The spirit lives on in North Sydney

Football is coming back to North Sydney Oval, just over 10 years after Northern Spirit decamped to Narrabeen, only to die an inglorious death shortly after.

Football is coming back to North Sydney Oval, just over 10 years after Northern Spirit decamped to Narrabeen, only to die an inglorious death shortly after.

It’s entirely appropriate the push has come from Central Coast Mariners, who were borne from the ashes of the Spirit’s demise. That the opposition will be Wellington Phoenix simply adds to the symbolism. The NSL, of course, has long been replaced by the Hyundai A-League, but there’ll be a real sense of resurrection in the air.

North Sydney Oval may be dripping with history – the wrought-iron stands once belonged to the SCG – but it’s the future this storied venue is more concerned about. With the NSW State Government committed to ground rationalisation, the outlook for suburban venues is seemingly bleak. But if the Mariners experiment works well enough, watch this space.

Ultimately, it may take a turf war with Sydney FC to bring Sydney’s north shore closer to the Mariners’ bosom, but that’s the plan. And my sense is new owner Mike Charlesworth won’t by shying away from a fight. Don’t be fooled – there’s much more to this venture than meets the eye.

First, a trip back in time. In fact, a few of us did exactly that the other night, as Graham Arnold celebrated his 50th birthday a long throw away down Miller Street. Peter Devlin, the oval’s long-standing curator, was there. So too were John Hutchinson, Ian Crook, Robbie Slater and Phil Moss – all former Spirit players – and Steve Watson, the Spirit’s goalkeeping coach. ‘Hutch’ was involved in the Spirit’s last game at North Sydney – a three-goal loss to Perth Glory played in front of just 3,088 fans on Anzac Day, 2003. There was supposed to be one final appearance against Newcastle Jets three weeks later, but the heaven’s opened up and the game was officially postponed. In the end it was cancelled due to lack of interest, which just about sums up the mood of the time.

Long gone were the record crowds, the glamour, and the buzz, of the Spirit’s early years. Instead the Bob Stand had lost its voice, the hill was virtually empty, and a team which was supposed to set the benchmark was content to sit among the pretenders rather than contenders. For those who had invested so much hope, it was a slow, painful, decline. For those who invested real money – most notably Arnold, Slater and Crook – the agony was more pronounced.

Apart from the dreadful name, and the generally horrendous strips, Northern Spirit were a vision ahead of their time. Sydney’s player-rich north shore – centred on the associations of Manly-Warringah, Gladesville-Hornsby and Ku-Ring-Gai – had never dined at football’s top table until the Spirit arrived in 1998. The explosion of interest was instantaneous. Sadly, the edifice was built on sand.

When the last rites were administered six seasons later, the 18,000 crowds at North Sydney had become 1,000 crowds at Pittwater Rugby Park. The farewell of a legend, Alex Tobin, in front of a sparse crowd on a windswept Narrabeen afternoon was one of the more depressing milestones I’ve ever witnessed.
Yet in those final, fraught, tension-filled days, as the money dried up and all hope seemed gone, somehow a new vision emerged. The Spirit became the Mariners – Lyall Gorman helped build the bridge, and the likes of Alex Tobin, Adam Kwasnik, Wayne O’Sullivan, Stewart Petrie, Noel Spencer, Matthew Osman, Ian Ferguson, John Hutchinson, Lawrie McKinna and Alex Wilkinson followed. And the Spirit continues to live on in players like Bruce Djite, Mark Milligan, Aaron Mooy, Erik Paartalu, James Wesolowski and the three Griffiths brothers – who all came through a junior development system which, again, was years ahead of its time.

And so we come the full circle, and top-level football returns to North Sydney on December 19, with real expectations of a 10,000-plus crowd. Charlesworth, certainly, sees the game as a litmus test for his expansion plans. Constrained by the smallest population base in the Hyundai A-League, and a lack of corporate presence, Charlesworth believes Sydney’s north shore – an AB demographic which includes plenty of corporate money – offers enormous potential for the smallest club in the league. We’ll see.
My advice is to tread carefully. The Northern Eagles experiment didn’t work in Gosford because the NRL underestimated the parochialism of the Central Coast. Presumably, that dynamic works in reverse. If the people of the Central Coast feel the Mariners are preparing to desert them, they’ll get the retaliation in first.

As it stands – after eight tough but rewarding years of sweat and toil – the Mariners are more deeply embedded in their own community than any other club in the league. That’s an achievement worth building on, not throwing away. North Sydney Oval offers potential, and opportunity, but only if it’s handled the right way.