Playing long balls into empty space since 2012.

Monday, 27 January 2014

In their shadows

A memoir of soccer in South Australia the 1950s

Bill Murray saw my piece "Bastards Like Them' on Shoot Farken and thought he'd send his own recollections of the time. Bill played with and against the trinity of Perkins, Moriarty and Briscoe and has some fond memories.
Harry Williams in action, photo courtesy Roy Hay
Before Harry Williams played for the Socceroos in the 1974 World Cup in Germany, there were very few Aboriginals playing soccer, yet among those who did were three who would go on to make names for themselves in the world beyond sport. And all of them began their careers in South Australia, playing for Port Thistle, formerly Port Presbyterian Thistle, merging in 1955 with Port Adelaide, one of South Australia’s oldest clubs. Most famous of these three, of course, was Charlie Perkins, the leading Aboriginal activist from the 1960s until his premature death in 2000. Outside of soccer circles his name made the headlines in the Freedom Rides to Moree and elsewhere in 1965, but he never forgot his passion for the game he took up more or less by accident and became a star of South Australian soccer before moving to New South Wales where he had a brilliant career with the Greek team, Pan-Hellenic. Until his last days he was involved in soccer in some way or another. Most notably in the Australian Capital Territory where his exploits have been extolled by the Liberal Party’s Steve Doszpot, himself of Hungarian heritage and another soccer fanatic.

John Moriarty and Bill Murray in recent times.
Photo courtesy Roy Hay
Johnny Moriarty’s success has been even more impressive, albeit less spectacular. Unlike his friend Charlie, he was a stolen child, from Borroloola, who arrived at the St Francis House, an Anglican boys’ home in Semaphore in South Australia, from whence came several young Aboriginal lads who would make a major impact on the world around them. Moriarty’s success on the soccer field led to him being selected to play for the State against Western Australia in 1960, permission for which had to be granted by the relevant body then overseeing Aboriginal affairs. Beyond soccer Johnny went on to make a reputation using his talent in Aboriginal art, above all with the Jumbana Group and the dreamtime painting of two of Qantas’s Jumbos in 1994 and 1995. Richly rewarded for his artistic skills, he has never forgotten where he came from, devoting much of his time to the development of young Aboriginal soccer players, in New South Wales and back in his birth place, Borroloola, or wherever young Aboriginal talent is being encouraged. He hopes to take a team of young Aboriginal players to Brazil this year.

The third star to emerge from South Australian soccer in the 1950s is Gordon Briscoe. Of more modest soccer talent than Perkins or Moriarty, Briscoe is today a professor at the Australian National University, in academic terms going beyond his two “cousins” from the St Francis home for boys in Semaphore with their bachelor degrees: but like Perkins a fighter for Aboriginal rights, alongside Gary Foley and others from the late 1960s. Unlike Perkins and Moriarty who never lost their love for soccer, Briscoe’s interest in politics took over from his interest in the game, although two years in the UK in the early 1960s and recurrent injuries played their part.

I played soccer for Port Adelaide for three seasons from shortly after my arrival in Australia in October 1954, and well remember my first encounter with Moriarty. It was a state trial for the Intermediate (Under-18) team to play against Victoria for the Skolnik Cup, where I was given the instruction: “Just put the ball in front of the little black kid”: that was it as the young Johnny Moriarty flew down the wing with the ball at his feet leaving everyone else in his trail. Moriarty’s career took off, mine drifted, but one of my favourite memories of him after that was the fun to and from an Under-21 State team visit to Port Pirie in 1958. (I was a reserve.  I might also add that in the squad was Denis Harlow,  future historian of the game in South Australia to which he has devoted his life in every capacity)  I have since been told that Johnnie was not a singer but I seem to remember some very good Elvis interpretations. An outstanding feature of Moriarty that I noted then and have had no reason to change my opinion since is that he was always a great sport and a gentleman in the best meaning of that word.

Charlie Perkins watches SA goalkeeper gather the ball against Victoria,
photo courtesy Roy Hay
No-one would have called Charlie a gentleman, in any sense. And yet my early memories, vague and mixed up with games at Gepps Cross migrant camp and anywhere else where a group of migrants got together, was of this most skilled Aboriginal player who epitomised the sporting ideal. My guess is that when Charlie found himself faced by a very unsporting racist society which took advantage of a native population too reliant on the goodwill of the white masters, he made a conscious choice to show on the field of play that he could be as tough and ferocious as anyone. Charlie says that he did not find in soccer the racism that contaminated cricket (where he was equally brilliant) or the other football codes, even if it meant, as has been said, that he might allow himself to be seen as Greek or southern European, rather than Aboriginal. Certainly he was at home among the footballers who made a name for themselves in South Australia at that time: Alex Beattie, who was in Australia’s 1956 Olympic squad, the young Billy Graham, the Ferguson brothers, and most notably South Australia’s best ever goalkeeper, Jimmy McCabe: all Scots,  not surprising - although there were others. I got to know McCabe when we came out as emigrants to Australia on the same ship, the Otranto, where he made a name for himself in deck and other social activities, on one occasion taking over at the microphone to serenade his fellow passengers (until a perhaps jealous sailor switched the microphone off.) When McCabe went to Scotland to trial with Glasgow Celtic he left his car with Perkins to use – with unfortunate results.

Image courtesy Roy Hay
Among this galaxy of stars, albeit from a minor firmament, Charlie was not just a top soccer player, but one of the boys. He was certainly not shy, as Ian Syson reports the secretary of the South Australian Soccer Association as saying, and when he left Adelaide for Sydney in 1961 there were a few people, in particular at the Adelaide Croatia soccer club, with darker memories. Aboriginal politics would soon take over from soccer in Charlie’s career, and as in the way he had come to play soccer, he was prepared to make enemies if it was in pursuit of the new goals he had taken up.

Like me, Gordon Briscoe did not reach the same playing level as Charlie and Johnny, but in becoming a university professor he has surpassed any level I achieved in academia. We both played in Port Lincoln, but he before I arrived there in late 1958. There was a very strong aboriginal presence there, but none in any of the three soccer teams. In my memory, which conflicts with those who say Aboriginals did not play a big role in the Rules games, Aboriginals starred in more than one team. I played Rules on Saturday and soccer on Sunday, Gordon seems to have played only Rules, but I well remember Charlie Oliver who got Gordon to play Rules: he reached the top level in South Australian Rules  but I knew him best as a spearfisherman. (Gordon says he played soccer in Port Lincoln) Gordon and I did not see much of each other after the days at Port Adelaide until we had a brief meeting at the Australian National University in 1969. I also met up with Charlie again, by then better known as an activist on Aboriginal causes, and was pleased to give him a copy of a book of documents on Australian history I had compiled, with one document unambiguous proof of how the Aboriginals of South Australia had been robbed of their land.

Charlie Perkins vaulting his APIA opponent playing for Pan Hellenic in Sydney.
Image courtesy James Hothersall
Each of these young lads in South Australia reached national prominence in sport, politics and social affairs, and all through their meeting at the St Francis House. Each has given his own account of the time there, but you can’t help wondering how they would have made their name if it hadn’t been for them being drawn into the scratch matches at Semaphore. It leaves open the question as to why until recently there have not been more not only Aboriginal stars but Aboriginal soccer players, as there have been in Rules and League and to a lesser extent Rugby where the Ella brothers are stand outs. It is certainly not a case of white racism, as soccer has been much less racist than the other football codes. With Jade North and others as portrayed in the excellent book by John Maynard on Aboriginal soccer players (especially the women), this augurs well for the biggest untapped source of soccer talent in Australia.

1 comment:

  1. The AFL has compiled a list of Aboriginal AFL players (not sure what their criteria was - i.e. self identification). A list of A-League & NSL would be interesting to see if there has been an increase/decease in top level participation

    JAmes H