Johnny Warren: the godfather of Australian football

Johnny Warren: the godfather of Australian football

“We should be trying to win the World Cup, not just qualify for the finals.” The date was 13 February 2003, and Australia had just beaten England 3-1 at Upton Park. In the match studio, one of the Australian pundits couldn’t contain his delight at the sumptuous performance he’d just witnessed. The game, he remarked, should be the catalyst that inspired the Socceroos to World Cup glory.

To the lay observer, his words could have appeared blinkered, maybe even naive. To Australian fans, however, it was just another example of Johnny Warren’s fierce ambition for the the national game. The win marked the high point of a crusade that he had begun in New South Wales almost 60 years before.

John Howard Warren was born in Botany, Sydney  on 17 May 1942. A precocious and long-limbed athlete, he spent a typical working-class childhood dividing his time between his friends and playing sports with his brothers. Unlike most of his peers who favoured rugby and cricket, the young Warren only had eyes for the spherical ball, devoting himself to a craft that many Australians thought the preserve of the weak and unwashed. At school and on the streets, Warren’s love of the game marked him out as an outsider, and he would often be labelled a ‘Sheila’ or ‘Wog Warren’ for his preference of goals over tries.

Despite the jeers, Warren’s talent earned him a contract with local side Canterbury Marrickville in 1951, where he made his first appearance aged just 15. He immediately became an integral part of the side, scoring two goals in the grand final of the New South Wales Cup before his 18th birthday, before his starring performances in the middle of the park attracted the attention of Sydney outfit Budapest St. George.

As the Second World War ended in 1945, the Allied forces had carved up the European continent between them. With the Iron Curtain falling on Eastern Europe, millions of people had fed the oppressive Soviet regime, desperate to build new lives free from bloodshed and persecution. As the many displaced people searched for a new home, the Australian government, aiming to inflate it’s relatively small population after the war, proclaimed that it would “welcome new healthy citizens who are determined to become good Australians”.

They needn’t have asked twice. A hemisphere away from the devastation of the worst conflict in world history, Australia was an idyll that proved irresistible to Hungarians, Greeks and Croats alike. In the 20 years after the conclusion of hostilities, more than two million Europeans made the pilgrimage to the other end of the world in pursuit of a better life.

As with many migrant stories, hopes of a fresh start life soon gave way to prejudice and persecution. Skilled immigrants found work difficult to come by, while many Australians were wary of the rapid influx of foreign cultures and customs. With migrant populations struggling to integrate, they clung to their love of a sport that was increasingly viewed with suspicion by the indigenous populace. For the new arrivals, football was a familiar and inclusive distraction.

Unlike many of his compatriots, the post-war boom of football culture was a revelation for Warren. Budapest St.George, a team supported and built by the migrant Hungarian population, was therefore a natural destination to continue his footballing career. The teenage midfielder slotted in seamlessly, his enthralling and dynamic game quickly installing him as the team’s captain. For the next 12 years, he became the undisputed star of Australian football, leading his colleagues to three New South Wales League titles, two State Cups and one Premiership trophy. It would be for the Socceroos’, however, where Warren truly cemented his footballing legacy.

A 22-year-old Warren had made his debut for the national team against North Korea in Cambodia in November 1965. Underprepared and unwell, the Australian part-timers were torn apart by the same Korea side that would go on to beat the Italians at the 1966 World Cup. For Warren, the game was an immense frustration, a worrying indictment of the gap between the Australian game and the rest of the world. This, coupled with the own apathy that he had faced throughout his footballing career, began laying the foundations of a strong desire to improve the standing of Australian football. This was the only way that the country could avoid, as he put it, another “footballing Gallipoli”.

Less than two years after the embarrassment in Phnomh Penh, Warren’s undeniable talent saw him become captain of the national team. In 1967, he led the Socceroos to victory in the Friendly Nations Cup tournament in South Vietnam. A propaganda exercise organised by the American armed forces, the event was nevertheless a huge success for the Australians, who ignored the helicopters and rifle fire to beat South Korea and win their first ever international trophy.

The result was the clarion call for a marvellous period in Australian footballing history. For Warren, it would be remembered for darker reasons. Aged 27 and in the prime of his career, he ruptured his cruciate ligament. At that point, no player had ever managed to recover from the injury to play football at a high level. Warren, however, was no ordinary player.

In a gruelling year-long rehabilitation that was soured further by the loss of the national captaincy, Warren fought his way back into contention as the Socceroos qualified for the 1974 World Cup in West Germany. The reprieve would be short-lived, with the returning icon fracturing his foot in the first group game against East Germany. After achieving an astonishing feat of persistence and determination to even reach the squad, his body had failed him in the cruellest of fashions.

Read  |  The Socceroos’ quest for footballing parity

In the twilight of his playing career, Warren returned to St.George as the club’s player/manager later that year. It should be no surprise that he led his charges to the grand final of the New South Wales league in his first season, where they faced an enterprising and dangerous Sydney City Hakoah side. As in so many times throughout his career, Warren was the catalyst for a scintillating performance, scoring the fourth goal of a 4-2 victory with what remains one of the most iconic goals in Australian football history. From the halfway line, Warren punted the ball past the entire defence before arcing a shot past the keeper with the outside of his right boot. As he was engulfed by his roaring team-mates, it was at that moment that he decided to retire from the game. He immediately substituted himself, withdrawing from the stage at the peak of his imperious powers.

After his retirement, Warren fulfilled a lifelong ambition by travelling to Brazil. Rather than sampling the delights of the Rio Carnival, however, he was continuing his footballing mission, setting about investigating what had made the Seleção such an international juggernaut. He networked extensively, hoping any lessons could be learned and applied to football back home. He quickly realised that, if Australia were ever to achieve their hopes of international success, drastic reform and a renewed emphasis on youth were needed.

Armed with this knowledge, he returned with a mission to improve the facilities and participation in the game amongst the country’s young players. He was adamant that, in a country obsessed with sport, the only thing standing in the way of footballing glory was a lack of willpower and organisation. For a man who had built his career on proving people wrong, a lack of either would not be forgiven lightly.

A natural communicator, Warren had combined his playing responsibilities at St.George with a role in the club’s marketing and promotion arm. With his square jaw, steady gaze and broad shoulders, his demeanour was often more akin to a newsreader than a professional footballer. It was no surprise, then, when he began hosting a regular children’s football show in Australia entitled Captain Socceroo. The show, which claimed Mark Viduka as one of its most ardent followers, aimed to promote the merits of the game directly to Australian youths.

His natural confidence in front of the camera lens soon earned him a spot as a pundit for the newly-formed Special Broadcasting Service. His ascorbic and forthright commentary proved a hit with viewers, who were left in no doubt that this was a man both knowledgeable and passionate about the game. His regular appearance on programmes like On the Ball and The World Game, combined with his column for the Sun Herald, certified his status as a footballing luminary. When an often disinterested media sought comment about footballing issues, Warren was their first port of call, and he regularly appeared on a variety of platforms to promote and commentate on the sport.

What made Warren most appealing, perhaps, is that underneath the rugged exterior was a man who cared deeply about his country and the sport of football. In 1997, as Australia crashed out of the World Cup qualifiers against an Ali Daei-inspired Iran, Warren was the co-commentator and pundit in the studio. The former midfield impresario was moved to tears, such was his empathy for the disappointment felt amongst the squad and the coaches. Even Iran’s coach expressed regret that his side would qualify at the expense of Warren’s Australian side, apologising to the “very nice man” he had met the night before.

In 2002, Warren released his controversially-titled autobiography, Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters, which chronicled the opposition he had faced first as a youngster and then as a player in trying to pursue his desire for excellence in the Australian game. Predictably, it was a major success.

In 2003, Sport Minister Rod Kemp announced the publication of the Crawford Report, which criticised the corruption and poor organisation that had plagued the Australian game over the previous decades. The report recommended wide-ranging reforms to how Australian football should be managed and administered, acting as a kind of Magna Carta for the future of the national game. Warren, who had been instrumental in the report’s creation, was also crucial in the implementation of its findings, personally convincing magnate Frank Lowy to take the job as Chief Executive of the new Australian Football Federation.

In an effort to further promote the game amongst Australian youth, Warren established an academy in 2004. The initiative, which was supported and sponsored by the New South Wales premier, Bob Carr, provided promising young players with unrivalled access to state-of-the-art training and technical expertise. For the Warren family, however, it would soon prove to be a bittersweet event.

Shortly before his 61st birthday, Warren received devastating news, being diagnosed with incurable lung cancer and given months to live. By this stage, his legacy in Australian football was already secure. In 1990, the Australian league had introduced the Johnny Warren medal for the best player of the season, while he had already been awarded an MBE for his services to the sport years earlier. But it was the award presented to him by FIFA that meant the most to Australia’s erstwhile captain, as he was presented with the FIFA Bicentennial Award for his contribution to football.

Despite his frail and emaciated condition, the pride as he embraced FIFA president Sepp Blatter was clear to all of the hundreds of football dignitaries that had come to mark the occasion. It was a fitting tribute to a man who had done so much to better the game in one of football’s most staunch and unwilling outposts.

Warren’s last public appearance was at the launch of the Australian A-League in October 2004. He died a week later and was one of the few Australian sportsmen to be granted a full state funeral. Thanks largely to a crusade that he had embarked on nearly a half-century before, his country found itself with a footballing infrastructure befitting of its potential and prestige.

Just a year after the death of its greatest ever footballer, Australia turned out for the second-leg of their World Cup qualifier against Uruguay. Beat the South Americans and they would be through to their first international tournament in over 30 years. As the Socceroos walked out onto the pitch at the Telstra stadium, a familiar football anthem played. As You’ll Never Walk Alone sprang from the throats of the spectators, Johnny Warren’s picture appeared on the giant screens in commemoration. The Socceroos wouldn’t let their famous captain down, Mark Schwarzer’s shootout heroics sealing Australia’s passage to the tournament in Germany. This, they seemed to say, was his night. This, after a life spent grafting towards Australian footballing excellence, was for him 

By Christopher Weir. Follow @chrisw45

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