Panthers Have Been Before
A Brief Look at Penrith City in the NSL
The rejection by Football Federation Australia of the Panthers Group taking a stake in the prized Western Sydney Wanderers franchise had many fans and commentators agreeing with the decision, in part, due to the graveyard of failed joint ventures between football and teams of other codes. Yet what is less commonly known is that Panthers have previously sought involvement with a football team from Sydney's west on the national league stage.
We have to roll the years back to 1984 and revisit Penrith City in the much fabled and generally unloved National Soccer League (NSL) to see where the Panthers conglomerate first got their taste for the round-ball game. If you're confused and dumbfounded about the existence of a Penrith NSL side don't be surprised. Within the pantheon of the 42 NSL clubs that participated between 1977 and 2004, it could be said Penrith City is one of the least recognised owing to their brief playing history and subsequent demise.
Appropriating the colours and imagery of the Penrith District Rugby League Club who through their Panthers Leagues operation supported City both financially and in kind, the football side was known colloquially as the 'Soccer Panthers' and featured the sleek cat on their club crest. Resplendent in the fetching combination of skin-tight brown with white pinstripe shirts made by rugby manufacturer Peerless and sponsored by the Sydney Pink Pages classifieds, Penrith City participated in the NSL for the years 1984 and 1985 when the competition was expanded into two conferences of 12 teams each - the incredulous 'Australian Conference' which comprised clubs wholly within Sydney, Wollongong, Newcastle and Canberra; and the more aptly named 'National Conference' that consisted of the rest - Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide.
Created to reduce travel costs and increase the amount of local derbies, it was a bewildering affair with inter-conference matches and intra-conference challenge rounds adding to the awkwardness. After confusing the hell out of everyone during 1984 it was somewhat simplified for 1985 with a Northern Division and Southern Division where clubs only played those wholly within their conference. Considered a failure, it was a low-water mark for the NSL when the league featured a number of forgettable combinations.
The expansion of the NSL in readiness for 1984 saw a large number of clubs fighting for the new slots as Sydney-based members of the national league. Penrith City was unique amongst the other applicants, which also included future mainstays Sydney Croatia, in that they formed specifically for entry into the NSL with no prior history of playing in the NSW Federation of Soccer Clubs. Aligned with lower division side Penrith United, the decision was made to keep the two teams as individual entities so the lesser club could focus on junior and youth sides and act as a pathway to the senior team.
In a period when rugby league and football were often at loggerheads, the Penrith Leagues Club was in full support of the Penrith City project which had been in development for five years and had a projected investment said to be upward of $2 million. Panthers had even offered City the use of their larger capacity Penrith Park, which had been previously used for the 1982 'Philips Top Four' post-season Grand Final between St George and Sydney City, as a temporary home whilst humble Cook Park in neighbouring St Marys with its small pavilion and neat grass hills was made up to national league standard. Another promise was for up to six marquee games against bigger-drawing teams to be played at Penrith Park.
Even before City kicked a ball in anger, there were rumblings of discontent from the football fraternity over their admission. Sutherland Sharks protested the loudest claiming Penrith's admittance was a political decision whilst the Sydney Morning Herald forebodingly remarked:
The acid test will be to attract spectators on a match-by-match basis. But Penrith City's biggest challenge - which must be met if they are to survive in the NSL - is to secure a playing squad of the standard to match Australia's best teams next season. As several other NSL clubs have found over the years, raw enthusiasm and community interest are not enough.
Sure enough the Herald was right. Although coached by Celtic 'Lisbon Lion' Willie Wallace and spearheaded by Young Socceroo skipper Ian Hunter, Penrith City was plagued by miniscule home crowds for their entire NSL lifetime. Only 1500 attended their inaugural home game in 1984 and a mere 566 souls watched them in the last round of 1985 when their NSL survival depended on the result. The Penrith Press observed that "despite the importance of the game, the crowd was very poor, and one must wonder whether people of the district really want first-class soccer."
Perhaps through stubbornness, City chose to play at the smaller Cook Park, in what was arguably a precipitator to their break up with the Panthers Leagues Club who pulled out their backing midway through the first season. Incredulously so the club could make ends meet, the players had to directly sell their major sponsor, the Sydney Pink Pages, as part of the deal so they would get paid. In the end, that arrangement turned out to be a dud and symbolic of a failed organisation was terminated.
By the end of 1985, Penrith's two-season NSL tenure had ended in spite of a stirring 4-1 win over bottom placed Newcastle Rosebud who were protected from relegation due to their regional status. Discontent over an opponent fielding an ineligible player and rumoured backroom deals made between two rival clubs ensured City's top-flight sojourn was consigned to the dustbin. A takeover by a Uruguayan-backed group saw Penrith stutter for a few more years in the NSW 1st Division with the sorry saga concluding in 1989 when the club folded. Whilst more coincidence than design, Western Sydney Wanderers began their Australian football journey on July 25 2012 against Nepean FC, a team representing the Penrith region, at the ground City's ended - Cook Park.