THE BLOG

There Was Something Very Special About Those Late Nights With Les Murray

Les was there for a lot of important moments in my life, riding the highs and lows the same way I did.

07/08/2017 3:28 PM AEST | Updated 07/08/2017 3:28 PM AEST
The World Game, SBS Television
Thank you, Les, you helped shape a young boy's life with your enthusiasm and acceptance.

My father says I was on his knee to watch a rampaging Diego Maradona run through all that stood in front of him to conquer the '86 world cup, but I don't remember... I was six months old.

I do remember the '94 World Cup. I was nine and football, or 'soccer' as our fledgling world-game nation called it at that stage, was my life. Starting in 1994, a theme for football in our household developed and it involved three men and a boy: my father, Johnny Warren, Les Murray and me.

Mum was asleep so we had to be extra quiet, but dad and I would get up for the group games, the round of 16, all of it, at all sorts of ungodly hours. We'd make a bowl of porridge and sit down for a chat with the boys. Emotional, hard-edged 'I told you so' Johnny Warren, and the level-headed, always enthusiastic Les Murray.

I grew up on the cusp of soccer being accepted as an Australian pastime and sporting pursuit. Gone were the days of 'Sheilas Wogs and Poofters', although Rugby was still considered more manly, and cricket the gentleman's game.

It strikes me now how 'family' this event felt, I went with my father and in turn saw lots of multi-generational groups there, fathers, sons, uncles, grandfathers... All members of the Les and Johnny late night club.

There was something special about those nights, Johnny and Les made you feel part of a club, part of something bigger. International soccer was always the beautiful game where the class and ideas came from, but with Johnny and Les, the Socceroos were always the love.

I grew up in Leichhardt, an inner-western suburb of Sydney, heavily populated by Italian immigrant families, so most of my life (until abruptly in 2006, actually) Italy was my favourite international team.

That first taste of international broadcast football: World Cup '94, was going to be imprinted on my memory forever. Warren and Murray continued the beautiful explanations of things such as total football, the Italians parking the bus and the brilliance of one man: Roberto Baggio -- all explained to me at 3am on a school night.

I sat and watched Les and Johnny go over just exactly what had happened after 'that' penalty shot lost the '94 final to the Brazilians in Los Angeles, and thus started my membership for life of this beautiful little club.

Les was there for a lot of important moments in my life, riding the highs and lows the same way I did. The international matches and Euro tournaments were filler, beautiful filler, but it was the Socceroos clashes where the real heart and passion lay.

We had my birthday party at our house in Haberfield on November 29th, 1997. I was turning 12 and the Socceroos were up 2-0 with 30 minutes to go in the second leg of our last step to qualifying for the Cup. Emotions were running high, to say the least. I barely remember the half time Les and Johnny chat as I was probably bouncing off the walls. High on a combination of fairy bread, cordial and the hopes and dreams of France '98.

Then the serial pest happened... Then Bagheri and Aziz happened... Then my party ended. Once again Les was there consoling me and my Father on another unforgettable night of my childhood. While we had lost, and lost in spectacular fashion, through Les and Johnny I felt we had lost as part of a group, part of something bigger. I remember Johnny Warren crying that night, "We had one foot on the bus". It was a national trauma.

Through Les and Johnny, and football in general, I learnt the importance of multiculturalism and national identity in Australia. It could've been hard for an Anglo-Australian 12-year-old boy to interact with Vanja, the new refugee Croatian boy at primary school, but it wasn't because I mean Davor Suker was amazing. How could you find anything weird or foreign about a boy from the country who produced 'that' striker.

Adrian, the Chilean boy at my school and I got on over our love of Zamorano and Salas. I think football and Les and Johnny showed me that all were equals till they were on the football pitch, and out there anyone can be a god, from a small, poor Argentinian boy to a hard-drinking Northern Irishman. Football brilliance knew no racial or economic boundaries.

So, 2001 gave us our first taste of Uruguay. I was lucky to pack up the car and head down to Melbourne with Mum and Dad to see Australia pull off a 1-0 victory against the higher-rated Uruguay, however being at the game live there was something missing; the sounds of pre game and half time Les and Johnny chats.

Unfortunately, that year it was not to be, we went to Uruguay and were soundly defeated, and alas another world cup where I would have to settle for watching other countries fight for the silverware. Don't worry young fella, all good things come to those who wait, and something was coming.

Between these two world cups, my mother was diagnosed with cancer, it was aggressive late stage stomach cancer and it unfortunately took her life. During this time Johnny Warren also went through a similar battle with lung cancer. It was a hard time for our little family, but I remember one shining light.

My mother and Johnny Warren actually attended a cancer treatment program together with their partners, and during a very sad time I remember a moment of happiness; Dad coming home and telling me how he had got to meet Johnny and talk football with him.

To my Dad, Johnny meant a lot, as he had been a Socceroos tragic for decades and had ridden even more highs and lows with Johnny and Les than I had. Such was the impact of our little late night club that my father, in what must've been the hardest time of his life still got a smile on his face from being able to talk football with Johnny.

It was a dark few years there, losing my mother and some others in quick succession. However, 2005 was right around the corner and would provide excellent distractions and healing in the form of an amazing sporting year, topped off with the highest high of sporting emotion I think I'll ever know.

I'm a Sydney Swans fan, and a Balmain Tigers fan, so you can already see 2005 working out pretty well for me; a leaping Leo Barry and an incredible flick pass had really made the year, but that paled in comparison to what was to come on the night of November 5th.

On this fateful night it felt like all the members of that quiet, secret 2am TV club had emerged from their homes together, united. Eighty-Two thousand from the club marched to Homebush in their green and gold. I remember it as an oddly cold November night, but there was something else, some special heat in the air.

It strikes me now how 'family' this event felt, I went with my father and in turn saw lots of multi-generational groups there, fathers, sons, uncles, grandfathers... All members of the Les and Johnny late night club.

I have re-watched the game many times, but the actual memories of the night are a blur of emotions, of crowd noises, of ups and downs. But, one memory does stick out in my mind: The most memorable crowd rendition of the national anthem I will ever hear, punctuated with glimpses of 'I told you so' banners.

I know Johnny was there in spirit and I can only imagine the elation Les was feeling that night. It felt like finally, what we had willed and hoped and fought for, had come to fruition.

After two of the most important saves in Australian football history by national hero Schwarzer, I couldn't watch and buried my face into my father's chest. Then, John Aloisi's boot changed our nation's football views and ideals for good. We had made it. Through those 2am starts, the hard ups and downs, those pains had finally come tumbling down.

I could go on about the following year and the amazing journey that was Germany '06, a national hero born in Cahill, and my falling out of love with the Italian national team, but we all know that story. This is about what that late night club with Johnny and Les meant to me my father and so many others.

Thank you, Les, you helped shape a young boy's life with your enthusiasm and acceptance, you and Johnny are responsible for what Australian football is today. Vale Les Murray. Vale Johnny Warren.

More On This Topic