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The gaping holes in Australia’s football history – Interview with football writer and researcher Greg Werner

When I asked Greg Werner why he was interested in researching and recording the grassroots clubs of each and every Socceroo and Matilda, his answer was simple.

“It was born out of frustration, frustration that the largest sector of the game in this country was being ignored.”

In 2014, the Sutherland Shire based writer set about righting that ship and his journey continues to this very day. Over the last five years, Werner has ventured to all points of the domestic compass in an attempt to shed light on the origins of Australia’s representative footballers and in an effort to flesh out Australia’s footballing story.

His travels led to an unexpected publication, yet his passion to create a more in depth and detailed narrative of the Australian game has always been the most powerful driver behind what is a bold and broad reaching vision.

The trigger for the time consuming and often frustrating quest was an SBS piece on the Matilda, Servet Uzunlar. Werner recalls it vividly.

“I discovered during the segment that Unzular grew up playing in the same association in which I had spent 10 years playing & coaching. I asked myself why. If I was unaware of such a wonderful local players’ presence, how much else had escaped me?”

By extension, the key question for Werner became, “How many clubs were going completely unacknowledged for their contribution to our national teams.”

Such are the holes in the Australian footballing narrative and oft is the point made that the game existed on the national sporting landscape well before the heroics of the Socceroos at the 1974 World Cup. Equally emblematic of a poorly recorded history is the fact that many young A-League fans appear somewhat ignorant of the glory days of the NSL and the contributions made by community clubs during that period.

Greg Werner chats with former Socceroo Manager Ange Postecoglou in 2018.

Werner’s ambition focusses specifically on the individual players who have worn national colours; those whose early years of development are often overlooked and unrecorded at the expense of the contemporary concerns of the team they represented.

I put Werner’s claim that “If you are to go to just about any player’s Wikipedia entry you would think that they did not start playing until the age of 15,” to the test and in most cases, it proved correct.

Appearing as something of an enormous task, I asked Werner where he began.

“I started with what I knew from conversations on the side lines of the Shire and personal experience. The Griffiths brothers (Joel, Adam and Ryan) played at Menai, Graham ‘Arnie’ Arnold played at Gwawley Bay, Murray Barnes began at Kissing Point & my best mate Richie Bell started with Cronulla RSL.”

“Beginning with those bare bones, I realised there were only 800 more players to research,” recounted Werner with something of a tired chuckle.

“The search for answers began with Facebook, and was continued on the side lines of international training sessions, after A & W-League games, at NPL matches and even at FFA Cup and Champion of Champions finals. It also, beyond everything else, involved thousands of hours trawling through programs, magazines and newspapers going back to whenever.”

Werner has seen every major Socceroos game in Sydney since 1969, bar the disaster of 1981 and every home Matildas game since 2015.

It was the insistence of Fox Sports commentator Andy Harper that Werner’s mission would only be taken seriously with a supporting website to present the material. Now overflowing with history and memory, http://www.grassrootsfootballproject.com/ presents the accumulated research in a written and visual form.

The Grassroots Football Project logo.

Perhaps both the intention behind and the potential impact of the Grassroots Football Project is best encapsulated in Werner’s own words, “I have had the absolute honour of meeting men who were my footballing heroes and men whom I had never even heard of before the GFP.”

Such a sentiment now extends to the women’s game and no doubt the next generation of female players currently competing in junior play will be advantaged by the opportunity to read about the pioneering Matildas; those women who paved the untrodden and difficult path towards support and acceptance of the women’s game.

Werner with former Matildas Renaye Iserief, Janine McPhee, Sunni Hughes and Julie Murray.

The collated facts and data proved too enticing for renowned publisher of football books Fairplay Publishing to ignore. Werner became a co-author of the Encyclopaedia of Matildas; a visually stunning text that journeys through the history of the team and the women at the core of its success.

“It was an honour to have been given the opportunity to co-author the text and also beyond my wildest dreams. Now my dreams have shifted and I already have another book in the works and the one after that is already in the planning.”

Research has sent Werner to hundreds of gatherings in recent years.

“When Brazil toured here in 2017, I took the day off work to go to Newcastle to the first Matildas Reunion, a gathering of 60 players from all over the country. That night I added almost 20 entries to my list and had the best night of my footballing life apart from November 16th 2005. I left there at 1am to drive home to Cronulla, dealing with 40kph speed zones all the way down the freeway.

I have had the honour of spending time with some of the legends of the Australian game.”

Not seeking personal gain, Werner’s simple ambition is to “change the way the powers that be regard the most important clubs in the country,” and in turn “to make the history of our game relevant”.

It is an admirable and bold endeavour and one destined to continue.

“The GFP was never designed to be completed, for as long as internationals were being played, new players would be picked. My only aim was that their stories would be told, something which is now starting to be done. The end game would be that a plaque would be placed at the home ground of each of these clubs to make tangible their contribution.”

Something tells me that Greg Werner’s passion and energy may well make those plaques a reality. What a fitting tribute they would be to the grassroots clubs that have provided the Socceroos and Matildas with such wonderful players and people throughout Australia’s footballing history.

Soccerscene is committed to promoting, enhancing and growing the soccer industry in Australia. We believe soccer news has captured the attention of grassroots soccer clubs, apparel and equipment suppliers – which extends to governing bodies, club administrators and industry decision makers. Many of the auxiliary products and services support the growth of the soccer industry in Australia and Asia, a passion we also share and want to express through our work.

North Sunshine Eagles FC to move into $8.4 million facility

North Sunshine Eagles FC’s entire junior setup will be based out of More Park in 2022, a newly redeveloped $8.4 million facility in Ardeer.

The facility itself, amongst other things, has two full size rectangular pitches, a 21x12m fully enclosed futsal court, a mini pitch (suitable for miniroos), competition standard (200 lux) lighting, four female-friendly changerooms as well as a fully accessible sports pavilion, community social room and expanded carpark.

The club, which has continued to grow its number of registered players over multiple years, has been working with the local Brimbank City Council for a while to move on its juniors from previous homes of Bon Thomas Reserve and Lloyd Reserve.

“Over the years, we’ve been developing and expanding the club to a stage where we couldn’t continue with the levels of kids we were having at these facilities,” President of North Sunshine Eagles FC, Memet Selimi, told Soccerscene.

Selimi explained that the competition for use of the facility was hotly contested, but the club’s strong work in the area, particularly in engaging migrant communities was heavily favoured by the local council.

“We put forward a very solid application for the facility,” he said.

“Ultimately, there were several other big clubs that had applied for the position as well.

“The facility itself was traditionally a softball facility, but it never had a winter tenant – so it was pretty much always just used in the summer time and there was a big space to fill.

“Clearly, council established that there was capacity here, they wanted a winter tenant and they found us to be the most suitable candidate.

“It’s been a bit of a process, but we’re really excited about the idea of being there now for the start of next season.”

The club’s senior setup is set to remain at their home base of 30 years at Larissa Reserve in St Albans, however, Selimi revealed competitive senior matches may be played due to the improved lighting setup at More Park.

“We are looking at engaging in the possibility of playing night matches, once we run it past Football Victoria for approval,” he said.

“We will look at matches at night that will generate numbers and logistically be easy to deal with.

“Ultimately, Larissa will continue to be our home base for the seniors, but More Park will hopefully host a number of senior matches in the future.”

The club, which has a strong history going back over 50 years, are set to benefit in a multitude of ways from moving to the new facility, as is the local community – according to Selimi.

“It’s a great facility, it’s got everything we need,” he said.

“Its’s unique as well, for example, it’s got a really cool caged football setup – which is exactly something you would see in Europe or South America. It will develop a player’s skills at a much more intricate level.

“We want to grow football within the female community and engage as much as possible. We feel it’s an incredible opportunity for the club and we have grown those junior female numbers over the past few years at an exponential rate. With the new facilities we can continue to do that, with the grounds, the increased capacities and the changerooms which cater for females.

“Overall, from a footballing and club perspective, it’s going to allow us to expand our juniors, our women’s football and just create a better environment for everyone.

“From a community standpoint, it will also allow us to connect with the local migrant demographics we are trying to engage and really just try to provide an affordable option for people in the area. It’s unfair for a talent to miss out on possibilities because clubs are charging $2000 a season; we charge much less and work with individuals on things like payment plans, or trying to sponsor them, as well as other combinations as a club to make sure they don’t miss out on these chances.”

The club is extremely grateful for the improved setup at More Park for its juniors and hopes a few facility tweaks at Larissa Reserve will round out the good news.

“It will be incredible if we could seek out some funding for Larissa in regards to an upgraded carpark and lighting, but beyond that we can’t really complain,” Selimi said.

“What we’ve received up to this point is fantastic and it’s really up to us now to take it, run with it and grow our club even further – which would be great.”

10 ViacomCBS Executive Producer Geoff Bullock: Bringing a fan-first approach

Fans

10 ViacomCBS’ concerted efforts to aid in the revitalisation of Australian football over the last few months has stirred a largely positive response from the passionate Australian fanbase. The extensive coverage seen across Channel 10’s news networks and various social media channels speaks volumes of the broadcaster’s dedication to help football reach its lofty potential.

The clarity provided by a primary broadcaster who is aligned in its passion for the game, coupled with the governing bodies, is undeniably promising for football going forward.

Geoff Bullock has been a vital part of our collective matchday experience of Australian football since his beginnings at Fox Sports as a Producer for for football in 2006. Bullock has certainly ridden all of the highs and lows that have come with being an adherent of the game like the rest of us.

In a wide-ranging chat with Soccerscene, the current Executive Producer for football at ViacomCBS gave us insight into the strategic direction, plans and thinking behind the new broadcasting home.

Football home

What has it been like taking on this project of 10 ViacomCBS being the home of all things Australian football? Have you always had an interest in football?

Geoff Bullock: I’ve been involved in football since I was about four, playing for the Gosford City Dragons with my dad as the coach. So, it’s always been my number one sport for the past 15 years as I’ve been lucky enough to be working on the broadcast of Australian football. And now to get to do it at Channel 10 for a new era is really exciting.

It’s just good to be involved when there’s a fresh start for football on the horizon. And I’m just excited about the role that we can play to hopefully energise football in Australia.

How is the 10 ViacomCBS production team looking to differentiate how football will be presented in comparison to any previous broadcaster’s time in charge of Australian football?

Geoff Bullock: What we want to do is provide a fan-first approach to broadcasting football here. And with the two platforms in Channel 10 and Paramount+ it gives us – in addition to the live broadcast – the opportunity to offer replays on-demand, mini matches and highlights for A-League Men and Women’s. That includes the Socceroos and Matildas internationals, which we’ve been broadcasting on 10 and 10 Bold and putting mini-matches on 10 Play.

I think it allows viewers to digest football in different ways to what they maybe traditionally have. We’ll also preview and review all of the games with our team as well. Each game will have a preview and review show attached, which allows our experts to dive in and give viewers a deeper look. And we’ll do some magazine shows and podcasts through the week as well to provide extra content.

The other thing I’m excited about is that we’re looking to do a deeper stats dive than we’ve done before. So, there’ll be greater insights on potential players and matches that we’ll be able to get from the deeper stats dive.

Traditionally, for the domestic game whilst they have been comprehensive in terms of milestones and players, we’ve never really taken the leap to include expected goals, pass mapping and possession mapping. That’s the territory I’m hoping we can get into for the A-League which will take it to a new level.

AL

Within the envisioned coverage, what areas of football are being focused on as its key points of difference in comparison to other sporting codes? How valuable do you believe embracing active support is?

Geoff Bullock: I think COVID-19 has shown how important it is to have fans at the game. Whether we’re in the stands or watching on TV, we know what we’re missing when the atmosphere isn’t there. It’s just a massive game-changer at the venue and on TV to have that buzz of the crowd at the games. I can’t wait to have that back.

And I think it’s even more important with football than other sports because of the unique nature of active support. It provides a soundtrack for the game that we’ve missed. The interesting contrast is probably the Euros where we finally got some crowds back at games and it was a massive lift.

That’s so important for us to take advantage of, that active support. We’re trying to provide a fan-friendly experience as well. We’ve worked hard with the APL to provide two fan-friendly Saturday 7:45pm timeslots, so that fans are able to get to more games that are on at a better time.

We’re looking forward to covering active support in the broadcast as well when we can. It’s no doubt been a while since we’ve seen a massive Wanderers march to the stadium which was always huge in the broadcast. Seeing that amount of people marching to the ground definitely provides a sense of occasion and anticipation before the game. It makes people want to stick around and watch.

March to stadium

We’ve seen football over the last few months covered extensively on Channel 10’s news and socials. What are some examples of the strategies being taken to entice younger social media savvy modern audiences?

Geoff Bullock: Quite a few strategies are in place, like our Saturday night coverage is going to be built around a multi-screen experience with those two simultaneous matches that I mentioned on Channel 10 and Paramount+. This is being done with the younger fans in mind.

Football fans, as we know, are accustomed to basically consuming their content on multiple devices. I believe a lot of people in that under-30 age bracket very rarely watch any kind of TV or stream without their phone in their hand.

So, we’re going to build the Saturday night around that multi-screen experience where you’ll be able to watch a game on 10 and on your device with Paramount+. It’ll be a chance for those fans to be across all the highlights and talking points from two games live as it happens.

We’re also exploring a few solutions that might allow us to scale up a separate coverage on a Saturday night that will deliver alternate commentary across the split-screen experience of those two games. That’s something that we’re going to work towards as the season unfolds, and also potentially a social media or influencer-driven commentary stream which we’ll look to do.

With the deep-dive stats that I mentioned earlier they’ll be going out on our social media platforms as well. That’s something that will allow those younger fans to engage in more analytical discussions around football. When you talk to young football fans, you find that there’s not much about the game that they aren’t across, and I think this will give them more of an opportunity to talk more in-depth about Australian football rather than the default of European football.

I think that’s one of our big challenges, to try and engage football fans in Australian football in the same way that they’re engaging with European football. And I’m hoping that if we can bring our level of detail up to the same sort of standards that fans are seeing overseas, then hopefully that will help them to switch on to the local game.

MVC

In terms of coverage beyond matchdays, are there plans to produce content that dives deeper into Australian football and its various stakeholders (clubs, fans, players)?

Geoff Bullock: Definitely. I think part of the strategy that we’ve been talking about is not taking Australian football fans for granted. Basically, bringing our coverage up to the standard that they’d expect. We want to give them the experience that they deserve based off their level of intellectual buy-in to the game.

Young fans here in Australia commit very heavily. You just look at the hours they have to stay up at night to watch these teams overseas. They’re committed to learning about these teams that aren’t even on their doorstep.

I think we need to match that in our level of commitment to them to be able to deliver that. With the APL we’ll be delivering features and exclusive content across broadcast, digital and social media platforms that will give them that detail of the local game – both the A-League Men’s and Women’s – that will allow them to basically have that same sort of intellectual connection that they should have. Because these are the clubs that are actually here and that means they can support them in the stands week-in week-out.

Fans here in Australia can get so much closer to the stars of these teams, like they’re far more accessible than they are in any other league. The access for these fans is so much different to what it is for some stars overseas and that’s what we want to encourage. We want fans to know that they’re amongst their heroes at these clubs.

World Cup qualifiers

Australian football has undoubtedly seen some rollercoaster times in recent years. Why do you believe now is a critical time for 10 Viacom CBS to get involved in football?

Geoff Bullock: It’s ridden a few waves that’s for sure. We all know it’s had its ups and downs based on national team performance and marquee players in the league, but it’s never really had a long-term sustained period of growth. Particularly over the last couple of years the popularity of the competitions has dropped off.

So, I think the timing of a longer-term broadcast deal with free-to-air exposure really couldn’t have come at a better time. And the fact that that deal has come along at the same time as the unbundling of the A-League from Football Australia (FA), it should provide clubs with a bit of confidence to invest further in the game and hopefully that’ll provide a better, more marketable product. Not only whistle-to-whistle but off the pitch as well.

I think there’s now an opportunity, like there never really has before, for the clubs to back themselves and have a crack. And maybe we’re starting to see that with Perth Glory getting Daniel Sturridge on board, which is a huge boost.

There’s always a bit of a knock-on effect when you’ve got these big stars signing for a club and suddenly there’s clubs looking over their shoulder not wanting to be left behind. The building blocks are there for a really exciting season, and with a number of clubs with spots to fill hopefully they follow the lead that the Glory have taken and they have a go.

Daniel Sturridge

How can 10 Viacom CBS help to capitalise on interest and grow women’s football leading into and following the 2023 Women’s World Cup?

Geoff Bullock: It’s exceptionally exciting. The World Cup is going to be massive here in Australia. But the one thing we always know in Australia about having a tournament on home soil is that people get behind it. We saw how Australia embraced the Asian Cup back in 2015. Particularly with a lot of Asian teams we don’t traditionally get behind. So with a World Cup it’s going to be even bigger.

The women’s game is really important to us. I think everybody is aware in Australia it is the fastest growing asset within football. And we’re going to treat A-League Women’s exactly the same as we treat the Men’s. The same sort of program will be structured around each game. Our best commentators and experts will work across both competitions, so you’ll hear Simon Hill calling A-League Women’s matches as well as A-League Men’s.

We’re massively excited about the Matildas returning to play some games on home soil in October. But we’ll also be tracking it because we’ve got the Women’s Asian Cup starting in January early next year. And we’ll have programming around those games and that competition which will be hosted in India, so the kick-off times will be pretty decent for an Australian audience. So, it might really work well with the A-League still going on here. In that period, it will be a frenzy of football which is pretty exciting.

WWC 2023

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