Mooroolbark, (pronounced Moo-rool-bark) is a suburb situated on the outskirts of the Melbourne metropolitan area on the south-east coast of the broad sprawling Australian continent. The word 'Mooroolbark' means 'red earth' in the local indigenous language. Indeed, the earth that burns to a dust under the tall scorched skies of any repetitive Australian summer and turns just a quickly to a sick auburn glue in the wet Mooroolbark winters is red, the product of the town being draped across a now long deceased volcanic ridge, slung across wild hills and gasping ascents. It's a place that is now more suburb than the bushland it was when I was growing up there. It's also a town that has a quietly spoken place in Australian soccer and sporting history.
Today Australian soccer enjoys a growing and more importantly, broadening popularity thanks to successive Socceroo World Cup campaigns and the A-League's relatively subtle consolidation of the interest generated by such successes. The demise of the A-League's predecessor, the National Soccer League seems a distant memory, but a demise still close enough to the present day to ensure prudence and a measured ambition in the rapidly developing plans of those at the helm of the flourishing national league.
In the same manner that the A-League has been able capitalise on recent World Cup appearances, it was similar for the newly founded NSL in the mid-1970s. A decade prior to the formation of the NSL, Australian state-based leagues and clubs had for various reasons, declined the move to a national soccer competition. Clubs feared such a league would not be economically viable, while the individual leagues themselves believed that such a move would only undermine their influence and presence.
With the 1974 World Cup qualification of the Socceroos, such cynical attitudes now encountered the smirk of curious optimism. In 1976, it was decided that fourteen clubs would compete in the first season of the newly founded national league in the following year of 1977.
It was a historic moment, not only for Australian soccer, but for Australian sport as the NSL would be the first national league of any sport within the nation. The National Basketball League would not form until 1979, while the Victorian Football League would not officially regard itself a truly national competition until 1990, re-branding itself the Australian Football League.
However, despite the assistance of the 1974 World Cup qualification of the men's national team, the move to a national competition didn't come without some resistance. The Victorian Soccer Federation proved to be reluctant contributors to the venture, not wanting to lose its power clubs to the new league. It's here that a small club on the rise from the outskirts of Melbourne affectionately known as 'The Barkers' would play their small part in Australian soccer history.
Founded in 1962, the Mooroolbark United Soccer Club would finish its first season of competition in the 4th division of the Victorian Metropolitan League in 1964 in 9th position. It began a consistent and surprising climb within the division, culminating in the club claiming the 4th division title in 1969.
The success of 1969 began a hectic elevation for the club. Winning the 3rd division title in their first season of play in 1970, the Barkers were 2nd division runners-up in 1971, going on to finish in 8th place in the 1st division season of 1972.
The club would continue its steep ascent the following year, winning the 1st division Victorian Metropolitan League title in 1973. This period of success had seen the club lift itself from division 4 of the Metropolitan League in 1969 to the top flight of Victorian competition, the Victorian State League in merely 7 seasons.
Despite a poor first season of play in the Victorian State League, Mooroolbark dodged relegation finishing 11th on the table. Building upon this experience, two years later, in the season of 1976, the Barkers would finish in 3rd position behind power inner-city Melbourne clubs South Melbourne and Footscray.
As negotiations to form the National Soccer League continued through 1975 and 1976, the reluctant Victorian Soccer Federation forbid any of its clubs to join the new league. It wasn't until Mooroolbark decided to break away and join the new nationwide league as the state's fourth representative club, that the deadlock between the aspiring national league and the resistant Victorian clubs ended.
The Barkers' move away from the Victorian Soccer Federation, entering the National Soccer League as its first official club, was not only the defining moment in the formation of the league, but at the same time it made Mooroolbark United Soccer Club the very first national based sporting club in Australian history.
But the Barkers would pay a high price for their bold move to the national stage. Not as equipped with talent and capital as the other 13 founding clubs of the NSL, their first season would be a difficult one. It would also be their last on the national stage.
Mooroolbark would finish bottom of the table, winning just 5 of their 26 contests for the 1977 season. The consequence was not merely relegation back to the top flight of Victorian state competition, but due to strict and the perhaps somewhat spiteful requirements set by the Victorian Soccer Federation, the club was relegated back to the 3rd division of the Victorian Metropolitan League, a division the club had won promotion from eight years earlier.
The club would go on to suffer relegation three times in the next four seasons, finding themselves playing in the provisional leagues in 1981, just four years after playing their pivotal part in the formation of the National Soccer League.
By 1990 the club had fought its way back to state prominence, climbing their way back to compete in the Victorian State League for the 1st time since the inception of the National Soccer League. The stay in the top flight of Victorian competition was short lived as the club suffered regular relegations in the years following. Since the year 2000, the Barkers have competed in the lowly provisional leagues, with a brief period of promotion to the lower tier of the state league competition.
In 2004, as Mooroolbark finished 5th in the 3rd division of the state league south-east division, the league which it had been a founding member of over 25 years earlier was having struggles all of its own. After 28 seasons of play, ponderous mismanagement coupled with numerous failed attempts at reinvention, the National Soccer League folded in 2004. During its time, over 40 clubs competed in the once revolutionary national league. Twelve of those clubs are now defunct.
Meanwhile, the little club situated 20 miles east of Melbourne, which through as much circumstance as courage made the defining move that formed the league it would only play one season in, continues to play on in modest surroundings against just as modest opposition. This is the way of small football clubs. And it's this aspect of the small club that appeals to the hearts of so many people across football landscapes around the world, in divisions lowly and lower. It is these clubs that we do not mark by the lack of prestige and silverware in their cabinets, but rather by their achievements beyond the pitch.