Sydney derbies: state league, NSL to Hyundai A-League

Del Piero isn’t the only big name to have scored in a Sydney derby, how about Ian Rush? @AndyHowe_statto looks at the Harbour City’s rich derby history over the last 50 years and uncovers the heroes, rivalries and big names.

Sydney FC – Western Sydney Wanderers is the newest of a great history of Sydney football club rivalries, and in terms of match attendance, media coverage and general spotlight, it’s certainly the biggest rivalry of them all.

However, many intra-Sydney rivalries stemmed from state league days as the big clubs rose to prominence during the 1960s, vying for NSW championship supremacy in the heady Sydney club scene. 

Sydney Olympic (Pan Hellenic), Sydney City (Hakoah), St George (Budapest), APIA Leichhardt and Marconi fought some great battles throughout this time at venues such as Wentworth Park, Sydney Athletic Field, and the oldSydney Sports Ground – knocked down in the 1980s to make way for the Sydney Football Stadium (Allianz Stadium).

The formation of the National Soccer League in 1977 gave these clubs a bigger stage to reign supreme. With a new prize of national championship honours to play for, the Sydney derbies became more intense.

The best battles of the first few NSL years were between Sydney Olympic and Sydney City where legendary players such as Joe Watson, Eddie Thomson (coach from 1980) and later John Kosmina gave Hakoah a dominant record over the more-heavily supported Olympic.

John Kosmina.

Sydney City were almost untouchable in the first few NSL years, winning four of the first six league championships.

In fact, Sydney clubs dominated the first seven national league seasons, with Marconi (1978) and St George (1983) also taking out national honours.

The championship-deciding finals system, introduced in the NSL in the mid-1980s, gave an even bigger stage for Sydney clubs to battle it out.

From 1988 to 1990 there were three classic grand finals in a row fought out between Sydney teams.

The Marconi – Sydney Croatia 1988 final was epic, 1-1 after 90 minutes, 2-2 after extra time and a penalty shoot-out eventually won by Berti Mariani’s Marconi.

The Sydney Croatia (later Sydney United) team of this era included Robbie Slater, Graham Arnold and Croatian legend Vedran Rozic, who was one of the last great player-coaches of the national league.

NSL crowd records were broken in 1989 and again the following year when Marconi and Sydney Olympic played out two grand finals in a row at the new Parramatta Stadium.

Marconi took out the 1989 decider 1-0 thanks to a late Zlatko Nastevski goal, but Olympic gained revenge the following year with a 2-0 grand final victory.

Amazingly Olympic and Marconi met in six finals series in a row from 1984 to 1990, and also squared off in the 1994 and 2001 play-offs.

Mike Smith of Marconi (L) battles with Pablo Cardozo of Sydney Olympic in 1999.

In all national league matches, Marconi and Sydney Olympic came up against each other 66 times, Marconi with the clearly dominant record winning 28 times to Olympic’ s 19.

However, it was a record that edged more Olympic’s way throughout the late 1990s as the former Pan Hellenic ended up being the last Sydney club to win an NSL championship (2002).

One star name to note was Liverpool legend Ian Rush, who turned out as a guest player for Olympic against Marconi in 1999. Rushy even scored as did Brett Emerton in a 2-1 win at Belmore in front of just over 7,000 fans. 

Ian Rush celebrates scoring.

The next most common Sydney national league derby was Marconi – Sydney Croatia (48 games) then Olympic – Croatia (44).

Clubs such as Blacktown City, Parramatta Melita Eagles and Western Suburbs also provided Sydney some keenly-contested derby matches on the national stage after previously meeting in the state league.

New intra-Sydney rivalries were created with the formation of Northern Spirit and Parramatta Power in the late 1990s.

Battles between the long-established Marconi, Olympic and Sydney United against these ‘upstarts’ created new type of rivalry on the national stage, however they were ultimately short-lived as the NSL closed down in 2004.

Ante Milicic of Sydney United in action during the round one NSL match between the Olympic Sharks and Sydney United.

The top five players in terms of most appearances in all Sydney national league derbies reveal five great names: Graham Jennings (136 Sydney derbies), Ian Gray (135), Peter Katholos (129), Marshall Soper (126) and Gary Meier (125) leading the way.

The most Sydney derby goals were scored scored by more legends in John Kosmina (46 Sydney derby goals), Mark Jankovics (45) and Soper (41).

Sydney FC had Australia’s biggest city to itself when the new Hyundai A-League kicked-off in 2005 and while there were some memorable matches against clubs from other cities, in hindsight there was something missing.

The more recent formation of the Western Sydney Wanderers added a fantastic new rivalry that ignited in their very first confrontation, where Alessandro Del Piero scored the winner in Sydney FC’s 1-0 win at Parramatta Stadium in October 2012.

The Wanderers gained revenge at the next opportunity, winning 2-0 at Allianz while the third match-up in 2012/13 ended level as Brett Emerton (Sydney) and Iacopo La Rocca (Wanderers) saw red in a fiery 1-1 draw.

The Sydney A-League derby had quickly established itself as an un-missable event and from the following season 2013/14 Sydney saw something it had never seen before, with sell-out crowds for home-and-away season matches.

Milos Ninkovic netted the winner late on for Sydney FC.

While the Wanderers enjoyed overall Sydney derby honours in their first two Premiership-winning seasons, the Sky Blues have been dominant ever since. In fact the Wanderers have not won a Sydney derby since January 2014.

Leading into their Round 20 confrontation at Allianz Stadium the overall record stands at five wins to Sydney FC, three to Western Sydney and three draws.

All signs are pointing to derby number 12 being one of the biggest yet, with Sydney FC clinging to a top six spot and anxious to get out of a form slump, while the second-placed Wanderers are desperately keen to get out of a six-match winless streak against their bitter rivals.

Bring it on for another night of derby drama in Sydney.

Follow Andrew Howe’s Australian football stats updates on Twitter @AndyHowe_statto