The passing of an era
By Michael Lynch
February 29, 2004
"The Knights are a member-based club and the site also contains the Croatian Social Centre."
"All that comes to an end today when the team from Sunshine plays its last game in the national league. A club established 51 years ago by Croatian immigrants, the Knights have, down the decades, clung strongly to their roots. Whether as Essendon Croatia,Croatia, MelbourneCroatia or the Knights, they have been able to mine a generous seam of talent, the sons of generations of Croatian immigrants from Melbourne's western suburbs and Geelong."
Melbourne Knights, Somers Street and passionate fans proved a heady mix, writes Michael Lynch.
What Andrew Marth remembers most is the crowds. The noise, the atmosphere, the chanting, the intimidation, the
sense that the Melbourne Knights could not lose in front of that passionate, hostile Somers Street crowd.
That was back in the mid-1990s, when the team from Sunshine was the football power in the land. Five grand
finals in six seasons, two premierships and three runner-up trophies - a sustained period of success that few
football teams in any code have equalled in the modern era.
Back then, in a golden period from 1990 to 1996, the Knights supplied Australia's footballer of the year four
times, its under-21 player of the year twice and its top goal-scorer twice.
With players of the calibre of Mark Viduka, Danny Tiatto, Steve Horvat, Frank Juric and Josip Simunic, to name
just a few who went on to have significant overseas careers, the Knights set a standard few other teams -
either then or now - could match.
"Without a doubt, my greatest memories in soccer have been here at this ground," said Marth, the grand
final-winning captain, this week as he reflected on the Knights' imminent demise.
"For the quality of the teams we had at Somers Street in 1994-95-96, I don't think there's any around that
touched them. The Carlton team I played in my first season there was good, but I think the Knights teams in
the mid-1990s were very special.
"We used to pack the crowds out then. Thousands of them would come. It was a great atmosphere. People said
they (the crowds) used to put all the other teams off and give us a big advantage. It did give us a lot of
confidence to know that other teams didn't like coming there, that they expected a belting."
All that comes to an end today when the team from Sunshine plays its last game in the national league. A club
established 51 years ago by Croatian immigrants, the Knights have, down the decades, clung strongly to their
roots. Whether as Essendon Croatia, Croatia, Melbourne Croatia or the Knights, they have been able to mine a
generous seam of talent, the sons of generations of Croatian immigrants from Melbourne's western suburbs and
"Without a doubt, my greatest memories in soccer have been here at this ground."
- ANDREW MARTH
In the end, what gave them such strength (as is the case for so many of the traditional ethnically based
National Soccer League sides) is proving to be their undoing. Soccer no longer exists in the ghetto of
mainstream sport. Its days as "wogball", a sport played, as Johnny Warren was so memorably taunted as a
youngster, only by "sheilas, wogs and poofters", are long gone. It is now the most popular sport for
youngsters nationwide and the new board of the Australian Soccer Association is desperate to tap into this
latent audience for its new, reformed national league. But clubs with an overwhelming ethnic base are not
It is, as the Knights' hierarchy admits, the cost of progress. Bigger budgets ($5 million a year will be
required to sustain a side in Frank Lowy's planned Australian Premier League) are beyond the imaginings of
clubs such as theirs. Their supporter base - as the dwindling crowds this season in their least successful
campaign in years show - is either dying out or disinterested. Sponsors are ever harder to find.
The future of Somers Street is as yet unclear. The Knights want to play next season in the elite state
competition, the Victorian Premier League, but with their players dispersing after this game to other VPL
clubs, it is unclear how many will come back.
The Knights are a member-based club and the site also contains the Croatian Social Centre. An extraordinary
general meeting is planned for later this week to determine its fate. The options are to raise the funds to
pay off the remaining debt on the venue - about $1.3 million - or sell the complex and play elsewhere. A lot
could hinge on the fate of the application by the new Melbourne United consortium to join the APL. It has been
offered the Knights' facilities as a training venue should it want them.
Whatever happens, it cannot be denied that Somers Street has left an indelible mark on the NSL. Visiting
teams, as Marth pointed out, hate going there; the surroundings - industrial sites, urban waste grounds - are
far from inviting and, in the glory days, the revved-up crowd chanting "Cro-at-zi-a, Cro-at-zi-a" at top
volume, was intimidating.
The venue always has a down-at-heel, scruffy, look, allied to a "So what? We don't care what you think of us"
Flares are all part of the experience on a visit to Somers Street and, doubtless, many will be dispatched
today. While the more sensational elements of the press and tabloid television create the impression that
Knights supporters are hooligans, the reality is that there is rarely any trouble.
The supporters' worst offence was three years ago, when a tiny group of so-called fans attacked Perth Glory
coach Bernd Stange and a handful of Glory players, citing the "Serbian salute" that Perth striker Bobby
Despotovski had allegedly given the crowd as justification for their action.
It was inexcusable and the club was fined, ordered to improve ground security and play its next home game
against Perth in Tasmania.