Azzurri, Lake Macquarie dumped in soccer shake-up

BEATEN grand finalists Azzurri, who came within a penalty shoot-out of being crowned champions, have been exiled from top-flight local soccer in a decision the club has labelled "a sporting disgrace".

Azzurri and Lake Macquarie have been cut from the Northern NSW State League, which has been reduced from 10 teams to eight for next season.

Highfields-based Azzurri, who have played in the top division since 1963, lost the grand final to Broadmeadow Magic on penalties on Sunday but have now been relegated and will most likely lose most of their best players.

Azzurri president Shane Tull was livid with Northern NSW Football's decision, which is not open to appeal.

"How embarrassing would it have been if we had actually won the grand final," he told The Herald yesterday.

"I just look at some of the teams that are in it, and I don't mind naming them, either Toronto Awaba, West Wallsend and South Cardiff.

"If our criteria doesn't stack up better than theirs I'll eat the whole [criteria] document."

Broadmeadow, Hamilton, South Cardiff, West Wallsend, Valentine Phoenix, Toronto Awaba, Weston and Edgeworth were all accepted into the revamped state league yesterday.

Azzurri and Lake Macquarie have been invited to join the 12-team first division, along with other failed state league applicants Lambton, Maitland and Adamstown. The 14th applicant, Kahibah FC, will remain in the inter-district one competition.

Teams were judged on criteria which included facilities/ground (30 per cent), financial status (25), management (20), playing strength/coaching staff (15) and development program (10).

An independent body, chaired by former NSW gaming minister Richard Face, was assigned to make the decision.

The new competition will run until 2011.

After that, promotion and relegation will be reintroduced.

Lake Macquarie won the grand final in 2006 and were minor premiers last year. The decision to axe the Roosters has baffled club president Jeffrey Jones.

"I think the bigger shock was the three that stayed in [Toronto Awaba, South Cardiff and West Wallsend]," Jones said.

"I'll have to put in a written request to find out where we were weak, because obviously if they feel we are weak in certain areas, we need to address that I feel we're entitled to answers."

Northern NSW Football operations manager Alan Nisbet said all 14 applicants had met the criteria, but the eight chosen were the best performers.

"The review is based on their performance over the last five years," Nisbet said.

"It had nothing to do with the performances on or off the field in 2008."

Nisbet would not reveal why Azzurri and Lake Macquarie had fallen short.

"It's subjective and if you take Azzurri, for instance, they may have polled better in their ground than the others, but not in the financial or management status," he said.

"If they wanted to talk to us about that, they're welcome to."

Nisbet said there would be no avenue to appeal against the decision.

Azzurri struggled in 2007, but new coach Greg Smith moulded a young side into a competitive force that pushed Magic all the way in the decider.

Tull said he would step down from the Azzurri committee after eight years.

A planned merger with Charlestown Junior Soccer Club would go ahead next season, but most of Azzurri's first-grade players would be lost.

"The quality of our squad will change, because I'd say half to three-quarters of our team have been cherry-picked already," Tull said.

Azzurri captain Will Pryce said he was likely to leave the club.

"I was definitely staying at Azzurri, but I think I'm a bit too young to go down to first division," Pryce said.

Jones said all Lake Macquarie players and coaching staff would be allowed to leave the Roosters to play with state league clubs.

Smith said last night that he had already received several offers from other clubs to coach next season but would meet with Azzurri officials later in the week to discuss his future.

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