Keeping the Spirit alive

by John Davidson on Jun 27, 2012

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The Northern Spirit was a bold and short-lived NSL experiment that formed a prototype for A-League clubs and still exists in some form today.

Northern Spirit FC was founded in 1997 as a NSL club billed to be ‘mainstream’ club – not aligned with one particular ethnic group. It was based in North Sydney, playing mainly out of North Sydney Oval in its seven-year existence, and had early success.

It recruited strongly in its first year, with Socceroos Graham Arnold and Robbie Slater as coach and captain, and as a result made the finals. Crowds were strong with 15,000 in regular attendance and football – soccer in those days – converted many from the north side of the Harbour Bridge who weren’t fans of the beautiful game.

Despite its bright start and early promise, the Spirit dream was too good to be true. The club faced financial and ownership problems from the beginning, with a Malaysian group selling off to Crystal Palace owner Mark Goldberg, who then sold to a group of players including Arnold, Slater and Ian Crook. They later sold off to Glasgow Rangers, who in February this year entered administration, who finally offloaded it to Antonio Gelonesi.

The financial dilemmas continued for Spirit, followed by changes of home ground and club colours as well as flashes of crowd trouble and tenancy problems at North Sydney Oval, until it finally went under in 2004. This was of course just before the NSL itself was axed.

Its lifespan was short, its success small and fleeting, but Northern Spirit did have a sizeable impact on the local football scene. It helped pave the way for a new type of mainstream Australian football club, which eventually took shape in the A-League, utilized the concept of the marquee player and gave a football-poor area its first proper taste of what the sport could offer.

The Central Coast Mariners could be dubbed “Northern Spirit 2” for their early connection to the former NSL franchise. In season one of the A-League the Mariners had ex-Spirit members Lawrie McKinna and Ian Ferguson as manager and coach. The Mariners also had a huge amount of former Spirit players in their ranks – Alex Wilkinson, John Hutchinson, Adam Kwasnik, Alex Tobin and Noel Spencer among others. This would continue in further seasons with ex-Spirit stars Paul Henderson, Dylan Macallister, Phil Moss and Graham Arnold joining the Central Coast as players and coaches. In many ways Northern Spirit has been reborn and shifted 60km up the F3 in the shape of the Mariners.

Another positive of the Spirit experiment is the large number of players, including many future Socceroos, who learned their trade at the club. Spirit was the first professional club current Socceroos Brett Holman and Mark Milligan played at, and the first club current Mariners coach Arnold coached at. It was where ex-Socceroo brothers and current Newcastle Jets and Sydney FC pair, Ryan and Adam Griffiths, got their first start in professional football.

It was also where current Newcastle and Sydney head coaches Gary van Egmond and Ian Crook had their first coaching stints. Many past, previous and future Socceroos graced the Spirit colours at one point – Clayton Zane, Robert Trajkovski, Pablo Cardoza, Gabriel Mendez, Robert Enes, Matthew Bingley, Abbas Saad – and others secured moves overseas from their time in the red, gold and blue.

Today they are media pundits and rivals, but both ex-Socceroos Craig Foster and Robbie Slater finished their careers at Northern Spirit.

The Northern Spirit shone brightly, ever so briefly, but should be remembered for the role it has played in the evolution of football in this country.