How did a small club in one of rugby league’s traditional heartlands come back from the wilderness to earn a shot at FFA Cup 2019 glory?
Maitland FC are in the big-time now, admits club president Ray Watkins, after qualifying for the national round for the first time in their history.
And the imminent national spotlight the Magpies are about to embrace shows just how far the club from the coal fields has come since their relegation from the Northern NSW top flight in 2002.
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Image credit: Smart Artist
It hasn’t been an easy road back for Maitland, who have long had their best players picked off by Newcastle heavyweights Edgeworth Eagles and Broadmeadow Magic along the way.
But after securing promotion in 2014, the boys from Cooks Square Park have punched far above their weight and have made two NPL NNSW semi-finals in the last four seasons.
“We don’t have excuses anymore,” admits Watkins, 58. “We’ve been here long enough to say, ‘hey we’re doing alright here’.
“Maitland is a great sporting hub. There’s a great awareness of the game’s profile, and one of our greatest assets is our youth catchment area.
“Although we are traditionally a rugby league area from a spectator point of view, from a number view the kids playing football here far outnumber any other sport.
“The big project for us is to win their hearts and minds at an early age so we can keep them with us.”
Although seasoned ex-Hyundai A-League veterans like former Caltex Socceroo defender Matt Thompson are set to take the field in their Round of 32 fixture, it will also be a chance to showcase junior talent, which has long been one of the club's proudest claims.
After all, this is the club with whom inaugural World Cup Caltex Socceroos Col Curren and Ray Baartz started their senior careers.
And is there a better way for Maitland to put themselves on the map by taking a Hyundai A-League scalp in the coal fields?
“I think we acknowledge that we’re getting into the big time there, just the ability to play an A-League side would be great,” said Watkins.
“Some of our boys would like the opportunity to go away to Queensland our Victoria or something like that...but they also recognise the high profile and awareness that playing a home game would bring to the city of Maitland.
“If we could get it to Maitland, it would be a real buzz through the city.”