Australian NPL clubs persevere through COVID restrictions

The COVID-19 pandemic has put an immense strain on football clubs worldwide, and Australia is no exception. From stop-start seasons, stifled player development, and clubs being put under financial stress, National Premier League (NPL) clubs have faced some of their biggest challenges.

Bentleigh Greens are one of many clubs hit by lockdowns and postponements, as they have seen the second NPL Victoria season in a row disrupted by the pandemic. Bentleigh Greens President Trifon Rellos has seen his team heavily affected by this.

“Financially game takings are gone, canteens are gone. Now with the junior programs, we have with the mini roos and NPL kids we don’t know the parents are going to ask for, whether they want their money back,” he said.

“The impact has been massive, but not just financially.”

Not every club and league has been heavily impacted. Edgeworth Eagles Football Director and Treasurer, Warren Mills, explains that the Further Northern New South Wales region has managed to avoid the worst of the pandemic.

“Newcastle has been a lot less impacted than others. Last year was pretty horrendous obviously, we started later but we managed to get in a competition, playing our competition plus finals,” he said.

“This year we’ve got two rounds to go. To be fair we’ve been much luckier than others.”

In contrast with other clubs in New South Wales and Victoria, Warren believes that the amateur status of the Newcastle clubs has helped weather financial strain.

“Financially it hasn’t been a massive drain on us. We are more amateur than Sydney or Melbourne, in terms of wages paid out. Its smashed those clubs a lot more.” he said.

The season will be completed once restrictions in the Hunter region are eased, with one advantage they have over other areas being that they rarely share grounds with summer sports.

“I don’t think there is anybody who doesn’t have their own ground in Newcastle,” he said.

“We have the potential to host the grand final this year, and we’ve just got a new 1.1 million dollar clubhouse. Newcastle is very lucky that way.”

Football Victoria recently agreed to a ground-sharing agreement with Cricket Victoria, in an attempt to alleviate this issue if the season is restarted.

For regional NPL clubs in Victoria, they have been in and out of lockdown more than anywhere in the country. For the Goulburn Valley Suns, their season has been disrupted by not only state-wide lockdowns, but also a major outbreak within the city of Shepparton.

Goulburn Valley head coach Craig Carley believes that players at the club are uniting together through the hardship.

“We don’t know what’s going on at the moment, but we need to try to tick over. Previously we were able to do that as a team because the metropolitan area was in lockdown, the last couple of weeks it’s been individual training,” he said.

“We’ve got players posting times on runs and activities that they are doing. It’s been good from a team point of view with players pushing each other and staying connected, even though everyone is in lockdown. The longer that goes on the hard that is going to get.”

Rellos fears that these disruptions could cause setbacks for some of the most talented players at Bentleigh Greens.

“It’s a sad situation that we are in for our children, and our young senior soccer players. We need to remember that the boys that are playing under 16s and 18s and talented, and they are just about to break into that senior team,” he said.

“I think this year is worse than last year. Those boys and their careers have been cut short by coronavirus. These kids need to break into the senior team, god knows if they will. Some might lose interest and not come back as football players.”

For others, they can only appreciate that their seasons and clubs have only had minor disruptions.

“In Newcastle, we’ve been so blessed. I don’t know how we’ve hardly had a case while we are so close to Sydney. It hasn’t the impact on us that a lot of areas have.” Warren said.

Every state has had different challenges they have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. For NPL clubs in New South Wales and Victoria, some are facing the biggest in their history. Most are looking forward to next season, hoping for the light at the end of the tunnel following these hard times.

Local Sport Grants to provide major support for NSW football

The goal of the Local Sport Grants Program is to offer assistance to community-level sports clubs, with the objective of increasing engagement, organizing events, enhancing accessibility, and modernising sports and recreational amenities.

In this latest funding round, a substantial sum of $4.65 million was allocated, providing ample opportunities for local communities to enhance their sporting infrastructure. Each electorate was granted access to $50,000, allowing them to invest in projects that foster active lifestyles and community engagement.

Eligible projects will receive grants of up to $20,000, enabling clubs and organisations to undertake meaningful initiatives aimed at enriching the sporting landscape and promoting physical well-being across the region.

The influence of this initiative on football within NSW is substantial, with over $669,000 directly allocated to the sport. This funding encompasses participation initiatives, infrastructure improvements, and various other aspects, benefiting communities across both urban and rural areas.

Several Football NSW associations have experienced significant benefits from the fund, receiving over $550,000 in allocations. Particularly noteworthy are the Southern Districts Soccer Football Association (SDSFA), Granville District Soccer Football Association (GDSFA), and Football Canterbury, which emerge as primary recipients of support.

SDSFA clubs successfully obtained approval for eight grants, totalling more than $76,000. These grants are directed towards lowering the financial obstacles to football participation and improving the training environment by investing in specialised equipment, coaching courses, and apparel.

The oldest football association in NSW, GDSFA received over $68,000 across four projects. Parramatta Eagles FC, Granville Waratah Soccer FC and Regents Park Saints FC all received the maximum amount of $20,000 ranging from equipment to female programs to help cater for the spike in female football this year post the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Female football is experiencing remarkable growth following the World Cup, with a 17% increase in female player participation recorded year to date.

Manager of Government Relations, Funding and Infrastructure at Football NSW, Daniel Ristic underscored the importance of this funding.

“The Local Sport Grant Program offers football clubs considerable flexibility, enabling them to seek funding for a wide range of needs, including programs, essential equipment, and minor infrastructure projects,” he said via press release.

“We thank the government once again for this ongoing funding, this program truly does a make a difference to local grassroots clubs across NSW each and every year.”

Football Canterbury clubs were also granted a significant sum exceeding $48,000, indicating the region’s strong participation levels and dedication to accommodating diverse members. Most approved grant proposals centre around program-based endeavours, aiming to offer inclusive avenues to football for people of all ages and skill levels.

Football Canterbury is witnessing a surge in registrations, experiencing a 10% rise in participation compared to the 2023 season, with over 19,400 individuals enrolled for the 2024 season.

Iconic Barton Park precinct re-opened in Banksia

The Bayside Council confirmed the re-opening of the iconic Barton Park, formerly known as St George Stadium after a long hiatus, in fantastic news for Australian football.

The precinct, located in Banksia in South Sydney, has been undergoing a mega  $51.7 million upgrade that has transformed an old sporting field into a state-of-the art sporting and recreational facility which will be enjoyed by Bayside’s growing population.

The upgrade includes three new full-size natural turf soccer fields, a new state-of-the-art facility with a 450-seat spectator grandstand, two multi-use courts suitable for basketball, futsal and handball, four tennis courts, new amenities, improved road access and parking.

Last weekend, Barton Park had a Recreational Precinct Opening Day to celebrate its return and hosted two football matches including an exciting 2-1 St George FC vs Sydney Olympic clash in the National Premier Leagues NSW Men’s competition.

In April 2024, St George FC confirmed that Bayside Council has been granted licence 1 of the new Barton Park Sports Complex to the club. This licence includes fields 1 and 2, the newly named Frank Arok Grandstand and the canteen facilities.

After plenty of pitch and grandstand issues in the stadium, it forced multiple relocations from St George FC over the past two decades, however, it’s great to see this stability back in the NPL and the club who get to enjoy this fantastic facility for the future.

Football NSW CEO John Tsatsimas emphasised the importance of this storied stadium re-opening for Australian football and to host official NPL matches again.

“The facility accommodates much more than that with numerous outside fields and recreational areas. Special acknowledgement to Bill Saravinovski and the team Bayside Council (NSW) and NSW Sports Minister Steve Kamper who have worked on this project for a long time,” Tsatsimas mentioned on LinkedIn.

“The campaign for modern football facilities across all areas and regions continues.”

Always a great sign to see one of Australian football’s most historic venues re-open to hosting official league matches in its improved state.

Football NSW have a plan to continue renovating football grounds to improve the facilities standard across the state and this is one big announcement early on in the season.

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