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Never assume ethnicity is the problem, without addressing the behaviour

The association between a violent brawl at a NPL game and Football Australia rescinding the ban on ethnic club names couldn't be further from the fact, and only helps pernicious issues within Australian sporting culture remain unchallenged.

The association between a violent brawl at a National Premier League (NPL) game and Football Australia (FA) rescinding the ban on ethnic club names couldn’t be further from the fact, and only helps pernicious issues within Australian sporting culture remain unchallenged.

The fight between spectators at a NPL game between Rockdale Ilinden and Sydney United 58 on Sunday was an alarming scene of violence. The fight began after a spectator entered the pitch and interfered with a player, which sparked a full-blown melee where objects were thrown by spectators as police were called to quell the conflict.

In the aftermath, media outlets were quick to jump to the narrative that this fight was caused by the FA’s Inclusivity Principles for Club Identity (IPCI). Previously, clubs had been banned from using names that alluded to ethnic boundaries or events at the advent of the A-league and the death of the NSL, under a National Club Identity Policy which was replaced by the IPCI. While the clubs eschewed their ethnic names and insignia during the period this policy was in place, their heritage and supporter base remained untouched.

FA CEO James Johnson was forced to defend the policy on 2GB radio, while host Ray Hadley grilled him on the incident. To argue that the IPCI caused the violence in the stands on Sunday is to ignore a history of violence in Australian sport. Hadley insinuates that this is an issue for football particularly: “It’s almost unheard of in modern-day sport in Australia. Sometimes things get out of hand at Rugby league, Rugby Union, more particularly your sport”. In his favourite sport – one that hasn’t been “captivated by PC BS” as he eloquently states – spectators are regularly charged with assault after violent clashes.

As recently as this year, Parramatta fans fought in a wild brawl with their fellow supporters at a game. The issue is present within AFL, where spectators are regularly charged with assault. In 2018 two men were hospitalised after being attacked after an AFL game in Melbourne by men wearing their club colours proudly. In 2010 at the WACA, during a one-day test between Australia and Pakistan, a spectator stormed the field and tackled a Pakistani player and was charged with assault and trespass. The problem is a cultural one, that is endemic across all of Australian sport. To blame a spectator brawl on something as irrelevant as the name and identity of the clubs involved, while turning a blind eye to a history of violence that is perpetuated throughout Australian sport is to condemn ourselves to never fixing the cause, and never finding the solution.

Even within the world of football, violence between fans is not a new phenomenon despite what critics of the IPCI would like you to think. It happened before the ban on ethnic club names, it happened during the ban, and it will continue to happen after the introduction of the IPCI. Why is this so? Because a small minority of Australian spectators, regardless of their sport, are prone to violence. Violence between spectators is a worldwide phenomenon and amazingly remains so in countries whose populations are homogeneous and don’t divide themselves into clubs based on their heritage or ethnicity.

NSW Police Detective Superintendent Anthony Cooke stated that it was only a small minority of the spectators involved in the melee on Sunday, and there was no clear link to ethnic violence. With the former National Club Identity Policy in place, football was less inclusive of those of other cultures and ethnicity with little benefit to the game, while suppressing communities that embraced the world game.

This isn’t an effort to downplay the violence in the stands on Sunday however, but to blame the IPCI however is to ignore the fact that it is a minority of people who engage in anti-social behaviour. It remains easier to direct fault towards the policy of the FA instead of addresses the cultural issues that remain within football and Australian sport as a whole.

“We need to focus on the behaviours, not the ethnicity,” Football Australia CEO James Johnson stated in his interview with Ray Hadley. To remove spectator violence from all levels of the football pyramid we need to do exactly this. To villainize supporters based on the heritage of the club they support is to ignore the very real dangers of anti-social behaviour that is fuelled by far greater animosity than the name on their badge. Hadley misses this point completely and seems to believe that if the club had an anglicised name then the spectator violence wouldn’t have happened. The evidence shows this is objectively wrong and drawing upon ethnicity is simply a media narrative that damages the clubs and the footballing industry. The NSL, the precursor to the A-league, was severely damaged and ultimately destroyed by this stigma being attached by the media.

Hadley’s and 2GB’s attempted stitch-up of Johnson shouldn’t be a surprise. Football within Australia has a long history of being some sort of ethnic boogeyman, with the foreigner with the strange name being an easy target for disdain. While the FA has made it clear it won’t tolerate this behaviour from spectators, fans, and club officials, it has also taken the correct stance in deciding to punish those who do wrong based solely on their behaviour. While the violent brawl was unacceptable, and those involved need to be heavily punished with bans as Football Australia intends to do, it isn’t unheard of in the slightest. These issues aren’t self-contained to football or ethnically named clubs and are instead just a symptom of a much larger illness in Australian sporting culture. To ignore the violence that continues to permeate with Australian sport in an attempt to blame a policy that
contributes little to the issue will only allow the real causes to remain unchecked.

Referee Recognition Week underway for Northern NSW Football

Beginning Monday July 19 and ending Sunday July 25, Northern NSW Football’s Newcastle Permanent Referee Recognition Week is dedicated to advocating for respect of match officials.

Motivated by the sole aim of providing the football community with the chance to express their gratitude and appreciation for referees and their assistants, Referee Recognition Week is NNSW Football’s annual celebration of match officials.

In addition, the week also acts as a reminder that match officials are intrinsic members of the football community who are to be respected by players, coaches, volunteers and supporters.

Referee weekNNSW Football Head of Football Development Peter Haynes explains that the initiative, which is planned alongside NNSW Football’s long-term community partner Newcastle Permanent, aimed to put a spotlight on the contributions of match officials across Northern NSW whilst encouraging members of the football community to demonstrate their appreciation.

“Officiating a match is often a thankless task. But without our referees we wouldn’t be able to play our beautiful game,” Haynes said.

“Referees and assistant referees play a key role in not just allowing players to go out and play but also keeping our players safe. Then there are our referee assessors and coaches who are also such a vital part of our sport as they help teach and educate our referees of the future.

“We encourage all our members to show their respect and appreciation towards our referees during the week, particularly thanking them for their efforts in ensuring a safe environment, underlined by a sense of fair play, for everyone.”

Newcastle Permanent supports match officials throughout the season through its monthly Community Recognition Awards Program, where a referee from each of Northern NSW Football’s seven Member Zones are recognised for their outstanding contribution.

Newcastle Permanent’s Chief Customer Experience and Delivery Officer Paul Juergens adds that continued recognition of match officials is a step in the right direction to respecting them for the work they do.

“We know referees and match officials play a vital role in community football,” Juergens said.

“They’re not only responsible for keeping players safe and making sure the rules of the game are followed but they also help create a great experience for players and spectators.

“Newcastle Permanent is proud to shine a light on their importance and contribution through our monthly Community Recognition Awards program. And this week, as part of our annual Referee Recognition Week campaign, we invite the football community to join in and say thanks.”

Northern NSW Football will acknowledge referees throughout the week at northernnswfootball.com.au and through its social media channels.

Why A-League teams need purpose-built stadiums

The aim for every football club within Australia should be to play on a ground that is both made for football and of a suitable size – and for some, eventually own them. While this is already starting to happen, there are still A-League teams that are playing in stadiums far too big for their supporter base. Fortunately, we are seeing less huge oval stadiums like Adelaide Oval and Marvel Stadium being used by clubs. However, there is still some way to go until every A-League team has a suitable home.

Hindmarsh Stadium

One of the best stadiums in the country to watch football is Adelaide’s Hindmarsh Stadium. It is the perfect size for a club like Adelaide United, and the atmosphere during big games when it’s packed out is second to none. The only addition needed is a roof covering more than just the Eastern grandstand.

Currently, AAMI Park is the premier football stadium in Australia. This is because it is a great size for Melbourne Victory (especially with bumper crowds), and it was designed with football in mind. For the other Victorian teams, it is simply too large for their home games scheduled at AAMI Park next season – Western United and Melbourne City.

Artwork for Western United’s stadium in Tarneit

With talks of a 15,000 boutique stadium being built in Dandenong to host Melbourne City games, it could be a game-changer for the club. The atmosphere at these matches would be greatly lifted, which would help them win new fervent supporters.

If Western United manages to get their stadium built, it will instantly make them the most important club in the A-League. Owning their own stadium was the entire cornerstone of their bid and while the delays to putting shovels in the ground are worrying, if they can fulfil their promise they will become the first A-League team to have complete control over their infrastructure. With at least two more seasons playing games at AAMI Park, Western United have to work hard to win supporters over without a geographical distinction from the other Melbourne-based teams.

Another club with a great stadium is the Central Coast Mariners. If their bid to take over the administration and running of Gosford Stadium is successful, then it will help ensure the viability and sustainability of the club. While it is on the larger side for the Mariners’ supporter base, it is one of the most scenic stadiums in the world, with its iconic palm trees and ocean view.

The picturesque view at Central Coast Stadium

Their F3 rivals Newcastle Jets find themselves in a similar situation, with a great rectangular stadium to call home. If the clubs were successful like in the early years of the A-League, their stadiums would be a lot less empty and the atmosphere would shine through.

The difference between seeing 10,000 people at the Sydney Football Stadium, compared to seeing the same size crowd at Kogarah oval is night and day. If Kogarah was better positioned within Sydney FC’s catchment area and had a roof and a rectangular setup, it would be perfect. While the upgraded SFS is in the works, they have found a good temporary home that is suitably sized. Western Sydney Wanderers wouldn’t be the club they are today without Parramatta Stadium, which truly feels like hallowed turf for the club now.

While Brisbane Roar’s move to Dolphin stadium takes them outside the city, the difference in atmosphere when compared to the cavernous 55,000-seat Suncorp Stadium makes it well worth it. If Brisbane had a stadium in the city that’s similar size to Perth Glory’s it would take them to the next level. Instead, they travel outside of Brisbane for a stadium that’s better suited to their needs.

Westpac Stadium is too large and poorly suited for Wellington Phoenix

Wellington Phoenix would be much better served in a rectangular stadium about half the size of the cake tin. Surprisingly, there is no suitable venue despite New Zealand’s love of rugby, and at 34,000 capacity it is far bigger than needed for a club of Wellington’s size.

While the A-League is finding more suitable grounds to host their games, the next step is owning infrastructure. While for many this is a pipe-dream, it is how so many clubs around the world have become institutions that have lasted for decades. It ensures financial stability and it has to be the aim for the clubs going forward. To achieve this, football needs to collectively lobby government to supply the money for stadiums A-League teams desperately need.

A telling contribution: The rise of Preston Lions under Zak Gruevski

At BT Connor Reserve, home of Preston Lions, it has not been an uncommon sight to see over 2,000 people in the stands supporting their team.

It is a typically frosty winter’s night in Melbourne on Friday, July 9.

The famous Preston Lions Football Club and its hordes of support are preparing to welcome Nunawading FC.

For the vast majority of clubs playing in the various National Premier Leagues Victoria divisions, the recent easing of Victorian Government restrictions allowing up to 1,000 spectators at games would allow them to operate matchday with minimal restrictions and fuss. Not Preston.

At BT Connor Reserve, it has not been an uncommon sight to see more than 2,000 people in the stands supporting their team.

With a spectator cap of 1,000, the Lions have needed to meticulously manage the gate, ensuring sponsors, members, spectators, players and officials check-in upon entry.

It is an administrative hassle, but it is a stark reminder of just how far Preston has come.

For that reason, the night is full of mixed emotions for outgoing Club President, Zak Gruevski.

Having announced the end of his presidency at the club – a reign that lasted over seven years – it provides an opportunity to reflect on just how far the club has come, as well as the important strides forward the Lions still hope to make.

“Like most, I didn’t go to President’s school,” Gruevski said.

“The journey really started from a call out to the community to say that Preston was in some deep trouble.

“At the time, they really weren’t that far off putting the padlock on the front gate and sadly saying goodbye to an iconic club.”

Towards the back end of 2013, Preston was a world away from the relative heights it enjoys now.

Ladened with over $200,000 in debt, mainly to the Australian Tax Office, undermined by terrible infrastructure and suffering from the consequential lack of juniors at the club, the glory days of Victorian Premier League success in 2007 felt like an age ago, much less the golden era of the National Soccer League in the 80s and early 90s.

Prior to his own presidency, Gruevski – who before becoming President of Preston served on the board of Football Victoria – explained that the work of his predecessor, Zoran Trajceski, was crucial to giving the club something of a blank slate to build from.

“Zoran was a bit of a figurehead. He galvanized a number of people behind him to say, ‘hey, let’s not allow our club to fall by the wayside,’” he said.

“That took us to a position where there was a fundraising sub-committee established and they set out to clear the club’s debt.

“My brother was heavily involved in that group, and he’d often ask why I was on the Federation board, however for me that was a great learning experience and helped me understand the business of football and how it works as an administrator.

“I was a lifelong supporter of Preston and I always remembered going to the games as a kid and I now found myself in a position where I was able to give a bit back to the club from a time perspective.

“So I joined the committee that year.”

In 2014, the club was able to announce that it had cleared its debt with the ATO and at the end of that year, Trajceski stepped down handing the reins over to Gruevski and a new committee.

With a new committee elected at the 2014 Annual General Meeting, Gruevski took on the role of Presidency with gusto, seeing the election of a new breed of committee for the club as the perfect opportunity to try and start fresh.

One of the first issues he wanted to tackle was the ‘seniors-first’ mentality.

“The senior men’s side are the flagship team, but they’re only one team of 23 or 25 or however many teams we’re fielding in any given year,” Gruevski said.

“Whilst they’re important, there’s a broader picture about the club and we’ve had some great kids and great women who have come through our club.

“When we took over, we literally only had 35 kids registered at the club making up three junior teams.

“The facilities were poor… we had two half pitches of lighting for our juniors, the lighting on the main pitch was disgusting to the point it was dangerous for the players even for training.

“Why would anyone want to come to the club?”

As a committee member first and then a President, Gruevski admitted that at times it was hard to look any more than one year ahead.

Many of those first years were simply just about surviving, being competitive on the pitch from a senior’s perspective and just battling through.

However, with the debt cleared and some breathing space achieved, Gruevski wanted to begin looking beyond the short-term fixes.

“With this new committee and the assistance of some trusted advisors, we wanted to stabilize and formulate a five-year plan for 2015-2020 to set the tone for where we wanted to go.”

And the plan centred around one keyword – hope.

“We wanted to give people hope,” he said.

“And we knew we could only do that by doing three things. One, we needed to bring people with professional skillsets to the club. We had to demonstrate to our sponsors, members, players and supporters that we had and were bringing quality people to the club.

“Secondly, we had to address the mistrust. We had to establish trust and transparency and for us was key.

“From that first AGM, it was important to us to be able to say to our members, ‘look, here are our books, this is what we’ve inherited, and this is the reality.’ We got the books audited and we invited any question anyone wanted to ask.

“And thirdly, we had to have a plan. It wasn’t good enough to say here’s a problem and ask members how we should fix it. We had to show them that we were working on solutions.

“That helped to show that we had integrity and helped to build that reputation and that trust again, and I think we’ve been able to sustain that over a number of years.”

The five-year plan for Preston wanted to inspire hope in its supporter base, and it did so by focusing on three key pillars – Facilities, Community and Communication.

Gruevski encouraged open communication between him, his committee and Preston’s members & supporters.

“In the first year or so it was a lot of just listening to people. I’m happy to hear anyone’s views,” he said.

“But if there was one thing that frustrated me, it was the negativity. I used to tell people, ‘I know the history, I know where we’re coming from isn’t great.’

“But for me, it was about where can we go? Any time someone told me something negative, I’d ask them to think about something positive that they could think about, or to give me an idea that they thought would make things better.

“We took all those ideas and threw them into the mix as part of formulating our plan. I wanted to treat people fairly and bring in proper governance structures and processes.”

What was clear to Gruevski, however, was that whilst communication was important, particularly in the early days, the real strides forward that needed to be made were with the former two pillars of facilities and communication.

“We saw that the facilities were poor, and we knew we wanted to be able to bring people back to the club,” he said.

“You can do that with success on the field, but the other way and the more sustainable way is to bring life to your club through the MiniRoos and juniors programs.

“We set out in year one to grow from the 35 and we grew our numbers to 80. In year two we grew to 180 and the third year we ended up with around 280 kids, which we’ve maintained and grown to almost 400 registered players between Miniroos, juniors and seniors men and women.”

As participation grew, the need for vast improvements to the facilities at BT Connor Reserve became more and more apparent.

“People didn’t want to come to the club. They’d tell us the facilities were poor, or they’d say our reputation wasn’t very good,” Gruevski recalled.

“Even me, before I was president, I wanted to bring my son to Preston when he was five or six, but the club didn’t have any programs for kids his age back then.

“He didn’t come back until he was 10 or 11.”

Gruevski adds making appointments such as junior co-ordinators and working with the City of Darebin for improved facilities was crucial.

It is in securing investment from council that Preston has really excelled in recent years.

“If you look at what they’ve invested in our facilities, it’s upwards of $5-6 million in five or six years,” he said.

“That’s gone towards new lighting, upgrades to pitches and new fencing and a new state of the art pavilion that is currently under construction. That fencing, in particular, we used to joke and say that when we got rid of the fence we got rid of the remnants of Pentridge Prison.

“The fencing was a 1.5m or 2m high. It was disgusting. How are you meant to welcome families and people to that sort of environment? It was a hangover from a previous era.”

Many might read that and wonder, how on earth has a suburban soccer club managed to win that much investment from council?

For Gruevski, the answer is simple, even if its execution is not.

“You’ve got give them a reason to invest,” he said.

“You’ve got to be able to clearly explain what your vision is, what you want to achieve.

“As a club, we engaged with blind football, the indigenous community, women’s football and we were able to demonstrate this to Council.

“We actually went to Council and our Councillors and presented our five-year plan to them. We showed them our collective – ours as a club and theirs as a Council – responsibility to our local community and improving access to sport.

“And to do that, we needed help to improve our facilities.

“You can’t ask me and my club to grow our participation base, if we don’t have anywhere to put the kids, or if it’s so dark that it’s dangerous.”

Consistent engagement was key.

“We engaged with Council officers, the CEO and Councillors because at the end of the day we needed to give them reasons to invest in our club and our sport.

“We were persistent, too. If we missed out on a grant one year, that was fine, we’d come back next year and we’d tell them again, this is what we want to do, this is why we want to do it and then we’d back that up with our numbers.

“We didn’t want to be whingers and whiners. We wanted to present professionally and I think they took notice of that approach. They wanted to work with us.”

With improved facilities and a growing junior base, Gruevski and Preston’s attention turned to on-field success, as the Lions sought to rise to a level more befitting of their historic status in the game and their growing present-day fortunes.

Of course, in the quagmire that is State League One North-West, that’s easier said than done, even with the impressive resources and support the club managed to generate.

Preston championed a proactive approach to member communication using the club’s digital channels, specifically social media, to encourage a new breed of fan to their games.

“We made a commitment to being really strong on social media,” he said.

“This was how we were going to communicate with our people. The old days of putting a story in the Macedonian newspaper were done, social media was a gamechanger for us.

“It helped us encourage people back to the club, whether it be as sponsors, as members or just to come to the odd game. The younger generation really took it on.

“These days they feel like they’re going to miss out on something if they don’t come to a game, so they would come down and come to a game.”

Even in State League One, crowds at BT Connor Reserve were often closer to 1,000 than they were to 500.

Not that it made life any easier in the division.

It took five years for Gruevski to realise his on-field vision of seeing Preston make the jump from State League One to NPL3.

The Lions finished second in the division in 2016, fourth in 2017 and missed out on promotion on the final day of the season in 2018 in front of almost 4,000 home fans, before eventually being crowned champions in 2019.

“Getting out of that league was extremely difficult,” he said.

“In some respects, we’re finding NPL3 a bit easier to manage than State One.

“When we lost that game in 2018, it brought many of us to tears. We were that close, and we lost it at the end. We had supporters at training in the lead up to that game. It was massive.

“But that disappointment was a turning point for us because it drove us to the championship in 2019.”

Gruevski makes no hesitation in crediting coach Louie Acevski for much of the on-field transformation of the club.

“He came to the club because of the vision we had and what we wanted to achieve,” Gruevski said.

“He’d just finished with Hume City, and he wasn’t interested in coaching again in a hurry. I just reached out to him and shared with him what we wanted to do, the people we had as part of our team and we were able to get him on board and that was the start of the way forward for the club on the pitch.”

And success on the park in 2019 has propelled success off it. Not even the loss of the 2020 season could slow Preston down.

With their brand new lighting on the main pitch, Preston took the decision to play home games on Friday nights at BT Connor Reserve, and their first game under lights was marked by a historic turnout.

Thousands of supporters attended the game and Gruevski was keen to note the ethnic diversity of the club’s supporter base.

“The response from day one to Friday nights has been superb,” he said.

“For the first time in several years since I’ve been involved, kids are starting to talk about the club on a Wednesday or Thursday night at training or at school about whether or not they’re going to Preston on Friday.

“We’ve connected with the broader community. Obviously, everyone knows that the club was founded and is traditionally supported by Macedonian immigrants and their families.

“But we’ve been super proud that we’ve been able to engage really well with the local community as well. We currently have 24 different nationalities at our club.

“That’s something we’re super proud of.”

As part of their registration fees, all MiniRoos and junior parents get a free season pass enabling entry to senior men’s games, which has also helped encourage greater attendance at Friday night games.

Of the thousands who attended the season opener against Melbourne City, this included more than 120 sponsors and invited guests at the club’s newly launched Preston in Business program.

On the night, they defeated Melbourne City’s academy team 2-1 in an absolute thriller.

It was the perfect debut for the club’s new sponsorship program, which has driven enormous financial support for the club.

“We really want to look at how we can help our sponsors grow as well,” he said.

“But it’s grown because sponsors have confidence in where their money is going and they know we’re creating opportunities for them as well.”

Whilst Gruevski is departing the role of President, he has been keen to impress that operationally, nothing will change.

“It’s business as usual,” he said.

“Even though I’m finishing up in this role, we have the same Treasurer (now elevated to the role of Chief Financial Officer), the Vice President [David Cvetkovski] is now the President, and co-Vice Presidents have been introduced, with the balance of the Executive Committee remaining committed as always.”

Gruevski’s role at the club will see him move onto the club’s Advisory Board, where he will champion the club’s efforts on a number of key projects including securing a junior boys NPL licence and continuing to be involved in National Second Division discussions.

“I’ve got the relationships and I’ve represented the club in these forums before, so I’m happy to continue working on anything that sees the club get stronger.

“It would be a shame for us to walk away completely from something we’ve helped build.

“We’re proud of what we’ve done, but we know there’s still a lot to be done and I’m still passionate about helping the club achieve that.”

Feature and body image credit: Matt Johnson

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