For the vast majority of the country’s state league and premier league clubs the FFA Cup is an exciting opportunity to step out onto a big stage and, with polished boots, pressed kits and hair cajoled into place with spit-licked fingers, introduce themselves to the wider football public. Others, such as Sydney Olympic, Melbourne Knights, Hakoah Sydney City and Adelaide City, see it as welcome chance to remind a new generation of football fans that history has a heartbeat. For a select few clubs, however, the FFA Cup offers all this and more.
On Wednesday night the South Coast Wolves (née Wollongong Wolves) will take on the A-League’s Central Coast Mariners at Wollongong’s WIN Stadium in the FFA Cup’s round of 32. As much as the game is an opportunity for the former two-time NSL champions, now NSW Premier League side, to claim a big scalp and progress to the round of 16, it’s more significant than that. It’s an occasion for the Wolves to underline their —or, perhaps more accurately, their region’s— aspirations for top-flight football, be that in the A-league, W-League, National Youth League or all of the above.
According to the Football South Coast CEO, Ann-Marie Balliana, the Wolves clash against the Mariners – as with the recent All-Stars game against the Young Socceroos, which attracted 7,000 non-paying fans to WIN Stadium on a Tuesday night, and the coming Sydney FC v Newcastle Jets A-League match in Januar – has the potential to “showcase the region and our love of football, and help position ourselves so that we have a chance of being involved in elite competitions.”
“The key thing for us is that there’s a pathway for our kids,” says Balliana. “Lots of players from the region travel to Sydney and we’d love for them to have the capacity to play in the elite competitions in their own backyard.”
In the region’s favour, she says, is a population base of more than 400,000, some 18,000 registered players in the Illawarra, and established pathways from grassroots football to the South Coast’s senior NSW Premier League teams; the Wolves (men) and the Illawarra Stingrays (women). We’ve heard [FFA CEO] David Gallop say football needs to fish where the fish are, well the fish are here.”
While Wollongong/South Coast teams in the W-League and National Youth League are more immediate possibilities, an A-League side in the region is one that’s particularly sought after, not just because of the A-League’s growing attraction but also because of the Wolves’ history in the old NSL and the region’s record of producing elite players, such as Socceroos Scott Chipperfield, Mile Sterjovski and Luke Wilkshire.
There’s also the fact – which, admittedly, will only hold weight with aging romantics with an ear for the kitsch – that the Wolves have a memorable theme song ready to be dusted off should they get the nod. Old timers will recall the lyrics “A-oooooooooo, we’re the Wolves of Wollongong,” sung to the tune of Warren Zevon’s Werewolves of London, reverberating around the old Wollongong Showground, back in the days when it was ringed by a greyhound-track.
If A-League places were awarded for sheer stubbornness to survive, and at times thrive, the Wolves would be shoe-ins for an A-League licence. After joining the NSL in 1981 – a year before the Illawarra Steelers joined the then NSW Rugby League premiership – the Wolves established themselves as battlers. Never a glamour club it was as if they were coated in coal dust and crusted with sea spray; they were also at the whim of economic downturns in the steel-making region. If one eye was on the football pitch the other was on crowd figures and the books.
While there were periods of relative stability, and even heady success – such as in 1988 when the Wolves played out of Brandon Park and, with a team featuring Charlie Yankos, John Filan and guest players Alan Brazil, Trevor Francis and Paul Mariner, won the minor premiership – it wasn’t until 1999-2000 that the club won its first title. And what a way to do it, upsetting home team Perth Glory in an epic grand final after coming back from 3-0 down at half-time to level at 3-3 and finally win 7-6 on penalties. A year later the Wolves, featuring favourite son Matt Horsley, Sasho Petrovski, Paul Reid and Englishman Stuart Young, beat South Melbourne 2-1 in the grand final at Parramatta Stadium and life for the Wolves was as rosy as it’s ever been.
And it could have improved. Just a month later the Wolves were to take part in the 2001 Fifa Club World Championships in Spain alongside the likes of Real Madrid, Boca Juniors, Palmeiras and Deportivo La Coruna. But the tournament was cancelled at the last minute and the Wolves missed out on an estimated $4.5m windfall. From touching distance to financial security the Wolves were soon on the skids. In 2002 they were muscled out of Brandon Park when the University of Wollongong needed a location for its Innovation Campus and in 2004 it was clear the new A-League was a bridge too far for the struggling club.
The Wolves have been poor itinerants ever since losing Brandon Park but this year they’ve been playing home games at WIN Stadium, sharing it with the St George Illawarra Dragons. Wolves chairman Bobby Mazevski says the $5,500 game day fee is a big ask but adds attendances have tripled this year, with an average crowd of 800. Still, the move to WIN Stadium is just a year-by-year proposition and the Wolves, who train at Wollongong University, still don’t have a permanent training venue and clubhouse.
But they do have dreams. And one of those dreams is a return to the big table. “I feel quietly confident,” says Mazevski, “in something [elite football] happening here. But all I can control is the destiny of the Wolves at the moment: to rebuild the club, to re-engage the community, to bring back the crowds and make the games as enjoyable as possible to watch. Moving to WIN Stadium is all part of the broader picture.”
Of course the FFA hasn’t yet green-lit any expansion from its 10-team A-League just yet. That’s on the agenda when it begins to negotiate a new broadcasting deal ahead of the 2017-18 A-League season. Though the FFA is mindful of the fallen (North Queensland Fury and Gold Coast United), it is encouraged by the success of the Western Sydney Wanderers, and A-League head Damien de Bohun told the Guardian that a geographical region like the Illawarra, which flanks the wider South Coast and Southern Highlands, is seen as one with the potential to sustain an A-League team.
But the FFA is also open – and, reading between the lines, perhaps more inclined – to a southern Sydney A-League franchise, one that would encompass not just Illawarra and the South Coast but Sydney’s southern suburbs and the broad swathe of the Sutherland Shire. De Bohun believes the successful community-consultative model used to create the Western Sydney Wanderers has provided a framework for possible expansion and he sees no reason why the success of the Wanderers can’t be replicated elsewhere. “If we use western Sydney as a reference, it’s not a specific point on a map but the reality is all the people of western Sydney, as a collective, have embraced the Wanderers in a way few could have imagined. So there’s no reason why [a new A-League franchise] couldn’t be based around a broader geographic area.”
You’d wonder, however, whether the physical barrier provided by the Illawarra escarpment and the Royal National Park would end up doubling as an impediment when it comes to the willingness of the people of southern Sydney and the South Coast to invest emotionally in a team with potentially three home grounds (Kogarah, Cronulla and Wollongong) as much as 65km apart. Despite the proximity of Wollongong to Sydney’s southern suburbs, these are two very distinct regions with their own identity. The FFA will need to decide if they will come together to share ownership of a football team in a way the people of western Sydney have done with the Wanderers.
In the meantime the FFA will continue to keep a close eye on the Wolves and the public’s response to elite matches hosted in the area; a response measurable in the clicks of a turnstile. It won’t just be the quality of football the FFA will be keeping an eye on this Wednesday night.