Sydney derby shatters the glass ceiling

Oh, it’s such a great feeling to be there when history is being made. The nearly 62,000 fans who attended the Sydney A-League derby on October 8 was not just a record for an Australian domestic club football match - it was also the realisation of dreams that were simply unthinkable only a few years ago.

A-League Rd 1 - Western Sydney v Sydney FC

Record attendance announced at ANZ stadium Source: Getty Images

Hands up those who don’t remember what crowds domestic football used to attract and believed an attendance this large was simply not achievable in Australia.

When I arrived in Australia in 1957 as an 11-year old immigrant kid it was just after the formation of the Australian Soccer Federation. Prior to that event, when the immigrant communities began to have a greater influnce, elite club football was played in the suburbs on suburban grounds, many of which doubled up as cricket pitches in the summer.

In NSW the strong clubs were clubs like Granville, Auburn, Gladesville, Canterbury, Balgownie and Corrimal, while Wallsend and Adamstown Rosebud were the big clubs in the Hunter Valley. Crowds were in the low thousands, often in the hundreds.


Then came the breakaway, triggered by Hakoah, the club of Sydney’s Jewish community, being denied promotion by the NSW Soccer Football Association after it had won the second division.

After the completion of the breakaway, and with the admission of a host of so-called ethnic clubs into the top flight, crowds did perk up significantly. But even in that era crowds of 10,000 and sometimes 15,000 were seen as large.

Such numbers were actually rare and only came when Apia met Pan Hellenic, the clubs representing the large Italian and Greek communities.

Only the grand finals took attendances into a higher stratosphere. I was at a couple of them, the 1962 grand final watched by 28,000 and the 1963 decider watched by 33,000. Both were records.

After the National Soccer League was launched with a big bang in 1977 crowd levels didn’t change that much. Crowds of 10,000 or above were rare, just a handful per season, and even the grand finals hovered below 25,000.

This was partly because the grand final venues the NSL used had small capacities: Parramatta Stadium in Sydney, Olympic Park in Melbourne and Hindmarsh in Adelaide.

The birth of Northern Spirit and then Perth Glory brought crowd averages up. Spirit’s inaugural match at North Sydney Oval produced an attendance of 16,000 and much optimism about the league’s future. Later two NSL grand finals, in Brisbane and Perth, brought crowds of 40,000, both records.

But that was the ceiling. By the time of its demise the NSL average attendances hovered around 3,000. At that point dreaming of 60,000 crowds at Australian football matches would have been laughable.

But even then we all knew or suspected that there was a burgeoning football spectator culture under the surface, itching to emerge once there was a healthy league and an administration run professionally and without politics.

Many deserve credit for this outcome, including the FFA and Western Sydney Wanderers whose marketing and promotion of the game was impeccable.

And this won’t be the last.

Wanderers’ CEO John Tsatsimas told guests at the club’s season opening lunch that at least one derby at ANZ Stadium will be an annual occurrence, notwithstanding the building of a new home stadium in Parramatta.

More history will be made.

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3 min read
Published 10 October 2016 at 10:11am
By Les Murray