Whether you call it soccer or football is irrelevant; the popularity of the sport has exploded in Armidale, with roughly 10% of the city’s population playing the game and an estimated third of the population involved. We speak with Graham Parsons about the success of the sport and why it’s a great choice for people of all ages.
If you live in Armidale, chances are that you, a family member or a friend plays soccer during winter. This is because the game currently accommodates around 2,600 people in the Armidale and District competition, and even more when you include the university and twilight competitions. Drive around Armidale on a Saturday you will be sure to see every full size field in the town in use, with crowds of friends, family and supporters spectating and cheering on their sides.
Graham Parsons, President of the Armidale and District Football Association and Board Member of Northern Inland Football, has been involved with soccer for over 42 years. He says the huge increase in player numbers in Armidale this year is a reflection of the growing popularity of soccer right across Australia.
“Across the board it’s about a 12% increase, which is a lot of extra children playing football and extra adults playing football as well. Over the last 5 years I think it’s increased by about 25 or 30 per cent.
“There’s a definite link there to how the FFA has grown and to the general restructure of football across Australia. Also, the introduction of the A-League has improved the popularity.”
In 2005, the Football Federation Australia, or FFA, introduced the Hyundai A-League, a domestic national competition with 8 participating clubs. The increased interest in the sport which resulted from this, as well as Australia’s success in the World Cup, appears to have had an impact on local competition. Under a new concept, the local competition is being run according to a national platform. Children can start playing soccer at the age of five, and the youngest age group is the under 6s. The age competition goes right up to the under 16s group, with roughly four divisions in each group. The next stage is the open competition which also has four divisions, and the women’s competition, which at this stage only has one division.
Armidale and District football consists of clubs from Walcha, Uralla, Armidale and Guyra, with Glen Innes also involved with the seniors’ competition. Most games are played at the Rologas complex here in Armidale, but every second week, Guyra, Uralla and Walcha have home games. Graham says that player numbers in these towns are also growing. “They’re getting bigger and bigger with the number of kids playing in those towns, which is great. So the Rologas Complex is the main base, and because of the increase in numbers we’re expanding and starting to use Harris Park, which was the old hockey fields, and Newling Oval. Our biggest expansion this year has been in the 14 and 16 year age groups, and we’ve run out of full size fields.”
The competition runs over winter, coinciding with the school holidays. “We start here in Armidale a bit later than most other areas. We start after cricket’s completely finished, because we’ve got an overlap in the use of fields. We don’t usually start until the first week in May, as soon as the school holidays finish. We finish on the last weekend in September, before school holidays,” said Graham.
Graham believes the success of the sport also owes to the fact that local people support the game and make the smooth running of the competition possible. “What makes us so strong is that we’ve got the Referee’s Association and some great people running that. We’ve got referees for most games of football here.”
He also says that the Council has been incredibly supportive. “Armidale is very proactive with sport and the Armidale Dumaresq Council get bagged for the things they don’t do, but they do a lot of good things that no-one knows about or care about as well.”
Perhaps the only drawback to the growth of soccer is that it may be at the expense of other sports, and Graham is certainly aware of this issue.”I’d also say that at a local level it’s a bit unfortunate that the other sports haven’t grown, which probably makes it a bit easier for me to develop soccer. But I’d like to make sure that Rugby League and all the other sports go well also. I don’t want to get to the stage where the only thing in town is football. I want my grandkids to be able to play hockey, cricket, tennis and rugby league if they want.”
Taking part in soccer is not just about sport; it provides children and young adults with an opportunity to build confidence as well as social, team-work and communication skills. It also allows families to interact with other families and to make friendships that extend beyond the playing fields. Graham says that new families are always welcome. “Because of our organisation and how the clubs are structured, and how well they’re organised, it’s easy for families to move into soccer.”
As for the social scene surrounding the sport, he believes that there is potential for growth.”It’s not as big as it could be or should be. I reflect back to when I was younger and we used to have big functions for our own clubs and big functions for the association and everyone got involved. These days in society everyone’s too busy and people just go out and play the sport. They do socialise in their own club environment and with the opposition a little bit but it’s not really large. But with the group we’ve got working at the moment, we’re working on trying to have some more social outings and plan to have a fun day later in the year where we get Richard Torbay and other people along to make themselves look silly.”
With even more plans for the future growth of soccer it seems that the sport will become an even greater sensation, with the potential for even more people to get involved. “One of my hopes down the track is that we’ll have enough girls playing so that they’ll have their own independent competition. That does occur up the coast a little bit, but here from 6s through to 16s it’s a mixed competition. A lot of the teams in the younger age groups are all-girl teams, but we don’t have enough all-girl teams for them to just play against girls. Next year we’ll hopefully have a platform where the girls are playing in their own competition, in their own right.”
“Another thing that’s going to hit the deck this year, and that we’re in the middle of organising is a game called Futsal, which is indoor soccer. That’s going to probably start up in Armidale and in the New England North West area. It’s the international name for indoor soccer. There are lots of different versions of indoor soccer as far as the rules go, but this is the international game with the international rules.”
For those who may be reluctant to jump straight into the full length games, there is also a summer twilight competition that’s run by the university with the support of Armidale and District Football. With smaller fields, shorter length games and a more social atmosphere, this competition is great for families, work groups or groups of friends looking for an activity in which they can participate together. It also offers players hoping to get into the sport a gentle ingression into the game. For more information contact Kate Bell at Sport UNE.
For Graham Parsons, nothing compares to a great game of soccer, and his passion for the sport will ensure that it goes from strength to strength in the city. “It’s a great game. The most valuable thing for me is that it is community. It’s more than just a game of soccer, and I get the most value and enjoyment out of the game by watching the 6 and 7 year-old kids running around the park, not worried about whether they’ve won the game, more worried about holding hands and talking to their mates. And it grows from there. I also have a great appreciation for the different types of people that are out there that work fairly hard to create the environment where kids can have that enjoyment. The game itself is just a part of the process; it’s basically about us as a community.”
Players hoping to join the competition can still do so, and although the season has already started, the Association will help players to join an existing side and get settled in. For more information contact Graham on 6774 9554, or visit the Association’s website, www.isport.com.au/soccer/adsa/
Story by Chloe Burton.