Sporting declaration: Croatia’s surge revives Newcastle memories

GLORY BOUND: Croatia players celebrate their 2-1 extra-time semi-final victory over England at the World Cup in Russia. Picture: AAP
GLORY BOUND: Croatia players celebrate their 2-1 extra-time semi-final victory over England at the World Cup in Russia. Picture: AAP

Croatia’s against-the-odds climb to the World Cup final has revived some great memories of another meteoric rise, on a much smaller scale, that started in Newcastle football more than 30 years ago.

But former Newcastle Croatia football club secretary Tony Colic is not counting on celebrations leading to a revival of the nation’s colours in local leagues.

Newcastle Croatia, later renamed Wickham Croatia, was founded in 1984 and debuted in the fifth division of Northern NSW football.

However, with former Everton player Mike Trebilcock at the helm, the ambitious club weren’t in the lower leagues for long.

By 1991, the club had surged into first division, where their coaches included Richard Hartley and Michael Boogaard.

They finished fourth on debut and made grand finals in 1992 and 1994, losing to West Wallsend and Highfields Azzurri 2-1 each time, before they disappeared quicker than they had emerged as contenders.

Although the club has never come back, the rise of Croatia to their first World Cup final, against France on Monday (1am AEST), has turned thoughts of a reunion into a reality.

Colic told Sporting Declaration on Thursday that a reunion had only been discussed. He was, though, looking forward to watching the Cup decider in a marquee on the Croatian Wickham Sports Club lawn on Sunday night.

By Friday, Sporting Declaration was told an impromptu reunion of former players would be part of the night, starting at 9pm.

Colic said the run to the decider had been “awesome” for the Croatian community.

“It’s put a spring in everyone’s step. It's unexpected but it’s absolutely awesome,” Colic said. “They had a good ’98 side that probably should have been in the final, but for bad luck or bad refereeing. They are always competitive. A lot of their players play overseas in the top competitions. 

Tony Colic

Tony Colic

“With the independence and the wars back in the ’90s, it’s taken a while for the country to get back on its feet. The whole soccer league has been disrupted. There used to be a strong national league with the combination of the five countries, but now they are out on their own.

“They’ve been doing it tough economically, but they’ve always been a good exporter of youth players and that’s where they’ve been successful. They develop them and sell them on to Juventus, Milan, Real, the top sides in the world.

“There’s a lot of talent and passion. Soccer is in the blood of the Croatian people.”

He said it was a “bloody great achievement” to make the final ahead of many football powerhouses.

Colic, though, believed it was “highly unlikely” the watershed moment would spark a Croatian club revival in Newcastle.

“I’m not sure if anyone else is thinking about it, but a lot of our Croatian community is getting older now and the young generation play soccer wherever,” he said. “You never know, but it’s unlikely. It’s bloody hard work, I know, especially when there’s only a handful of people to manage it.

“I was there for a lot of years and I wouldn’t do it again, but we had some bloody good times.”

The occasion at least will give Colic and others a reason to reminisce about their club’s roller-coaster ride. 

“We started off in the old suburban league, just the Croatian community, and few of the boys had a bit of a chat about starting a club,” he said. “We got a committee together and we were pretty ambitious. We didn’t want to play suburban league, we wanted to play first division. Obviously we were all soccer crazy, like all the groups from Europe, we were no different.

“We got Mike Trebilcock to coach and he obviously scored a couple of goals for Everton in an FA Cup final. He then got some of the ex-first division players and we started to progress. In a short space of time, before you knew it, we were in first division and playing in a grand final.

“We used to play at the old Mayfield Park, then we amalgamated with the Wickham Bowling Club. We took over the licensed club and played at Passmore Oval. We put in soccer posts on a rugby league ground, which was pretty sacred in the old days.

“We did well there and had some success there. We did all that and eventually two things happened.

“The federation came up with a criteria around clubs. I walked away from it after many years. Then I think they had some issues with admin. It’s all voluntary and it takes a lot of time and effort.

“There were a few signs they weren’t doing what they should be doing and all the time the federation were putting criteria on teams, with seating, stadiums etc. It was going to be expensive.

“We felt we had pretty much everything there, although admin had suffered because a couple of us had left. We had a meeting and said we’re not going to be relegated. We got here on our own merits, we’ve got the ground, a grandstand, licensed club.”

He said it was a “very sad” end.

“We were ambitious and went after talent and got it,” he said. “Teams like Weston, West Wallsend, Azzurri and Olympic were well established. We were the new kid on the block but we feared no one, and most times we bloody beat them, too.

“We stirred things up, had some really good games and crowds, it was awesome.”

The Croatian club folded while others with Macedonian, Greek and Italian heritage have prospered.

“The difference is the size of the community,” he said. “The club wasn’t all Croatian players, a lot were just locals of all nationalities, but the thing was we didn’t have a big enough community behind it. It’s bloody hard work to run a club.

“If we had of stayed in first division, we probably would have kept going.”

“But we could see we were going to be relegated.”

“West Wallsend and Lake Macquarie got relegated and it takes years to come back. A lot of time and money.

“The Italians, Greeks and Macedonians all have a lot bigger communities.”

He said the club “voted on principal” not to continue in second division.

“It’s the same effort and time to play second division, and we were in the top three or four teams, so we said we’re not going to take that,” he said. “I think they played for another year or two in a lower division, a social competition, but over time that disappeared.”

Hartley also had fond memories of the the Croatian club.

“They were a great club,” he said.

“I used to love their colours, the red white and blue. They supplied us with fantastic gear, track suits and they fed us back at the club after every game. It was a really great atmosphere.”