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Rydalmere Lions FC: Modelling success for football clubs in Australia

In what is often described as a saturated Australian sporting market, where sponsorship dollars are limited and infrastructure development and growth difficult to achieve, Rydalmere Lions FC is setting the standard in New South Wales.

The inner-west club was founded in 1979 as the St. Joseph’s Zgharta Soccer Club and subsequently joined forces with the Fairfield City Lions in 2014; the same year the newly merged club was crowned champions of New South Wales’ State League Division 2.

Rydalmere juniors compete in the Granville District Soccer Football Association and the club was placed at NPL3 level for its first year of play in the newly formed second tier of Australian football in 2016.

The beating heart of the club lies in the migrant Lebanese families who first envisioned a safe and community based club for their children. Those founders saw an organised sporting club as an extension of the family unit and an ongoing connection to community as the most vital pre-cursor to any success that may come their way.

As is common to most football clubs around the country, the challenge of acquiring sponsors and raising revenue to improve facilities and meet the day to day running costs was considerable.

In 2016, as the Lions become a serious championship contender in NPL3, the club had 400 playing members and 650 non-playing members. It had seen only marginal growth from recent seasons and sponsorship remained steady yet meagre.

With the hope of expanding the reach of the club to allow all its members to spend more time involved in the game as a supportive collective base, an advisory committee was established. That committee brought together the best football, business, legal and financial minds from within the Rydalmere FC community and set about strategizing a path forward that would grow the club in terms of both participation and community engagement.

The committee allowed Rydalmere to more professionally and effectively make submissions to prospective partners in the local community. When City of Parramatta Council sought expressions of interest for new tenants to occupy the Rydalmere Central Bowling Club, the club was proactive and aggressive in its negotiations.

The vacant venue sat just a stones throw from the Lions home track at Rydalmere Park and seemed a perfect fit. In the very near future and after three years of planning, the club will re-open the doors of its new home; now rebranded as ‘The F.C’. It will become the Rydalmere Lions’ community base, a place to where football extends beyond the pitch and becomes a hub for not only club members but also the wider Parramatta community.

Most importantly, ‘The F.C’ will now allow the club to more easily meet those objectives set out by the clubs’ founders over 40 years ago, with the vision of shared experience and community lying at the core of any future decisions made at the club.

Further submissions to the City of Parramatta Council led to upgrades of the playing facilities at Rydalmere Park and the New South Wales government provided a grant for an upgrade of the wider precinct.

The entire facelift is valued at somewhere near A$5 million and provides not only a Football NSW compliant artificial turf pitch for the Lions to use during NPL play, but also an array of other smaller sporting facilities, increased vegetation, walking paths and a children’s playground.

The excitement around the development and the club’s pro-active approach to growth has seen a dramatic increase in membership. There are now 525 registered players and over 850 non-playing members; all eager to become part of history when the make-over is complete and the club begins to operate on a daily basis from its new home.

Sponsorship commitments have doubled within 12 months, membership has increased by an impressive 31 per cent and performances on the pitch in season 2020 hold much promise.

The club’s First Grade Head Coach is Gavin Rae, the former Dundee, Glasgow Rangers and Cardiff City midfielder who previously held the top job at Hakoah Sydney City East. It was a typically bold move by the club to enquire of Rae’s services, with a position at NPL1 level his most likely destination.

However, along with Simon Doueihi (Head of Football) and Anthony Harb (Club Technical Director), Rae completes an impressive team that hopes to return the club to NPL2 competition as quickly as possible, after suffering relegation in 2019.

In spite of that disappointment, the commercial success story of Rydalmere Lions FC provides a potential model for many clubs around Australia. Those battling to survive financially, let alone even dream of considerable growth, could do worse than use the simple philosophy of creating a community based hub, one that extends far beyond the play that occurs on a football pitch.

Players, supporters and sponsors have been drawn to that philosophy. When executed professionally and intelligently, such an idea has proven once again to lie at the heart of football in Australia. Don’t be surprised if Rydalmere FC quickly becomes a powerhouse in NPL and junior play. It will be nothing but the residue of a clear vision and some very hard work.

 

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Australian football legend Gary Cole: “This is a wonderful time for the Socceroos and the Matildas”

World Cup

With the Socceroos having achieved a fifth straight FIFA World Cup qualification for the 2022 edition set to be held in Qatar, Soccerscene chatted with Australian football legend, Football Victoria Hall of Fame inductee, and Football Coaches Australia Executive Committee member Gary Cole to touch on the significance of the occasion and where Australian football goes from here.

Gary Cole

How momentous of an occasion is this qualification?

Gary Cole: It’s probably not quite as big as qualifying for the first time in ’74, and then going back in 2006. Because they were from huge periods of not going – this is the fifth time in a row now. I think given how tough this qualification has been on the coaching and playing staff – with COVID quarantine, isolation and playing 16 out of 20 games away from home – it’s a remarkable achievement. And all power to Graham Arnold, his coaching team and the playing group that’s been there over the journey. It’s been Australian Socceroos being proud to wear the green and gold and doing everything they could to get us to another World Cup.

With yourself being such a significant part of Australian football’s history and now being a part of Football Coaches Australia, what’s it like for you seeing Graham Arnold reach what appears to be a definitive moment in his journey so far?

Gary Cole: Arnie’s been a wonderful servant of Australian football for such a long time now as a player and then as a coach. In his role as Socceroos coach, he jumped in to get the group to the Olympics and was doing two jobs during COVID.

In his time as a coach, he’s been incredibly giving to not just other Australian coaches and Football Coaches Australia, but coaches in general. He’s been battered from pillar to post, because not every soccer fan in Australia is a Graham Arnold fan. To think there were some people talking about not wanting to see Australia qualify because Graham would get his just desserts, well the just desserts for Graham are the fact that the team did qualify.

You couldn’t wish for success on anyone more than Graham. It’s no different from Ange doing what he did the last qualifying campaign through essentially the same process, albeit without COVID. I just can’t speak highly enough of the man and the way he’s carried himself throughout all of this. Most people didn’t know that he spent time in quarantine in a hotel by himself and was the only guest at the hotel. He moved to the UK and stayed at his grandma’s place to be around the team when people were locked down. Then he got hung, drawn and quartered because he dared to take his dog out for a walk. It is just fantastic to see, and I know how much it’ll mean for Graham as well. There’s a great joy in it for every soccer fan in the country, I think.

Socceroos Vs Peru

It’s pretty remarkable that the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will see the Asian Football Confederation represented by a record six national teams – Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Iran, South Korea and now, Australia. What do you think that signals about Asian football and where it’s at?

Gary Cole: I just think that there should be a red flashing light and a siren sounding the alarm if we needed that. We moved into Asia with the golden generation team and the region was in awe of our players playing in the Premier League. And even going further back than that in the 70s and 80s when I played, the Asian players have always been technically good but physically we were strong and could intimidate, and we won a lot of games in Asia that way.

Now of course the investment in Asian football, and not just the ‘big six’ but across the entire depth and breadth of Asia, has been heavy because in most of the countries it’s the number one sport. There’s been heavy investment into player development, coaching development and facility development, with a growth in players, coaches and administrators and because of where football is in Australia, we just haven’t seen that same level of investment and the truth is that they’ve caught us up. And many of them have gone by us.

Countries like Thailand and Vietnam have proved that on any given day they can beat us as well, because their investment in football is there. It’s fantastic for the region because we went into Asia and we wanted to have that regular contest, we didn’t actually think that would mean it would be harder for us to qualify. Because it’s not proved a whole bunch easier. But it is great that at all levels we get that regular competition and we can continue to grow our game and get better across all levels of it, if we’re going to be successful in Asia going forward.

With the Socceroos qualifying for the World Cup this year and the Matildas set to co-host a massive Women’s World Cup next year with New Zealand, it seems like there’s a lot of positivity in Australian football currently. How do you think the game’s leading stakeholders and authorities can capitalise on this moment?

Gary Cole: If you look back in our history, one of the most significant challenges we’ve had is that we’ve been divided. For some reason we find it incredibly difficult to get on the same page. This is a wonderful time for the Socceroos and the Matildas. We’ve got Trevor Morgan and our under 23s in a semi-final against Saudi Arabia in the AFC U-23 Asian Cup as well.

There’s so much happening with our national teams, men and women. If we can get more people on the same page then the game is going to be better for it. It will continue to grow and go up but we sort do that begrudgingly with an anchor around our neck. Watching the Socceroos game yesterday, how good were those Peru fans? And what you know is that’s a country where, I’m sure they don’t agree on everything, but when they come together and they put on that red and white it means so much. Wouldn’t it be immense in five or even 10-years’ time that’s the football culture that is developing here in Australia? That only comes from being on the same page.

“Don’t sign a new contract with Everton because Fergie is after you” – Jack Rodwell’s date with destiny

In May 1964, Everton FC arrived in Australia as reigning English champions but it took forty six years for the club to return Downunder in 2010.

On that tour, a young England starlet, Jack Rodwell’s life changed forever when he met his life partner at a charity dinner in Sydney, attended by the Everton squad, including Tim Cahill.

It was no coincidence that the father of his wife, Alana, Rene Licata, was the former Marconi and Australian youth striker who delivered that famous cross for Frank Farina to level the scores at 1-1 in the opening match of the World Youth Championships in Mexico City, 1983 in front of 110,000 spectators at the Aztec Stadium against the home team Mexico.

Licata had worked in conjunction with Cahill to organise the charity event and if Alana hadn’t attended on the night, Jack Rodwell would never have called Australia his second home.

Notably, before he signed an extension to his Everton contract in 2010, Rodwell heard the whisper that Alex Ferguson was keen to sign him for Manchester United but rather than take the risk of missing out altogether, he signed on the dotted line at Goodison Park.

Rodwell was regarded as ”the Next Big Thing” early in his career but a spate of injuries and indifferent treatment by football managers have hampered his progress. When the opportunity presented itself to come to Australia in November 2021 to play for the Western Sydney Wanderers, Rodwell grabbed it with open arms.

At the moment, Rodwell is a free agent but is considering his options as he waits for the Wanderers to offer him a new contract for the 2022/23 A-League campaign.

In this interview with Roger Sleeman, Jack Rodwell talks about his life in English football, the highs and lows of his professional career and impressions of the A-League.

ROGER SLEEMAN

You were signed by Everton at a young age, but was Liverpool ever interested in you?

JACK RODWELL

Strangely, my Dad was a Liverpool fan but I was signed by Everton as a seven year old.

Prior to this, my brother and I received free tickets from Everton and we went with my Dad to their home games.

I had gone to Liverpool when I was nearly seven years old but they said you’re a bit young so come back next season.

Ironically, Everton saw me play two weeks later and told me go to the Belfield training ground one night per week and I was asked to stay.

R. S.

In May 1964, Everton arrived in Australia as the reigning England champions.

Are you familiar with former stars from that squad like Jimmy Gabriel, Ray Wilson, Roy Vernon, Alex Scott, Alex Young, Gordon West, Derek Temple and Brian Labone who were part of that touring squad.

J.R.

I’m only familiar with Brian Labone, the great Everton and England central defender, who was a household name at the club.

R.S.

What are your memories of Everton’s tour of Australia in July, 2010?

J.R.

We landed in Sydney, went for a jog on Bondi Beach and put our feet in the water which was like an ice pack .

A few days later, we played Brisbane Roar, followed by Melbourne Heart and Sydney FC.

I was fortunate to play in all three games and scored in two of them which was a great boost for me to get into the first team.

In the previous season, I wasn’t playing regularly in the first team so this tour was an important preseason for me.

Jack Rodwell – Image supplied

R.S.

There were some pretty impressive players in that squad.

Your comments on some of them.

J.R.

Louis Saha, the French striker was one of the best I’ve ever played with and he was crazy, fast and had two good feet.

Phil Jagielka, former England defender, was not big but strong and fast. He came to the club as a central midfielder but often older players are relegated to the backline.

Distin was massive, like a beast to opponents and was so strong in his gym workouts.

Phil Neville was an inspiring captain who looked after the younger players which I was always thankful for.

Ken Hibbert was a local product who was one of the best fullbacks going forward and a great tackler.

Tim Cahill was a great man to have in the dressing room as he always gave 100% and was the first man on the team sheet.

Manager, David Moyes was brilliant for me and after I came into the squad as a centre back, he converted me to a holding midfield role because he preferred old heads in the centre of defence.

R.S.

Do you regret not waiting for the call from Sir Alex Ferguson before you signed that contract extension with Everton in 2010?

J.R.

Somebody had said ,” Don’t sign a new contract with Everton because Fergie is after you”.

However, my parents advised me not to risk it as they thought he could always sign me from Everton.

Also, I wouldn’t have met my wife if I hadn’t toured with Everton in 2010.

R.S.

What was the background to you signing for Manchester City in 2012 and tell us about your experiences.

J.R.

I was in a preseason camp in 2012 with Everton and the club was contacted by City who wanted to sign me.

Roberto Mancini was the manager of City at the time.

It’s a great club but I sustained a series of hamstring injuries which prevented me from playing many matches .

However, I played in the 2013 FA Cup Final when we were beaten by Wigan.

Before the Cup Final, I had a meeting with Mancini and David Platt to discuss my future at the club after I had scored two goals in the last game of the League season.

Unfortunately, Mancini was sacked at the end of that season and Brian Kidd was appointed as caretaker manager before Manuel Pellegrini took over into the start of the new season.

I didn’t receive any favours from Pellegrini as he brought some South American players in and he also excluded Joe Hart, Jamie Milner, Mika Richards and Scott Sinclair.

I was forced to leave the club , even though we won the League and I received a winner’s medal.

R.S.

Your next club was Sunderland.

Can you relate your experience there?

J.R.

I was still only twenty three at the time and Gus Poyet was the manager who just wanted me to play games.

In the first two years, we were in the EPL .However, we were relegated to the Championship the next season and as the highest paid player, they did everything to get me off the wage bill.

I wanted to play in the EFL, not the Championship, but instead of showcasing me in the shop window by playing me, they attempted to move me out of the dressing room to find a club.

I wanted to play but they wouldn’t even allow me to train so I had another season on the same salary.

Manager, Chris Coleman was asked,” You’re losing games ,so where’s Jack”?

He then put me in the reserve team and we were relegated to League 1 in my fourth season.

I finally left the club in June, 2018 when my contract was terminated.

Jack Rodwell
Jack Rodwell in form for Western Sydney Wanderers

R.S.

What led to your decision to come to play in the A- League with the Wanderers in November 2021, and what did you expect of it?

J.R.

I hadn’t played for nine months before coming to Australia so I was very keen to give it a try after Carl Robinson approached me.

I wasn’t too familiar with the A-League, apart from what my father-in-law had told me.

I just wanted to play regularly again.

R.S.

What was your relationship with Carl Robinson like, and was he treated unfairly by the club?

J.R.

I knew about his playing record with Wolves so he had a good pedigree but when you start losing, the fans start to whinge and blame the manager.

It’s not that we didn’t have a good squad according to the local experts but as results became worse, the club decided to relieve Robinson from his position.

R.S.

What were your thoughts on the strength of the Wanderers squad last season and should you have done better?

J.R.

In Dimi Petratos, Steve Ugarkovic, Tomer Hemed, Adame Traore, Keanu Baccus, Bernie Ibini, Terry Antonis and Rhys Williams we had seasoned campaigners.

Williams injury early in the season was a great loss to the team but we still had enough depth in the squad to perform more consistently.

In several matches we were dominating in the first half but took our foot off the pedal in the second to let opponents back into the game.

R.S.

Do you feel Mark Rudan needs more time to achieve his plans for the club and were you happy with his coaching philosophy and management?

J.R.

He definitely needs more time after taking over the role well into the season.

Also, a lot of players are out of contract and he will want to build his own squad for next season like he did at Wellington and Western United.

He has a good grasp of the game from his extensive playing and coaching experience so hopefully next season will be fruitful for him.

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