The North Geelong Warriors are a club steeped in history. Formed in 1967 by Croatian immigrants, the Warriors have ridden the roller coaster that is football survival as much as any other football club in Australia.
A nursery that has produced Socceroos and even Croatian internationals, ‘North’ as they are affectionately known by their passionate fans, have long been the pinnacle club in Geelong.
The likes of Steve Horvat, Josip Skoko, Matthew Spiranovic and Joey Didulica (Croatia) all went on to play professional football at the highest level.
Numerous others played in the old NSL or in Europe. From a women’s perspective, the club produced Laura Spiranovic who went on to win domestic titles at Melbourne Victory and in Croatia.
After being crowned Victorian champions in 1992, with a team full of future stars, the Warriors nearly joined the old NSL.
However, at the end of 2017 the club was at a crossroads. Fifty years into their existence, some tough decisions had to be made which threatened the very survival of the club.
A number of senior players had left after relegation from NPL1. Finances were tight. The club’s facility at Elcho Park was run down. The women’s program had all but disappeared.
However under the guidance and vision of club stalwart Josip Zilic, the Warriors put in place a strategy that wasn’t so much new, but a revisit of the model that had driven so much of the club’s successes since 1967.
Zilic, who has been involved with the Warriors for 16 years and who’s kids play at the club, admits things had to go down a different path to where they were heading and fortunately he didn’t have to look too far for support.
“Prompted by discussion with football staff like Josip Skoko, Joey Didulica and President at the time Vlado Dzajkic, we did a review of our personnel and what we had at our disposal to set up a refreshed outlook for the next five years,” he explains. “The new policy involved filling the senior team with the Warrior’s youth products and other players who grew up in the Geelong region.”
The club’s youth teams gave plenty of reason to believe the plan would work. The Warriors Under 20s came second in 2014, third in 2016, second in 2017 (NPL1 Under 20s), third in 2018 and fourth in 2019.
Over the past two seasons, the likes of Anthony Banovac, Lochie Mcgrath, Jamie Noggler, Thomas Hidic, Hamish Flavell and George Ellis have all come through the club’s youth program and have established themselves in the senior team. Banovac won the Best & Fairest award in 2019, an achievement that underlined how the club’s bold initiative had bore fruit.
Youngsters such Luka Skoko, Matthew Stosic, Mitchell Stosic and Jesse Krasic are on the fringes.
Local boy Ryan Opperman was recruited from Geelong Rangers in 2018 while Warriors legend Michael Anderson has been there through it all.
The Geelong flavour is well and truly evident in the senior squad and Zilic admits he is pleased with the results.
“Has it been successful? Well it's in the eye of the beholder but for me why it worked is because we put together the vision, promoted it to the people we targeted and those that embraced it were taken on the journey as well as having their input contributing to the ever evolving landscape,” he says.
As modest as Zilic is about judging success, the reality is the Warriors surprised everyone, perhaps themselves included when a young team filled with these local players came third in 2018 narrowly missing out on promotion back to the top tier. The following season saw a respectable fifth placed finish.
What is also most impressive is how the Warriors have built their off-field brand. The club has an active fan group ‘The North Fans’ that were established in 2018. The group is vocal at all home games and has a healthy contingent that travel to away games as well.
Over 1,500 fans were present when the Warriors took on local rivals Geelong SC in 2019 in the first ever Geelong NPL Derby.
In terms of girls and women, in the past six years the Warriors have gone from having a mere seven junior girls and one women’s team, to 120 girls and women across nine female-only teams at Elcho Park. This includes two senior women’s teams.
The club has also boosted its Elcho Park facility significantly. While local and state government funding has contributed, a large amount of costs were covered through donations and contributions from fans in the community, including the supply of material and labour.
The Warriors now boast state-of-the-art change rooms, clubs rooms and have three fully lit pitches.
“The value of project grants and member capital input has created improved value of over $2 million based on council assessments,” said Zilic. “In other words if the council did the projects we undertook it would be over $2 million worth of work. But we've done it for much less than that.”
In what was a major boost to the club, former Melbourne City Football Director and Professional Footballers Australia Chief Executive John Didulica, took over as President in 2019. Didiluca played junior and senior football at North Geelong and was an instrumental part of their success in the 1990s.
The future of the club’s administration is also in good hands with a group called ‘Warriors Youth’. Initiated by Dzajkic around 20 years ago as a means to keep the club's social aspect alive, it is an organisation of younger fans who run functions and events that help raise money for the Warriors and build the culture around Elcho Park.
There is every reason to suggest some of these group members will be part of the Warriors Board in future years.
Zilic insisted the fabric of the club’s success has and always will be the dedication of the Warrior’s community and fanbase.
“The backbone is the community. Founded by Croatian migrants and remaining a club where the essence of it's evolution is built upon remaining connected to the community gives it the unique balance between the past, present and future.
“As the Croatian community assimilated and embraced the entire region the outcome was that all walks of life are welcomed to the terrace to cheer along the performances.
“Some thought that as the generations came that the support may waiver but giving the youth a voice at the table was critical.
“This is where we're blessed to have the Warriors Youth drive a lot of the enthusiasm.
“The group of young people who not only support and cheer but create a social cohesion so that supporters and players can mesh into one is a key driver here for the current and future support of the club.
“All who come to play against us know they've been to Elcho Park, if it isn't our team isn't giving you enough pressure on the park our supporters definitely will.”
The Warrior’s contribution to the Geelong region goes beyond football and this will be no more evident than when the club hosts the 2021 Annual Australian Croatian Soccer Tournament late next year. The Warriors will take on clubs from around the country who have Croatian backgrounds in what is a high standard tournament.
The major event will see 10,000 visitors to the Geelong region and is expected to generate approximately $4 million to the local economy.
While 2020 has been a write-off due to COVID19 pandemic, rest assured the Warriors and their legion of passionate football people will be back in 2021 to help drive football in Geelong further forward.