To mark the 40th anniversary of the National Soccer League Australian Football legend Alex Tobin reflects on his almost 20 years in the competition, the iconic players of the league and its impact on Australian football.

PFA: The past month has marked the 40th anniversary of the first game of the National Soccer League. What are your early memories of the competition before you became a player in the league?

AT: I guess my background was not typical. I played football and loved football, but I was someone that was not specifically following the NSL as some others were. I guess that was because the NSL at the time didn’t have the following that it had later on. As a youngster I knew more about the Socceroos than I might have known about the NSL, which sounds strange now but that is the way it was growing up in South Australia and you didn’t see as much local football as you should have. I guess I was more an NSL player by accident. I knew about the NSL but I wasn’t an ardent fan because of a lack of knowledge.

PFA: You made your debut in 1984 for Adelaide City. How did you transition into the league?

AT: I was 17 when I moved from what would be an NPL club to Adelaide City and I went straight into a full-time training environment and the commitment went from a large one to a total one overnight. I would argue it was very much sink or swim. There were not people thinking ‘we are going to develop Alex Tobin over a number of years’; they were probably thinking lets see how he goes and, thankfully, I swam. It was an abrupt and severe introduction to professional football and thankfully I stuck to it and was able to be in it for quite some time. When I look at it from a development point of view it was very different from what kids go through now.

PFA: There were countless iconic players in the league, but who were the players that stood out for you?

AT: I had a lot of teammates who represented the Socceroos over the years and Adelaide City had a lot of stability, with a lot of players that played 10 or more years with the club. When I was first starting we had guys like Joe Mullen, Steve Maxwell and later down the track we had the Vidmar brothers, Robert Zabica, Milan Ivanovic and Damien Mori. I have missed quite a few as there was a number of guys who were of a very high standard. Mark Viduka was one of the players in the early 90s before he went to Europe, Paul Trimboli was one of the most clever and hard to read players and could really make you think about how to defend and how to mark him. I was fortunate to face many great players and ambassadors for the country.

PFA: The league helped to produce a host of top quality players. Why do you believe it was so successful in this?

AT: It was sink or swim, you needed to be tough to survive it. Many of the players would work a job and train every night. When people describe the competition as semi professional I don’t necessarily describe it in that way, because yes the players had to have other jobs and work as well to get by, but the reality was that for many clubs the commitment was full-time and it was professional. When you have a full-time commitment from the players and from the coach you can produce high class players. It was a very competitive league with some very good coaches.

PFA: Throughout the history of Australian football there is a common thread of the players’ commitment to the game itself. Was that something that was always evident to you?

AT: All the players went through the hard yards, nothing was gifted to them and because of that they tended to have a great commitment to the game itself and we were all committed to Australian football being better and being where we need to be. Everybody knew the game was not at where we wanted it to be. When it came to the tough decision to close the NSL, all players committed to it because they knew it would be a better path forward, maybe not for themselves, but still understood it was the best thing for the game and the next generation of players.

PFA: How important was the NSL in laying a foundation for the future of the sport?

AT: There is no question that it was a massive platform, in that it was a platform for the development of players that had the opportunity to play in a national league. As I said I went from playing in a local competition to then on a plane every second week and it greatly assisted me. Ange Postecoglou went through the same pathway as me but with South Melbourne and who is to say he would be coaching the Socceroos if the NSL hadn’t given him an opportunity? There are lots of others in the same boat.