From Polonia to Croydon Kings

After 30 years we may have changed club names, but we haven't really changed what these proud old clubs represent.

The other day I took my father along to watch the club he played for, worked at, and supported, for the best part of 60 years. It was also the club which launched my own football career here in Adelaide. The club is, or was, called Polonia - a name which has historically represented my father's birthplace, Poland. The trip down memory lane got me thinking.

In the old days Polonia were just one of the hundreds of clubs around the country which sprung up in post-war Australia as a meeting place for communities of migrants who came here from their war-ravaged homelands to start a new life.

The club started up in the Adelaide Hills because of the proliferation of Polish migrants in a nearby holding camp. Polonia never had a home, and played at various parks all over Adelaide, until some of the more enterprising members of the group secured a long-term lease in 1956 on what was virtually a rubbish tip in the inner northwest suburb of Croydon Park. A playing field was levelled by volunteers with shovels and rakes because they couldn't afford a tractor, a clubroom of sorts was built, and that is what we still see today - albeit with some improvements.

The club attracted Poles to the area, and most of the kids I would kick a ball around with at home games back in the 1960s (and eventually play junior and senior football with) lived within a stone's throw from the field. Most of them were born here, but English was still pretty much the second language around the place, which was tough for me because my mum is a 'Skip' and I never learnt to speak Polish.

I came across one of these guys at the game the other day. He's also named John, and is a few years older than me. He also brought his dad, who still lives around the corner. I actually bumped into his dad before I saw him. The old man is just short of his 98th birthday, and along with my father and a handful of others he represents the last of the founding fathers from the 1950s.

We recognised each other and had a nice chat. It brought back to me just how special this place is for me, even after all these years. After all, Polonia is the starting point of my football history, and a big part of my life was spent kicking a ball inside the same wire fence that surrounds the ground today. It was where I began my love affair with the game. Back then all I ever dreamt of was wearing that Red and White strip. Nowadays, of course, kids have much bigger dreams.

In their heyday Polonia brought some wonderful players out from the mother country, players who could easily hold their own in today's game. They were my heroes - good quality professionals from Poland who came to Australia because it offered a much better lifestyle than their Communist homeland. Among them were Edmund Kreft, who went on to coach the Adelaide City team which spawned the likes of Aurelio and Tony Vidmar, Sergio Melta and Alex Tobin, and my favourite Henry Zdebel, whom I was lucky enough to play with in 1975. Zdebel was the Thomas Broich of Polonia, a fantastic player who, co-incidentally, returned to Europe after leaving Adelaide and ended up playing in the Bundesliga.

Generally, these imports would be sponsored by a local Polish businessman, working as labourers initially until they'd been here long enough to find a job in a factory, or something similar. Can you imagine that happening today?

The influx stopped in the late 1980s because it became too hard to find them jobs, while the borders in Europe opened up to allow these players more money and a better lifestyle than we could offer them here in Australia. For Polonia, these changes were significant.

The fact is the club isn't what it used. The Polish influence has diminished considerably - as much by natural attrition as apathy within the community. The demographic of the entire suburb has changed. Nowadays the club has been rebadged Croydon Kings - a vestige of the attempted 'ethnic cleansing' of the game undertaken by various governing bodies over the previous decades. Look across the country, and you can seen how many other clubs have been forced to change their identity.

The theory was we needed to give the game a broader appeal - to 'Australianise' it - and to remove what was perceived to be the stigma of ethnicity. To some degree it worked, but it's something which still rankles my father - despite football being on an all-time high in Australia at the moment.

My father, like many others from clubs all over the country, sees it as an affront to his heritage. True, he's spent his whole life at one club that represents his birthplace, and therefore sees it only from that perspective. Part of me agrees with him, but I can also see the rationale behind what has been done. Looking back, I can see my time as a player co-incided with a period of great cultural change, and it's clear to me the foundations on which the game rested during that era couldn't take the sport where it needed to go.

Having said that, my father's angst is fair enough. After 30 years we may have changed names, but we haven't really changed what these proud old clubs represent. Maybe it's time to embrace what these clubs have contributed to our game, and continue to do so.

The state leagues are full of clubs representing a particular nationality. Their boards are still full of volunteers, businessmen, and supporters, with ties to their respective communities, people who keep these clubs alive.

On the field, for better or for worse, they're still providing somewhere for the kids to play, and in many cases continue to develop good quality players - many of whom are playing in the A-League. Despite all the rhetoric, no-one has yet provided a viable alternative. Why am I saying all this? Maybe we need to give credit where it's due.