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  • Writer's pictureDeclan Mythen

The NST Round of 32: The New South Wales nine

On 2 February 2023, Football Australia (FA) formally began the process for the establishment of a National Second Tier (NST) for men’s football by opening the door for aspiring clubs to submit Expressions of Interest (EOI). This process results from years of agitation from the Association of Australian Football Clubs (AAFC) and its members, who, in February 2022, submitted a final blueprint for a men's NST to the FA. Thirty-two entities across Australia submitted EOIs, with nine emerging from New South Wales. Front Page Football investigates the nine clubs, analysing their history, what they can offer to the NST and their viability in being an inaugural part of the newly proposed competitive football league.


APIA Leichhardt


APIA (Associazione Poli-sportiva Italo Australiana – “Italian-Australian Sports Association”) is a historic National Premier Leagues New South Wales (NPL NSW) side that competed in the now-defunct National Soccer League (NSL) between 1979 and season 1991/92. APIA’s golden years in the NSL came in the 1980s when they won the 1982 and 1988 NSL Cups and the 1987 league championship. Financial difficulties in the 1990s forced the club into liquidation. APIA was forced to drop to the NSW Super League as the rebranded Leichhardt Tigers, following a new partnership with the Wests Ashfield Leagues Club. Since then, APIA has never been relegated from the NSW top tier. They have qualified for the Australia Cup threetimes, in 2017, 2018, and 2021, defeating an A-League Men opponent during the 2018 and 2021 runs. The club also fields a women’s team in the NPL NSW, though they are yet to win a title. In 2019, APIA Leichhardt dropped the “Tigers” moniker from their brand and reintroduced their classic emblem, which features an athlete preparing to throw a discus. This move coincided with increased talks of an NST and APIA’s membership in the AAFC, where they signed their name to the final report in 2022.


What can they offer to the NST?


APIA Leichhardt is a strong club on the field and has invested in their men's and women's senior teams. The club has exclusive access to their dedicated facilities at Lambert Park in Leichhardt (Sydney's 'Little Italy'), which has a capacity of 7,000 spectators (2,000 seated). Inner West Council have also promised APIA access to the 20,000-capacity Leichhardt Oval if they are successful in their NST aspirations. APIA have rivalries with other Sydney clubs, particularly the Marconi Stallions, with whom they share a historical "North vs South" Italian derby. APIA Leichhardt is an essential piece for NSW representation in the NST.

APIA Leichhardt Tigers celebrate their win against Melbourne Victory in the FFA Cup Round of 16 in 2018. (The Guardian)


Blacktown City


Blacktown City was the NSL’s yo-yo team, having been promoted and relegated from the competition numerous times throughout the 1980s until they never returned after season 1989/90. Blacktown became NPL Finals Series champions in 2015. They have qualified for the Australia Cup an impressive five times (four in a row) in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2021. Blacktown is a member of the AAFC but did not sign the 2022 final report. The club’s senior women compete in the Football New South Wales (FNSW) League One, the state’s second tier.


What can they offer to the NST?


Blacktown is known for producing quality on the pitch and has given platforms to players such as Robbie Slater, Keanu Baccus, and Danny Choi. The club have a dedicated ground in Seven Hills' Gabbie Stadium (Landen Stadium), which has a capacity of 5,000 spectators (2,700 seated). Blacktown City would act as a significant development club in the NST to bridge the gap between the NPL system and the A-Leagues.

Blacktown City were crowned NPL NSW Champions in 2022. (Football New South Wales)


Fraser Park FC


Fraser Park FC are an FNSW League Two side owned by the Sydney Portugal Community Club and operating from the Fraser Park Sports Centre in Marrickville. They have never competed in the NSW top flight nor qualified for the Australia Cup. However, the club does operate an extensive juniors program. Fraser Park does not field a senior women’s team. The club is a member of the AAFC but did not sign off on the 2022 final report. Fraser Park is yet to pay their EOI fee to the FA, according to the body's report upon closing the Invitation for Expressions of Interest process on 6 March.


What can they offer to the NST?


The answer is, awkwardly, not much. Fraser Park has recently upgraded their facilities and has a dedicated youth-orientated strategy. The club wants to provide its players with the highest platform possible. But they may have to wait some time for that to happen.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese adorning a Fraser Park FC jersey. (Twitter: @AlboMP)


Marconi Stallions


Marconi is one of Australian football’s most recognisable names, having competed in the NSL uninterrupted from the inaugural 1977 season until the final 2003/04 season. During that time, Marconi was the national champion four times and the NSL Cup winner in 1980. The club’s junior program was responsible for countless Socceroos, with Harry Kewell and Mark Schwarzer being products of this academy, to name two. Marconi is now an informal NPL NSW feeder club for the Western Sydney Wanderers, but with the potential to be so much more. The Stallions have qualified for the Australia Cup thrice in 2016, 2018, and 2019. Marconi is a member of the AAFC and a signatory to the 2022 final report. Marconi Stallions’ senior women currently play in FNSW League One.


What can they offer to the NST?


Some may argue you cannot have the NST without Marconi. They were known in the NSL for their professional setup that fed players to the ranks of European football. The club owns its dedicated 9,000-capacity eponymous stadium at Club Marconi in Bossley Park. The Stallions share an intense historic rivalry with fellow Western Sydneysiders, Sydney United 58, and the relationship above with APIA. Marconi could be one of the strongest-performing and best-run clubs in the NST.

Marconi Stadium, nicknamed "The Palace". (Austadiums)


Rockdale Ilinden


Rockdale is an NPL NSW club competing in the state’s top flight since 2010. Ilinden has spent much of its history in the NSW second tier, though they were state champions in 1984. The club has participated in two Australia Cups, facing A-League Men opposition on both occasions. Ilinden's women’s team plays in the local Football St George Premier League. Rockdale is a member of the AAFC and a signatory to the 2022 final report.


What can they offer to the NST?


Ilinden may not have the trophy cabinet or elite pathways of some clubs mentioned above. But what they do have is dedicated support. Rockdale fans are some of the more faithful in the NPL NSW, evidenced by their runs in the finals series and national Australia Cup appearances. If there is something the NST will need, it is supporters. Rockdale play at Ilinden Sports Centre in the eponymous suburb, which has a capacity of 6,000 spectators (1,000 seated). The centre is owned by Bayside Council, which allows other clubs to utilise the facilities, most recently Sydney FC and St George FC.

Sydney FC prepare to face Rockdale in the FFA Cup Round of 32 in 2018. (Fox Sports)


Sutherland Sharks


Birthed back in 1930, Sutherland Sharks are an established NPL NSW club and the oldest side in the competition. Sutherland was initially expected to join the NSL for the 1984 season. However, the spot was given to Penrith City, who the Penrith Panthers rugby club backed at the time. The “Southern Expansion” A-League bid, headed by Socceroos great and humanitarian Craig Foster, would have included the Sutherland Shire as its primary catchment. The Cronulla Sharks National Rugby League (NRL) club supported and backed that proposal and is now behind Sutherland’s NST aspirations. Details of the new partnership between Sutherland and the Cronulla Sharks remain aloof. Sutherland does not field an independent senior women’s team. But the Sutherland Shire Football Association has an FNSW League One team. Sutherland is a member of the AAFC though they did not sign the 2022 final report.


What can they offer to the NST?


On their own, only a little. With the NRL partnership? Perhaps something. One of the reasons Foster wanted an A-League Men team in the Shire was due to its high junior participation rates. A Sutherland team in the NST could provide an unprecedented opportunity for local footballers. However, there is scepticism about rugby being involved with football (think Penrith City and Parramatta Power), so without the details, it is difficult to comment on the potential of this venture. There is plausible reason to assume a rivalry with Wollongong Wolves would form should both clubs be accepted into the NST. Sutherland Sharks play at Seymour Shaw Park in Miranda, with a capacity of 5,000 spectators (1,000 seated). Should they be taken into the NST with the backing of Cronulla, one would assume Sutherland plays home matches at Shark Park (PointsBet Stadium) in Woolooware instead, which has a venue capacity of 15,000 spectators (11,000 seated).

The Cronulla (left) and Sutherland (right) emblems share an uncanny resemblance. (The Sydney Morning Herald)


Sydney Olympic


Sydney Olympic joined the NSL for its inaugural 1977 season. It remained until the competition’s demise in 2003/04, bar a controversial relegation in 1979. Olympic were NSL champions in 1989/90 and 2001/02 and won the NSL Cup in 1983 and 1985. Sydney Olympic qualified for the Australia Cup thrice in 2014, 2015, and 2021. Their women’s team competes in the NPL NSW but has yet to win a title. Olympic are AAFC members and signatories to the final report in 2022.


What can they offer to the NST?


Olympic is another storied NSW club that many would expect to participate in the new competition. The club has established rivalries with most other former NSL sides from NSW. The NST could elevate the status of their more recent rivalry with Rockdale Ilinden to the national level should both be accepted. Sydney Olympic potentially has a sizeable dormant fanbase to draw from. The club plays at the 19,000 capacity (12,000 seated) Belmore Sports Ground, which they share with the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs NRL club. This sharing situation raises the issue of scheduling conflicts, as the NST is expected to be a winter competition running alongside the bulk of the NRL season.

Sydney Olympic celebrate securing the 2018 NPL NSW Championship with their supporters. (Sydney Olympic FC Facebook)


Sydney United 58


Sydney United is one of Australian football's most successful talent-producing clubs. Just under a quarter of the Socceroos' 2006 World Cup squad in Germany had been developed at Sydney Croatia (as they were previously known). Sydney United was unlucky during their time in the NSL (from 1984 to 2003/04), narrowly missing out on three championships. However, the club did manage to win the 1987 NSL Cup. Sydney United has secured two NPL Finals Series titles (2013 and 2016), the only club to have achieved such a feat. They qualified for the Australia Cup four times in 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017 and again in 2019 and 2022. Last year Sydney United took the honour of becoming the first-ever NPL side to make the Australia Cup Final, going down 0-2 to Macarthur at CommBank Stadium in front of an impressive crowd (the second largest in the competition's history). Unfortunately, what should have been a day of celebration was marred by the actions of some Sydney United supporters, who used the occasion to express political views that are not aligned with the values held in Australian football or broader society.


For this reason, concerns have been raised over Sydney United’s NST aspirations. A spectre of point deductions and competition suspensions loom over the club. They are members of the AAFC and signatories to the 2022 final report. The club does not field a senior women’s team.


What can they offer to the NST?


This question is difficult to answer. There is undoubtedly an intense passion amongst Sydney United supporters. However, this passion is also arguably dangerous for Australian football, given how it can manifest itself. Sydney United may need time to reinvent its image and introduce new initiatives, such as a women's program, before leaving NPL NSW. United's task will be to convince the Australian football public that they are worth the price of admission. The club play at Sydney United Sports Centre at the King Tomislav Croatian Club in Edensor Park. The stadium has a capacity of 12,000 spectators (8,000 seated) and is owned by the club.

Sydney United honour their heritage after clinching the 2020 NPL NSW Championship. (Football New South Wales)


Wollongong Wolves


Wollongong City (now Wolves) was formed in 1980 to compete in the NSL - which they did until 1986 - and after securing promotion from the NSW First Division in 1987, competed again until the league’s demise in 2003/04. Wollongong were back-to-back NSL champions in 1999/2000 and 2000/01, with the former often considered the most remarkable final in Australian football history. In 2001, the Wolves became the third Australian team to win a continental title by taking out the Oceania Club Championship. This title qualified Wollongong for the 2001 FIFA Club World Championship. But this competition was cancelled, denying the Wolves the prestige of competing against the world’s best and securing much-needed finances. This missed opportunity partially meant the Wolves did not join the inaugural 2005/06 A-League season as the nascent competition’s regional Australian entry. Wollongong put a proposal together for a spot in the A-League during the 2018 expansion process. But they were unsuccessful, allegedly due to financial limitations (the club had just recovered from a $200,000 debt). Wollongong qualified for the Australia Cup in 2014, 2016, and 2021. The Wolves were the last-ever NPL Finals Series champions in 2019. The club is a member of the AAFC and was a signatory to the 2022 final report. Wollongong does not field a senior women’s team. But they have an established partnership with NPL NSW Women’s club Illawarra United Stingrays, which provides opportunities for all Illawarra footballers.


What can they offer to the NST?


Fans have long identified Wollongong as a potential expansion area for the A-Leagues. Illawarra is one of Australia's true footballing heartlands, and the Wolves are its premier club. They have a dedicated following and the potential to attract more. The club could allow local footballers to compete in their backyard. Home games are played at Wollongong Showground (WIN Stadium) in Wollongong's CBD, with a total capacity of 22,000 spectators (13,000 seated). The stadium offers beachside views reminiscent of Central Coast Stadium. Wollongong does share this ground with the St George-Illawarra Dragons NRL club. However, the Dragons only play roughly half of their fixtures at WIN Stadium, which may alleviate some concerns with scheduling conflicts. The Wolves also have dedicated facilities at Albert Butler Memorial Park in Primbee, with a capacity of around 4,000 spectators.

Wollongong Wolves were the last winners of the NPL Finals Series in 2019. (Football New South Wales)

 

In the next edition of 'The NST Round of 32', FPF will take a closer look at the EOIs lodged from the member clubs of Football Victoria.


Click here to learn more about NPL clubs, players, and coaches across the country.

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