Jeff Olver was a kid when I first set eyes on him. His first game for Heidelberg United was a pre-season hit-out at the old Olympic Park No.2 ground, which was primarily a greyhound racing venue. On the odd weekend when the dish-lickers weren’t fleecing punters, the place became a rarely used football venue.
The best vantage point meant a scramble up into the dog track judges box. As the then fresh-faced Olver strode towards his place in the penalty area I yelled from on high, “good onya, Jeff”, to which he responded with an awkward wave. He looked grumpy. He has done ever since on game day. Olver puts that look down to being so driven.
And that drive and hunger for success has never deserted him. Which explains his decision announced just last week to move on from Catalina Street and grab a possible once-in-a-lifetime A League opportunity. “It was probably now or never”, Olver explained.
Now within a month and a tick of his 60th birthday, Alexander’s club games record-holder and top tier club legend has grasped the opportunity to stare down another footballing challenge, taking up a contract to become a part of the goalkeeping staff at Melbourne City.
But Olver made it clear where his footballing heart stays. “This club changed my life”, was Olver’s emotional tribute to Heidelberg United. “Without this club everything would have been different. Heidelberg has given me so very much”.
Olver, a 50-plus game Socceroo and Aussie hero, was also a member of the club’s history-making 1980 NSL Grand Final winning side. In total, Olver has spent some 26 years at Catalina Street, as player, coach or assistant coach. His 379 games played is a club record, but his combined playing and coaching total is estimated to be in excess of 750 senior games.
So, at least for the time being, Heidelberg’s coaching dream team of assistant Olver and coach, Katsakis, is no more. Whilst conceding excitement at the full-time football environment, Olver admitted it was difficult to walk away from the club he has – for the most part – called home since 1979.
“I mean, they’re not happy I’m leaving”, Olver said of discussions with Katsakis and club president, Steve Tsalakidis. “But I think they understand too that this an opportunity for me to take on a new challenge and jobs are few and far between in the A League. And, to be honest, I don’t think there is much more I can do here. Everything we could achieve we have done”.
“To be fair, Katz knew that this opportunity wouldn’t come around again and he gave his blessing”.
Olver’s part in the club’s massive string of on-field successes since 2016 and his partnership with George Katsakis is club folklore. They first buddied up with Olver as the senior man alongside then assistant Katsakis in 1999. The roles were reversed a decade later when the club was on life support and Katsakis asked Olver to help him rebuild. The rest is history.
On the numbers alone, it could easily be argued that Olver would be in the frame for the best that ever was to wear the gold and black. Or, in his case, green. And he is the only person who has actively spanned two of the greatest eras in Alexander history, first as a player in the grand final winning NSL team of 1980, and as assistant coach with the 2017 through 2019 all-conquering Cardiac Kids era.
Olver agrees that comparing teams which competed some 40 years apart is odious and pointless, but despite his joy at recalling his days playing alongside the likes of dearly departed Arthur McMillan and Paddy Bannon back in the day, he is firm in the conviction that the 2017 – 2019 teams were the better of the two sides.
“Its pretty simple”, Olver explained. “The game is about winning and the current team has done an amazing job of winning trophies. We came so close many times back then, but we ended with only the 1980 grand final to show for it. At one stage I think we had nine internationals,
“I mean both teams are as memorable as each other. But I doubt any team will repeat what the current team has done”.
Olver’s recollections are vast, but one thing he maintains will stay with him forever is the smiles on the faces of the older supporters after the club’s 2018 grand final victory. “Heidelberg United is the club we all love”.
When I first saw the kid from Albion Rovers in Warrior colours all those years ago, even a Hollywood script-writer would have been dismissed as fanciful for writing about what true greatness was to follow over the course of Olver’s career. Olver departs for the A League a true giant of the game, a legend of Heidelberg United and his legacy is writ large in the pages of club history.
Melbourne City are lucky to have you, Jeff. Good luck, mate.
Warrior Nation salutes you.