For a club that’s still yet to play an official match, the sheer amount of upheaval has been concerning. They’ve already gone through a major investor (Lang Walker), a chairman (Rabieh Krayem), a CEO, a training venue, a host of front office and backroom staff and a planned Indigenous academy which never got off the ground.
That was all before COVID-19, which has presented its own challenges. For many months, Macarthur had no idea when their first season would actually begin. Then, a few days out from their historic showdown with the Western Sydney Wanderers, the match was pushed back three days because of Sydney’s latest outbreak.
“You name it, we’ve had it thrown at us,” chairman Gino Marra told the Herald. “You walk in and you think you’re going to be doing one thing and you’re doing another. You can’t plan. It’s no one’s fault, you’ve just got to work with what you’ve got.”
On the field, there can be no debate: Macarthur has assembled one of the A-League’s best squads on paper, defying what Sam Krslovic, the club’s sporting and operations director, says were “fear-mongering” predictions that recruitment would suffer because of the reduced salary cap.
There is a quiet buzz building around key signing and probable Johnny Warren Medal contender Benat Etxebarria, the former Real Betis and Athletic Bilbao midfielder who is one of the most well-credentialed foreigners Australia has ever seen.
“You should have seen Benat at training yesterday. I’ve never seen a pass like that in the A-League,” Marra said.
But there’s plenty to be excited about beyond him and fellow Spaniard Markel Susaeta – including Socceroos goalkeeper Adam Federici, imposing defenders Aleks Susnjar and Aleks Jovanovic, young guns Jake Hollman and Denis Genreau, and ex-Premier League striker Matt Derbyshire.
In captain Mark Milligan, they have a true leader and a textbook professional whose invaluable A-League experience will show them all the way. And coach Ante Milicic heads up what feels like a fully-formed football department – not a start-up – with a crystal clear idea of the type of game they want to play.
Most of Macarthur’s question marks lie off the field. There doesn’t seem to be a visible groundswell of support for this new club. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there.
The Bulls say they’ve done their work by stealth, speaking directly to the grassroots football community of Sydney’s blue-collar south-west.
I’m not interested in all the fancy stuff … I’m interested in meeting as many people as I can and selling the virtues of our club.
Macarthur FC chairman Gino Marra
That’s also where the club’s money comes from: Roy Mammone, the owner of Sydney Trucks and Machinery, and property developer Michael Gerace, who together bought Walker’s 50 per cent stake in Macarthur FC earlier this year. Both hail from the area, as do Marra and Krslovic, and all of them are active in the local football community.
Macarthur’s sponsorship portfolio is local, too – there are no glitzy big-name brands, but there is a long list of smaller companies and businesses with their roots in Campbelltown and surrounds who have jumped on board.
“I don’t care about the guy in the eastern suburbs who puts s*** on the south-west,” Marra said.
“I’m not interested in all the fancy stuff in the papers. I’m interested in meeting as many people as I can and selling the virtues of our club.
“We understand the area. People want to see results. That’s why the first thing we concentrated on was building a team that the region would be proud of.
“There are 10 NPL clubs within half-an-hour of our stadium. That’s how much people follow and believe in football here. They’re not idiots, they’re people that understand football. We had to get our football right.”
The pandemic has made it difficult to roll out fan engagement strategies, but the Bulls claim to have visited over 10,000 students across the Campbelltown, Camden, Wollondilly, and Southern Highlands areas in the last 12 months through their schools program.
Membership sales sit at around 3500 – on par with pre-pandemic tallies for clubs like Adelaide and Central Coast, but well clear of expansion contemporaries Western United. Most members are young families, reflective of the growing demographic in the south-west who are flocking there for affordable housing.
“We know there’s a lot of new immigrants coming to those areas, coming from countries where our code of football is the most popular,” said A-League chief Greg O’Rourke, one of the FFA decision-makers who opted for Macarthur over the well-funded Southern Expansion bid headed by former NSW Premier Morris Iemma.
“We had this piece of geography that was verging onto this growth corridor in the south-west, which is also sitting over [clubs like] Marconi, Bonnyrigg, Sydney United, and also had a really decent set of grassroots and state league competitions.
“My thinking was, you have the opportunity to put a team in a place where you can grow new fans and most importantly, hopefully build a bridge where people from the pre-A-League football could find a team they could call their own.”
No other sport has planted its flag in Sydney’s south-west. Only the Wests Tigers play there, and that’s just three times a year. The 20,000-capacity stadium in Leumeah – a 45-minute drive on a traffic-free day from Bankwest Stadium – sits otherwise disused.
“Rugby league’s abandoned the area. We’re the only sport who harnesses the area,” said Krslovic, a born and bred Cabramatta boy.
“It’s where the future is in terms of the airport, the growth corridors, young families. From a football perspective, we can put a real good footprint and develop a lot of footballers and football supporters.
“I have no doubt that if the club continues along the way that we’ve started, especially in the last six to 12 months, we’ll be one of the biggest clubs in Australia.”
Marra and Krslovic are the men with their hands on the club’s levers of power. Marra is a director of the Southern Districts association who previously sat on the board of the Association of Australian Football Clubs – the cage-rattling lobby group of NPL clubs determined to introduce promotion and relegation with the A-League.
Krslovic is a well-known and sometimes outspoken NSW football identity, a former president of Sydney United 58 and close confidant of many of the game’s biggest stars from Sydney’s west, most notably former Socceroos skipper Mile Jedinak.
They’ve done things their way, and that hasn’t always made them popular with rival clubs, or even their own would-be fans.
Take, for instance, Macarthur’s recent affiliation with NSW NPL1 outfit Northbridge FC, who are based on the north shore – an hour away from Campbelltown. Or their very public pursuit of Milos Ninkovic, which rubbed Sydney FC the wrong way.
Or their steep pricing of tickets and memberships for a traditionally working-class area. Or their failure to fully embrace media coverage at times during pre-season. Or their move to register the name of their active supporter group, the Bullpen, which outraged their independently-minded fans – having already moved their allocated bay from behind the goals to one of the corners at Campbelltown Stadium, to much consternation.
But behind every decision that might seem strange from the periphery, Marra and Krslovic say, lies a very specific motivation, and they’re happy to be judged by the outcome of their actions.
“I had my eyes wide open,” said O’Rourke.
“If we were to give Macarthur a licence under the stewardship of Gino and Sam, I knew exactly what I’d be getting – some really passionate people around football who would be able to not only themselves take that step from the NPL space into the A-League, but also drum up support for people to take that step with them.
“I knew they would be different, if you like, from some of the other clubs in the way they approached it. But I thought that was also actually part of the charm.”
Perhaps it makes sense. The genesis of the ‘Bulls’ identity, after all, is a reference to a runaway herd of two bulls and five cows which escaped from Sydney Cove in 1788. They were found seven years later south of the Nepean River, near Campbelltown, and were deemed too wild to be tamed.
“We come from an entrepreneurial type of mindset, which is totally different and at times conflicts with the establishment,” Krslovic said.
“But as we’ve found over time – and with a lot of examples – we’ve actually helped them on commercial grounds, given them different ideas, things that haven’t been picked up before, things that can be done differently. We can’t all be the same, because if we’re all the same it breeds complacency.”
Marra tips the Bulls to average crowds of about 6000 but, if they build momentum on the field, he expects those numbers to grow. Time will tell whether their confidence is justified or just bluster; if their maverick approach is a breath of fresh air or a cloud of chaos.
Either way, it should be very entertaining.
“We’re a group of owners that succeed in business, we’re proud of our region and we want our region to be proud of us,” Marra said.
“There’s been a lot of people that have knocked us. We’ll just sit back and prove them wrong, on and off the field. We’re doing all the right stuff. It’s a long game for us and we’ll work towards it.”
Vince is a sports reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.