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Homeless and left for the Wolves

Hard times ... the abandoned demountable building at Lysaghts Oval still features the Wolves badge.NOT so long ago, Wollongong Wolves were on top of the world. On their way to Spain for the 2001 FIFA Club World Cup as newly minted champions of Oceania, and defending champions of Australia. Now they are living out of a suitcase, relying on the largesse of a few committed individuals. Penniless and homeless. Dreams of glory and professionalism have been replaced by one overriding focus: survival. Even in the context of the notorious boom-bust cycle of football in this country, it has been a staggering fall from grace.
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How it came to this is another cautionary tale of the enduring vulnerability of football, a game that continues to arouse suspicion and derision in equal measures from the established sporting status quo, and their boosters in public office who hand out the cheques. Caught in the familiar pincer movement of vested interests, the team - now rebadged as South Coast Wolves - had a target on its back. Trouble is, it didn't know it. And those firing the arrows, didn't miss.

The Wolves are down, and almost out, because they gave away their home on the premise they would be given somewhere to move to in its place. That was a decade ago, and it still hasn't happened. There has been a glimmer of hope offered in the past few days, but that is all it is. A $3 million plan to upgrade J.J. Kelly Park at Coniston has been proposed. Believe it when you see it.

In truth, the Wolves have not always helped themselves. It was the decision of a group of former directors (see separate story) not to on-sell their club a new home at Figtree. Fate did not help either. FIFA's decision to cancel the 2001 Club World Cup at the last moment cost the club an estimated $4.5 million in lost revenue. But the strongest undercurrent to their plight is a familiar one: rugby league working with local authorities to exploit an opportunity at the expense of football. What is happening to another fallen giant, Sydney Olympic, in the battle for Belmore is happening to the Wolves, only much worse. Don't think it's a coincidence.

''Soccer's never had the same sort of status down here as rugby league,'' Rod Oxley, a former general manager of Wollongong City Council, says. ''Rugby league has been more of a passion in this region. Soccer has never been able to get the same level of community support, or corporate support.

''Rugby league does have strong influence at government level.

''There's definitely a strong rivalry between the codes. And they [rugby league] do jealously guard their territory. They would see that simply as part of doing business.''

Doing business has cost the Wolves plenty. Four years ago, they were on death row. Even now, they are still on life support. This is the club that gave us Scott Chipperfield, helped produce the likes of Luke Wilkshire and Mile Sterjovski, and blessed us with perhaps the greatest grand final of any code, the 2000 epic in front of 40,000 astonished fans in Perth.

None of that counted for much when larger forces were at work two years later, just after the Wolves had been crowned back-to-back National Soccer League champions. The downward spiral started in 2002, when the Wolves were strong-armed into leaving their much-loved home ground of Brandon Park when they had nowhere else to go. Illawarra Premier League side Wollongong Olympic - who occupied a smaller ''stadium'' at Brandon Park - were also convinced to leave. A decade on, neither club has found a new home. Instead, rugby league occupies Lysaghts Oval, where both clubs were supposed to end up, and WIN Stadium, where the Wolves were initially supposed to go.

Conspiracy theories? You bet. Even Oxley, who was a central figure in the process at the time, admits the obvious. When it is suggested that what happened to the football clubs would not have happened if it had been rugby league, he replies: ''That's probably a fair assessment.''

The best evidence of the Wolves' spectacular demise can be found at Lysaghts Oval, in suburban Figtree. There is a grandstand being reconstructed which once belonged to the Wolves. The floodlights did too. But not the posts. It will not be the Wolves moving in when the venue is finally ready early next year. It will be Collegians rugby league team, who gazumped a bid by Football South Coast and bought the site for $1.7 million. The only clue to what might have been is a derelict demountable behind the grandstand, partly hidden by a pile of mulch. If you look hard enough, you can see the Wolves logo next to the smashed front door. This is where the club was supposed to be reborn. Instead it has had the door slammed in its face.

The grandstand now being renovated is a particularly emotive symbol for one man. John Vlietstra was a key foot soldier when the Wolves were formed in 1980 to represent this proud, talent-rich football region. A year later, the Wolves were in the NSL, playing at Wollongong Showground and then Corrimal before they arrived at the promised land, Brandon Park, in 1988.

It was a rudimentary place, a hill built from coal-wash on one side, and the shell of a grandstand on the other. But it was home. ''We didn't care what it looked like; the main thing was it was ours,'' Vlietstra says.

It was Vlietstra and peers such as Jack Zanier who laboured long and hard to fill in the gaps with a bar and club room, and corporate suites, and seats, and commentary boxes. Built into the brickwork - most of it donated - were individual plaques for life members. Vlietstra was one of them. With the security of a 20-year lease, turning Brandon Park into a modern stadium became a labour of love. ''There was never any shortage of people prepared to put something into it,'' Vlietstra says. ''The spirit in those days was something very special. It was all about creating a club.''

Socceroos such as David Ratcliffe, Charlie Yankos and John Filan were drawn to the project. Trevor Francis, Paul Mariner and Alan Brazil showed up as guest players thanks to the generosity of the television entrepeneur Harry Michaels. There was a minor premiership in 1988, a 10,000-plus crowd for a semi-final against Sydney United, a Socceroos game in 1996. The Wolves were building something on the field, and all the time Brandon Park was being improved, step-by-step, to match those ambitions. But then everything changed.

Wollongong University wanted to create an innovation campus, and Brandon Park was chosen as the site. At the same time, the Illawarra Steelers wanted to improve WIN Stadium. The trust that administered both venues needed the Wolves to come back to the showground as co-tenants to justify government funding. Both the Wolves and Olympic had leases until 2008, but they were lured away on false pretences. Everyone, bar the two football clubs, got what they wanted.

Oxley, then running the council, but also working on behalf of the university, says: ''If the Wolves had dug their toes in, it would have been a very difficult situation to manage. They had some legal entitlement. If they had not agreed to vacate, the innovation campus would have been delayed. But the Wolves did agree. They did it for the right reasons, and they did it on the promise they would have got a new home. I guess you could say soccer was the casualty in the process.''

That is an understatement. Vlietstra still goes to watch the Wolves in a borrowed ground at Cringila. It's not the same. ''I'm proud, very proud, of what we achieved,'' he says. ''Do I feel cheated? Absolutely. Every time I go past Brandon Park, I get tears in my eyes. It's not right.''

Oxley insists, despite what transpired, the relocation plan was done in good faith. ''The Wolves have a right to feel disappointed, but I don't think cheated is the right word,'' he says. ''They've lost their way because they've lost their leadership.''

Not because they've lost their ground? ''That's an element to it, yes.''

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Taylor could still get nod for revised board

FORMER Test captain Mark Taylor could yet be one of three independent directors appointed to Cricket Australia's new, modernised board following a landmark moment in the governance of Australian cricket.
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CA hailed the reforms adopted at yesterday's extraordinary general meeting - a smaller, nine-person board comprising six state-appointed directors and three independents - as the most significant since its foundation 107 years ago.

It has committed to a fully independent board within three years. The new structure gives each state an equal voice in the running of Australian cricket for the first time, and heralds a huge leap forward from the parochialism and self-interest that has thrived around the board table as a result of the outdated delegate system.

The six directors who kept their jobs were determined by their state associations and they are chairman Wally Edwards, South Australia's John Bannon, Victorian Earl Eddings, Harry Harinath from NSW, former Queensland and Test fast bowler Michael Kasprowicz and Tasmania's Tony Harrison.

Taylor is one of eight CA directors who relinquished their positions but if he resigns as a director of Cricket NSW it is believed he has a strong chance of returning to the top echelons of Australian cricket as an independent director.

Edwards, who joined the board as a West Australian delegate 16 years ago and has driven the changes in response to the Crawford-Carter governance review, described a ''long, hard slog'' towards change. South Australia, which along with Victoria and NSW had three votes under the old system, was the last state to fall into line.

''Today all states are equal in terms of votes,'' Edwards said.

''We've moved an enormous amount of distance. I've been on the board 16 years and we've had three previous attempts to try and get some equity and we haven't been able to move past the initial debate. This time we have come right through that debate and we've had states give up rights, and that has been a terrific thing for the game.''

''Australian cricket needs a governance that the modern sport deserves as a highly professional, major player in the global sport and entertainment arena.

''The outgoing governance served the sport well, as our long-term record in community participation, on-field international performance, and winning a place as a part of our national identity over the decades shows. But we are no longer a group of stand-alone states seeking to collectively organise international cricket matches - we are increasingly thinking and acting as one unified national sport facing increasing competition for the public's attention and support.''

He added that there was ''strong potential'' for one of the initial three independent directors to be a woman. They will be decided by a high-powered committee, including the former BHP Billiton chairman Don Argus, author of the landmark review that prompted a radical overhaul of Australian cricket's selection, coaching and pay structures.

The new board is to take effect from the AGM on October 25.

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Long march back from the brink

JACKSON Garlick was a five-year-old when he rode on the shoulders of his father Sean in Sydney's biggest peace-time rally to protest the expulsion of the Rabbitohs from the NRL.
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A few months ago, his father watched proudly as Jackson made his debut for South Sydney's Toyota Cup team. "It's hard to believe he was there with me that day and now he's playing in the under 20s," Garlick said. "It makes you feel so proud."

Souths back-rower Jason Clark was also among the 80,000 people who marched from Redfern Oval to Sydney Town Hall, where speakers such as Phil Gould, Andrew Denton and Alan Jones joined Rabbitohs patriarch George Piggins in declaring war on News Ltd over the decision.

Now Clark is on the verge of playing in only Souths' second finals campaign since 1989, and possibly the club's first premiership team in 41 years.

"My dad and I … we went through the march," Clark said. "I loved every bit of it and I am glad just to be able to say that I was there.

"To think that South Sydney could be in a grand final, I think the streets would be red and green for a long time to come."

That is what people such as Sean Garlick, who was club captain when Souths were kicked out of the NRL at the end of the 1999 season, current chairman Nicholas Pappas - the lawyer who dared to take on the might of the Murdoch empire - and, of course, Piggins, fought so hard for.

"Mate, it will be a bigger party than when Sydney had the Olympics if Souths were to win," said Peter Basha, who was the life-long fan seen jumping for joy with his wife Anali in footage of the moment it was announced on July 6, 2001 that the Rabbitohs had won their court battle for reinstatement.

"I reckon the whole city would have to go into lockdown. What a great story that would be."

For Russell Crowe, who along with Peter Holmes a Court owns 75 per cent of Souths, the story of how the Rabbitohs have gone from being kicked out of the competition to now being on the cusp of winning it would make a better script than any movie he has starred in.

Even without much recent on-field success, Souths are the sole Sydney club to produce an operating profit, are second only to Brisbane in membership numbers (22,000) and are set to announce new two-year sponsorship deals with DeLonghi and Kenwood that will take the value of the Rabbitohs jersey to $2.6 million.

Yet if News Ltd had got its way, the NRL's oldest club would be extinct.

Souths were the only club not included in any form - including a merger or relocation - in News Ltd's original Super League proposal and, once it was agreed to reduce the number of teams to 14 as part of the compromise with ARL to reunite the two competitions, the Rabbitohs had no hope.

"When it was announced on October 30, 1999 - I still remember the date - there was this absolute sense of disbelief and a real sickening feeling in the stomach that maybe it was all over," Pappas said.

"But we realised that we either took them on or we put the jersey in the case, so we decided to battle on and that was very much motivated by George's resilient character."

Garlick added: "It was exasperation, it was futility, it was what else do you do.

''When you march in the streets, it is because you have got to the end of your tether. But to get so many people was a real vindication of what we were doing, and the supporters weren't just from Souths. They were from Newcastle, they were from Parramatta and they were from rugby league areas that just fundamentally disagreed with what was going on."

Among those who marched on November 14, 2000 was Souths great and former NSW sports minister Michael Cleary.

"I thought it was the end, I thought there was no chance," Cleary said. "I really thought that George, with all of his dedication, was wasting his time but when he put that march on to Sydney Town Hall, and so many people turned up, I thought something is going to happen out of this.

"I thought News Ltd will just have to bend, they couldn't stay in the way of that sort of determination to get Souths back into the competition."

Basha was also at the rally, which drew a bigger crowd than the protests at the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam government, and he recalls two seasons when he did not have a team to support.

"I honestly didn't follow the footy for two years," he said. "I wasn't interested and I wouldn't buy any Murdoch papers. I used to drive around with The Sydney Morning Herald on my dashboard just to show my defiance. A lot of people felt the same way and I knew that public sentiment would get us back in."

However, winning reinstatement was just the beginning of another battle the Rabbitohs have had to overcome to get where they are now.

Fans who the Herald spoke to for this story all said they had expected success to come much quicker but, with just months to prepare for the 2002 season, no players and no money left from the costly court battle, Souths were always going to struggle.

"You can never over-estimate the impact that exclusion from a competition for two years, and a very draining court battle, has on a sporting club," Pappas said.

"Despite the help that Phil Gould and others gave us to field a team and scrape together the best we could find, we knew that 2002 and 2003 were going to be very challenging years on and off the field.

"In fact, I remember saying to Andrew Denton and Michael Whitney that maybe the battle was only just starting - in the sense that it was going to be very draining for everyone and was going to produce tensions that no one wanted after the euphoria of victory in the courts."

Those tensions are still there, as evidenced by the letter Piggins wrote to Souths supporters, which was published in The Sun-Herald last Sunday, in which he accused Crowe and Holmes a Court of using private investigators to spy on him in the lead-up to the historic members' vote in 2006 that gave the pair control of the club.

Piggins, who has not attended a game since, was staunchly opposed to the privatisation of the club, which occurred after a boardroom compromise with Pappas three years earlier in which he relinquished his role as chairman.

"My longer term vision at the time was to look at ways of getting some form of private investment into the club, but getting the club on a stable footing first, which we did over 2003, 2004 and 2005," Pappas said.

"There was also a vision of de-politicising the club.

''We realised that the cycle of annual meetings was so hotly contested that it took everyone's eye off the main game."

That game is winning an elusive 21st premiership and, since Crowe and Holmes a Court took over, Souths' aim has been to rank consistently in the top-four NRL clubs - both on and off the field.

"We want success on the field and most of the planning we have done is to ensure that we are able to capitalise on it when it comes and we are in a good space to do that," Souths chief executive Shane Richardson said. "We do have the big end of town, and we have got the sponsors tied up for the next couple of years on our jersey, which is probably the most profitable in the game, and our membership is only second to Brisbane.

"We passed 22,000 last week and, over the next three years, we want to get to 35,000.

"But you don't jump from habitual wooden spooners to where we are over night.

"It involves the changing of the roster, the changing of the guard and the building of a winning mentality. We were terrible, then we became poor, then we became average and then we became competitive.

"The next step is to become top four. If you are a top four club every year, you are a chance of winning the premiership."

Pappas was reluctant to describe what winning the premiership would be like, but he said: "We have a whole generation that don't know success.

''It has been a long time and our kids need another round of success. We believe that if we are consistently in the top four, a premiership will come.''

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Let’s remember who real victim was here

JAMES Michael Owen and Max Demain made news on opposite sides of the globe this week. Both are six-year-old boys. One, James, will not be going to football matches in Britain; the other will not be overly keen on going to football matches in Australia.
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James Michael Owen is the son of Michael James Owen, the former Liverpool, Real Madrid, Newcastle United and Manchester United footballer. Owen said he would not take his son, or his three daughters, to the football in his own country. ''Like it or not, a football ground isn't the most pleasant of places in the world,'' Owen said. ''I certainly wouldn't take my kids to watch a match.''

Max Demain experienced some of that unpleasantness this week.

He was about to take the field for the Mt Annan Mustangs under-6s at half-time during a trial between Sydney FC and Macarthur Rams at Campbelltown, when he was hit by a projectile thrown during a fight between spectators.

What followed was slightly predictable, but still perplexing.

Running parallel to the discussion about the violence was the debate about the media's portrayal of it. Many expressed outrage at the actions of the spectators involved in the fight. Some, though, claimed it was a ''beat-up'', which is not only an unfortunate double-entendre but also an unfortunate reaction.

For while football in England and elsewhere can still prosper without James Michael Owen or many other children at their games, the A-League can't afford too many young fans or young families deciding the sport many children play because it is less violent on the field than its rugby cousins is too violent to watch as a spectator.

Football is the biggest sport in the world by some stretch, but it can be a rather odd thing in this country: insular and with an inferiority complex to rival that of Doug Pitt, the brother of Brad.

Some months ago, when I expressed reservations about the timing of the Western Sydney franchise's entry into the A-League, some bemoaned the fact that someone who is not one of ''our own'' was writing about the sport.

Surely the more people discussing a sport the better.

That depends to some extent on the subject, which brings us to this week's negative headlines.

In the days after the match, revered journalist George Negus said the media needed to ''show a bit of perspective'' in its reporting of Tuesday's trial, calling it an ''opportunity to put violence and soccer in the same headline''. His comments were echoed elsewhere. Yet in claiming some sections of the media needed to show some perspective, he lost some perspective. A six-year-old boy was hit in the head.

To be fair, he deserves some perspective himself to his comments; Negus would have seen football being tarnished by newsrooms across the country before, during the bad old days when violence was far more widespread.

He not only has first-hand knowledge of the media's obsession with violence in football but also is a passionate football man. He would have seen other sports treated differently, and the headlines of this week would no doubt have hurt him. But diverting the focus from the real issue is counterproductive.

Other sports and organisations have been victimised and have complained loudly, such as the NRL's Bulldogs, after small sections of the club's supporter base was intent on causing trouble on trains and in the grandstands. Some of the coverage was sensationalised, while some was more measured. But it was not until the club focused on eliminating the problem element that they were rewarded.

Racism and violence at one-day cricket has been the controversy du jour before.

Thankfully, A-League officials seem intent not on blaming the media for blowing the incident out of proportion, but on ensuring that the negative press is not repeated.

''I thought this sort of stuff had been eliminated long ago,'' Sydney FC's chief executive, Tony Pignata, said. ''It's just not acceptable. We have mums and kids going to our games. We have to stamp this sort of behaviour out and stamp it out now.''

Any assertion that this was not a serious incident is surely not helpful. Isolated, certainly, but insignificant? Directing the debate towards the media's role is an own goal with far more dire consequences than the one by Socceroos debutant Jason Davidson.

The Socceroos have helped lift the profile of football significantly in recent years. The A-League has done similarly. But with an unfortunate incident marring, at least briefly, the work that the game has done to sweep the violence out of the grandstands, football needs to be careful that it doesn't sweep the real issue under the carpet, thinking it has been victimised once again.

A six-year-old boy has every right to feel he was a victim here, but football itself? Just as some supporters need to grow up, so does the sport itself. When that happens, our game can become everyone's game.

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Bombers brace for payback

Essendon's Sam Lonergan tackles Carlton's Marc Murphy when the teams met in round four this year.SAM Lonergan is tough enough to handle any attempts at retribution, says Essendon coach James Hird, and Carlton has promised to play a more physical brand of football than the day Andrew Carrazzo's shoulder blade was fractured in a Lonergan drive tackle that enraged the Blues.
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Carrazzo's teammate, Marc Murphy, set the scene for an explosive sequel to the round-four match between Essendon and Carlton when the day after Carrazzo's injury he said: ''I'm looking forward to playing Essendon next time.''

Now that the moment has arrived, there is even more at stake - Carlton's finals hopes depend on it and an Essendon loss would seriously imperil the Bombers' hopes of remaining in the top eight.

While the Blues contend the importance of this afternoon's MCG clash to its season overshadows any ill-feeling from the Lonergan incident, the Bombers are prepared for a backlash.

''It's up to them whether they want to put fireworks on the table,'' Hird said. ''We want to go out and play the game and play some really good football.

''We think we've got some good, hard footballers and if they want to take on Sam Lonergan, then good luck to them. He's as tough as there is on the football field. He can certainly look after himself.''

Carlton did not lodge an official complaint about the Lonergan tackle and he was not cited by the match review panel.

''There's a lot of water gone under the bridge since round four. We have been in an elimination situation for a couple of weeks and this is another one against arch rivals,'' Carlton assistant coach Mark Riley said yesterday. ''They played a certain way last time and good on them and we think we should be a bit better than that.''

Pressed on whether the Blues would be carrying any lingering resentment, Riley said: ''We're about looking forward and they played a physical brand of football and we didn't, and our game is physical.''

Essendon has four important players back, with the midfield set to benefit from the return of Brent Stanton and David Zaharakis. The Bombers also regain ruckman and forward Paddy Ryder for the first time since round 15 and defender Cale Hooker.

The Blues have a decent ''in'' of their own, as captain Chris Judd has completed his four-match suspension for his chicken-wing tackle. They need to win their last three games to have a hope of finals, and have studied the tactical reasons, as well as the physical ones, for Essendon's five-goal win in round four.

''They took us up the ground and left a lot of space behind and we fell for that and they did crowd our end,'' Riley said. ''That has happened a few times to us and we think we have adapted reasonably well on occasions to that style of football against us.''

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