As a South Melbourne fan I have always been curious how the NSW NPL compares to Victoria. I always watch the highlights and follow the online commentary of our erstwhile rivals across the Murray (or perhaps more correctly, the Barassi line). The past long weekend offered me the opportunity to see for myself, as I was travelling to Sydney for a break over the Queens Birthday weekend.
It was only natural, as a Hellas fan, that the game I selected to view was Sydney Olympic vs Blacktown City. Two teams from the past who have adapted to their new situation with varying degrees of ‘success’. Olympic is part of 'Old Soccer' and their situation, together with so many other similar clubs, has been discussed ad nauseum. Blacktown however, were in many ways a precursor to 'New Football' with their lack of NESB immigrant background. I wonder, if FFA had from the very start decided to go with the two team strategy in Sydney, whether or not Blacktown would have put their hand up for the Western Sydney licence?
While the history of the NSW and Victorian leagues were, in many respects a mirror of each other insofar as the type of clubs that were dominant in the NSL, their current situation has some quirky differences. Both leagues do have a similar geographical spread of clubs; however the NSW league has a higher representation of non-ethnically formed clubs representing key areas like the North Shore (Manly) and the Shire (Sutherland). Victoria's key difference is the proliferation of Greek backed clubs (6!).
I do prefer the more 'democratic' and diverse NSW league. It does in fact remind me of the late 1990s in the NSL, when Perth Glory and Northern Spirit added a new and much needed dimension to the game. As an aside back to the late 1990s, I wonder if that blasted Iran game helped destroy any chance that the NSL may harness that new diversity and strengthen as a league? Or was it terminal?
As you can imagine with Sydney, the weather was typically milder than Melbourne (the previous week’s record breaking downpour already forgotten). And my stay was very pleasant and quirky at times. I stayed in Glebe ('that suburb has αλήτηδες'), which will always be remembered by me due to the darkly humorous reference Graham Kennedy made on Blankety Blanks, to the murders of young boys that occurred at the time in that suburb (circa 1978).
We had some funny experiences with clean trains, finding a Greek café in Earlwood that was a poor man’s Oakleigh, and experiencing the Olympia Milk bar in Stanmore!
So, on Sunday, after departing from the sunny Opera Bar where minor celebrities such as Ada Nicodemou and Jessica Mauboy were spotted (and in Mauboy’s case, spoken to by a member of our traveling troupe), it was time to switch to soccer mode. A quick trip back to Glebe to freshen up and then consult google maps which informed me that the quickest way to get to Belmore from Glebe included taking the light rail to Dulwich Hill. And then a connecting train to Belmore. That was unexpected joy for a rail fan such as myself. The trip was in darkness except, aptly, for the moment the tram passed Lambert Park where a ladies match was in progress.
A ten minute walk from Belmore station via the local shops and I was at the ground. The first evidence that the game would have a low attendance was the lack of any automobiles parked nor any pedestrians in the vicinity of the ground. The ticketing booth consisted of a table at the front gate attended by a solitary man who may or may not have been off the boat.
I reached the main grandstand via the side where the increasingly maligned smokers of the new millennium were seen to lurk in the shadows. Everything that I witnessed was South Melbourne Hellas but on a tighter budget, such as the souvlaki stand and coffee bar run from the back of a van by a group of Asians (not that there is anything wrong with that!).
I decided to plonk myself close to the epicentre of the fans (which included their own version of Mullet Man from Bentleigh), who were generally spread around the grandstand but tended towards the main entrance. Virtually no one sat in the lower deck near the fence.
Sitting centrally was a fortuitous decision as I ended up sitting very close to the famous Andrea, who really is how he is presented on TV, a loud, energetic but positive influence on the team. He sat with his old Greek mates for the first half but for some reason they moved to a higher spot for the second half. A second half that was no better than the first.
Yes, the game turned out to be a frustratingly tight affair that Blacktown should have won except for some profligate finishing and some great keeping by the incredibly durable Paul Henderson (of Northern Spirit) fame*. How little happened in this game is evidenced by the match highlights being the smallest youtube clip that NSWNPL have released for any game this year!
As has been evidenced by the comparable FFA Cup runs by the NSW and VIC teams, the standard did appear of a lesser quality. Olympic players made some NPL2 type clangers (this was written after South’s abysmal Dockerty Cup match against Bentleigh, but the point remains), but were certainly a more mobile team than Blacktown. But Blacktown were very professional and consistently snuffed out any potential Olympic forays forward. Due to the game being a nil-all draw I never got a chance to gauge if Blacktown had any supporters present. The substitutions elicited a few claps but I think the away support was lower than even in the Victorian NPL. Then again, South does attract a lot of away supporters due to our position as the premier club in the competition. Olympic cannot claim that title in NSW, especially now. The lack of a crowd cannot be blamed on the weather, as Sydney’s winters are so much easier to bear than in Melbourne. I know that many times my friends refuse to attend due to the bitter cold we experience.
Finally, the game petered away to a tame end and I trundled off to the local Belmore souvlaki spot to meet some friends (including one person who was proud to be still living in the 80s! It helps that he was a Parramatta Eels supporter). Good food, yes, but the next day I realised that the Sydney centric term of Yeeros is slowly disappearing. The eatery was known as ‘Yiro Yiro’. Everything must be the same in the New Dawn era.
• My last visit to Belmore Oval was in 1999 (when I lived in Sydney) and Hendo played that day!
Any romantic notions I had that the NSW NPL was better or perhaps something more than the Victorian version were extinguished to a large extent. The ‘diversity’ I mentioned earlier is pointless if no one actually attends. I think I was looking for hope in NSW for ‘Old Soccer’, or maybe I was simply hoping that there would be more people who were willing not to drink the FFA koolaid, but it looks as if it might be worse in Sydney.
An NRL postscript
The following day I ventured out to ANZ stadium to witness my first ever NRL game in Sydney (my only previous game was a ‘New Dawn’ game featuring the Storm). There really is not much to say about this experience. The train trip to the ground was very much a scene from Pizza (even the WASP guy said ‘I swear to god’). The ground is far too big for the 20,000 people who attended, the game itself featured two middle of the road teams, and they played accordingly I felt, yet prices were not cheap. I was willing to pay 'silver grade' prices but they were sold out (yet there appeared to be many empty seats in those sections). So I had to make do with just behind the touch line. Not a great view. But then again, most viewing points are not that great for this sport. Its status as a tv game was really accentuated on this day.