Jets lead the way when it comes to locals
While there is a move towards bringing in players from all over the world, Newcastle Jets are comitting to their own products and it's beginning to pay dividends.
Do fans really care any more if their players are one of them? Seemingly not if you're a fan of, say, Chelsea, or Arsenal, who have famously fielded teams made up entirely of foreigners. Not an Englishman, let alone a Londoner, in sight. Perhaps yes if you're a fan of Atletico Bilbao, who continue to defy the effects of globalisation on the world's most global game by steadfastly refusing to sign any players who are not of Basque origin.
Somewhere in between lies the conventional wisdom. It's nice to have a few locals in your team but playing winning, and entertaining football, generally supersedes most of those sensibilities.
We're no different here in Australia, where the Hyundai A-League is buffeted by the same trade winds. Almost a quarter of each squad list is set aside for foreigners, while more often we are seeing players leaving their hometown clubs to chase opportunity in other states.
As the competition moves into the next phase of its evolution - to professionalise the development pathway - it will become more important to grow, and keep, your own. It doesn't make sense to pour money and resources into a project and discard the end result. Which is why last week's departure of local boy Jesse Makarounas has hit such a raw nerve in Perth. A sign of things to come, perhaps.
Increasingly, it matters to Glory fans that their club is struggling to make use of the best generation of talent Western Australia has ever seen. It's starting to matter to the Wellington Phoenix fans that they see more Kiwis wearing yellow and black now that the club is starting to invest in an academy program. Across the Hyundai A-League clubs are reacting to the irrefutable logic of creating a nursery they can call their own.
For clubs like Sydney FC, Central Coast Mariners, Melbourne Heart and Melbourne Victory, whether those players they ultimately develop are locals is less important, for differing reasons. For the likes of Adelaide United, Perth Glory, Wellington Phoenix, Western Sydney Wanderers and Brisbane Roar it counts for a lot more. But nowhere does it matter more to the fans to see local players in their local team than in Newcastle, where the Jets represent the most parochial football audience in the country. It's always been thus.
A quick history lesson. The coalminers who brought football to the Hunter towards the end of the 19th century came mostly from one of the most parochial regions on earth, the north of England. The clubs they created, like Minmi Rangers, West Wallsend, Adamstown Rosebuds, Wallsend and Weston, reflected those values. They didn't even like each other, and when, from the 1920s, they started playing against teams from Sydney, they liked them even less. If you've ever wondered why Northern NSW has its own federation, there's your answer. It's a hard-nosed culture of pride, as much as parochialism. And it thrives to this day.
Next month, Newcastle will celebrate the 35th anniversary of national league football in the region. The 'Men of Football' - a coterie group of former players, coaches, officials and fans - has organised a reunion of Newcastle KB United to mark the occasion, and former star Ken Boden is flying across from Perth as guest of honour. Boden is English, like many of the foundation players recruited by inaugural coach, Alan Vest, another Englishman. Vest once told a youthful Craig Johnston he'd never make it, and if you talk to the organisers, it's not the imports but the local boys like Malcolm McClelland, Brett Cowburn, Joe Senkalski and Peter Treddinick who'll be the stars of the show.
In the 1970s and early 1980s the Hunter was a hotbed of talent - Northern NSW was winning national youth titles and Booragul High and Newcastle Technical High were winning Tasman Cups. Vest may have needed convincing, but as KB United morphed into Newcastle Rosebuds, who morphed into Newcastle Breakers, the production line of local kids inevitably became impossible to ignore.
For instance, who remembers this lot? Ralph Maier, David Lowe, Howard Tredinnick, Mike Boogaard, Graham Jennings, Darren Stewart, Andy Roberts, Todd McManus, Bobby Naumov, Clayton Zane, Scott Thomas, Mark and Gary Wilson, Robbie Middleby, Craig Carter, Shayne Price, Brad Swancott and the imperious Troy Halpin - the most technically-gifted Anglo/Aussie I've ever seen. This is not a complete list by any means, but at one stage during the mid-1990s you could go to Birmingham Gardens and see as many as eight locals in the starting team.
Which brings us to the Jets, and the era of the Hyundai A-League. For a long time now the local flavour has been missing, and it's been causing some angst. For the greatest achievement in Newcastle's storied football history, winning the 2008 grand final, there was only one Novocastrian (Stuart Musialik) in the starting eleven. For many, that hurt.
The 'Men of Football' are, in many ways, the keepers of the flame. Parochial, and proud of it. But not irrational. Per capita, Northern NSW has more players than any other 'state' in the country. The players are there.
"There's always been this belief up here that you should invest, first and foremost, in your local talent," says founding member Neil Jameson, a respected local journalist/author who was also a key figure behind the formation of KB United.
"Nothing is more galling for the fans than to see a local kid passed over by the coach and he then goes somewhere else and proves him wrong. We're such a tight-knit football community; if a local kid plays we all know him, or his family. There's a connection, an emotional investment, which I doubt you get in many other places. I like to think we're a bit like the Geordies, or the Catalans, in that we know all about our football culture, and our history in the game."
So here's the best bit, which I've saved until last. Newcastle Jets, circa 2013, are getting it. Last week they re-signed Sam Gallaway, who hails from Coffs Harbour. He was one of five locals (Ben Kennedy, Jobe Wheelhouse, James Virgili and Andrew Hoole were the others) on the teamsheet for the F3 derby. But for injury, Taylor Regan and Ben Kantarovski might have been on it as well.
When Nathan Tinkler bought the Jets, increasing the number of locals on the payroll was one of his cornerstone strategies. There have been some curly moments since, but with a better relationship with the Northern NSW federation developing, and the Emerging Jets program evolving, the big man is starting to live up to his end of the bargain. In the long term, he'll be respected for it. Well done.