Special milestone for Newcastle ahead of showdown with Sydney FC

EXCLUSIVE | This weekend is the 40-year anniversary of national league football in Newcastle when over 15,000 fans flocked to see Newcastle KB United's historic first game.

On March 5, 1978, United hosted powerhouse Eastern Suburbs Hakoah at the International Sports Centre (now completely revamped and known as McDonald Jones Stadium).

It was an amazing day as football well and truly arrived in the Hunter. 

With Newcastle missing out on inclusion into the National Soccer League (NSL) in 1977 when the league was formed, the appetite was huge when the club was asked to join in 1978. 

KB United
The International Sports Centre in Newcastle, circa 1978

 

One of the Newcastle players in that very first match in the Philips National Soccer League tells www.a-league.com.au football fever swept the Hunter.

"On Thursday night we were taken down to Hunter Street Mall and we were presented to the crowds there. There was a huge vibe. It was massive in the papers," recalls keeper Phil Dando.

"I still have a cutting of me arriving for my first training session and there was a big newspaper article. It surprised me how big football and the coverage was.

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Newcastle Herald really got behind their new team KB United

"And of course the Newcastle Herald got right behind KB United with Neil Jameson writing for the paper and he was a big soccer man.

"They certainly didn't expect that crowd for the first game. And of course the stadium is nothing like it is now, with 15,000 ringed around the Oval. It was a huge day."

Phil Dando
Phil Dando today and with KB United

Back then, there was no NRL. As such, the only team representing the city and region on the national stage (in a league played over winter) was Newcastle KB United. 

And with so many players at the grassroots level, the region earned its reputation as a football hotbed.

United had their own team on the national stage, huge support and of course were producing players. One in particular. 

The popularity of Liverpool in Australia is almost entirely because of one player who briefly played in that first season with KB United.

Craig Johnston went from Newcastle to England in the late 1970s and through sheer hard work, earned a pro contract with Middlesbrough.

He would later play for Liverpool in the 1980s and inspire a whole new generation of Aussies to support the Reds long before Harry Kewell signed at Anfield.

"Craig played for KB United in that first year. He was only 17 and played a few guest games. At that stage he'd signed pro forms at Boro," says Dando. 

"You could tell then he'd be some player. No surprise he later went to Liverpool.

"Playing over here, the skill Craig had, he was on a different level, and he was super fit. His touch was special.

"I remember he once hit a ball from outside the box and I thought I had it but it's curled around my fingers and into the back of the net.

Craig Johnston
Newcastle lad Craig Johnston played for KB United as a guest player in 1978. He later signed with Liverpool

"Back then, at our level players weren't doing that," recalls Dando, who like the rest of the squad was a part-time footballer.

"We only trained three nights a week and had full-time day jobs. I think I was a carpet cleaner!"

Dando joined KB United from Brisbane Lions just three days before the first game. It was a team that was patched together just weeks before the season.

Preparation for this new era under coach Alan Vest wasn't ideal. 

And Dando knew the team Newcastle would face in the opener was full of Socceroos, including the late Eddie Thomson.

"When we kicked off we were up against it. They gave us a towelling up but Kenny Boden scored a late goal to make it 4-1 and give us some comfort.

"A difficult introduction but well remembered for the 15,000 who turned up." 

Joe Watson, Hilton Silva (2) and Murray Barnes got on the score sheet for Hakoah.

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Newcastle improved as the 26-game, 14-team season went on.

The team ended a respectable fourth-bottom with six wins for their inaugural campaign.

But the crowds remained strong and showed Australia that the Hunter was indeed a football heartland. 

The second home game pulled around 12,000 fans and is remembered for Roy Drinkwater's long-range own goal that went over Dando.

"We also had Col Curran in our side, he'd played for the Socceroos at the World Cup in 1974," recalls Dando.

On Friday in Newcastle, the football community will commemorate the milestone with a get-together organised by Men of Football.

Current Jets coach Ernie Merrick will be the guest speaker.

They'll also commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the Jets winning the Hyundai A-League Championship in 2008.

GET YOUR TICKETS FOR SATURDAY'S BLOCKBUSTER BETWEEN JETS AND SYDNEY FC HERE. 

*All images of Newcastle KB United from 1978 courtesy of Phil Dando