By Michael Lynch
(The Age, Sunday 22 October 2000)
The commentators and critics who have heard it all before may not have much faith in Soccer Australia and its pledges to reform the national league next season. But the clubs cannot afford to take the proposals for granted, no matter how many times Soccer Australia has backed away from shaking up the game.
If the sport’s hierarchy does go ahead with its plans to shed clubs this time, then performance off the pitch will be more important than results on it as the league looks to reinvent itself as a professional 12 to 14-team competition.
Melbourne Knights, one of the clubs usually targeted for extinction when restructuring is mentioned, are determined to ensure that they will escape the axe as much through the development efforts they are making off the field as for the performance of their revamped young team.
On the field, coach Vlado Vanis rang the changes in the close season with 15 players leaving Somers Street. Among them were such well-known faces as Zeljko Susa, Mark Silic, captain Ante Kovacevic and veteran striker Ivan Kelic.
In their place he drafted an army of young hopefuls from lower-division clubs in the Victorian Premier League, the South Australian state league, and overseas.
In the Knights’ impressive 2-1 win in Brisbane last Saturday, recruit Andy Vargas, at 24, was their oldest player.
But it is off the field where the club hopes to make an impression, through its development of an Australasia-wide cooperative of 17 partner clubs – most with similar Croatian backgrounds – in the senior divisions of various state and territory leagues.
As Knights director of marketing John Ovcaric explains, the idea is to forge playing, social and financial links with these teams to give the Knights a broader business and supporter network, and to offer sponsors access to a much greater target market than they could get just by injecting cash into the Knights.
“We have gone to 15 partner clubs in Australia and are in discussions with two teams in New Zealand with the idea of forming a confederation of clubs under one banner, one name,” Ovcaric says.
“Each team would be known as the Knights, would play in the same strip as the Melbourne Knights, and there would be coaching and playing links between us and them.
“Sponsors might not feel that a club based in Melbourne’s north-western suburbs playing in the NSL offers them enough reach: this way we can point out that while the Melbourne Knights will give them exposure in the elite national soccer competition, the partner clubs will give them extra exposure in a greater variety of markets.”
Ovcaric says the junior members of the partnership will benefit from extra cash (generated by larger sponsorships the Knights can attract), which would trickle down to them on a pro rata basis, while they would make significant savings on items such as like strips, boots and training equipment that could be bought in bulk and distributed nationally.
To date, Ovcaric says, deals have been done in Western Australia, Glenorchy, Cobram, Adelaide and Whyalla.
An obvious advantage of the plan is that the Knights would also get first pick of any promising young players at these teams.
Ovcaric says the NSL team is prepared to invest time in developing resources at its partner clubs, by sending players interstate several days before scheduled NSL matches to give coaching clinics.
Vanis, of course, is more concerned with the here and now and, while he expects his young team to give a good account of itself this season, he predicts better things in the next two years.
“If I can keep these boys together I think they will improve a lot. We are aiming to get into the top six this year, do better the following season and maybe win the championship after that.
“I haven’t got the money to go out into the market place and buy well-known or older players, so I had no option but to go out and get young players. They have skill and enthusiasm, but you always have to hope that they don’t make silly mistakes.”
That will certainly be the case this evening when the new-look Knights go up against the vastly experienced Parramatta Power, which will be desperate to get on the winning list after crashing at home to Marconi last week.
Youngsters such as Xhezair Sulemani, 20, bought from South Dandenong, Sasa Ognenovski, 21, from Preston Lions, and Joel Porter, 21, from Croydon City in South Australia, didn’t make many mistakes last week, but they will have to prove their consistency over the next nine months, starting at Knights Stadium at 6pm tonight.