BACK IT UP: The Newcastle Jets prepare to take on Sydney FC in round four last A-League season at McDonald Jones Stadium. Picture: Jonathan CarrollNewcastle football lovers are all talk.
Soccer supporters, that is.Lovers of the world game, the beautiful game.
After seven seasons of covering the code for the Newcastle Heraldand previous campaignsfor other publications, I can’t come to any other conclusion. Many of them are simply frauds.
For me, the passion for football in the region is unquestionable. That’s not the problem.
Talking to coaches, players, fans and administrators over 17 years of doing this job, there’s no doubting their love for the sport.
It’s infectious, and rising participation rates reflect the overwhelming popularity of the codefor players, male and female, of many ages.
Last year, Northern NSW Football said registrations hadgrown by 42 per centin the previous decade to 64,186. Around the same time, NSW Country Rugby League said its registrations were down to about 56,000.
Why then do crowd numbers for the Newcastle Jets lag so far behind the Knights?
Last Sunday, the Knights, with their third consecutive wooden spoon guaranteed, attracted a crowd of 20,535 at McDonald Jones Stadium for their final-round clash with the Sharks. In 12 A-League seasons, Jets fans have bettered that number only four times.
When they wereheaded forthe wooden spoon, their second in the past three years,in their final home game last season, the Jets had a crowd of 9380.
The Knights this year had a lowest crowd of10,997 and highest of21,412.The Jets last season peaked at 11,873 and bottomed out at 5642.
That’s why Newcastle soccer fans are frauds. Not all of them, of course, but the numbers don’t lie. In the stat that means the most, the region’s football supporters are half as good as their league counterparts.
So why don’t moreback up their passion for football with numbers through the gate at Jets games?
There’s a couple of obvious reasons why adisparity exists.
The Hunter is a rugby league heartland, producing some of the greats of the game, and generations have followed other NRL clubs since well before the Knights were founded.That obviously helps drawing a crowd week in, week out.
And while the A-League has taken giant steps in expanding and improving the top level of football in , it remains a long way off the best competitions in the world.The NRL, meanwhile,is the best rugby league competition on the planet, so that helps as well.
On the flipside, rugby league players and supporters at a local level are sometimes at their own match when the Knights are playing. Jets fans have no such excuse.
However, you can’t blame on-field results for a lack of support. The Knights have proven that.
The Jets have not made the finals since 2010 but the Knights have just had the worst three-year run in NRL history.Despite that, theiraveragehome crowd this season was 15,619. The Jets averaged8645 last campaign.
Anyway, enough of numbers. The point is, fans putting hands in their pockets to support their team makes all the difference.
The past two NSWRL/ARL teams to finish last three years in a row –Gold Coast Chargers (1991-93) and Newtown Jets (1976-78) –were gone a few years later.The Knights keep powering on.
The Jets have faced an uncertain future more than once but now have the relative security of Chinese owner Martin Lee.But real fans can’t expect to keep a team, let alone a successful one, if they don’t show up.
So why discuss this now, a month out from the A-League season?
Sunday’sshow of support for the struggling Knights struck me. Sure, it was old boys’ day and the20thanniversary of the club’s epic ARL grand final win, but what a crowd.
Then I had great chat with a tired Edgeworth coach Damian Zane on Monday, after his side lost the Northern NSW NPL grand final 2-0 to Lambton Jaffas in extra-time on Saturday night.
It was the first NPL decider at McDonald Jones Stadium and I was keen to follow up on reactions about the crowd figure of 4174, the atmosphere and the future of the fixtureat a 33,000-capacity stadium.
We got on to difference betweenfootball fans in and those overseas, and why a sport booming in participation in the Hunter can’t draw a better crowd to watch its A-League side.
“Whether we’re top of the league or bottom, we should be packing that joint out,” Zane said of the Jets.
He remembered how he was heart-broken when the Newcastle Breakers collapsed and the town was left without a club.
It’s not a stretch to say that could happen again, continuing a long history of failed Newcastle clubs, if passion for football doesn’t convert to dollars and cents support.
Look, I didn’t grow up with football. Like many of my schoolmates at Rutherford High, I was brought up on a steady diet of rugby league. We even gave the soccer types a bit of stick (sorryCouso).But plenty has changed in 20 somethingyears andthe sleeping giant of n sport has awoken in many ways.Still, in the Hunter at least, the Jets remain in the shadow of the Knights.
I’d love a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone complain about the Knights hoggingsports sponsorship coin in the Hunter. But those backers follow fans.
Now seems the perfect time for football supporters to push their team, their code, into the light. Theywanted Mark Jones gone and a proven coach brought in, along with quality signings.
Enter two-time A-League coach of the year Ernie Merrick and Dimi Petratos, Daniel Georgievski,Roy O’Donovan andNikolai Topor-Stanley.
Over to you, football fans. The time is coming to show up or shut up.