With Australia’s ‘Golden Generation’ long retired and a lack of stars emerging to take their place, the debate around the nation’s footballing infrastructure has reached fever pitch. Although many blame a lack of investment, some clubs are managing to secure funding to support the development of the next generation and at a state level, few are doing it on the scale of Heidelberg United FC.
The ‘Bergers’ have enjoyed a period of sustained success, topping Victoria’s NPL for three consecutive seasons and lifted the trophy in 2018. Now, Heidelberg’s on-field ambitions are finally being matched off the park, with a multimillion-dollar redevelopment of its Olympic Park precinct.
“One thing Heidelberg has lacked for a while is state-of-the-art, modern facilities. But now, thanks to investment and government assistance we are working towards creating that,” says Steven Tsalikidis, President of Heidelberg United FC.
Olympic Park was built to accommodate athletes competing at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. The ground has hosted many notable events throughout its existence, most recently in 2015 when 11,372 people – the second largest FFA Cup crowd in history – flocked to see Heidelberg’s semi-final clash against Melbourne City.
But despite the stadium’s rich history and the team’s roaring success, the 64-year old complex was approaching a state of decay.
This led Heidelberg United’s board to work alongside the Banyule City Council to form the Olympic Park Master Plan, a four-step proposal designed to reinvigorate the precinct and establish Olympic Park as the premiere sports hub in Melbourne’s North-East. The plan fits FFV’s State Football Facilities Strategy to increase the quantity and quality of pitches across the state.
“We handed the ground over late last year so we could start the facility upgrade. Stage one was reconstructing the main pitch which includes four new LED light tower that are suitable for even A-League standards,” Tsalikidis says.
“We wanted to create facilities that allow us to potentially host A-League games. Also, in preparation for the B-League, if that ever comes about, we want to be in a position where we can be ready to compete from the get-go.”
Fundraising for the redevelopment includes a $2 million injection from the Andrews-led state government and $3.1 million from Banyule City Council.
While additional funding is required to complete the later stages of the plan, the government’s willingness to invest should strongly encourage football fans and those in the industry, many who have grown frustrated over recent years.
The frustration peaked in 2017 when Football Federation Australia closed its AIS Centre of Excellence Program, a pathway which famously produced many of Australia’s footballing icons. The program ultimately fell victim to funding cuts, running costs, and the desire to decentralise the youth development process through the growing influence of A-League Academies.
Since then, influential figures in Australian football have been outspoken on the issue, demanding more investment into the sport to aid the future of the sport. Only months ago Graham Arnold called on Scott Morrison and the Australian Sports Commission to step in, while last year former CEO of the FFA David Gallop stated that local clubs were capping numbers as there simply weren’t enough pitches to facilitate growing participation in the sport.
The growth Gallop referenced was quantified by official surveys. A recent AusPlay study revealed the world game had more than 1.76 million active participants in 2019 – officially making it the most popular organised sport in Australia.
With Australia’s youth increasingly turning to football, it is important for clubs at all levels to follow Heidelberg’s persistence and dedication to seek investment, particularly to help develop the next generation.
Creating more pitches gives more children the opportunity to play, raising the level of youth competition and cultivating more interest in the game. Furthermore, higher quality pitches and general facilities lead to a better standard of football. This is important as it can assist to create a long-term cycle where the overall standard of football improves, attracting more viewership, interest, and sponsorship for the sport.
The latter stages of the Olympic Park Master Plan comprise of proposals to feed this cycle. Stages three and four involve the construction of two additional high-grade soccer pitches to be furnished with drainage, irrigation, fencing and lighting as well futsal courts, cricket nets, basketball courts, and more. All of these improvements will filter down to the lower levels, encouraging participation and enriching the grassroots of the game.
While the club and council work together to raise funding for the final stages of the plan, talks that Victoria’s NPL may recommence shortly are beginning to gather momentum. After three consecutive top place finishes Heidelberg United is in a strong position on-the-pitch and nothing would please the club’s fans and personnel more than to celebrate the opening of their new stadium with another title charge.