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Thursday, August 19, 1999 Published at 08:59 GMT 09:59 UK

Sport: Football

Brits make it big Down Under

Australia's World Cup campaign captured the imagination of the sporting public

Football - the round ball variety - is at last making headway in Australia.

Even though no single football code dominates the country, Australian Rules and rugby league and union still eclipse soccer in terms of popularity.

But the arrival of two new British imports into Australia's national soccer league is evidence that the sport is gaining in importance Down Under.

[ image: Terry Venables came so close to taking the Socceroos to France 98]
Terry Venables came so close to taking the Socceroos to France 98
There have been boom times before - notably when Terry Venables led the national side, the Socceroos, to the brink of the 1998 World Cup.

And with home-grown players like Harry Kewell, Mark Bosnich, Marc Viduka and Tony Vidmar all plying their trade to some success in Britain, the future for Aussie football looks rosy.

The aim now is to strengthen the grassroots of the domestic game, building up the quality of the league.

Antipodean challenge

When the new season kicks off in October, former Rangers and Hearts defender Dave McPherson will line up for Melbourne-based club Carlton, while east of the city, ex-Fulham, Crystal Palace and Reading defender Jeff Hopkins is the new player-coach of the Gippsland Falcons.

[ image: Mixing with the best: Dave McPherson comes up against Holland at Euro '92]
Mixing with the best: Dave McPherson comes up against Holland at Euro '92
BBC News Online spoke to both players about their moves.

"It was a fresh start and a fresh challenge," McPherson commented. "Nobody ever thought I'd go to Australia."

McPherson, who played 28 times for Scotland, has been impressed by the quality of some of the players at his new club - with some reservations.

"There are lots of good young players who can benefit from my experience," he said.

"But football in Australia has a long way to go, there are problems. Boys with potential should have the chance to work with players but they are tied up in things like the Australian Institute of Sport.

"There is a big gap here in boys' progression to full-time status."

Raising the profile

The transfer has also given McPherson the chance to raise awareness of the game in Australia - and he has been visiting schools to promote the game.

[ image: Coach Stuart Munro welcomes McPherson to Carlton (Picture courtesy]
Coach Stuart Munro welcomes McPherson to Carlton (Picture courtesy
"The problem with the media here is that, deep-down, they are scared of soccer," the 35-year-old added.

"If you go to a school, you see that everybody is playing it."

In addition, McPherson has the chance to learn about coaching and take his first steps into a backroom position.

For Hopkins, the offer of moving into the coaching side of the game was similarly enticing.

"It's a good opportunity," said Hopkins, who arrived in Australia after captaining Salangor in Malaysia.

Growth of professionalism

He has swiftly discovered the relative importance of football in the country and the pecking order that exists when it comes to sport coverage in the media.

[ image: Jeff Hopkins: From Reading to Melbourne, via Malaysia]
Jeff Hopkins: From Reading to Melbourne, via Malaysia
"You have to go looking for football news, whereas in England it's everywhere," Hopkins said. "Here you open the paper and go six or seven pages in to find anything.

"The game's still developing here, there's lots of talent. Players here have got the physical attributes to succeed in England, and mentally Australians are pretty similar.

"It's a newish game here and the professional attitude is the thing that's lacking, but it's definitley coming.

"Certain players would be capable of playing in the Premiership, but the overall standard is not as high as that league."

Play-off target

Finishing top of the national league is not enough to claim the title.

End-of-season play-offs among the top six clubs decide the eventual outcome. Both clubs will be looking for an improvement this season after missing out on the play-offs during the last campaign.

Other British players have featured in Australia since the league began in 1977 - but McPherson and Hopkins are the two highest-profile arrivals.

Ian Crook played with Northern Spirit last season and will feature again this season, while Hopkins is set to sign ex-Rangers midfielder Sandy Robertson, who played a handful of games for the Falcons last season.

Blackpool's Mike Conroy is also set for a move to Carlton.

When more than 80,000 people watched Australia narrowly fail to qualify for the 1998 World Cup finals, it became clear that football was on the way to establishing itself across Australia.

The arrival of McPherson and Hopkins simply reinforces the sense that the game continues growing.

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