Last Monday, along with many friends from Canberra and indeed from all around Australia, I made the sad journey from Canberra to Sydney to farewell an old friend Les Murray, the voice of Australian Football and the face of SBS Television. The invitations asked people to be seated by 10:45 am but by 10:00 am there were long queues forming outside St Mary’s Cathedral. We came from all sections of the football community, players, friends, coaches, journalists, commentators, administrators, as well as politicians from Labor and Liberal backgrounds headed by the Premier of NSW Gladys Berejiklian.
What would have pleased Les most of all was the huge turn out of fans from all sections of the community, including his beloved ethnics who found a champion in this man, who actually spent hours practicing how to pronounce their names and gave dignity to their backgrounds. He spearheaded the move to legitimise the acceptance of Soccer / Football, fought to get rid of the insulting “Wog Ball” jibes and introduce Australia to the world game that they and Les loved “The Beautiful Game”. This was Les Murray’s and Johnny Warren’s mission. The third partner in this mission was Charlie Perkins who felt more accepted by the outsiders, immigrants, than by his own country.
I was privileged to know and work with all three and together and separately the four of us played some interesting roles in the emergence of Soccer or Football in our capital region, as well as at the National, Club, Media and Political levels.
My friendship with Les began when I was around 16 and Les a whole two years older. We played soccer every Sunday morning at Sydney’s Centennial Park, with an eclectic bunch of young and old Hungarian refugees who, apart from our ethnic backgrounds, were drawn together through passion for our football, which we had to call soccer in our new homeland.
In the following years we went in different directions. Les joined a pop group as lead singer and became heavily involved, with his family, in a new soccer club, St George-Budapest. I lived in Leichhardt and started playing for APIA. We reconnected when I also joined St George-Budapest. Les was already there, playing reserve grade, while Johnny Warren was captaining St George-Budapest first grade and I was merely in third grade. Johnny and Les became great mates, while I moved to Canberra and along with the legendary Charlie Perkins, helped to consolidate our first entry in the 1977 Phillips Soccer League. Charlie Perkins had much more serious discrimination to overcome, as well, as he fought for recognition dignity and respect for the Aboriginal community, but the friendships amongst these outsiders helped Charlie Perkins earn the finances through playing Soccer to be able to achieve his tertiary educational ambitions and become the first Aborigine to attend University and embark on his freedom rides which he continued in one way or another all his life.
Les Murray and I fell into this outsider category by being children of refugees from Hungary and we couldn’t understand why other kids ridiculed us and the game we loved to play. Johnny Warren was an outstanding sportsman. He could have been a great Cricketer or Rugby League or Rugby Union player, instead he dedicated his life to Football, not only because of his passion for the game but to stand up for his mates amongst these outsiders. He was a passionate Australian who believed his beloved Soccer / Football would help assimilate and gain acceptance for his new friends into their new homeland, but he also held a lifelong view that Soccer could also help Australia gain acceptance in Asia and become an active participant in Asia through sport, rather than continue to be perceived as a throwback, Eurocentric nation to colonial days.
There has already been a lot said about Les and his impact on and contribution to Australian football. What is not well known is that Les has quite a history with our fair city, Canberra. Through our St George-Budapest connection, I was instrumental in getting Johnny Warren to become Canberra City’s first coach. Then, a year later, after Les had a short stint as a soccer commentator at Channel 10 in Sydney, his program was canceled and I was able get Les to come to Canberra to be a soccer commentator, calling the Canberra City matches fortnightly for Tony Campbell’s Wide World of Sport on Capital 7.
Johnny Warren and Les Murray became a dynamic duo as soccer commentators on SBS TV, giving us a level of insight and analysis that had all of us enthralled as they took us on a magical football journey every four years from one World Cup to another. They became known as Mr and Mrs Soccer, a partnership and a journey that we all followed to that epic game against Uruguay that eventually took the Socceroos to Germany in 2006 and a result that, sadly, our good friend Johnny Warren never got to see.
The Cathedral rapidly filled to capacity and there was a seating area and a giant screen outside to make sure everyone was included. The State Funeral celebrated by Monsignor Tony Doherty, was beautiful in its simplicity and warmth, it also featured a touching video from family members, including Les’s older brother Andrew Urge.
During the service, I couldn’t help but reflect on what Les would have made of this great honour given to him, and who would fill the void left by these great champions of Football?