WHEN WARRIORS RULED THE NATION

The dictionary defines superlative as being of the highest kind, quality or order, surpassing all else. Supreme. And as any die-hard Alexander fan over fifty will tell you, the Fitzroy/Heidelberg United teams of the late 1970’s were just that. Simply superlative.

At the time, standing imperious and overlooking the majestic river Yarra, was the sadly now demolished Olympic Park.  On winter Sundays in Melbourne in the late 70’s it was the place to be. And on October 26 this year, it will be 40 years ago to the day that the Heidelberg United team of that era ascended into the club’s pantheon of legends. The venue was neutral in neutral Canberra, at Bruce Stadium. The game, the 1980 NSL Grand Final. Waiting for the Warriors were the league’s evil empire of the time, Sydney City. For the Warriors, the stakes could hardly have been greater.

But I momentarily digress. Nick Rahovitsas’ work to bring together his massive 8 DVD opus is nearing completion, so keep abreast of the how to grab a copy of the definitive history of Alexander please check out the club website and Facebook page. He also recently published some wonderful – albeit brief – footage on Facebook of Alexander playing at Olympic Park around 1974.

Hard to believe now, but that old concrete bowl had hosted over 37,000 fans, back in ’66 for the visit of Roma. In 1972 – on a day torrential rain pounded Olympic Park’s metal sheeting roof – I crouched way up in the shadows of the eastern terrace and choofed madly on a pack of Viscount 10’s and grooved to Cream’s ‘White Room” on a cassette player. Advertising back then insisted teenagers looked way cooler if they smoked, so I worked on my cool as Buckley Park High School’s sad athletics carnival wash-out was my first look at the joint.

At the time the ground was only 16 years in service, but the once iconic ‘home of soccer’ in Victoria looked worn and weather-beaten even back then. I snuck back to Olympic Park now and then, culminating in a night match when the main game was more about evading empty beer bottles being hurled in spirals in my direction by Tottenham fans, when Spurs played Victoria in ’75.

But on a crisp and clear Sunday in 1977 I met and fell desperately in love with the then Fitzroy Alexander and Olympic Park became home for the next four wonderful years. Tram to the Elizabeth Street, and a stroll past Flinders Street Station and a jaunty walk by the river down Olympic Boulevard. It was then always river end, eastern side, top crush bar high atop the uncovered terrace. Bliss.

Fitzroy smacked Sydney Olympic that particular day and started a run of four consecutive home wins. Olympic Park rocked to the Alexandros chant. Everyone thought Hellas would be Melbourne’s elite outfit in the new National Soccer League. Everyone thought wrong. Wearing the still iconic yellow and black GT stripes strip – my favorite, alongside the Umbro tyre tracks design a year or two later – Fitzroy was sassy, edgy, very talented and just a bit sexy.

When I sat down to write this piece it occurred to me how little vision there is of this time and this team. Which is such an enormous shame. And I don’t quite have the words to do them justice. To me, they were god-like. I was – in equal parts – intimidated and thrilled – either watching them play or seeing them up close and in civvies. But mostly joyful at being part of it. From 1977 to 1981 they dominated the elite national competition completely. Well, almost. Cashed-up Sydney City Hakaoh kept buying up big and bullying their way to the head of the pack. Well, until 1980.

As Fitzroy became Heidelberg and Alexander’s legion of fans’ chants echoed and amplified under Olympic Park’s old tin roof, the club missed the top five just once in the first seven seasons of the NSL, finishing runners up twice and a close third on another occasion. And the Warriors also reached the final of the knock-out cup on three occasions, only to fall at the final hurdle each time. As marvellous as they were and as heartbreakingly close as they got, Alexander’s team of a generation couldn’t crack it for a national title. Until 1980.

Some terrific players and wonderful people came and went on the journey from 1977 through until what is now perhaps still regarded as the club’s greatest on-field moment of triumph.

There are notables I’ll miss here, but Branko Buljevic was silk until he headed off to enemy territory at Middle Park. Peter Blasby was and is still much loved around the club and like Yakka Banovic – and yes, you Jimmy Marner – were all keeping before one Jeff Olver strode into town in 1980 and made the position his own. Jimmy O’Reilly was a fierce competitor and ripping bloke and considered as much a part of the countdown to the club’s 1980 date with destiny game as anyone. As was Bobby Provan, who from memory was on the bench but got no game time in Canberra that fateful day.

We’ve lost a couple down the years. Arthur McMillan – whose trademark thunderous tackle sent Hakoah’s Kenny Boden into orbit and set the tone of the 1980 grand final – passed a decade or more ago. And Paddy Bannon – who stood up to everything Hakoah dished out and set such a standard for his teammates that glorious day physically – was taken much more recently. The loss of both was felt very deeply around Catalina Street, despite both having been long departed and retired as players.

And so it came to pass that after smashing South Melbourne in a semi final, it was the showdown with Sydney City in Canberra, in a game any Warrior fan from the time will, to this very day, be able to say where they were and what they were doing when the 1980 team became club legends.

I’d love to single out Gary Cole, the big, bold, blond goal scorer, who always looked like he’d just come in off a surf at Bells Beach as he barnstormed his way to becoming the first NSL player to 50 goals – and ending his career with twice as many. Suffice it to say he had a profound influence on my life and career and I’ve been blessed to tell him in person in recent times.

So anyway, after stupid Michael Jackson and his fans wrecked the playing surface in 1997, Olympic Park was just about done. The bastards closed the place in 2009 and demolished it two years later. On the rare occasions I venture to AAMI Park, I look across to the paddock where Olympic Park once stood and I still smile to myself when I recall Jim Mangopoulos convincing a couple of coppers to release pissed me from their divvy van. I still get a chill when I close my eyes and hear the strains of ‘Alexandros’ reverberating under the old tin roof. And I can still just kinda feel that breeze coming in off the Yarra and experienced that unbridled, heart pounding, fist pumping joy of watching a wonderful team at the height of their greatness.

And so to the 1980 NSL Grand Final, played on October 26, some 40 years ago. The best measure of what this game means to the club even to this day is that there are very few Warrior fans of any age who don’t at least recognise the names of Jeff Olver, Gary Cole, Kenny Taylor, Theo Selemidis, Andy Bozikas, Arthur McMillan, John Yzendoorn, Pat Bannon, Jimmy Rooney, Jim Campbell, Jimmy Tansey and Jamie Paton. And more often than not, even faces forty years aged are recognised when these 1980 grand final heroes venture back to Catalina Street. And dads point and tell their kids the stories of the heroes of 1980.

As for me, I still have stars in my eyes around these blokes and no amount of my flowery prose would capture the memories and do justice to how good these guys were and that wonderful day in Canberra so long ago. But it was the day that coach Len McKendry and his Warriors eye-balled each other in the sheds and vowed that this would be the day that they would stand toe-to-toe and not get shoved around nor intimidated by the might of Hakoah again. And off they went to become part of football folklore.

At this point I heartily recommend you pull out your old VHS tape of the game, or find it on Youtube and watch it right now. Immediately.

PRE-ORDER YOUR DVD https://hufc.com.au/store/

Footnote – Spielberg has promised some terrific content about the 1980 team in the club 

                  history DVD. 

                  He has also uncovered a little-known slice of club trivia. Heidelberg United has

                  been a part of not one, but two Aussie television firsts. The 1980 NSL Grand Final

                  was the very first domestic soccer game to be shown live around the nation, on 

                  then fledgling network Channel 0, later to become SBS. However, it turns out that

                 Alexander apparently also featured in the very first Channel 9 Melbourne live 

                 Saturday afternoon broadcast game. Channel 9 went live with Victorian State 

                 League – as it was then known – matches for at least a couple of years in the early 

                 1970s. Sports calling all-rounder, the brilliant Tony Charlton, provided commentary

                 and the games went out to Victorian viewers only, in glorious black and white.