Penrith has been synonymous with the sport of rugby league since the Panthers entered the competition in 1967 but for a brief period in the mid ‘80s, the suburb at the foot of the Blue Mountains hosted a team in the National Soccer League.Penrith City in 1984 and 1985 participated at the highest level of domestic football in Australia but it must be said that they didn’t exactly set the competition on fire.
Penrith City was relegated at end of the 1985 season and never resurfaced at the highest level even though under the auspices of Penrith-Nepean they were in the NSW Premier League as late as 2009 boasting players such as Brisbane Roar’s Dimi Petratos and Central Coast Mariners’ Matthew Nash.
In 1984, when Penrith City first made it onto the national scene, the NSL was split into two conferences (Northern and Southern) which allowed money to be saved on travel expenses and gave the fans more local derbies.
Penrith City was in the Northern Conference which was comprised of teams such as Sydney City Hakoah, APIA Leichhardt, Sydney Olympic, Marconi-Fairfield, Blacktown City, St George Budapest, Parramatta Melita Eagles and Sydney Croatia amongst others from Newcastle, Wollongong and Canberra.
Roy Cotton was a former lower division professional player in England and, while he wasn’t a household name in Australia, he was arguably the biggest signing Penrith City was able to secure to their cause in the two years.
For the record Penrith City finished in 7th place out of 12 teams in 1984 and in 11th place in 1985. There was a brief glimmer of hope in 1984 when a quarterfinal place was reached in the NSL Cup but in reality the local community preferred to remain loyal to the rugby league team led by a youthful Greg Alexander rather than venture down the Great Western Highway to watch Penrith City play at Cook Park in St Mary’s. An old match report states that 202 people attended a Penrith City home game against Canberra City in 1985.
The two-conference NSL, which ran for two years and coincided with Penrith City’s time in the NSL, was largely unsuccessful. It could be argued that they were amongst the least successful years of football at the national level and definitely amongst the least publicised.
SBS, which had just morphed from Network 0-28, would inevitably give the competition some exposure but games were generally covered with one camera and one commentator such as Mike Hill, Les Murray or George Donikian. While the multicultural broadcaster did its best, not every household in Australia could pick up their broadcasting signal.
In the end poor crowds and the lack of mainstream media coverage for the NSL were too much of a burden for Penrith City to bear. The club was relegated in 1985 and it has now taken 30 years, and the Western Sydney Wanderers, to take top-flight football back to the foot of the Blue Mountains.