St George’s past, our football present

Howard Higgs/St George Saints FC

They go by the name of St George Saints FC nowadays, but if you’ve been around a while you may know them as St George Budapest or simply, St George. They are more than a club, they are a community.

On Friday, 20 July 2012, St George celebrated their mid-year success at The Grand Roxy, Brighton-Le-Sands by putting on an extravaganza, organised by Elia Santoro. The St George FC: ‘A Celebration of Football Past & Present’ function was a true representation of Australia’s football family.

Master of Ceremonies, George Donikian, cordially announced the lineup of special guests, which included some of the game’s greatest names. If ever there were an event that brought football’s past and present together, this was it.

Howard Higgs/St George Saints FC

Craig Foster, David Zdrilic and Francis Awaritefe (SBS) kicked things off and would chair an interview-style presentation for the evening. First up was a retrospective look at St George with club favourite and former Socceroo, Scott Ollerenshaw. Jamie Warren, nephew to Johnny and Chairman of the Johnny Warren Football Foundation, spoke alongside his uncle’s good friend and veteran football journalist, John Economos.

Economos was emotional when talking about Johnny. They shared a great friendship. St George was Johnny’s club in every way. His presence was felt in the room and achievements on display throughout the spread of memorabilia. The historic newspapers, photos, trophies and banners were laid out gloriously.

Howard Higgs/St George Saints FC

Former U-17s and U-20s Australia coach, Les Scheinflug was then brought up on stage with Football NSW Technical Director and our highest-capped Socceroo, Alex Tobin. Scheinflug spoke of the need to nurture the talent we have, as he strongly believes in the current crop of young players. Tobin paid respect to his former coach but added the fundamental need to understand the modern game, and be progressive.

After the main meal, St George President, Ross Gardner and Coaching Director, Aytek Genc discussed the future direction of the club. Genc was highly critical of the state of St George Stadium, the club’s dilapidated facilities and the need for Government support. Gardner then called upon honorary guests, Cr. Bill Saravinovski (Mayor of Rockdale City Council) and Cr. James Macdonald (Deputy Mayor) to come up and address the question directly to their constituents. A bold but important move as both men openly shared their support for improving St George Stadium in the near future. Saravinovski went as far as stating an “announcement” would be made within the next week.

Good news, for all at the club. As Gardner said:

The St George club has played a significant role in the development of football over the last 56 years and was a foundation member of the NSL, as well as a prolific supplier of players to the National team. Full credit should be given to all those involved in the club in the past, and our thanks should be given to all the players that have represented the club with such distinction and provided so much entertainment over the years.

Howard Higgs/St George Saints FC

The proceeding 90 minutes included a feast of football discussion, debate and most importantly, recognition for those who have given so much to the game in Australia. Football NSW Chief Executive, Eddie Moore was joined by newly appointed Sydney FC boss, Tony Pignata. Western Sydney Wanderers (WSW), Head of Football Operations, John Tsatsimas completed the trio of corporate administrators. WSW Head Coach and former Socceroo, Tony Popovic sat with former Football Federation Australia (FFA) Head of Corporate and Public Affairs, Bonita Mersiades. ’74 Socceroos legend, Ray Richards rounded out a first-class panel of thinkers.

Howard Higgs/St George Saints FC

Moore had praise for the present state of the game and was excited by the challenges ahead. Tsatsimas and Pignata may be bitter rivals on the pitch in the months to come, but put their allegiances aside to share their views on running football in Sydney. Zdrilic asked former teammate, Popovic how his WSW squad was coming along. Poppa didn’t give too much away but was quietly confident that Sydney’s second team would be competitive come Round 1 of the A-League season.

Mersiades delivered a passionate yet balanced view on the state of Australian football, praising the work of FFA in bringing fans a more professional game. However, was fearful that a lack of acceptance and understanding of the diverse opinions in the game were to the detriment of the football community. This, after Richards had declared his disappointment in the way in which FFA had established the new WSW club. His choice words may have been controversial, but it is a game of opinions, and his well-documented views on building a community club were once again aired with merit.

If that wasn’t enough, guests were then treated to a presentation chaired by Football Media Association President and writer for The Australian, Ray Gatt. Foster, Zdrilic and Awaritefe returned with Fox Sports analyst and former Sydney FC captain, Mark Rudan to share their insight into the role of the media in changing the culture of football coverage in Australia. All agreed that there has been a shift in the way in which the media influences the game, and that quality debate should be at the forefront in delivering fans important messages.

Howard Higgs/St George Saints FC

The best was certainly left for last with club hero, Scott Ollerenshaw taking the microphone and joined on stage by the former players and staff of St George. There was a perfect mix of nostalgia and the present with Doug Utjesenovic, Zoran Ilic, Craig Moffitt, Michael Grbevski, Andrew Koczka, Mirko Jurilj, Nick Sokoloff, Peter Katholos, Jim Fraser and Des Marton taking a trip down memory lane. Ollerenshaw had some jocular stories to tell of his time at the club and the camaraderie he shared with his teammates.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was a common admiration for former coach, Frank Arok. Arok is regarded as a pioneer in Socceroos history. This view was echoed at St George with tales of an eccentric yet motivating man, who left an imprint on every player he coached.

Howard Higgs/St George Saints FC

In a moment that defined what football is all about, Tony and Diane Stecca were presented with an award for their contribution to St George as the longest running members of the club. The Stecca’s have dedicated a lifetime to the red and white, having witnessed some amazing football throughout their years of service. One can only imagine the stories they could share, and did on the evening.

The evening was concluded with the presentation of a framed and autographed Sydney FC team jersey prior to the auction fundraiser. Andy Paschalidis played auctioneer with signed club memorabilia plus an array of special items, including a framed and autographed EURO Spain jersey, and footballs signed by the Socceroos, claiming thousands of dollars in funds for the club.

For all in attendance, the event was one to remember. A special mention to the players, particularly the girls’ team. They turned up in numbers to celebrate their success. Also, to all of the sponsors, members, parents and fans of the club. It was a celebration of past and present, and a clear message that if you recognise the contribution and value of community football, the game can only thrive in this country.

This article was published by Football NSW.

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