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NATIONAL SOCCER HOPES HINGE ON REVIVAL SOUTH OF THE BORDER

When it was born in 1977 the National Soccer League was a visionary competition. For one of the few times its history Australian soccer was ahead of its time.
While other football codes laughed and scoffed, saying the soccer revolution would die in its infancy, the 14 foundation clubs rejoiced in the attendance boom.

For the first time in a decade crowds were flocking to matches, and for four seasons the game looked to be realising its potential at last.

But, as has happened so often, the bright future was sabotaged from within. There was the constant changing of the competition’s format, the unnecessary decision to axe Newcastle KB United from the league and the creeping influence of brutal, cynical tactics which forced spectators away.

Remarkably, the national league survived. Close to death many times, it has staggered through crisis after crisis to remain a legitimate platform for the best players in Australia.

The first positive step towards rebuilding the credibility of the league came last year with the return to a single-division competition of 14 clubs.

The positive overtones were marred somewhat by the tactless withdrawal of Sydney City after just one game, but the season ended with a sparkling grand final won by a youthful St George from the tiring champions, Apia-Leichhardt. It was an encouraging sign that perhaps skill might be ready to return.

Wise decisions by the administrators during the summer – the move to proclaim the grand final winners as champions, the determination to banish the hatchet men and the introduction of more stringent standards of facilities, administration and marketing – have primed the 1988 West End NSL for a genuinely exciting year.

The coming season, which begins tonight with the first round of the $70,000 Beach Fashions Cup, again looks likely to be the domain of the Sydney clubs.

Reigning champions Apia-Leichhardt have good reason to believe they will again figure prominently. Coach Rale Rasic has picked up two useful players in striker Lawrie McKinna and central defender Kurt Reynolds, and both should make an immediate impact on the first team.

Rasic concedes that the pressure will be on the team, the defending champions, but he has promised that their renowned fighting spirit will not de dimmed.

“Our players have a competitive character. They have a real zest to win,”he said.

Apia, however, can expect a concerted challenge from the youthful, exciting St George.

Coached by Socceroo mentor Frank Arok, and well prepared by his assistant, Atti Abonyi, Saints are threatening to take the competition by storm with their brash, inventive approach.

The renowned local nursery has continued to supply the talent, while the addition of experienced defender Kyeong-Sik Choi, capped more than 100 times by South Korea, and skilful midfielder Vlade Tortevski should provide the balance.

Much interest will focus on glamour team Sydney Olympic.

Any side coached by Eddie Thomson is a likely title-contender. For one of the few times in its chequered history the club has decided not to reach for the chequebook, and so its fans deserve some reward.

Pay cuts across the board mean pride, not money, will be the team’s motivation. The arrival of under-20 internationals Jason Polak and John Koch will give a much-needed injection of youth, while at the other end of the spectrum the return to the NSL of former Socceroo Joe Watson, 35, ranks as one of the most intriguing moves of the off-season.

Out west, the league’s biggest crowd-pullers, Sydney Croatia, will be under pressure to perform. With several highly-paid stars on their team books, and with the club believed to be in deep financial trouble, success is a must.

Well marshalled by captain-coach Vedran Rozic, who will be partnered in defence by major off-season buy Alan Hunter, Croatia will again be among the front-runners.

The question is: when the crunch comes will they be up to the task? On past evidence, their legion of fans will not be optimistic.

Less than 2km away in Bossley Park, Marconi will be pinning their hopes on New Zealand international striker Fred de Jong. He replaces last season’s NSL top goal scorer, Frank Farina, who has signed with Dutch club Roda.

One of the club’s most respected sons, former player Berti Mariani, has the coaching reins for the first time and all neutral soccer followers will be wishing the likable Mariani every success. With $400,000 being on much-needed ground improvements, the team will at least have a suitable stage on which to perform.

Of the two promoted clubs, Wollongong City has demonstrated its ambition by signing three established players – David Ratcliffe, Ray Vliestra and Danny Crainie. With entrepreneur Harry Michaels providing a $100,000 interest-free loan to help improve the team the Wolves have every confidence that they can attract twice the number of fans to their home games at the impressive new Brandon Park.

The other club, the Brisbane Lions, bring welcome stability to the NSW. Well administered and ambitious, it is a role model for how a team should be run. It should never have been relegated from the NSL at the end of 1985, and will be keen to show how wrong that decision was.

South Australia’s sole NSL representatives, 1986 national champions Adelaide City, has opened the purse strings for the first time in many seasons to bolster its ranks. Now the club has its financial house in impressive order it has been able to buy back striker Steve Maxwell from Marconi and purchase a number of cheap players from its traditional recruiting ground, Perth.

South of the NSW border the six Melbourne clubs again loom as the main worry for the growth of the NSL. Almost totally responsible for the overall drop in attendances last year, the Melbourne clubs desperately need to show some initiative and progressive thinking.

Preston was the city’s best-performed club in 1987 and should again be a threat this year. South Melbourne is attempting to woo back lost fans with a number of youthful purchases, including youth international striker Paul Trimboli, while Melbourne Croatia has smashed the transfer fee record for a goalkeeper by buying Socceroo custodian Jeff Olver from relegated Heidelberg United.

Footscray will be looking for big things from its well-credentialled coach Mircad Fazlagic, but Brunswick and Sunshine-George Cross will again struggle to make an impact.

HOW THEY WILL LINE UP

ADELAIDE CITY (founded 1946): Coach: Zoran Matic. Home Ground: Olympic Sports Field. Average 1987 crowd: 2,659. Position last season: 10th. Gains: Steve Maxwell (Marconi), Jesper Sorensen (Denmark), Gareth Naven (Perth Azzurri), Robert Zabica (Perth Macedonia), Graham Latham (Salisbury), John Spanos(Kingsford Olympic). Losses: Paul Wilde (Salisbury), Willie McNally (Kingsway Olympic).

APIA-LEICHHARDT (founded 1954): Coach: Rale Rasic. Home ground: Wentworth Park. Average 1987 crowd: 3,415. Position last season: Champions. Gains: Kurt Reynolds (Blacktown City), Lawrie McKinna (Heidelberg Utd), Brian Blake(Shamrock Rovers). Losses: Peter Katholos (Marconi), Hilton Phillips(transfer-listed).

BRISBANE LIONS (founded 1964): Coach: Juan Cutillas. Home ground: Richlands Stadium. Average 1987 crowd: 1,300 (Qld State league). Position last season: Promoted. Gains: Peter Dwyer (Stirling Albion), Phil Kerr (Wollongong), Alex Cummings (AIS), Martin Kirsopp (Mt Gravatt). Losses: Jim Morton (Scotland).

BRUNSWICK (founded 1948): Coach: Len McKendry. Home ground: Olympic Village. Average 1987 crowd: 2,003. Position last season: 8th. Gains: Mike Petersen(Ajax Amsterdam), Steve Marley (Heidelberg Utd). Losses: Rob Cullen(transfer-listed), Luciano Fabrizio (Footscray).

FOOTSCRAY (founded 1949): Coach: Mircad Fazlagic. Home ground: Schintler Reserve. Average 1987 crowd: 2,780. Position last season: 11th. Gains: Milan Dimovski (Vardar), Luciano Fabrizio (Brunswick).

MARCONI (founded 1958): Coach: Berti Mariani. Home ground: Marconi Stadium. Average 1987 crowd: 3,040. Position last season: 4th. Gains: Fred de Jong (Mt Wellington), Peter Katholos (Apia Leichhardt). Losses: Steve Maxwell (Adelaide City), Lee Sterrey (transfer-listed), Frank Farina (Roda).

MELBOURNE CROATIA (founded 1953): Coach: Ian Wallace. Home ground: Olympic Park. Average 1987 crowd: 2,674. Position last season: 9th. Gains: Jeff Olver(Heidelberg Utd), Goran Jerkovic (Osijek), Paul Donnelly (Perth Azzurri). Losses: Dave McIntosh (transfer-listed), Jim Campbell (transfer-listed), Andy Humble (transfer-listed).

PRESTON (founded 1948): Coach: Ernie Merrick. Home ground: Conner Reserve. Average 1987 crowd: 2,935. Position last season: 2nd. Gains: None. Losses: None.

SOUTH MELBOURNE (founded 1948): Coach: Brian Garvey. Home ground: Middle Park. Average 1987 crowd: 3,018. Position last season: 10th. Gains: Paul Trimboli(Sunshine George Cross), David Healy (AIS), Paul Foster (AIS). Losses: Charlie Egan (transfer-listed), Gary McDowall (transfer-listed), Peter Laumets(transfer-listed), Stuart Stevenson (transfer-listed).

ST GEORGE (founded 1910): Coach: Frank Arok. Home Ground: St George Stadium. Average 1987 crowd: 2,439. Position last season: 3rd. Gains: Vlade Tortevski(Rockdale), Kyeong-Sik Choi (South Korea). Losses: Scott Hughes (released), George Kulcsar (released), Ken Slaveski (released), Joe Caleta (Melbourne Croatia), Alex Lampropoulos (released).

SUNSHINE GEORGE CROSS (founded 1947): Coach: John Gardiner. Home ground: Chaplin Reserve. Average 1987 crowd: 2,165. Position last season: 12th. Gains: Les Carter (Green Gully). Losses: Paul Trimboli (South Melbourne).

SYDNEY CROATIA (founded 1958): Coach: Vedran Rozic. Home ground: Croatian Sports Centre. Average 1987 crowd: 5,084. Position last season: 5th. Gains: Manny Spandoudakis (Sydney Olympic), Alan Hunter (Heidelberg Utd), Ivan Petkovic (Sibenik). Losses: Ray Vliestra (Wollongong City), Ante Rumora(Yugoslavia).

SYDNEY OLYMPIC (founded 1957): Coach: Eddie Thomson. Home ground: Sydney Football Stadium. Average 1987 crowd: 3,922. Position last season: 7th. Gains: Robert Ironside (Christchurch United), Clint Gosling (Melita Eagles), Grant Lee (Blacktown City), Jason Polak (AIS), John Koch (AIS), Joe Watson(Kingsford). Losses: Stuart Johnston (Scotland), Manny Spanoudakis (Sydney Croatia), Spiro Hantzis (released), Vince Estavillio (retired), Emil Dragicevic (transfer listed).

WOLLONGONG CITY (founded 1980): Coach: John Fleming. Home ground: Brandon Park. Average 1987 crowd: 1,500 (NSW State League). Position last season: Promoted. Gains: Ray Vliestra (Sydney Croatia), Danny Crainie (South Melbourne), David Ratcliffe (Sydney Olympic). Losses: Zivko Hristovski(transfer-listed).

Michael Cockerill
Sydney Morning Herald

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