Canberra expansion "a long time overdue" - Belconnen Head Coach Steve Forshaw
Finally, Australia’s capital city is set to join the footballing fraternity of the A-League Men. Most in the Capital Territory and throughout the league's fandom have received the news well. Front Page Football had the privilege to sit down with current Belconnen United Head Coach Steve Forshaw, who has a unique perspective on the A-League Men's Canberra expansion ambitions.
Belconnen United First Grade Head Coach Steve Forshaw. (Riotact)
Forshaw, who has had multiple coaching stints at Belconnen and has been a constant in the club's hierarchy for over 20 years, has taken the reigns after a disappointing Capital Football NPL season that resulted in the club's relegation. The Belconnen life member laments the time it has taken for professional men's football to return to the capital.
“Canberra has been pushing for and has needed an A-League Men’s side for a long time, ever since the old National [Soccer] League (NSL) fell apart," Forshaw told FPF.
Considering the A-League Men and Socceroos talent that has emerged from Canberra and its football system over the years, it’s hard to disagree with Forshaw. The likes of Tom Rogic and Carl Valeri immediately come to mind. Rogic was a standout player for Celtic in his prime, recognised in the 2019 Asian Cup team of the tournament, whilst Valeri broke into the national team during its “Golden Generation” era during the 2000s. However, the list doesn’t end there, with Croatian footballing stalwart Josip Šimunić born in Canberra and coming through at Croatia Deakin, now known as Canberra Croatia, in the mid-1990s, before settling at Melbourne Knights and having a respectable European career. Reflecting on these select few Canberra football success stories, it’s easy to be optimistic about football's future in the capital.
Tom Rogic in action for Scottish giants Celtic. (PA Media)
Forshaw is optimistic about an ambitious A-League Men’s expansion in the region.
"If you look at the benefits outside the A-League of having an A-League Men’s franchise, your grassroots strengthens as a result of players having experience in the A-Leagues, having players that don’t quite make the grade but benefit from full-time coaching before dropping back into the NPL. [I think] Canberra can look forward to a golden era,” he said.
Forshaw also reflected on the players who have come through Canberra in the past.
“(Ned) Zelic, Rogic, (Michelle) Heyman, and (Grace) Maher. On both sides of the gender equation, Canberra has a history of producing players that can play,” he added.
“It won’t be easy in the first few years, but I believe the community will get behind the project and soon reap the benefits of having an A-League franchise.”
It’s easy to be caught up in the excitement of Australia’s capital joining the A-League Men without acknowledging the legacy of women’s football in the region, with Canberra United being an inaugural member of the A-League Women, and with significant success. The women's outfit established much of the optimism surrounding football in the capital in the men’s arena, with Matildas such as Lydia Williams, Sally Shipard, Ashleigh Sykes, and Michelle Heyman all turning out for the lime-green outfit. Canberra United’s perennial success and standing in the women’s game brings up a conversation about the men’s team’s identity ahead of joining the A-League Men for the 2024/25 season.
LISTEN: 'FPF in the Capital' Episode 1: Why Canberra is ripe for expansion and a 2023 NPL season preview
Michelle Heyman recently became the A-League Women's all-time appearance holder. (Twitter: @aleaguewomen)
Forshaw supported the men’s outfit appropriating Canberra United’s colours.
"In terms of expediency, it’s better to piggyback off what the women’s side has accomplished, as it has been the only elite-level team in the region for some time. We’re going into the A-League Men; let’s do it together," he said.
Should Canberra's expansion team in the A-League Men adopt the recognisable colours of Canberra United, it would set a unique precedent of a pre-existing women’s team developing the identity for a men's expansion side.
"This is unique in world football, that it has come this way around, and that history will remain; you can’t change it! I don’t think sharing the future with a men’s franchise will diminish that history, as it is a part of Canberran football,” Forshaw explained.
Whilst the A-League Men’s announcement has received much of the primary focus in the media, come 2024, three professional Canberran outfits could enter football's elite levels in Australia, with Gungahlin and Canberra Croatia expressing interest in National Second Tier (NST) status. Forshaw indicated that the capital's top two NPL clubs showed last year they have positives they can bring to the second tier should either enter the proposed new league.
“Canberra Croatia have a lot of resources behind them from Canberra’s Croatian community, along with the terrific facilities at Deakin Stadium. Whereas on the other hand, Gungahlin have a large junior base. Both teams and clubs have qualities that stand them in good stead,” he said.
When considering the history of both clubs, Forshaw indicated that in attracting the best players and coaches, “Canberra Croatia somewhat deserve a second division side” whilst also suggesting that Gungahlin could bring something different by being “the new kids on the block” in a local sense.
Forshaw indicated that the competition between potential second-tier clubs and a new A-League Men's team could complicate the sourcing of players and lead to a fracturing of support. But he was hopeful the region could support multiple franchises at differing levels, adding that competition is good for the area.
Looking towards the future, Forshaw has a bright and optimistic view of football in the capital and high expectations of success for both the NST hopefuls and the A-League Men outfit.
He believes you measure success by how many games you win and the trophies you bring in. However, Forshaw also admitted that there are off-field metrics.
"You also need to look at how many people are turning up to games. I would be absolutely delighted if crowds ranged between 15,000 and 20,000," he said.
However, he indicated that success on the pitch and in the community is the best way to attract large crowds to matches, as made evident by the Western Sydney Wanderers in 2012, leading to a historic Asian Champions League triumph in 2014.
Whichever way you look at it, expanding football in Australia always benefits the game, allowing more professionals to make their mark and attracting new fans. Since the collapse of the NSL, Canberra has endured failed expansion bids and the closing of the Australian Institute of Sport/Football Federation Australia Centre of Excellence. But now the territory could finally enter the Australian football mainstream with a proud history of success in the A-League Women. According to Forshaw, the future is very bright.
Click here to listen to the first episode of our new dedicated Canberra football podcast, 'FPF in the Capital'.