Newcastle’s rich Socceroo history

Tony Popovic and Graham Arnold have both starred for the Socceroos in Newcastle – a heartland of the code that’s witnessed football superstars from around the globe and a national team history dating back to the 1920s.

When Newcastle was revealed as one of five host cities for the 2015 Asian Cup, few would have predicted it would host Newcastle’s biggest Socceroo game in history - a semi-final of the Asian Cup. 

But a guaranteed semi-final at the venue and a slip-up from Ange Postecoglou’s men in the group stage means that’s what awaits fans on Tuesday night when UAE come to town. 

So, Newcastle - one of Australia’s richest footballing nurseries, an area that produced former Liverpool great Craig Johnston amongs others - will have millions of eyes from around the country and Asia watching to see who'll qualify for the continental finale.

Australia have played eight ‘A’ internationals in Newcastle since 1923 but just three since 1955.

In 1995, an Australian outfit featuring current Western Sydney Wanderers FC coach Tony Popovic took on New Zealand at Breakers Stadium for the Trans-Tasman Cup.

After a goalless first-leg in Christchurch, the Aussies came-out firing on home soil netting two first-half goals through Damien Mori and skipper Paul Wade before burly striker Joe Spiteri sealed the result just after the break.

Prior to that, Australia’s often frustrating quest for World Cup qualification through Oceania saw Fiji travel to Newcastle in 1988. 

Interestingly, Australia suffered a shock 1-0 loss to the Fijians in the away leg and returned to Newcastle under pressure to progress to the next stage of qualification.

Fortunately the Green and Gold responded with a thumping 5-1 win at Speers Point, including a strike from current Sydney FC boss Graham Arnold.

The Solomon Islands followed suit in 1992. The Socceroos’ 6-1 win over the island nation helped Australia win the Oceania qualification zone for the 1994 World Cup, though the Aussies eventually fell at the final hurdle against Argentina.

But Socceroo history in “Newy” dates back almost a century, to a decade when Qantas was first founded, Vegemite first began to be sold, construction of the Harbour Bridge began and Australia had its first female elected to the Australian Parliament.

In 1923, Newcastle’s first Socceroos international was played - a friendly against New Zealand at Newcastle Showground. Australia were thumped 4-1 by the Kiwi outfit. And Australia played out a goalless draw with Canada at the same venue less than a year later in 1924. 

In the following decade, an Indian side defeated the Socceroos 4-1 in 1938.

Following World War II, South Africa toured Australia in 1947 and 1955 and played internationals in Newcastle on both occasions. The Socceroos featuring the legendary Joe Marston thumped the Springboks 5-1 in the first series before suffering a humiliating 4-1 loss eight years later.

So, while some may discredit the scheduling of one of Australia’s biggest ever matches in the Hunter region, Newcastle’s rich footballing history cannot be under-played.

Names such as Johnston, Tredinnick, Marston and Baartz have been synonymous with the region for the best part of 50 years – and that’s just the Socceroo contingent.

For example, did you know both Bobby Charlton and George Best played for Manchester United against a Northern NSW side in 1967? 

Another great of the Manchester club - David Beckham - visited in 2010 in one of the biggest ever club games when his LA Galaxy met Newcastle Jets in a friendly.  

And the Jets may be struggling badly these days but during the NSL era, Newcastle KB United would pull crowds of up to 15-20,000 at the same venue for the Asian Cup semi-final on Tuesday night (though the then International Sports Centre has been massively upgraded since the days of Kenny Boden, Roy Drinkwater and Bill Summerscales). 

And let's not forget, the club won a Hyundai A-League Championship in 2008, famously defeating local rivals Central Coast at Allianz Stadium.  

Socceroo legend and Novocastrian Ray Baartz hailed the Socceroos’ Asian Cup semi as the “biggest ever in regional Australia” and insists football will only benefit from the clash.

“The game at all levels is going to be benefit from it. I think it will stimulate a lot of kids to play the game and excite a lot of the juniors who are already playing the game,” he told www.socceroos.com.au.

When Ange Postecoglou’s men walk out onto the Newcastle Stadium turf on Tuesday night, it will be the first time in almost 20 years the Socceroos have played an international in the Hunter – and the first at the venue.

And with the eyes of an expectant nation closely gazed – another chapter will be written in the unique history of a proud footballing town.

Let’s hope it’s one we can all celebrate.

The Socceroos play the United Arab Emiriates in the Semi-Finals of the AFC Asian Cup on Tuesday 27 January with the match to be broadcast LIVE on Fox Sports 505 and LIVE on ABC 1 from 8pm AEDT.