One of the iconic players of the National Soccer League (NSL), Francis Awaritefe, shares with the PFA his journey to Australia, the league’s production to top talent and why it is important that the past is recognised and celebrated.

It was meant to be a season long adventure before a return to the UK. “I saw myself as having a career in the UK,” said Awaritefe. “I knew there was a league in Australia and other English players had been out to play here for a season and that was what I intended to do.”

His intention would be far exceeded. He would enjoy nearly 20 seasons in Australia, starring for the likes of Melbourne Knights, Marconi and South Melbourne. His form was so impressive that he also earned three Socceroos caps.

The former Barnet and Sutton United forward’s start to life in Australia was an auspicious one.

“The only contact I had was Ian Wallace who was a coach at Melbourne Croatia and my plan was to go to Melbourne Croatia and trial. I rang Ian Wallace and I was living in St Kilda and Melbourne Croatia was in Sunshine and that was a bit of a trek. I didn’t have a car and South Melbourne was much closer and I thought maybe I should go to them.

“I trained with them for a month and the coach said ‘you seem like a good player but the problem is we have a lot of strikers and you could try some of the other teams and maybe you could try to play in the state league.”

At the time South Melbourne had the likes of Paul Trimboli and Kimon Taliadoros and a host of other stars. Awaritefe would then trial successfully with Melbourne Croatia, where outstanding performances in a pre-season tournament would seal the deal and he would join his first NSL club.

He would hit the ground running scoring at a rate of almost a goal every second game in his almost 100 appearances for the club.

“I had a very good year in that first year in the NSL. The football was higher from what I had played in the UK and tactically they were better organised.”

“I saw guys like Oscar Crino and I thought ‘what a player’ and there were lots of others. I remember the Grand Final in 1988 and that was Marconi and Sydney Croatia and that was a great game with so many great players. It was an exciting time because we didn’t lose too many players overseas.”

The likes of Viduka, Lazaridis, the Vidmar brothers and a host of others emerged in Awaritefe’s time in the league. The question of how so many outstanding players were developed is not one that he puts down to host of factors.

“I think people adapt to the environment. I think you can go to Argentina to Brazil and you can compare it to England. It is vastly different in terms of the way they play and see football and I think it was the same here.

“I think the difference in Australia was that there was a ‘hotch potch’ of influences from around the world. I think clubs structures themselves were very community focused and that meant that young kids that were part of that community and aspired to play for their clubs.

“If players were good they would go into the AIS around 18 which was just like this big finishing school for the best young players. It was a structure that was not designed but it worked and that is how we managed to produce those players due to the clubs themselves.”

Whilst the quality of players produced by the competition stands out, for the Socceroo it was the players’ commitment to improving the sport as a whole that was of most note throughout its history.

“The players’ association went through a number of stages in its development. We started off trying to fight for player rights and that took years to establish. We then started having discussions about having an influence on the direction of the game and we should have an influence on where the game is going.

“We were sitting there in a meeting for the Executive and having a discussion about the NSL and we were about to commit to the research that would form the basis for the NSL. We had to make a decision on the number of teams and we decided that we needed to focus on quality, even if that meant some of us losing our jobs. We knew a third of players could lose their jobs and the players still voted to go down this path. For players the game will always go first and it showed in that moment.”

On Sunday, the next chapter in Australian football will be written. Ensuring this moment is inextricably linked to the past and celebrated as a part of the sport’s broader journey is one that Awaritefe is eager to see.

“You have to embrace the past and recognise the important contribution made to the game by so many.”