Football, or Soccer as it is known here in Australia, has been a part of my life for many
decades. The sad news this month (November 2004) of the passing of Australian soccer legend Johnny Warren has inspired me
to put down on record my own lifetime of enjoying this sport.
Australian sports commentator Les Murray compared Johnny Warren with Nelson Mandela. Football
supporters in other parts of the world may find that comparison difficult to understand. Those of us who grew up in Australia
in the 1950s and 1960s and loved soccer know exactly what Les Murray meant. Johnny Warren dedicated his life to leading Australian
soccer out of the darkness of oppression and prejudice.
Johnny Warren called his autobiography Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters. That title
reflects the kind of prejudice Australians faced if they played soccer in the era of my childhood, the late 1950s and early
1960s. It is worth saying, by the way, that Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters is as good a sporting biography as has
ever been published.
I experienced the same prejudices as Johnny Warren, although I was a few years younger.
Many, many times I was reminded by other boys that only sheilas, wogs and poofters played soccer. I was constantly having
to defend my own masculinity, simply because I loved the game the rest of the world loved.
Anybody who reads this and did not grow up in Australia in the 1950s and early 1960s will
probably find this a little difficult to believe. Perhaps a little history would help to explain it.
Although Australia was settled mainly by British migrants, the game of soccer, invented
in Britain, never really took off here. In the southern and western states, sons and grandsons of British migrants played
the new local game, Australian Rules football. Though I will never understand how this is possible, the states of New South
Wales and Queensland became the only parts of the world where Rugby League football became the major winter sport.
So we come to the end of the Second World War. Not for the first time in our history, Australia
felt isolated way down here at the foot of Asia, a long way from the traditional apron strings of Mother England. Hence
the “populate or perish” policy. This was Australia’s post-war attempt to bring in as many European migrants
as we could get our hands on.
In the post-war years, hundreds of thousands of migrants flooded into Australia, at little
or no cost to themselves. Australia assisted their passage. They worked hard, they settled, they became Australian, and they
wanted to play or watch football. The local game was pretty uninspiring in those days, so the migrants formed their own clubs.
By the late fifties, the migrant-sponsored clubs dominated the Australian game. A series
of disputes followed between the new clubs and the game’s establishment, which I won’t go into here, but for further
information read Johnny Warren’s Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters. The upshot of this was the formation of breakaway
leagues in each major city.
These new Australian clubs were quite attractive to a certain type of European player,
because in the semi-professional Australian leagues, the businessmen who ran the clubs were prepared to offer the players
jobs that would provide them with security after their playing careers ended. A typical example would be a player in the lower
divisions of the English and Scottish leagues. This type of player knew he was unlikely to be snapped up by the big clubs,
so he would be resigned to slogging it out in the lower leagues for low wages and no security at the end of his career.
How attractive a life in the Australian sunshine playing part-time football with a job outside the game must have seemed for
The problem was, these breakaway leagues were not affiliated with FIFA. To make matters
worse internationally, Australia’s generous immigration policy made it easy for the immigrant businessmen who ran the
new clubs to import players from Europe, not as footballers, but as immigrants. This allowed the clubs to avoid paying
transfer fees to the European clubs. This did not go down well at FIFA, and Australia was expelled from the world body.
Soccer's association with Australia's troubled transition to a multicultural society meant
that the game suffered not only from ignorant prejudice, but also an active oppression from the entrenched influence of the
other football codes in the Australian media. Newspapers refused to publish scores and match reports, and the television companies
refused to cover the local game in any way.
Most disappointing of all has been the national broadcaster, the ABC. The ABC still
continues its campaign against Australian soccer to the present day. The ABC has always given the impression that the main
qualification for employment as an ABC sports commentator is an education in the GPS (Great Public Schools) system. In GPS
schools, of course, rugger is the obligatory sport. Consequently, the ABC's idea of football broadcasting is to show games
from a local intersuburban rugby competition in Sydney to the whole nation on a Saturday afternoon. They still do this today!
These games are played in empty stadiums except for a few men wearing GPS scarves, and the ABC chooses to show them
to the whole country while ignoring the most popular sport in the world!
The only exception to the media oppression of football in Australia is SBS, a network
set up for multicultural viewers in the early 1980s, for whom Johnny Warren worked for many years. Naturally, the fact that
SBS, the "migrant" network, showed soccer games confirmed the prejudice of those who reckoned soccer was a wog's game.
I'm pleased to say SBS has never been influenced by prejudice. Long live SBS!
It was at this time of oppression and prejudice that Johnny Warren emerged as one of the
few Australian-born players in a competition dominated by players poached from European clubs. Because of the FIFA ban, however,
players like Johnny Warren had no international future to look forward to.
I spent my primary school years in a small country town called Dunedoo. This will seem
inconceivable to anybody reading this outside of Australia, but the fact is that until the first English migrant family arrived
in the town in 1959, there was not a single soccer ball in Dunedoo. Everywhere else in the world, boys start playing with
a football as soon as they are old enough to use their feet. Not so in an Australian country town in the fifties.
I discovered soccer, not by playing the game but by reading about it. As a child, I was
a voracious reader, and my mother had difficulty keeping up with the reading appetites of my two brothers and myself. Some
time in the 1950s, she discovered the British weekly comics for schoolboys called Tiger and Lion.
By buying both of these every week, she managed to provide us with reading material that would excite our imaginations for
a whole week at a time. It was these comics that introduced me to soccer. Those were the days of the “Busby Babes,”
the young Manchester United team that caught the imagination of British schoolboys, before it was tragically nearly wiped
out in the Munich air crash of 1958. Needless to say, Manchester United became my team, and the young Bobby Charlton my favourite
player. I must point out that I grew out of my allegiance to Manchester United when I arrived in London at the start of a
working holiday in 1973. The first time I saw Queens Park Rangers it was love at first sight, and that love has lasted more
than thirty years.
In May 1960, my family moved to Ingleburn, on the southwestern outskirts of Sydney. Today
Ingleburn is very much a part of Sydney’s urban sprawl. In 1960 it was semi-rural. Ingleburn High School had only recently
been built, so I became one of its first students. I should point out that in that first year the school only had first-year
students. The following year we had first and second year students, and so on. That meant that the students of my year were
the senior students of the school for the whole of our five high school years.
In that first year, 1960, Ingleburn High
School did not have a soccer team. The team began in second year, and had to play against older teams from other schools.
Until this time, although I had been following the game for several years, I had never actually seen a game played live. Nor
had I seen it on television. There was no television in country Australia in the fifties. The only soccer I had seen was on
newsreel footage lasting a few minutes.
From the start, it was made clear to us that Ingleburn
High School would allow us to play soccer, but would not encourage us in any way. Ingleburn boys were supposed to play rugby
league. The teacher assigned to coach us had never played the game and knew very little about it. Our kit was always substandard.
Have a look at the picture of our undefeated champion team of 1964 at the top of this page and you will see we are wearing pre-war, button-up shirts.
Ingleburn High School’s first game
was against Picton High School at Picton, on what can only be described as a cow paddock. I lined up as centre forward, while
Picton kicked off. So little did most of the players of both teams know about the game, that the Picton centre forward kicked
off as he would have done in a rugby league game. In other words, he took a run-up, and kicked the ball as hard as he could.
It hit me right in the face and knocked me onto my back. That was my first experience playing the game I had already loved
for several years.
We struggled that first year, because, remember, we were much younger than the other teams.
But by the following year, even though we were only third year kids playing against senior teams from the other schools, we
had become competitive. In fourth year, we won the competition undefeated, and in our final year we were not only undefeated,
but we won every game by a considerable margin, and I was the top goalscorer. I was never the most skilful player in the team,
and most of the credit for our victories belongs to others. I just seemed to have the knack of being in the right place to
finish off everybody else’s good work.
So, how was our success celebrated at school? The answer is, at the first assembly after
every sports day, puffed up with pride at our latest success, we had to listen to the headmaster announcing a litany of defeats
suffered by our rugby league teams while we waited for our football victories to be announced. Our wait was always in vain.
That’s right, the soccer team’s victories were completely ignored by the school. After all, it was only a game
for sheilas, wogs and poofters, wasn’t it?
I played for the school team on Wednesdays, and on weekends I played for one of the new
migrant-sponsored teams in Sydney. The team I played for was called Prague, and was obviously sponsored by the Czech migrant
community. The senior team was then one of the top teams in the country. You might say it was the Manchester United of Australian
football at that time. I played for their under 14 and under 16 teams during my teenage years.
Playing for Prague meant getting up at five o’clock in the morning, catching a steam
train into Sydney’s Central station (about a ninety minute journey), followed by a bus to somewhere near Bondi Junction,
where I would then walk down to a vast expanse of playing fields called Queens Park. This was a bit like Hackney Marshes in
London, a place where thousands of kids played football, starting with the under 8s early in the morning, through to the seniors
in the afternoon. After my game, I’d usually watch some of the other Prague teams play their games, and then I’d
start the long journey home, arriving about dinnertime on Saturday night. You had to be keen!