Wolves must dare to dream
Call it a dream, call it a fantasy, but don't call it impossible. One day I'd like to see Wollongong Wolves back at the top table, playing in the Hyundai A-League.
Call it a dream, call it a fantasy, but don't call it impossible. One day I'd like to see Wollongong Wolves back at the top table, playing in the Hyundai A-League and filling one of the most picturesque stadiums in the country as proud representatives of a region which has given the game so much, for so long.
The way I see it, it's not a matter of if, but when. Frank Lowy has made it crystal clear expansion is not likely to be on the agenda until 2017, but when that happens - as it must - then the Illawarra can't be ignored.
Commercially, and financially, it's going to be a tough ask for a region which has suffered with the closure of BHP, and remains on a difficult economic path towards re-invention. But then the same - to varying degrees - applies to most of the other provincial centres (Geelong, Canberra, North Queensland, Gold Coast, Fremantle) with legitimate Hyundai A-League aspirations. What makes the Illawarra different is the amount of skin it has in the game.
Right now, of course, all this seems a pipedream. Since deciding not to apply for a founding Hyundai A-League license in 2005, the Wolves have come close to the edge on a number of occasions as they've tried to create a sustainable future in the NSW Premier League.
True enough there was a NSWPL championship in 2008, but as a business, and a football club, the Wolves have largely been a shadow of their former selves. And now they find themselves facing a moment of truth - this weekend's final match of the home-and-away season against Central Coast Mariners will determine whether the Wolves drop to the second-tier of state league football for the first time in their proud 33-year history. For the club which gave us Scott Chipperfield, Matt Horsley, two swashbuckling NSL title-winning teams, and the greatest grand final in history, relegation would amount to a staggering fall from grace.
So how in such dire circumstances, you may ask, can the Wolves dare to dream? The answer lies in a flood plain in West Dapto, where a combination of Federal, State and private developer's money is set to deliver a $14.5million football complex which will become a game-changer for the Wolves. Significantly, the $7.6million share from the Federal government was guaranteed last week.
Kicked out of Brandon Park 13 years ago, and denied a planned home of their own at Figtree, the Wolves have led a nomadic existence since the end of the NSL, playing and training on fields borrowed from local clubs. If you're looking for the reason why the Wolves have been unable to build a sustainable business model here it is. Put simply, they haven't had a cash flow. All that's about to change.
When completed, the 22-hectare site at West Dapto will incorporate six full-sized fields (including one synthetic pitch), 25 small-sided pitches, two indoor pitches, an administration and academy building, and a small grandstand and amenities building surrounding the main field. Fundamentally, it's a new headquarters for Football South Coast, the body which represents 12,000 players in the region. But what the development also does is give the Wolves a training and administration centre, plus a boutique-sized 'stadium' for lesser fixtures.
With a deal to return to WIN Stadium at an affordable rent expected to be completed shortly, the sum of all these parts finally gives the Wolves a launching pad to rebuild the club. If all goes to plan, they'll based at West Dapto in time for the 2015 season.
''This is a massive adrenalin shot for us,'' says president Bobby Mazevski. ''We've had our struggles, but we can start turning the corner. Obviously there's a long way to go, but at least we've got a future now. It's all very exciting.''
The reason that future is exciting is partly because of the past. The Illawarra, along with the Hunter Valley, was the cradle of football in Australia. District clubs like Balgownie Rangers, Woonona, Corrimal Rangers and Bulli are all more than 100 years old. From the early era of pioneers like James 'Judy' Masters right through to current-day stars such as Luke Wilkshire and Mile Sterjovski, the Illawarra has produced a never-ending pipeline of talent, schooled within one of the most passionate football cultures in Australia. And with youngsters like Aaron Calver, Josh McDonald and Corey Gameiro ready to burst onto the Hyundai A-League scene, there are few signs of the production line slowing down.
If the Wolves can get the business right, and that's a big if, then the football argument for a place in the Hyundai A-League becomes irresistable.
Wollongong Wolves - and I mean WOLLONGONG Wolves (not South Coast Wolves as they're currently named) - are an iconic club with a powerful brand representing a rusted-on football community. That community, sadly, hasn't always supported the Wolves as it should have, but thanks to the tireless efforts of Football South Coast boss Eddy de Gabriele there's an emerging understanding that the Wolves offer the only genuine passport back into the big time for a region steeped in football history.
That's got to be a future worth investing in, and fighting for.