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Adrian Alston — the Illawarra’s most decorated coach

Growing up in post-war Britain, all Adrian “Noddy” Alston wanted to do was play football.

In the fledgling stages of his playing career, he focussed purely on securing a professional contract with Preston North End — his boyhood club and the side his older brother, Alex, represented on over 100 occasions from 1957 to 1962.

Alston envisioned a career plying his trade in the English leagues, however, this path was dramatically altered in 1968. While playing for Preston in a youth match, Alston was spotted by Jimmy Kelly, the player-coach of local rivals Fleetwood Town. Kelly had played over 300 matches in English football as well as having four successful seasons in Australia with the Illawarra based South Coast United.

Kelly was so impressed with the teenage forward that he entered into prolonged talks to bring him to Fleetwood with the plan of taking him to South Coast for the 1968 season. Alston was puzzled by the suggestion of progressing his career in Australia but Kelly was able to convince him that the soft and muddy grounds in England weren’t conducive to Alston’s skilful running game.

Alston tentatively agreed and signed for South Coast on an initial six-month contract in a deal set to triple his wages. These wages were a vital makeweight in convincing his wife, Doreen, about the viability of the move as the funds would help pay for the young couples impending wedding.

Alston enjoyed a blistering start and within six months he had represented New South Wales and was on the brink of the Australian national team. In 1969, United took out the New South Wales Division 1 and Alston pulled on the Green and Gold for the first time in a 1–0 win over Greece.

Alston pictured in the bottom row, third from the right (image courtesy of the Illawarra Mercury)

He wasn’t going anywhere.

In the lead up to his debut for Australia, Alston was presented with his jersey by head coach Joseph Vlasits. The man affectionately known as Uncle Joe asked, “What do you think Adrian?” in a thick Hungarian accent, to which the confident 20-year-old quipped, “I guess I won’t be playing for England now!”

The match was played in front of 30,000 spectators at the Sydney Cricket Ground with the winning goal coming via an Attila Abonyi penalty. Alston claims the Hungarian-Australian was the best player he ever played with and the two would link up in the 1970 season when Alston transferred to St George Budapest. The duo featured ahead of the legendary Johnny Warren and during Alston’s three seasons at the club, they secured a League title and Grand Final trophy.

Highlights from Alston’s debut for Australia vs Greece

Abonyi would often room with Alston and he was the one who started calling him Noddy — referencing Alston’s knack of nodding the ball into the back of the net with his head.

In 1973, South Coast now known as Safeway United after being financially backed by Safeway Motors paid St George Budapest $5,000 to re-sign Alston. His second spell at the club would lead up to the 1974 World Cup — the first time Australia had ever qualified for the tournament. Australia was handed an impossible draw, pitted against the hosts in West Germany, East Germany and Chile. A spirited Australian side lost against the Germans before a creditable 0–0 draw with Chile. Despite only managing to secure a point, the side garnered immense respect.

Alston featured in all three matches and after the tournament, a return to Europe beckoned. Three German clubs including Hertha Berlin, Hamburg and Eintracht Frankfurt pursued the services of the Australian and Alston came as close as agreeing to terms with Hertha in a deal which included a $40,000 signing on fee.

Alston player card during his time with the Hatters (image courtesy of Alchetron)

Alston was hesitant about the language barrier and he was conscious that now wife, Doreen, longed to be back in England. He was in talks with Preston who were in the English lower divisions under the guidance of Manchester United legend Bobby Charlton before an offer came in from First Division side, Luton Town.

The Hatters had played against Australia two years prior in a tour match where Alston bagged a goal in a 2–1 win, hence making the club aware of his talents. Luton managed to secure Alston’s signature and despite finishing the season as the club’s leading scorer he only managed eight goals. Luton finished at the foot of the table and were relegated to the second tier.

For the 1975–76 season, Alston moved to Cardiff City in the Third Division. He scored on debut at Ninian Park in front of the Australian rugby union side who were playing Wales a few days later, because of his exploits he and his teammates were invited to the aforementioned Test where the Welsh won 28–3 to Alston’s chagrin. Alston netted 16 goals in the club’s promotion season and he looks back on his season in the Welsh capital as the best of his career.

Alston kitted out during his time with Cardiff City (image courtesy of Beyond the Last Man)

In the winter of 1977, a big money offer came in from the West. The North American Soccer League (NASL) was a young and vibrant league with plenty of cash to snap up some of football’s best talent including George Best, Eusebio, Franz Beckenbauer and Pele. When former Italian international and coach of the Tempa Bay Rowdies, Eddie Firmani, came in for Alston, it was a difficult offer to turn down. The league played up this grandeur when on his debut Alston was presented to the club’s fans after arriving on a helicopter.

Alston celebrating a goal during his time with the Rowdies (image courtesy of NASL Jerseys)

Alston, now 28-years-old loved testing himself against the best and for him, the very best was Beckenbauer — the Kaiser. He faced the elegant defender during the 1974 World Cup and found the West German the toughest of opponents. Alston highlighted this point at a pre-match luncheon before the Rowdies took on Beckenbauer’s New York Cosmos. When Alston was asked to speak, he stood up and said, “Everyone says Pele is the greatest but for me, he’s the best,” as he pointed to Beckenbauer. This ruffled the feathers of the Brazilian icon who refused to put his arm around Alston in the obligatory post-luncheon photo.

Alston (right) alongside Franz Beckenbauer during the 1974 World Cup (image courtesy of SBS)

On the field, Tempa Bay finished the season in third place in the Eastern Conference before being knocked out in the first round of the playoffs to the star-studded Cosmos.

Back in Australia, Canberra City were struggling in their inaugural season in the Philips National Soccer League (NSL). Johnny Warren was the coach and his pleas fell on the ears of Alston who agreed to come home and help out his close friend. The deal saw Alston take a sizeable pay cut but enabled him the chance to get back into the Australian set-up since they rarely selected players who played overseas. City won five of the ten games Alston featured in during the back end of the season and managed to stave off relegation by finishing third from the bottom.

Alston returned to America for the 1978 season, which would prove to be his last as a professional footballer. Tempa Bay improved on the pitch but in one match, Alston’s studs became caught in the astroturf while taking a knock to the knee. The initial diagnosis was strained ligaments and he was soon back in training, though after 14 weeks, Alston, still concerned by the lack of recovery paid to go and see a doctor on London’s Harley Street. Within minutes he was diagnosed with a torn cruciate ligament — right off the bone. After three months, Alston was forced to leave America since his Green Card had expired and the remaining eight months of his contract was paid out.

In the same week he suffered the injury, Adrian’s only son, Adrian Jr, was diagnosed with Perthes disease, a rare condition which affected his hip development. He had to wear bulky callipers and was made to sit on the floor in school since he couldn’t sit in a chair. Adrian Sr admits this news rocked him mentally, even more so than his own injury. Over the following four years, the money Alston had accrued over his career slowly dwindled away, he moved his family back to England where he partnered up with his brother, Alex, to run a hotel in Blackpool but within four months Adrian had had enough.

He packed his family up once more and moved back to the Illawarra for a fresh start. In the lead up to the 1983 season, NSL club Wollongong City (now known as the Wollongong Wolves) approached Alston and offered him the head coaching role on a three-year deal. The club was in serious financial strife and before the season had kicked off, seven key players were auctioned off to rival clubs. After managing a league-low of four wins but a league-high of 15 draws, Wollongong finished second to last, just a point above Brisbane Lions and come season’s end Alston was relieved of his duties.

His assistant at Wollongong City was Terry Hurley who had been appointed as head coach at Corrimal in the Illawarra Division 1, the second tier of Illawarra football. Hurley made club secretary Peter Dent aware of Alston’s availability and Dent wasted no time in offering the former Australian international the head coaching role with Hurley staying on as his number two.

Corrimal were promoted to the Illawarra Premier League at the first time of asking under Alston’s tutelage. Once in the top flight, Alston — like Warren had done eight years prior — called in a favour from an ex-teammate. This time it came in the shape of 39-year-old Attila Abonyi who Alston drafted in to play up front. In the 1985 season, Abonyi netted on 21 occasions enabling Corrimal to steer well clear of dropping back down. All this was done in front of a number of distinguished spectators at Memorial Park including Warren and SBS presenter Les Murray. Alston would end up spending six seasons at Corrimal and in that time, Adrian Jr, featured regularly in the first team.

Alston (top right) with his Corrimal side (image courtesy of Peter Dent)

Alston took a year off from football to study a required course at Charles Sturt University for his job with the Disability Trust. In the back end of 1990, Alston was in a dress shop which his wife managed in Warrawong when Vince Raschilla, a member of Port Kembla FC came in.

Port Kembla were in the second division at the time and Raschilla asked if Alston would come and coach the side. Alston accepted and as with Corrimal, he achieved promotion to the Premier League after just one season. Over the following 12 seasons, Port achieved unprecedented success and became the region’s most dominant club. In total, Port Kembla won 26 trophies under Alston including five league titles, seven Grand Finals and two Bert Bampton Cups.

Port Kembla experienced unrivalled success under Alston (image courtesy of Football United vs Soccer City)

Alston reflects on the 2002 Grand Final as his most prized memory at the helm. In the previous season, Port won the league and made the Grand Final, this success led to a number of players being snapped up by other clubs. Port lingered in mid-table for much of the 2002 season but Alston showed faith in his squad saying, “If we make the playoffs, I tell you now we’ll win it [the Grand Final].” Port managed five wins in their final six league matches to finish in third place. In an arduous finals series, they were forced into a replay against Wests Illawarra before beating Coniston — who had finished 11 points ahead of Port — 2–1 in the Preliminary Final. Their Grand Final opponents were arch rivals Kemblawarra, who were League Champions and odds-on favourites to do the double, but a Mineo Bonetig inspired Port halted to league’s best attack to win the decider 2–0.

The lineups for the 2002 Illawarra Premier League (image courtesy of Football United vs Soccer City)

Over his 13 seasons in charge of the club, Port Kembla fielded some of the best players to ever grace the Illawarra Premier League including the aforementioned Bonetig. Alston says football is about the players and he doesn’t put his success down to a regimented philosophy of football saying, “I like players who make me enjoy myself on a Saturday afternoon, I like to just watch them play.”

At the end of the 2004 season, after completing the League and Grand Final double for the fourth time, Alston parted ways with Port Kembla to rejoin the Wollongong Wolves who were now playing in the NSW Premier League. Once again, Alston was handed a three-year contract. It’s a move Alston regrets as the club was in a similar position to the one he had left some two decades earlier.

Off the field issues combined with a lack of funds meant the back to back NSL Champions of just four years prior struggled to compete with the powerhouse Sydney clubs. Shane McGirr who had led the line for Port under Alston finished as the club’s top scorer with 15 goals which helped the club hold on to a mid-table finish. After just one season, Alston opted to walk out of the club.

Alston returns to the Wolves (image courtesy of the Illawarra Mercury)

Alston was set for one final role in the game and the opportunity arose through longtime friend, Kevin Love who was the Director of Football at Bulli. Before Alston had taken over, Bulli hadn’t managed any top flight success since 1988 and they were even relegated in 2002. In 2006, his first season as head coach, Bulli finished second, just two points behind Dandaloo.

Alston would spend six seasons with Bulli, finishing second on three occasions and in each of those seasons they would agonisingly go on to lose the Grand Final. While Alston didn’t lead Bulli to any silverware, the foundations were laid for a period of on-field success for the club which continues to this day.

Alston pictured with his Bulli side (image courtesy of Bulli FC)

Since leaving Bulli at the end of 2011, Alston has fielded a number of calls asking if he’s interested in getting back into coaching but he admits he’s no longer interested, “I’ve turned down holidays with my wife because of football and now it’s holiday after holiday, twice a year, every year.” In between that he enjoys watching his grandkids play as well as the A-League and European leagues on television. In 2018, he will celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary with wife, Doreen and he’s now into his 31st year working for the Disability Trust.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to this piece.

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