New South Wales is most populated state in Australia and home to Sydney, the official birthplace of football in the nation. Introduced to the state in the late 19th Century the game had a stunted development until the aftermath of World War Two and mass shift of Europe’s population. At an amateur level the game has been a phenomenon in a state largely preoccupied with the oval ball and it is by far the most participated sport. There are a number of regional leagues and two ‘state level’ leagues in New South Wales including the Northern New South Wales State League, but naturally the most high profile is the division concentrated around the Sydney and outer-Sydney region, the core subject of this profile.
With British immigration came the round-ball game and the first contested game of football played in 1880 at Parramatta between the Wanderers Club and the Kings School rugby team. The state can still claim to be home of the oldest existing club, Balgownie Rangers, that were formed in 1883 and are still going strong in the amateur Illawarra Regional League. As in Victoria the game only gained serious traction during the post-war years when the British, Southern and Eastern Europeans developed clubs to stamp their identity in their new home. This interest and ambition forced the 1956 birth of the imaginatively titled Division One, a showpiece for the top club teams in NSW. Auburn won the first ever championship with a 4-3 thriller against Canterbury Marrickville, only for Marrickville to overturn the defeat a year later in the Grand Final.
The 1960s brought a decade of tug-of-war for dominance between APIA Leichardt and Hakoah, either team appearing in the Grand Final game in nine out of the 10 contests. Although they only faced each other once in the 1966 final, a 2-1 Hakoah victory, both would take an equal four championships during this period. APIA were formed from Italian heritage and hold the honour of producing more Socceroos players and captains than any other club, current A-League teams included. As the 1970s began St George Budapest, forever the bridesmaid finishing runners-up two years running from 1969 to 1970, would finally win three titles in six years and narrowly miss out twice more. At the height of their success the Hungarian immigrant formed club watched as a record five of their players started for Australia against East Germany at their virgin 1974 World Cup appearance.
When the National Soccer League (NSL) bulldozed it’s way into Australian football in 1977 it cherry-picked the best teams in the state including Hakoah, that soon changed it’s name to Sydney City and won the NSL four times from 1977 to 1983. The Jewish-origin team would be joined early on by APIA Leichardt and another heavily Italian influenced team, Marconi-Fairfield, back to back champions of Division One in 1972 and 1973. Despite the vacuum of talent left behind as these teams competed nationally this era gave room for previously unsuccessful clubs to shine. The first season without the old giants of Division One saw Croatia Sydney win their first ever title and go on to win three more consecutively in the 1980s. Croatia’s serious rivals of the time formed a trio of tense competition as Melita Eagles, of Maltese origin, won three championships each in the same era and Sutherland Shire took two.
The 1990s would see a switch in dominance to a different region of Sydney rather than the traditionally strong teams of the Inner, Eastern and Southern suburbs. Western Sydney would become the hotbed of talent and provided the bulk of champions for this period. Blacktown City would win half the titles on offer in the decade, leaving Bankstown City and Parramatta Eagles with two a piece.
In 2001 Division one was replaced by the new and polished New South Wales Premier League (NSWPL), still considered the next step down in terms of ability, ahead of all other states’ competitions. Twelve teams compete and at the end of the campaign the top five enter the Championship Series, after which two teams are left to compete in the Grand Final. In the post-NSL, A-League era more so than ever the league is fiercely competitive with seven different teams winning a title since 2001 and three other teams winning two each including Bankstown City Lions FC, Blacktown City FC and Bonnyrigg White Eagles FC.
Bankstown City Lions, an amalgamation of three faltering teams in 1988, instantly grew a Macedonian fan base and staff that influenced their direction. Regularly finishing high on the ladder they have appeared consistently in the Championship Series Finals and even signed ex-Socceroo Sasha Petrovski, of Macedonian descent, for a period before his return to elite competition in the A-League. Fellow Western Sydney rivals Blacktown City FC, like the majority of their counterparts, were formed in the football boom times of the 1950s and have finished as ‘Minor Premiers’ (top of the table) on five recent occasions in since the NSWPL began. They can proudly boast they are the club that Kevin Keegan retired at: in 1985 he played twice and bagged a goal. Another England legend, Bobby Charlton, made a guest appearance in 1980 although both players appeared when the club stepped up to the NSL, leaving the state league behind.
One of the most famous teams in recent years has been Sydney Olympic. Traditionally the most supported team it’s origin is thanks to Greek immigrants. Their greatest success came in the NSL, twice becoming national champions, but they have also taken an NSWPL title in 2011, finishing runners up in 2012, and bagged a Division One crown back in 1980. The likes of Brett Emerton, Mark Bosnich, Tim Cahill and ex-Liverpool hitman Ian Rush have all turned out for the team that could have so easily been Sydney FC, the current A-Leaguers.
Immigration and ethnic pride have been central to New South Wales’ football history. However the last couple of decades saw clubs drop any parts of their names that associated with their origins or nationality, including Croatia, Macedonia, Budapest, Pan Hellenic and Melita; a measure that aimed and seems to have succeeded in reducing ethnic tensions and fighting in the name of football, with the huge exception in 2004/2005 when Bonnyrigg’s Serbian community clashed with Sydney United’s Croat fan-base, resulting in gunshots. Thankfully no-one was seriously injured. Bonnyrigg’s passion paid off eventually as they just this month took the 2013 NSWPL title, beating the Rockdale City Suns.
With current regular average attendances ranging from 100 for the Western Sydney Berries and 900 for Sydney Olympic, compared to 12,000 for the A-League, the NSWPL is just surviving economically. Competitively the signs are positive and this is helped by the continuing generic Australian format of a ‘Finals Series’ that sees a large bulk of the teams having a shot at glory. To an extent the league has acted as the breeding ground for young Australians in the A-League but with increasing popularity and money at the elite level, A-League clubs are regularly looking to Europe and South America to fill their squads. The NSWPL will look to keep fighting and staying afloat as a semi-professional competition but, like their rival state leagues, may be waiting a long time for a top prize of promotion to the A-League elite.