John Sydenham: How the Southampton great became a Floreat Athena legend
Floreat Athena, one of only six foundation clubs that formed the Soccer Federation of Western Australia (WA), now known as Football West, has been a fixture in WA's state league competitions, in all its formats, for over 70 years.
John Sydenham wearing Floreat Athena's 70th Anniversary kit. (Floreat Athena Facebook)
Floreat Athena was founded in 1951. They are the oldest club with a Greek heritage playing association football in Australia. The club was initially established as a place for people of Greek background to unite and share their passion for football. It soon became a place for the community to socialise and promote their culture with the broader Perth population. The club entered a team into WA's State League Division 3 in 1953 and made it to Division 1 by 1960.
Floreat Athena has had its share of producing household names who played in the National Soccer League and A-League Men and went on to represent the Socceroos. Both Bobby Despotovski and Stan Lazaridis played for them in their storied history. Perth football cult figure Vas Kalogeracos also played for Floreat before featuring prominently in Perth Glory's early days. But one of Floreat's first high-profile overseas players was Englishman John Sydenham, who would undoubtedly leave his mark on the club.
In an interview with Front Page Football, Sydenham discussed his time with Southampton FC and Floreat Athena as a former player and coach. He played for Southampton from 1957 to 1969.
"I grew up in Southampton and was a fan of Southampton FC since I was 8 when I went to my first match. Upon leaving school, I signed for the club at 15 and played for 15 years, all for the same manager," Sydenham told FPF.
"At that time, most of the players were locals who generally stayed at one club their whole professional career.
"I played 402 games for Southampton and went from playing in the old Division 3 South, which they (English FA) merged with the Division 3 North to make Division 3 and Division 4. We went from Division 3 to Division 1 and were never relegated in my time playing for them."
Sydenham in action for Southampton. (Southampton FC)
Sydenham went on to talk about how his move to Perth to play for Floreat Athena came about.
"I was playing for Bath City and was approached by a representative from Floreat Athena, who asked if I was interested in playing for the Perth club. At the time, my wife Jean wasn't home, so it came as a shock to her when I told her that I was taking up the offer to play for Athena," Sydenham recounted.
He would move to Perth to play for Athena in 1974. However, Sydenham returned to England at the end of the year for family reasons.
He recounted the events leading him to bring fellow Bath City - who he was playing for at the time - player Steve Stacey with him to Athena.
"I was playing for Bath City in the lower divisions at the time, and I was literally driving out of the car park at the playing ground, and I had a knock on my window, and it was Steve who asked me what am I doing and where I was going. I explained it to him, and Steve asked if Athena would be interested in signing him. I said, 'Of course, they would!" Sydenham said.
Then, Floreat Athena played their matches at Perry Lakes Stadium in Floreat, taking on the "Floreat" part of their name after moving from their initial home ground at Wellington Square in East Perth. They would draw crowds of between 2,000-3,000 when playing traditional rivals Perth Azzurri (now known as Perth SC), Spearwood Dalmantinac (later known as Cockburn City), and North Perth Croatia.
Sydenham was finally lured back to Athena in the early 1980s—however, this time as a player/coach.
"Every year since I went back to England, after playing for Athena in 1974, I had representatives from the club contacting me each year asking me to return," he said.
During this period, with Sydenham leading the team, the club experienced their most success, dominating the State League by finishing top five times and winning one Grand Final. Notably, Sydenham brought 1966 World Cup-winning midfielder Alan Ball to the club.
"Alan (Ball) was a massive signing for the club. However, he only played with the club for a month as he continued his playing career in England. I convinced the board to allow me to sign him, citing the massive interest that his signing would [create] for the club," Sydenham said.
"Alan played alongside Scottish footballing hero Ted MacDougall who was already at the club when I signed on as player/coach.
"Alan was such a great professional; no matter who he played for, he always gave 100 per cent and was a great example to all the other players at Athena."
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Alan Ball (right) playing for England at the 1966 FIFA World Cup. (Imago)
During Sydenham's time coaching Athena, they also built their clubhouse at Lake Monger Velodrome in the inner-city suburb of Mount Hawthorn. The stadium was initially built for the 1962 British Empire and Commonwealth Games, where the venue was used as the cycling track. The club would move there in 1985 as they had outgrown Perry Lakes Stadium.
Floreat continues to play at the Velodrome, now called E & D Litis Stadium, after Evangelos and Despo Litis donated $150,000 in 1998. The Eleni grandstand is due to be demolished, with new change rooms being built instead.
Floreat Athena celebrated their 70th Anniversary in 2021 by releasing a commemorative kit and a function honouring everyone involved in the club's storied history. Sydenham, now living in regional Victoria, could not visit Perth for the celebrations. He received the anniversary kit last month.
"I am grateful for the support I received from the board members, as they helped Jean and I get settled into life so far away from our original home in England. It was a great way to finish my career," Sydenham concluded.
"I used to meet up with some former players and board members in Joondalup before my wife and I moved to Victoria. We would share what we had been doing and talk about the times spent playing for Athena."
Floreat Athena has been successful in recent seasons, winning the NPL WA pre-season tournament known as the Night Series and claiming the premiership in 2022 after several seasons of solid performances. They have qualified for the Round of 32 in the Australia Cup three times, with 2021 being their last time on the national stage. In 2023, Floreat is in the quarterfinals of WA's Australia Cup preliminary rounds but is currently eleventh, eleven games into the season.
They will look to climb up the table with a visit to Inglewood United in Round 12 NPL WA action tomorrow.
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