Local heartbeat is giving Roar an infusion of identity

Perry Park sits on prime land between the Brisbane River and a railyard, not far from the airport and the CBD. Surrounded by rapid urban development, the decaying old ground is a symbol of both the lack of government investment and the enormous opportunity in Queensland football. 

The Bill Waddell Stand, named after a former president of the Queensland Soccer Federation, is reminiscent of an English non-league stadium, with seven rows of neatly covered terraces running along the western sideline. The social club, which is connected to the main grandstand, is a time machine back to the 1980s. Most days, the city swirls around Perry Park. But when the place is full, as it has been for several Premier League Grand Finals in recent weeks, it can still generate a lot of noise. 

This unique combination of location, atmosphere and history is why the state’s governing body, Football Queensland, keeps returning to Perry Park to host its major events. For more than half a century, this has been the place where Queenslanders have come to watch or play in community games, state and national league fixtures, Grand Finals, Cup finals and even a few international matches. Everyone in Brisbane, it seems, has at least one fond memory of Perry Park. 

Ian Dalzell, a 69-year-old Scotsman, has been attending football matches at Perry Park since he arrived in Australia in 1972. With his outrageous moustache, deep Scottish brogue and endless catalogue of stories, “Dazzles” is a ubiquitous figure in the local football community. During his recent battle with bladder cancer, he could still be found at three or four divisional games every weekend. 

As a long-serving former team manager of the Brisbane Strikers in the NSL and Brisbane Roar in the A-Leagues, Perry Park has been Dalzell’s vantage point to watch the development of Brisbane as a football city.

“Perry Park has always been the home of football in this state,” he says. “It’s right in the middle of Brisbane, with the Bowen Hills train station just up the road. Everybody in football – it doesn’t matter who they are or which local club they support – will tell you that Perry Park should be redeveloped (by the government) as a 15- or 20,000 seat stadium for the Roar to play in.”

Discussions are already underway between Football Queensland and other stakeholders to turn Perry Park into a new, rectangular stadium. Meanwhile, the Brisbane Roar men’s team train on the Gold Coast and play their home games at Dolphin Stadium, long-time home ground for the Redcliffe Dolphins rugby league club, while the women’s team train at the Queensland Sports and Athletics Centre as they wait for the club’s Women’s Centre of Excellence and Youth Academy to open.

There is no doubt that Queensland’s lack of appropriate football infrastructure presents a challenge for the Roar – or any future expansion team – to establish a coherent identity. What the Roar do have in their favour, though, is a virtual monopoly over a thriving, if sometimes under-appreciated, local football scene. 

As Brisbane morphs into a 200 kilometre city, connected to the Gold Coast, the Sunshine Coast and the Darling Downs by a network of motorways, football is the fastest-growing sport. According to Dan Birrell, Football Queensland’s Participation, Clubs and Community Manager, the game is booming across all five Local Government Areas of Greater Brisbane – two of which are the fastest growing LGAs in Australia. “Over the past eight years, we’ve seen around 40 per cent growth in the number of football participants in Greater Brisbane,” says Birrell. 

In the past, the missing link for the Roar has been the willingness to identify and promote local talent. But the Roar struck gold last year when it appointed Warren Moon as head coach of the men’s team. Moon, 39, is the first ex-Roar player to coach the club and someone who is proud of having come through Queensland’s pathway. “There was a perception that someone like me, with less profile, was never going to get a job in the A-League,” admits Moon, who completed his coaching apprenticeship in the local leagues. 

He is paying that opportunity forward by promoting local talent such as Josh Brindell-South, Jesse Daley, Rahmat Akbari, Alex Parsons, Kai Trewin and Cyrus Dehmie. This off-season, Moon has repatriated Henry Hore from Melbourne and signed local crowd favourite Jez Lofthouse from the NPL Queensland. 

“I come from this state, and everywhere I’ve gone I feel there is a lack of appreciation for the players we produce,” says Moon. “My mantra has been that if we need to improve our squad, then absolutely we’ll look elsewhere, but if we’re talking about fine margins between players then why not have a Queensland player first? All these players want is an opportunity.”

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Perry Park is the home of football in Brisbane. Picture: Connor Bowness

Perhaps the greatest beneficiary of Moon’s “Queensland-first” approach is Alex Parsons, who lives in Springfield, the epicentre of one of the game’s strongest growth areas between Brisbane and Ipswich. Before Moon took over as coach, 21-year-old Parsons was forced to try his luck elsewhere, moving south to join Central Coast Mariners’ youth team. 

“When I left, there was a feeling that I might not be able to play for the Roar,” says Parsons. “But then Warren came in and it gave me some hope. When the phone call came, it was an easy decision to come home to my family and play for the club I grew up supporting.”

Moon’s colleague, Garrath McPherson, has taken a similar approach with the women’s side, building a squad almost entirely from local clubs. Six contracted Roar players – as well as McPherson’s assistant Kelly Crew – played in this season’s NPL Queensland Women’s Grand Final between Lions FC and Capalaba FC at Perry Park.

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Tim Cahill signs autographs at Perry Park before the FFA Cup tie between Brisbane Strikers and Melbourne City in 2016.

One of those players was 25-year-old Capalaba goalkeeper Georgina Worth, who moved back to her hometown five years ago to join the Roar. “I was born in Brisbane but I grew up in Canberra from the age of three,” says Worth. “All my grandparents, aunties and uncles are up here, so I’ve got a very strong connection to Brisbane and I’ve always identified with being a Queenslander.”

That sense of identity, which is so effortlessly captured by rugby league, has never been consistently expressed through Queensland’s premier football teams. Even during the club’s golden years from 2010 to 2014, there was a sense that success was due to Melbourne-raised Ange Postecoglou and foreigners Thomas Broich and Besart Berisha rather than anything happening in Queensland.

“That local flavour drifted away for quite a while, when we had coaches from down south,” says club patron and former Socceroo Gary Wilkins. “I’d love to see an all-Queensland team run out for the Roar. I don’t know if I ever will, but I think we’re on the right track.”

Players like Parsons, Lofthouse and Worth – who come from Ipswich, the Sunshine Coast and Brisbane respectively – all have two things in common: they grew up supporting the Roar, and they are proud Queenslanders. And while they might not have a chip on their shoulder like past generations, they know they are often underrated compared to their counterparts in Sydney and Melbourne. “There’s a lot of talent in the NPL Queensland that sometimes gets overlooked,” says Lofthouse.

Brisbane Roar goalkeeper Georgina Worth .

On Saturday, Perry Park hosted the NPL Queensland Men’s U18, U23 and Senior Grand Finals. The Roar Academy, filled with talented Queensland kids from around the state, had teams in two out of three finals. This weekend, the Roar A-Leagues sides will play a double-header against the NPL All Stars at Perry Park. In a perfect world, the Roar would be permanently based at the game’s spiritual home, playing in a new purpose-built stadium. 

But a football club is as much about its people as it is about its facilities, and on that front the Roar have so much potential to represent the culture and direction of the city and the state. In both the men’s and the women’s teams, they have a strong core of locals who care about the club and are connected in a tangible way to their community. And they have the unshakeable support of Life Members like Gary Wilkins and Ian Dalzell, who have always backed Queenslanders to match it with the best.