'Can't forget the past': ex-NSL players reflect on league's glory days

It's been 13 years since the collapse of the National Soccer League and there are just 17 players left over from that era still playing in the A-League. Some of them reflect on the old days, both good and bad.

The NSL was a league of passion, pride and history. It was where legends walked and role models were created.

Sydney FC gloveman Danny Vukovic (Parramatta Power) names journeyman keeper Clint Bolton as his idol.

Alex Brosque (Marconi Stallions) cites Brendan Renaud, Dominic Longo and Mark Babic.

Brendon Santalab (Sydney United) reverts to Steve Corica, while Alex Wilkinson (Northern Spirit) always looked up to Alex Tobin.

And these are just a handful of the great names etched into Australian football folklore.

The NSL was also a proving ground for up and coming stars.

In 2002, Alex Brosque was one of those young bucks: "You definitely got knocked around. You definitely got hardened up," he recalls.

The 33-year-old says Marconi, in Sydney's west, felt like more than a club. He says it was a community.

"It was driven by where you were born. So Marconi is an Italian club, Sydney United was a Croatian club, Sydney Olympic the Greeks."

These identities were a source of strength for the clubs in their heyday in the '80s and early '90s.

Indeed, many of the clubs were founded by migrant communities.

The players who wore the club crests with pride all those years ago are still split on the role of clubs with ethnic ties

"Back then, there was a lot of hatred happening, there was a lot of crowd trouble," says Brendon Santalab.

Alex Wilkinson would go on to play at the 2014 World Cup for the Socceroos.

He is somewhat more circumspect when recalling supportership in the former national league.

"It was documented that there were problems there, but just the general passion that the fans used to show and the derbies. It used to be fantastic," he says.

As the league limped to its demise in the late '90s and into the new millennium, troubles at the top at some of the NSL's biggest clubs trickled down to the dressing sheds.

Brendon Santalab witnessed it first hand: "There were times were there was no salary for players for three, four months. Was the club going to fold?"

As did Alex Wilkinson: "For the older players, very difficult. They've got an income, then all of a sudden the league stops and they've got to find something else to do to support the family."

The NSL ended on a rainy day in 2004 with the grand final victory of Perth Glory over Parramatta Power.

After an 18 month recess, the 14 teams that competed in the 2003-2004 NSL season were whittled down eight teams, some of which were completely new franchises.

These eight sides were to compete in the new A-League - the rebranded national competition.

Some fans made the switch.

As Alex Brosque attests, many didn't.

"A lot of people got behind that but I feel like a lot more should have. So we're slowly starting to see that teenagers back then, they're adults now, they've got kids and their kids are seeing, the A-League is what we have."

A league somewhat more stable than its predecessor in its dying days.

Brosque says it's only now, over a decade later, that the role the NSL played in laying the foundations for football's growth in Australia, is being recognised.

"You can't forget it because it is a reason why we're here today and why the A-League is what it is today. Without the NSL, you don't have that."

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4 min read
Published 18 January 2017 at 5:47pm
By Darren Mara