Jury still out on Tassie's football passion
If Tasmania is on the fringe of the football world, then Kingston is the edge of the football universe.
If Tasmania is on the fringe of the football world, then Kingston is the edge of the football universe. A commuter suburb on the southern extremity of Hobart, it was here among the new subdivisions that Melbourne Victory recently hosted Western Sydney Wanderers in a pre-season match which effectively amounted to a test case for Tasmanian football. Pass mark? Close. More on that in a moment.
Kingston Twin Ovals is a brand new complex carved out of a lush hillside thanks to $10million of government money. It's neat and shiny, but far from ideal for football. Instead the complex merely adds to the glut of AFL/cricket faciltiies - think Bellerive Oval, think York Park, think North Hobart, think the TCA Ground - which enable those sports to host major and semi-major events across the state. Good luck to them. But in era when the rest of the country is awakening to the potential of the world game, Tasmania does seem to be stuck in a time warp. Where's the love for football? Hopefully, it's coming. If so, it's long overdue.
Tasmania's first recorded game of football was played in 1879. The state body was formed shortly afterwards. That's more than 130 years of history, and yet still the game doesn't have anything that even closely resembles a 'stadium'. Some 'oversight'.
KGV Park in Glenorchy has long been football HQ in Tasmania. It has one ancient grandstand, is largely open on the other three other sides and - at a squeeze - can accommodate 4,000 spectators. Hardly state-of-the-art. True, the public purse did fund an artifical surface for KGV last year, but when you drive past Bellerive or the TCA, and see the cranes at work, you get a clear idea of where the allegiance of most state politicians lie.
Despite all this, the game has somehow survived on the scraps. Since the 1920s Tasmania has produced more than a dozen Socceroos, and currently boasts its first bona-fide A-League player in Jeremy Walker (Melbourne Heart). Recently, the game has enjoyed something of a renaissance thanks to a stronger sense of purpose, and self belief.
There are now almost 14,000 registered players in the Apple Isle, and this year the new statewide competition bankrolled by Melbourne Victory, proved a huge success. Crowds in the eight-team Victory League were comparable to the local AFL competition, averaging between 300-400, while media interest was extraordinary. Even the doyen of the Tasmanian press box, Walter Pless, has been blown away by the level of publicity - and he's not easily impressed.
Add all this up, and people are wondering what comes next. That's why Melbourne Victory's historic first visit to Hobart to play another Hyundai A-League side was significant. The chance to put down a marker, to see how much the game has really progressed.
The Victory have played a number of games in Launceston over the last five years, including league fixtures in each of the last two seasons. But recurring ground issues had - to this point - stopped them from bringing big-time football to the where it couns, the state capital. It's why local officials, headed by Football Federation Tasmania's livewire chief executive John Boulos, were holding their breath as the big day arrived.
In the end, the clouds cleared, the weather proved far better than the forecast, and 5,260 paying customers made the trek to Kingston to provide a marvellous picnic atmosphere. The playing surface drew effusive praise from both teams, but the spectator facilities - in truth - were rudimentary to say the least. Kingston may be a decent alternative, but for football it remains a long, long, way from the real thing.
Crowd-wise, the attendance was respectable, but not overwhelming. It means the Victory are still waiting to crack the magical 10,000 barrier in their adopted state. Thus a deeper question remains. How badly does the Tasmanian football community really want it? Still, the jury is out.
With a Tasmania United A-League bid on the back-burner (Pless believes it may not eventuate in his lifetime) Melbourne Victory remain the team of choice for Taswegians. Not perfect, but not bad either. The Victory keep giving the love - funding the local NPL competition and bringing their team across Bass Strait at least once a year - but are they getting enough in return?
Ultimately, the Victory hope to replicate the Hawthorn model - a strategy they make no attempt to hide. The Hawks receive more than $3million annually from the Tasmanian government, and in return they have made the relationship a priority. Fact: Within 36 hours of the grand final the AFL premiership trophy was displayed alongside the Hawks players on the steps of the Hobart City Hall. That's how important the partnership has become.
Can football reap the same sort of benefits? That depends. Victory chairman Anthony de Pietro made it clear in the pre-game VIP function that his club remains fully committed to Tasmania over the long-term. Among those listening were a host of state and local government politicians. Their challenge is to support the game a lot more than they have in the past.
Tasmania is never going to be the epicentre of football in Australia, but it still has a valuable role to play. In the last four years, Boulos has done a remarkable job in pushing the case, and his impending departure leaves a void. But with the Victory League looking robust, Melbourne Victory talking seriously about a four-to-five year plan to bring A-League fixtures to Hobart, the local council finally willing to release North Hobart Oval as a venue, and state champions South Hobart looking forward to the NPL play-offs, at least there are plenty of encouraging signs.