Broken dreams in the Hunter
Breakers Stadium has gone to the dogs
On the western edge of Newcastle, rising out of the swamp, there's a field of broken dreams. At least that's the way Con Mitsios sees it.
After decades of back-breaking manual labour his pride and joy - Breakers Stadium - went to the dogs. Literally. What was once a showpiece for football in the Hunter has become a greyhound track.
It's been that way since 2005 - five years after Newcastle Breakers collapsed under the weight of their debts. History tells us Con Constantine took possession of the license but not the stadium - choosing instead to move the team back to what's now known as Hunter Stadium, and calling his new team the Jets.
For Mitsios, that was the beginning of the end. One of the founders of the Newcastle Australs club which bought the site next to a scrap metal yard in 1965 and turned it into one of the better venues in the old NSL, he could scarcely believe it when he heard it was ultimately sold for a knockdown price of $1million. ''Such a waste,'' he laments.
Volunteer labour (''we were there for breakfast, and we were still there for dinner'') created something out of nothing at Birmingham Gardens. It's a story replicated throughout football's post-war boom. Ethnic communities - in this case a coalition of migrants from the Greta camp near Maitland - brought together by their common love of football, and their willingness to put their time, and money, into creating bricks and mortar for the game.
But for Mitsios and those who formed the club called Australs which ultimately became the Breakers, all that heart and soul eventually counted for nothing. When the club began to struggle, Mitsios asked Northern NSW Football to purchase the site and keep it in the 'family'. Nobody wanted to listen. Well, they're listening now.
On the southern outskirts of Newcastle, there's a field of dreams. It's called Speers Point. Across the water from what used to be called Booragul High - the alma mater of Craig Johnston, Malcolm McClelland and Peter Tredinnick - this antiquated venue once hosted a World Cup qualifier between Australia and Fiji. Charlie Yankos will remember it well. He had his nose broken by a punch which blindsided him during the midst of an all-in brawl.
Speers Point could easily go the way of Breakers Stadium - into the dustbin of history. And Northern NSW - one of the great cradles of the game - could be left to rue another missed opportunity to create a centrepiece, a place to call home.
The challenge for David Eland, the chief executive of the Northern NSW federation, is to make sure that doesn't happen. He's up for the fight, but to he also needs the public purse to lend a helping hand.
Breakers Stadium, which also hosted a World Cup qualifier (against Solomon Islands), didn't get much help from the taxpayer. The main grandstand was paid for by a state government low-interest loan. The only grant was $330,000 from the Federal government towards a small stand and broadcast facility on the western side.
Small change for a facility Mitsios reckons was worth at least $10million by the time it was finished. ''It was very difficult to get any money out of anybody,'' he recalls. ''We had to do everything ourselves.'' Sound familiar? The truth is, football has always been left to fend for itself. 'Grounds for Complaint' is our campaign to try and change the dynamic. Eland is on board, and reckons he's prepared a compelling case.
The price tag to transform Speers Point with two synthetic fields, a turf pitch, a modern administration and spectator building, and a five-a-side centre, is $7.3million. Northern NSW Football are prepared to drain the bulk of their bank account and contribute $4million towards the cost. The balance, Eland hopes, will come from the State government via the Hunter Infrastructure Investment Fund. NSW Planning Minister Brad Hazard is scheduled to rule on the application shortly. Let's hope he sees sense.
Let's not talk about the rich heritage of the game in Northern NSW - clubs like Wallsend and Minmi Rangers are more than 120 years old. Or the fact that this region has produced some of our greatest talents, like Reg Date, Alf Quill, Ray Baartz, Joe Senkalski, Marshall Soper and Troy Halpin.
No, let's talk about the future. This is a region which stretches from the Hunter River to the Queensland border and accounts for 55,000 registered players - more than the other codes combined. In order to service that enormous demand, the vast majority of facilities have been built and financed by the game itself.
Breakers Stadium is a prime example. So too is Wanderers Oval, the home ground of Broadmeadow Magic, and perhaps the best football-specific facility in the region. The local Macedonian community have poured an estimated $7million in labour and money into their ground. The public purse? Just over $40,000 towards the floodlights.
The argument to redress this imbalance is overwhelming. Not that you'd know it. During the last round of facilities funding from the State Government, Northern NSW Football supported 21 applications. What did football eventually get from the $2.4million on offer? The princely sum of $1,618, split between the two 'successful' applicants, Barnsley FC and Kyogle FC. That's hardly going to change the world, is it?
Eland has a simple description for facilities across the region. ''Poorly drained, and poorly-lit.'' One of the reasons why fixing Speers Point is crucial is to reclaim the ground Northern NSW has lost as a pipeline of talent. ''The fact is we don't have the facilities to develop elite players, which is why this project is paramount,'' says Eland.
But there is something more important than that. Speers Point can be a proclamation - a statement that football in this part of the country is worth something, that it contributes something, and that it deserves something. Mitsios and his mates laid the foundations. As fate would have it, it's been left to Eland to build something they would be proud of.