Retro Corner: Asian Trailblazers

As the countdown to Glory's long-awaited maiden Asian Champions League campaign continues, we've decided to revisit another WA football venture into Asia that took place back in 1994.

If any team could accurately claim to be the forerunners of Perth Glory, it is Perth Kangaroos and we shone the spotlight upon their key role in the club's formation in an article that appeared in Glory Days in 2014.

So sit back, crank up a bit of Silverchair, Tina Arena or Bon Jovi just to get the right historical ambience and with some invaluable help from Gareth Naven and Richard Kreider, let us take you back to 1994 when the Kangaroos came, saw and conquered...

"The likes of Gareth Naven, Scott Miller, Paul Strudwick, Craig Naven, Paul McVittie and Gary Marocchi have long since assumed their rightful places in the pantheon of Glory greats.

These legendary figures, however, did not only feature prominently in some of the club’s most glorious moments.

They also formed the core of another team, one whose life-span may only have lasted one season, but which effectively laid the foundation stone of the Perth Glory that we know and love today.

That team was the Perth Kangaroos, they competed in and won the Singapore Professional Soccer League in 1994 and last week marked the 20th anniversary of their first competitive game against Gibraltar Crescent.

In order to shed some more light upon how this seemingly bizarre football experiment came to pass and ultimately paved the way for Glory’s creation two years later, we enlisted the help of two men who lived and breathed every minute of it.

Namely former Kangaroos and Glory skipper, Gareth Naven and seasoned journalist and Western Australia’s preeminent football historian, Richard Kreider.

Glory Days: These days, the idea of a Perth team competing in the Singapore League seems pretty strange. How and why did it happen?

Richard Kreider: It was a period in WA football when we were crying out for some first-class games on a regular basis.

The National Soccer League had been in existence since 1977, but WA still didn’t have any representation in it and our local game was being damaged by a lot of internal bickering.

Perth Italia and Spearwood Dalmatinac had hinted at intending to go into the NSL, but realistically I seriously doubt if it would have been financially sustainable for either of them to do that.

The Kangaroos, with the Global Football Australia consortium behind them, came along at a very important time.

Gareth Naven: The long-term push was obviously to go towards the NSL in some shape or form and entering the Perth Kangaroos into the Singapore League was a part of that push.

It went on for about 12 months and then the following year we did end up getting Glory into the NSL.

I think we were just searching for a more professional approach to football in WA.

The players wanted access to a professional environment, the fans wanted to see a local team competing in a national competition and it evolved there from there.

Perth Kangaroos 1994 - Round One
The Kangaroos get ready to make their competitive bow

GD: The Kangaroos hit the ground running by winning their first home game 2-0 against Gibraltar Crescent on March 27th, 2004. What do you remember of that occasion?

GN: That first game was played at Macedonia Park and we had a fantastic crowd of around 5000.

The whole ground was packed, the atmosphere was superb and it was just a teaser for what we were to see in the NSL.

It was the WA football public showing how much they wanted to have a team in a national competition. They proved that by coming out in force and making it a great day for WA football.

GD: Winning all but one of their games in the ten-team league, Gary Marocchi’s men claimed the title at a canter with several games to spare.

Who were the standout players in the side that year?

RK: Paul Strudwick was definitely one. He had a real sniff for goals back then and was outstanding in that season, scoring 16 goals and then, of course, going on to play for Glory.

Gary Lees was also excellent. He was an outstanding striker who never quite got the breaks in terms of playing for Glory and instead went back to the local leagues.

I went to just about every home game and the most competitive one I remember was against the only other Aussie side in the competition, the Darwin Cubs.

Unfortunately, a lot of the other games were complete mismatches because the Singapore sides just weren’t of the same standard as the Kangaroos.

The Singapore FA had made assurances that their shop-window players would play in the league, but they didn’t, they played in the Malaysian League instead.

GD: From a player’s perspective, Gareth, how was the new competition different from the WA State League?

GN: We started to train more and get more accustomed to the travel and the flights.

We had a decent team that competed pretty well and the weather certainly equalled things out when we went up to Singapore. It was a real test playing in those conditions.

It was a great time for me personally and a lot of other people in the game here in Perth as well.

Most of the players had 40-hour full-time jobs and were training four times a week, so their commitment was there through and through.

That’s how it ran back then and it certainly didn’t do us any harm.

We had the mentality that we were privileged to be doing it, to be training more and representing the club and the state.

We were happy to be a part of it, we had a desperation to be a part of it and we made the sacrifices of things like holidays and time off work.

That approach then continued when we got into the NSL as well.

GD: But there was some tension between the State League clubs and the Kangaroos in terms of player availability.

GN: There’s always controversy when change starts to happen in the game and that was the case here. There were some roadblocks put in the way, but the club I was at, Perth Italia, were very supportive in allowing their players to go and try to improve themselves in a new competition.

Towards the end, things were getting difficult because it was hard for the clubs to be supportive without it impacting upon their own fortunes as it were.

But even though they may have been a bit disgruntled at times, they also provided a lot of support for players to achieve the playing goals that they wanted to achieve.

GD: It’s been said that if it hadn’t been for the Perth Kangaroos, there would never have been Perth Glory. Would you agree with that?

RK: The Kangaroos was never really going to work in the long-term because it just wasn’t financially viable and the standard of opposition wasn’t good enough to sustain the interest of the WA football public.

But it definitely opened doors.

Essentially, it proved that WA football was of sufficient quality to hold its own.

There was no senior national championship at that time, so there was no way to gauge how good we were compared to the other states.

There had been the Australia Cup back in the 1960s, but in the 90s there was nothing.

All we had in terms of representative football was when we played overseas clubs, usually from Britain, who came over and played the WA State Team.

So the Kangaroos came along at a very important time.

GN: I wouldn’t go as far as to say that there wouldn’t have been a Glory without the Kangaroos, but it was definitely a great catalyst for it.

Questions had long been raised as to why we didn’t have a team in the NSL and it was rightly pointed out that the competition wasn’t truly representative without a WA team in it.

It was a bit like the VFL becoming the AFL.

We were definitely heading towards it, but I think the Kangaroos helped to accelerate that process.

GD: And Gareth, you have the singular distinction of being the first and last ever Perth Kangaroos Player of the Year.

GN: Really? I wasn’t even aware of that. I feel about ten-feet tall now!

*This article was reproduced from the original article written by Gareth Morgan which appeared in Glory Days (Season 2013-14 Round 26 edition).

A more detailed account of the Perth Kangaroos story can be found in Richard Kreider’s fascinating book, “Paddocks to Pitches”. Visit paddockstopitches.com for more information.

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