Vaughan Coveny: How the NSL bred elite players, coaches, and administrators

Recently, George Vasilopoulos and Peter Abraam spoke with Soccerscene to explore how the NSL’s community-driven model became a production-line for elite sporting administrators and commercially thriving clubs.

With the prospect of a future National Second Division gaining traction, the revival of the community model in Australia’s topflight may once again become a reality.

To continue the conversation, South Melbourne legend Vaughan Coveny joined the returning Vasilopoulos to share his experiences from a player’s perspective and provide his insights into the club’s culture of success, both on and off the park.

“I was playing at Wollongong and Frank Arok was manager at the time. South Melbourne was one of the biggest clubs in the country at the time and everybody wanted to go there. I was honoured to get the call,” Coveny recalls.

“What made the club so successful was the high expectations and standards set by everybody. It wasn’t just one factor or one superstar player, but the whole club. That drive for success and high level of standards filters down. It’s how these big clubs create that aura about them.”

The Kiwi would go on to make almost 300 senior appearances for South Melbourne over three stints, scoring more than 100 goals.

“Initially, Frank (Arok) was there with Ange (Postecoglou) as his assistant. We had a young squad. Frank was a bit older and experienced, he had coached Australia and just oozed enthusiasm and love for the game which rubbed off on the players,” Coveny said.

The forward scored more than 100 goals for South Melbourne FC.

“He got a lot out of that younger group and was responsible for developing a lot of those players to eventually play for the Socceroos.”

Coveny himself would go onto become the record goal scorer for the New Zealand national team, while many others forged successful careers domestically and abroad.

Although Arok inspired and nurtured the young playing group, he departed in 1996, leading to the appointment of his assistant – at the time untried head coach, Ange Postecoglou.

For George Vasilopoulos, Former South Melbourne FC President (1989-2002), there was plenty of pressure to make the correct decision but ultimately, he decided the best approach was to promote from within rather than seek an external candidate.

“It was risky, as he was seen as a very young man for the job. There was a lot of resistance from board level but at the time I was happy to take the risk given his character and knowledge,” Vasilopoulos said.

“I remember that we lost a number of games to start the season and people were convinced it was the wrong choice. Many people wanted to sack him, but I was there in 1979 when the club finished last and the reason for that is that we sacked three coaches. I learned a lot of lessons from that period, good and bad. I knew we needed to stick by him.”

“In those days I would attend every training session and spend every weekend with the players, travelling to games and in the dressing rooms. I had an extremely close relationship with the group. They would tell me that he was the right man for the job, and it was them, not the coach causing the poor results.”

Coveny experienced this period first-hand and was part of the squad that ultimately went onto achieve great success under Ange Postecoglou.

After a disappointing 1996 season where South finished 8th, the club would make a preliminary final before winning back-to-back championships in 1998 and 1999.

“When Ange took over, he brought his own style. A different style and philosophy to Frank. He had a great team to work with and because he (Postecoglou) was a previous player, he knew exactly what it meant to win championships,” Coveny said.

The club’s talented group drove the team’s on-field success and this further built the strong relationship the players and coaches shared with the fans.

Like many other football clubs throughout Australia, South Melbourne’s fanbase was, and continues to be, entrenched in the city’s migrant community.

This is something Vasilopoulos believes contributed to the tightknit atmosphere which promoted inclusion and ultimately led to a large supporter base made up of people willing to invest time and money back into the club.

“Football promotes diversity. When I started following the club in the 1960s it was vital for bringing people together. A lot of people who arrived in Australia at the time not knowing the language or customs had a common interest to focus on,” Vasilopoulos recalled fondly.

“This wasn’t just for Greek people but for all of the people in the area who supported the club. It was a place for people to get away from politics and work and come together for the love of football.”

For the players, this commercial success during the 1990s led to many benefits. From elite training facilities to world class infrastructure, the lucrative sponsorship dollars were heavily reinvested into the club and its personnel.

Coveny remains New Zealand’s record goal scorer.

“I played my first game when Bob Jane Stadium opened. I remember we lost against West Adelaide, but there were 16,000 people at the ground.”

“That’s why the players want to go to the best clubs. We had great fans, but also the best facilities and the best of everything. As a player, it encourages you to develop and excel.”

“Club sponsors are so valuable to clubs. At the time, our sponsors and supporters were very generous. If players or staff were producing on the field, we got the best of everything. This translated to contract negotiations, where players at most of the clubs were well looked after. Without the sponsors and the fans, that revenue simply wouldn’t have been there,” Coveny said.

The success of the club during this period, commercially and on-field, was founded on a community model where passionate fans and administrators contributed their time and money. Although this led to the club becoming a powerhouse of Australian sport during the 1990s and early 2000s, the sporting landscape has largely changed. Today, many argue whether this will governance style would translate to the modern era where privatisation rules and clubs rely on the investment and influence of their owners.

Coveny, who now works as Head of Football at Essendon Royals, is hopeful but somewhat pessimistic that at the community-driven model can translate to today’s elite sporting environment.

“I think it’s a lot harder these days. It could work but now you need the resources and facilities. In football, we always struggle for grounds and funding and often have to share facilities with other sports,” he said.

“It may be achievable, but it would need a lot of work and people and clubs would have to work extremely hard to make it happen.”

Nike Pacific Brand Director Nick Atkinson: “We have so much equity and history to elevate women’s sport”

Nick Atkinson

Before becoming Brand Director of Nike Pacific – an organisation he’s been part of since 2015 – Nick Atkinson knew very early on that he’d be working in football.

Growing up in Wales of the UK, he was brought up through the school, college and university system that paved the way for his passion to come to life.

From starting off with his first training session at Wick Dynamos in West Sussex, football has been a consistent part of his life.

In this interview with Soccerscene, Nick discusses his role of Brand Director in more detail, Nike’s involvement with the Matildas, working with Sam Kerr and giving back to the grassroots level.

As Brand Director, can you outline your role in helping promote football?

Nick Atkinson: I’ve been involved with Nike since 2015 and even before becoming part of the swoosh family, football has very much been something I am deeply passionate about.

I remember during the final round of my job interview for Nike, I was asked why I wanted to join the team. I didn’t give a great answer, but I had said that I wanted to work on a brand that propelled the game of football and had close ties to the World Cup. And I feel that my love for the game really shined in that moment.

Since taking up the role I’ve been fortunate to be part of so many firsts – seeing how football can uniquely unite and inspire people and nations.

With Nike’s level of global impact, I am aware of the responsibility and part I play in shaping how our athletes are seen, and leading this work on home soil has been a dream.

The Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand for example, was a major project that I led. It was Nike Pacific’s most significant investment in a sporting moment yet – from unmissable out-of-home, a world-first tiktokumentory, football accelerator legacy programs to the first female football-led retail door – the Dream Arena.

I’m immensely proud of what we, as a team, achieved to build a better game for all. It makes all the work we do behind-the-scenes so satisfying when we know it means that the next-gen athletes will have new-found heroes to look up to.

On a local level, after personally playing eight to nine seasons in Victoria’s state and metro leagues, I knew I wanted to get Nike involved as there was so much potential for impact at that level.

Seeing so much success in the sport both at the domestic and international level is a true highlight.

Nike proudly sponsor the Matildas; how do you reflect on FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023?

Nick Atkinson: I’ve worked with both our national teams (Matildas and Socceroos) for many years and have had so many amazing moments – I even remember a free-kick competition with Brett Emerton and Mark Bresciano in 2016 on ANZ Stadium!

If you look at the Socceroos performance in 2022, you can say it’s the ‘greatest assist’ before the 2023 Women’s World Cup because they had set that benchmark for performance and awareness across the country and reignited football.

This year’s tournament has undeniably been a generational moment for sport and culture, having the global tournament on home soil and the home team of the Matildas was the moment to accelerate sport into the future – we know sport creates change, and this was the largest accelerator of women’s sport and culture for the next five years.

The Matildas post tournament are now household names and have shown the world the power of women’s sport. From record-breaking crowds, jersey sales and viewership – the Matildas continue to inspire us all with their captivating performances and genuine love for each other, their fellow athletes and the game.

It felt like it’s been a while coming, but we saw the nation finally galvanise and get behind our national teams – and without a doubt, we’ll look back on the 2020’s as the greatest decade of women’s sport.

Living and breathing football in both my professional and personal life, I can say that we’ve got such a unique Australian football identity. We’re in arguably the most dynamic period that Australian football has ever seen and we’ve opened the sport up to the most diverse audience, which is so exciting and refreshing.

What did you make of user/social media engagement throughout the World Cup – was there anything significant you or your team saw in relation to aspects like shirt sales?

Nick Atkinson: We started working on our plans almost the day after the bid win got announced, so we were 100% ready going into the Women’s World Cup.

We have so much equity and history to elevate women’s sport at Nike, so this wasn’t new for us and has been a journey we’ve been on for a very long time.

When you look at a Matildas match, it is so different compared to the Socceroos. For example, lots of school trips and big groups of young fans, so that is really amazing.

One of the things that we anticipated was going to happen, was the emergence of new voices wrapped around this game. We knew this moment would be successful because it opened opportunities to grow and nurture these new voices in the game. That was one of the rewarding elements, to see different sections of the media and social platforms emerging to give us a new and youthful perspective on the sport.

Our partnership with TikTok saw the creation of 1000 Victories – one of the most successful pieces of media that we worked on through the Women’s World Cup.

This was co-created with a young generation of fans who emerged with a point of view on football and women’s sport. That enriched the game and really took it to new heights, making it bigger and more diverse and gives people a bunch of ways to be involved.

Sam Kerr is hugely popular in Australia and overseas – what was it like building her brand campaign?

Nick Atkinson: It’s been amazing, this is something I’ve personally worked on for a really long time, I’ve enjoyed and am so proud of.

It’s not only Sam but the whole group that we’ve had a relationship with for so long now and that has allowed us to get to know who they are as individuals as well as athletes.

To build a brand plan, you do need to have that full understanding of a person or team to work out how to best approach it.

I placed Sam in her first brand campaign for Nike in 2017 for the launch of the Mercurial Superfly 360 boots. That was at a time where she had just came off winning a Golden Boot in the NWSL and we knew at that point, we had a superstar on the rise.

We featured her in the launch campaign for the boots using billboards and the like, as well as an athlete experience at Rebel. We had an incredible turnout, not only from supporters but across the entire community.

At that time, it was clear that Sam had that star power to take her even further which proved to be the case. Fast Forward and she’s shared a few Mercs with Cristiano Ronaldo and Kylian Mbappe.

I’ve had the privilege to get to know Sam over the many years of collaboration and it has helped us build a strong, authentic platform and brand around her journey.

There’s nothing that we believe in more at Nike than listening to the voice of the athlete and doing work that resonates with them – such as their values and beliefs, and what they stand for. An example of this is something we’ve always told Sam, “We’ll get it right on the pitch first and then build from there.”.

The journey has been amazing and to be part of that is truly special. Our goal is to support Sam and build her brand while she’s delivering ground-breaking performances on the pitch and creating an unbreakable connection with fans.

More broadly, at Nike we believe that it’s not a one-person team with the Matildas by any stretch.

We have an incredible roster of athletes across the Matildas such as Elle Carpenter, Steph Catley, Kyah Simon, Alanna Kennedy, Mackenzie Arnold, Hayley Raso and more, and we’re focused on supporting and elevating the whole roster.

Our brand investment in the Women’s World Cup was the single biggest investment we’ve ever made in this country to elevate the team. We were prepared, we started early and I believe played a critical part in connecting the fans and the team.

Matildas brand stories:

All For Tomorrow

Sam Kerr – Flip The Game

Show the World Your Victory

You are also supporting Fitzroy Lions Soccer Club – what is it like switching back to the grassroots level and giving back?

Nick Atkinson: Football would not happen without volunteers at the grassroots level – it’s an area of the game that we really believe in and want to have a positive impact.

I shared my story coming through the UK, starting out in grassroots football, and being one of those kids that had to hustle for rides from other people’s parents, or ride my bike to games with my brother, and wear my boots until they fell apart, I know what a huge enabler it can be for kids.  Getting involved in Fitzroy Lions has been a real personal love of mine.

We’ve been partnered with Fitzroy Lions Soccer Club since 2018 – they are an incredible organisation where many of the kids come from refugee families and football plays a critical role in uniting that community. It’s where you really feel the power of the world game.

Our relationship started simply, going down to training sessions to meet the team and see what they’re about – they are a rare team in Australia that offers a route into structured league football for kids whose parents can’t quite afford it normally, in a sport that can be quite expensive to play. Through the time spent with them, I really got to know the kids and their families.

It was so enriching and an awesome experience where the club simply provides the opportunity for everyone and eliminates those barriers that people face when looking to play.

So many of us at Nike live and work around those communities so it’s a great opportunity to directly support people related to what we do. We’re proud to be part of something like this and seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces when they’re playing on the field is a real highlight in my career.

Excitingly, like many other grassroots clubs, they have seen a 200% increase in girls participating this season which is so encouraging.

In addition, we’re in the fifth year of naming rights for the Nike FC Cup and recently announced the Nike FC Accelerator Program. This is a four-year commitment with Football Victoria to drive gender equity in the sport by increasing the number of female coaches and giving better access to football at The Home of Matildas.

Overall, we want to provide equal opportunities and this is the legacy that Nike wants to leave in the long run to drive the sport forward.

National Second Tier foundation clubs revealed for 2025 start

National Second Tier - Foundation Clubs

Football Australia has officially named the eight foundation clubs to take part in the inaugural National Second Tier (NST) competition from March/April 2025.

The eight clubs match Football Australia’s criteria from a comprehensive process that determined if the clubs were ready to compete in the NST competition, with proposals from each team outlining the role they’ll play for this important step in Australian football.

The inaugural clubs are all based in eastern states, with New South Wales and Victoria boasting five and three teams respectively.

  • APIA Leichhardt FC – Leichhardt, New South Wales
  • Avondale FC – Parkville, Victoria
  • Marconi Stallions FC – Bossley Park, New South Wales
  • Preston Lions FC – Reservoir, Victoria
  • South Melbourne FC – Albert Park, Victoria
  • Sydney Olympic FC – Belmore, New South Wales
  • Sydney United 58 FC – Edensor Park, New South Wales
  • Wollongong Wolves FC – Wollongong, New South Wales

In a statement to media present in Sydney, Football Australia CEO James Johnson shared his delight for today’s confirmation.

“The establishment of the National Second Tier is a transformative step for Australian football, aligning perfectly with our 15-year strategic vision outlined in the XI Principles. It symbolises our commitment to reconnecting the football pyramid and enhancing the competitiveness of our national game,” he said.

“These clubs were chosen following a comprehensive and multi-phased NST Application Process that began in early 2023.

“Each club demonstrated not only their readiness in terms of operational and commercial elements but also their alignment with the strategic objectives of Australian football.

“This is more than just a competition; it’s a cornerstone in our mission to fortify the foundations of our sport. The National Second Tier will be instrumental in nurturing talent, engaging communities, and elevating the overall quality of football across the country.”

The inaugural season of NST will involve home and away matches culminating in a competitive Finals Series.

In early 2024, an additional 2-4 clubs will be considered through a refined application process, opening the floor to clubs outside of Victoria or New South Wales to make it truly national.

At this stage, two competition formats are being considered, but this is based on the successful selection of additional clubs next year:

  • A 10-team competition with two rounds plus a Finals Series, totalling 18 regular season matches.
  • A 12-team competition with two rounds plus a Finals Series, totalling 22 regular season matches.

The NST will be a key component of media rights from 2025 onwards, with a shifting focus to see how promotion and relegation will play a role as the competition evolves.

The upcoming 2024 season will see the eight foundation clubs and prospective new entrants continue to competing in their own Member Federation National Premier Leagues’ competitions, before moving towards a smooth transition to the NST.

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