Feeling the heat in the A-League

October 15, 2008
By Jason Dasey
(Archive)

In case you're wondering about how hot it will be to play A-League games in Townsville, turn on the oven for 20 minutes and put your head inside. (Children please don't try this at home!)

GettyImagesIan Ferguson (L) during his time at the Mariners

The analogy comes from Don Matheson, chairman of North Queensland FC, one of two new franchises from the sunshine state for the 2009-2010 season - and he's deadly serious.

Matheson is hoping that the stifling tropical heat and humidity of the A-League club closest to the equator will help North Queensland make a competitive start to Australia's national championship.

The balmy weather, an attractive and inexpensive lifestyle to tempt players, and the shrewd coaching of ex-Central Coast assistant Ian Ferguson - the former Scotland international - could prove to be a winning combination.

If fellow newcomers, Gold Coast United are their flashy, brash southern cousins with big predictions and the helicopter and private jet of the state's richest man, Clive Palmer, North Queensland are already portraying themselves as a hard-working, community club with a blue-collar image.

Matheson is hoping that Ferguson's experience with the fan-friendly Mariners - who've quickly become a much-loved part of Central Coast life in New South Wales - can ensure a similarly smooth birth of North Queensland FC.

"What we like about him is his general ability to roll up his sleeves and get stuck in," Matheson said. "He knows all about working from the grassroots to establish a football supporter base."

Ferguson faces the extra challenge of introducing a new sports team in a Rugby League stronghold that also has an established professional basketball (NBL) team.

For the past 13 years, Townsville has been the home of the NRL's North Queensland Cowboys, complete with superstars like Johnathan Thurston and Matt Bowen. Even in a miserable 2008 season with only five victories, the Cowboys attracted crowds of more than 20,000 on four occasions.

North Queensland FC will also use the city's Dairy Farmers Stadium and are aiming for a home crowd average of between 10 and 11,000. They estimate they'll need around 8,000 to cover their costs.

So far the signs are good. Ten months out from the start of the 2009-2010 season, eighty of 120 corporate boxes have been sold and there were more than 8,000 season ticket pledges in the first two weeks - roughly double their initial predictions. At just $98 for an individual and $240 for families, a season pass is 25% cheaper than the Cowboys.

Coach Ferguson says that he believes that Queensland FC will be able to carve a niche alongside the Cowboys and the NBL's Townsville Crocs.

"There's room for everyone as long as we work together and not step on each other," he said.

And football in the region has never struggled on a participation level with twice the number of active amateur players than Rugby League. Frank Farina, Steve Corica and Michael Thwaite are among the well-known former Socceroos from far north Queensland.

It is also an area that is increasingly diverse, points out Matheson. "There's the Italian cane farmers, a massive Korean mining firm and a lot of Japanese in Cairns," he said. "There's already some interest from these communities."

GettyImagesThe Dairy Farmers Stadium in Townsville

With many of the A-League's biggest stars tied to long-term deals elsewhere in an already shallow national talent pool, North Queensland FC will need to quickly turn promising local amateurs into useful squad members.

"We'd be very similar to the (Central Coast) Mariners in that we won't have many huge stars," Ferguson said. "I'd rather have 11 players giving 100 per cent than superstars who give you one good game in six."

Already the club is targeting between 12 and 14 players for next season, including a prominent Australian-based Socceroo for the crucial marquee role. The announcement of a major sponsor - a national company with a focus in Queensland - is expected by the end of October. And from December 1st, North Queensland will have a commercial and retail outlet in a Townsville shopping centre, a short walk from Dairy Farmers Stadium.

In the meantime, coach Ferguson - who has appointed fellow Scot and former Mariners striker Stewart Petrie as his assistant - will be taking road trips to look for prospective talent in a region that includes tourist mecca, Cairns, four hours north.

"The locals will get the opportunity first ... they're younger, fitter and faster ... I'd be foolish to pass by any good local players," Ferguson.

"With the heat factor, I don't want 34 or 35 years olds ... 32 would probably be the oldest player I'd look at."

The emergence of North Queensland FC and Gold Coast United - alongside Brisbane-based Queensland Roar - means the so-called Sunshine State will have more A-League clubs next season than the populous southern cities of Sydney and Melbourne, combined.

However, that's likely to change with Football Federation Australia choosing two teams for the 2010-2011 season from four bids from Melbourne, western Sydney, Wollongong and Canberra.

Ferguson has put together a three year plan that he hopes will have North Queensland FC securing a spot in the 2012 AFC Champions League by finishing in the top two of the A-League.

"We're realistic about our goals," he said. "But hopefully by the third season, we will be pushing for things."

• Sydney-born Jason Dasey (www.jasondasey.com) is an anchor for Soccernet SportsCenter and two editions of SportsCenter. He covered the 2006 World Cup and 2007 Asian Cup for ESPN.