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Once More Into The Light?

Brisbane football fans looking for an alternative to the ubiquitous rugby league first State of Origin match this Wednesday night could do far worse than to venture out to Perry Park to watch a game that has something just as tangible as state pride hanging on its outcome. It has unfinished business – both individually and collectively – to take care of.

The traditional home of Queensland football will play host to a fascinating Football Queensland/Canale Travel Cup semi-final between the Brisbane Strikers and Lions FC. This is a match-up offering all manner of subplots given that it features two clubs who, despite having no on-field history of contest, have an undeniable rivalry shaped in the corridors of power in Queensland and Australian football.

That said, for the twenty-two footballers in the starting lineups on Wednesday and the respective substitutes’ benches no amount of history between the two clubs will necessarily matter. From their perspectives, the primary concern will be to win a Cup semi-final.

But even allowing for that, it’s no ordinary Cup semi-final. This one offers more than simply entry to a final. It also offers them entry as one of Queensland’s five entrants to the Round of 32 in the new FFA Cup – and that is where it gets really tasty.

Each and every player in the two teams is keenly aware that playing in the FFA Cup, which will contain Australia’s nine A-League clubs, can potentially provide them with an opportunity to test themselves against Australia’s elite – and to put themselves in the shop window for a professional contract with one of said A-League clubs. Produce one eye-catching performance on the national stage, and who knows were your career could end up?

Certainly, Strikers winger Greg King, who has captained the Strikers for most of this season in the absence of the injured Jonti Richter, said on Monday night that his teammates were alive to the possibilities.

“It’s a huge opportunity really, more in terms of what’s at the end of the game in terms of qualification for the FFA Cup”, King said.

“To be involved in that and the exposure that we’d get on a national level – depending on who we’d play – it’s really an opportunity that we’ve never really had before. So we want to take full advantage as players, but also for the club.

“Obviously we had been a bit more focused on the league games, but tonight there was a bit more talk about it (the Cup game) and what could lay in store if we ‘turn up’ and play well and if we get the result on Wednesday.

“There’s a lot of young guys in our team and they all have aspirations for taking that next step and playing on the next level and it’s really a good opportunity for them to showcase their skills”.

It’s also an opportunity for the winning club to host an A-League team – because in the event that they are drawn to play A-League opposition the rules of the FFA Cup ensure that the A-League club must travel to them. That is a money-spinning, profile-boosting attraction that does not arrive every day for clubs outside the top flight.

And if those factors were not already enough to ensure that the Strikers v Lions semi-final bristles with potential drama, there is the little matter that both clubs are former National Soccer League entities who retain not only the memories of competing at the top level but the desire to do so again.

The then Brisbane Lions were a foundation member of the NSL in 1977 and competed in that competition until 1988. Three years later the Brisbane Strikers (initially under the name Brisbane United) took their place as Queensland’s sole representative in the national competition, staying there until the NSL was wound down in 2003 and bringing Queensland football its most memorable occasion and achievement to that point in time by hosting and winning the 1997 NSL Grand Final.

But it was toward the end of the Strikers’ NSL tenure that the two clubs were put on a collision course. The financially re-energised Lions wanted back into the NSL but, unless a way could be found to include two Queensland clubs, the Strikers were steadfastly in their way. What followed were several years of off-field machinations and boardroom tensions that reverberated around football’s corridors of power and played themselves out in the public sphere in a series of sensational and negative newspaper headlines.

In the end it could be argued that neither club emerged a winner. When bids to join the A-League were called for both clubs submitted an application but, with Football Federation Australia having decreed a ‘one team, one city’ approach, only one of those bids could be successful.

The Lions’ bid got the nod. They subsequently called their new incarnation Queensland Roar and gave it their orange colours. The Strikers, frozen out of the top-level, embarked on a journey that has taken the club from the Brisbane Premier League to the Queensland State League and now to the National Premier Leagues.

But the Lions also trod a fraught path as they were obliged to leave the Brisbane Premier League in order to commence their A-League venture. Several years on the ownership and management structure of the Roar was completely overhauled and the connection with Lions was all but severed, clearing the way for the club to return to the bread and butter of Brisbane Premier League, via Division One.

Now, eleven years after the demise of the NSL and with the boardroom battles a distant memory, the two clubs finally get to put out teams in the same competition. It might be for only one night in a winner-takes-all game, but the tantalizing irony is that this particular winner-takes-all game carries with it the chance to be back where both clubs really, truly feel they belong – on the national stage.

So for players, administrators and supporters of the Strikers and the Lions there is only one place to be on Wednesday night – and that place is not Suncorp Stadium. It is at Perry Park where a page in the history of each club, and perhaps a foreword about a professional football career or two, are about to be written.

Kick-off will be at 7.30 pm.

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