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 Dreams of glory and professionalism have been replaced by one overriding focus: survival.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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