Remembering the Datsun Leopards

In March the 2020 NPL season ground to an unexpected halt. It was days before Heidelberg’s round five date at Melbourne Knights From that point our lives plunged into a confusing, tumultuous and unknown future. The landscape has altered significantly. I suspect the unfamiliar and challenging will be our companions for some time to come.

But I am certain the game will bounce back, at least in some form. And I am equally certain that there will be casualties. Clubs, players, entire competitions may not survive, at least as we knew them. Certainly a restructure of sorts. But I am certain that the Knights will host the Warriors once again, and that’s greatly comforting.

Both Alexander and Croatia were born in the 50’s and have both scaled national heights and wrestled clear of the quicksands of lesser leagues – each more than once – over the past six decades. And always stopping to meet in combat intermittently down the years. Two constants in an ever-shifting landscape. Reliable.

Last I heard, the story arch of the most recent Aussie soccer glamour pusses, the once sexy A League, had taken a distinctly NSL-style turn for the worst. Second division or not. Treacherous TV deals. Crowds declining. Clubs on life support. Summer or winter? We’ve seen it all before.

I bookmark 1975 as the year the game became wildly aspirational. It was the perfect storm. The national team had become our Socceroos at West Germany in ’74 and a post-hippy era idealism (noun: the unrealistic belief in or pursuit of perfection) had drifted into the business world.

This utopian (noun: the belief in or pursuit of a state in which everything is perfect) vision for the game would consist initially of a national soccer competition and would be augmented by just one more trip to the World Cup. In Argentina, in 1978. This, it was declared, would push the game over the top. Rugby League and Aussie Rules should be quaking in their boots. The world game was coming up fast.

It sounded lovely at the time, and the mirage of such grandeur has lured us ever since. And efficacy be damned, that World Cup fantasy sustained us through another seven failed campaigns before the Socceroos went back to the big dance in 2006. And even repeat appearances in 2010, 2014 and 2018 have now surely put paid to any catapult to greatness nonsense.

And the even more laughable endeavour to somehow legitimise Aussie soccer by transitioning from the Australian Soccer Federation to Soccer Australia, then into the FFA and fully streamlined state bodies, like our own slickly titled Football Victoria. Really? Some pony-tailed uni graduate with a name like Chadd probably swivelled excited from his desk one day, proclaiming this to be the game-changer. Now balding and pot-bellied Chadd can be found downing schooners at his local, wondering what went wrong.

Alexander and Croatia had been around for two decades when the NSL kicked off in 1977 and the national competition was brimming with promise. The revolution had started. Until the league’s TV deal fell through and one founding member club – Mooroolbark – dropped out before 1978 had commenced.

And it wasn’t long before the tinkering and tampering started. Now you really need to focus here and take this wild journey with me, just to make it abundantly clear to any current day Chadds that just about any genius ideas they might think they have, it has likely been tried before.

1977 and 78 – First past the post wins the championship, but top four finals are played anyway.

1979 – Bonus points are awarded for teams scoring four goals or more in a game. Goal aggregate unmoved. Idea dropped. Still first past the post chalks the title.

1980 – See 1977 and 78

1981 – First attempt at ethnic cleansing. Entrepreneurial mob paid squillions to re-brand the clubs. Marconi become Leopards, South Melbourne the Gunners, Adelaide City the Giants. You get the idea. Interest in that lasted maybe two weeks. No finals. First past the post.

1982 – First past post win it all.

1983 – As above, but this time around NSL moves from two to three points per win. Teams from Newcastle and Canberra fold.

1984 – Expansion explosion. Ten new teams, two divisions, and six grand finals to decide national title. Divisional two-legged play-offs and national home and away grand final.

1987 – Too big. Massive cull. Back to one division and no finals at all. First past the post again.

1988 and 89 – Let’s get finals back to decide national title. 1989 is last winter season.

1989/90 – First summer season and finals series expanded from top five to top six.

1992/93 – Back to three points per win.

1994/95 – Holy crap! Hope you’re keeping up with this. Now four points per win and drawn games go to penalties. Winner gets two points and loser one. Or something like that. Finals series goes from knock out to round robin.

1995/96 – The dog’s breakfast continues, with more ethnic cleansing and Alexander one of three clubs chopped. Croatia and Heidelberg do not meet again for another seven years in league competition.

1996/97 and 1997/98 – Flashy newcomers rolled out. The likes of Perth Glory, Collingwood, Carlton, Northern Spirit and Parramatta Power join NSL. By 2004 only Perth Glory still around in any form. Various incarnations of teams from New Zealand appear and disappear.

1998/99 through until 2004 – What’s left of the NSL limps to a pitiful demise. By then TV, money, crowds and interest all largely dissipating or lost and the next shiny new thing was all buffed up and rolled off the show room floor. I wasn’t kidding when I said we’ve tried every gizmo and gimmick.

In 2005/06, as the A League took centre stage for the first time, it was also back to something familiar and Alexander and Croatia were back and resuming an on-field contest which was first held some half a century beforehand.

So here we are in 2020, a year which started with the governing body declaring so-called ethnic names to be OK to use once again. Not that the likes of Alexander and Croatia had ever moved too far from their origins. And the virus crisis has shed doubt on so many things, including competitive sport. What our game of soccer will look like going forward is anyone’s guess.

I’m guessing the fast food variety A League might stagger along still, waiting for some inspirational genius from a current day soy latte-drinking, skinny jeans wearing Chadd, who is likely fiddling with his man bun and waiting for the next game changing idiocy.

But me, I’ll settle for the gourmet delights of our clubs and our league and our long history. I’ll embrace the joy and reassurance of tradition and consistency and more than six decades of memories. Instead of this beautiful game clamouring to be what it is not in Australia, how about we celebrate what we have. Like Alexander and Croatia.

Melbourne isn’t London or Madrid and aspiring to ape their market, economies and scale is done at our great peril. We have a unique relationship with soccer in this country and if we forget that we risk forgetting everything which has sustained us and those before us.

Long may the Warriors travel to Knights Stadium to do battle on a cold and wet winter’s night.