Geelong has five senior clubs, North Geelong, Geelong, Corio, Geelong Rangers and Bell Park. Each grew out of a particular migrant community, Croatian, Macedonian, Hungarian, Scottish and Italian, though all have tried to varying degrees to attract members from outside that founding group. They all can trace their origins to the post-war migrant boom and no further. Rangers like to point to the Caledonian Shield in their clubrooms which dates from the 1920s but there is no connection between the clubs which played then and the modern one.
For the last two decades the clubs have marked time and managed to survive. In a way that is impressive in itself, since several other teams have disappeared since the war while others are the product of amalgamations and take-overs. This is true of both Corio and Geelong for example. Corio was successively British, German and Italian before the Hungarians from Northern Suburbs took over, while Geelong was British, Italian and Anglo-Irish prior to the Macedonians of East Geelong arriving.
Only one Geelong team, North Geelong, has reached the Victorian Premier League, which it did in 1992, winning the Premiership under coach Branko Culina in its first season in the top division. Since then North has slipped back to Division Two of the State League until this year, when it will return to Division One. Bell Park which challenged North for local bragging rights is now in Division Three of the Provisional League while Corio will play in Division Three of the State League and Geelong Rangers has just been promoted to Division Three where it will join Geelong which was relegated last year. (All subject to changes if there are amalgamations or clubs drop out of leagues).
None of these clubs can survive on their membership fees and gate money. Attendances are often below 100 apart from the Geelong Advertiser Cup pre-season tournament which gets numbers up into the low hundreds. Clubs attract small amounts of local sponsorship and advertising, sell alcohol in their club bars and run interminable fund raisers which often cost almost as much as they bring in. Players in FFV competitions below the level of Division One of the State League are required to be amateurs, which means they can legally get a small payment towards expenses, though some receive brown envelopes in addition from a variety of sources.
North Geelong’s success last season was critically dependent on the attraction of an excellent coach, Robbie Krajacic, a top player with Bulleen, and the return of key members of the 1992 Premiership team and other players who had played in the National Soccer League for the Melbourne Knights or Sydney United, the Cervinski brothers, Mijo Trupkovic and Grgo Saric. This was an expensive process and it will become more so if North seeks to return to the Premier League in future.
So the clubs have a past, but have they a future? The following are some of the arguments as to why they do not.
1 Demographic changes, the end of European migration, means no replenishment of traditional support.
2 The integration of generations of migrants into Australia so that they do not need their soccer clubs as a bridge into the host society.
3 Geographical dispersion. The potential fans of these northern suburbs clubs now live in Lara or Torquay rather than Bell Park and Corio.
4 The example of Melbourne Victory. Showed you can attract fans to a genuinely non-ethnically identified and but locally focussed club.
5 None of the clubs have adequate resources or organisation to appeal to significant sponsors and can offer sponsors very little by way of brand promotion.
6 The existence of the present clubs probably prevents the emergence of a genuine wide-appeal Geelong club, so not only are the clubs condemning themselves to a permanent struggle for survival, they are holding back the development of the game in Geelong at a time when it should be capitalising on the success of the Socceroos in World Cup qualification.
(This piece was broadcast on Geelong’s community radio station 94.7 The Pulse on the Soccer Show with Tonci Prusac on Saturday, 3 December 2005 at 1-2 pm. It also appeared in the Geelong Advertiser on Wedneesday, 7 December 2005, p. 53.)