-line presence) also provides its juniors with impressive opportunities to develop off the field with self-confidence and public speaking.
Its geographic position, whilst just down the road from Melbourne Victory and Melbourne City, covers a large population and extends to the city’s South Eastern Growth Corridor. Given its already sizeable fan base and with Victory and City arguably the competition’s wealthiest clubs, it is unlikely that South’s inclusion would have an adverse impact on the growth prospects of its neighbours. Indeed it could be argued that increasing football’s presence in the AFL’s heartland only raises the profile of the game and should help all three clubs to compete with the rival code for fans’ dollars.
Under the current A-League format, each team plays its opponents three times across the regular season. A third side in Melbourne immediately adds a minimum of six highly profitable derby games to the calendar and means matches featuring Victorian teams could be broadcast in to the competition’s largest market outside of New South Wales on the majority of Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from October until May. These factors – coupled with the marketing appeal that a club so steeped in history brings to a competition so desperate for authenticity – could make South Melbourne the FFA’s premium bargaining chip when it comes to negotiating the new broadcast deal to fund the game.
“This is a whole new era, it’s a great era of football, we want to be a part of that, so we’re working our way through, ticking every box that is possible to qualify for that spot.”
“We don’t just want to get in there because we’re South Melbourne and we were the Oceania club of the last century.”
– South Melbourne president Leo Athanasakis speaking to the Herald Sun, July 2015.
The Australian sporting landscape has changed immensely over the last decade and the FFA can be congratulated for delivering the fundamental change football needed to survive and grow. The opportunity now exists for football in this country to truly realise its potential by addressing the fractures in the game brought by that change.
While Athanasakis rightly insists South Melbourne’s bid for A-League inclusion should be considered solely on the merits of where the club is today, it does seem fitting that Australia’s most successful club should also be the one to unite the sport. If the FFA are genuine about their ‘Whole of Football Plan’ – then South Melbourne have undoubtedly positioned themselves to be the best credentialed candidate for an expanded competition.
‘Old soccer’ had its time; ‘new football’ has served its purpose.
Now is the time to embrace the whole of the game.