I have been watching club and international football in Australia since 1967 and if asked to nominate the most memorable match I have witnessed in over 50 years, there are many contenders. Some might expect the 2005 Australia v Uruguay World Cup play off at Homebush Stadium or others might plump for the classic 2013 A League Grand Final, snatched by Brisbane Roar from Central Coast Mariners in quite dramatic circumstances. Then of course there was the tragic, yet so memorable World Cup loss to Iran in Melbourne in November 1997.
Going further back, in October 1979, I saw the glitz and glamour of the New York Cosmos take on Australia at that most unlikely of football grounds, the Sydney Showground. The Showground was overflowing that night (I watched the second half from the touchline), playing host to football luminaries, Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto and Johann Neeskens. Also at the same venue in 1967, I twice saw reigning English First Division champions Manchester United, with George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton in their prime, take on a team of local part timers.
All great occasions, but the game that I still remember more fondly than any, was a NSW Soccer Federation match that took place at Woonona Oval on 26th May 1968. I was a 14 year old Manly Warringah junior representative player and on that day I travelled with a single coachload of Manly fans to watch our team, Manly Warringah United take on South Coast United, at what was South Coast United’s “fortress,” decades before this term became popular with football fans.
South Coast United played their home games at Woonona Oval (it was not in fact an oval), a quaint but unfashionable venue north of Wollongong. This compact, rectangular ground was ideal for watching football. It was also conducive to playing good football, being consistently well grassed. The sole miniature grandstand at the southern end of the ground, also housed the dressing rooms. When the local fans were at their most raucous, having to trundle through the South Coast faithful onto and off the pitch was a daunting experience
On that bleak May afternoon in 1968, about 2,500 home fans and at best, 60 Manly fans had packed into Woonona Oval, to witness the inevitable home team victory. Manly, promoted that season from the second division, had not yet won a match and were firmly rooted at the bottom of the NSW Federation 1st Division table. By that stage of the season, Manly had endured a succession of debilitating defeats, punctuated by the very occasional draw. The threat of relegation always added spice to their games and it was no wonder that the team approached this match at Woonona, with more than a little trepidation.
South Coast United, boasted a large contingent of British players, many recruited by Jimmy Kelly, their player – coach and former English professional. That year they also had a tall, strong young striker in Max Tolson and an equally tall 19 year old Lancashire lad, Adrian Alston, both of whom later were to become members of the 1974 Australian World Cup squad.
The boisterous local crowd were rocked in the 37th minute when Manly took a surprise lead. The home side failed to clear the ball in their penalty area and Manly’s inside left, Archie Harris pounced. Harris a slightly built Scotsman with a skilful touch, controlled the ball and deftly slotted it past George Ramage in the South Coast United goal.
Before the travelling rugged up Manly supporters could toast on their cups of tea, the home side struck back immediately. Ron McGarry, yet another Englishman finally managed to beat Manly goalkeeper Jan Tuinman giving the beseiged custodian no chance with his shot from close range. At 1-1 our coachload of Manly supporters shrugged and consoled ourselves in the knowledge that a return to the second division might herald a return to a victory or two.
Manly’s Hungarian born coach, Denis Adrigan played a counter attacking style of football, not through desire but because it was the only option when his team was under pressure for 90 minutes of every game. That they didn’t suffer more substantial losses in the 1968 season was in no small part due to the brilliant Jan Tuinman, whose performances that campaign saw him remain in the top division with Yugal Prague and Pan Hellenic, following the inevitable relegation of his Manly colleagues.
The game ebbed away and the travelling support would have been extremely happy with a 1-1 draw at the Woonona footballing graveyard. Fifteen minutes from full time, Manly left back and motor cycle enthusiast Gary Brooks, of the handsome visage and Elvis Presley slicked back jet black hair, played a long ball deep into the South Coast United half. Manly’s speedy diminutive left winger Colin Waller, pounced on the ball outpacing the home defence. Waller, who was a more than handy golfer, from the edge of the penatly area sunk his eighteen metre putt assuredly into the corner of substitute goalkeeper Radburn’s net. Manly were up 2-1. Do miracles happen ?
As full time approached, South Coast continued to batter the Manly defence but some incredible goalkeeping by Tuinman enabled Manly to hang on for what was was to be their only victory of that 1968 season.
Considering an almost identical South Coast United team won the NSW Federation premiership the following season, Manly’s victory at Woonona that afternoon, was even more remarkable. The two and a half hour coach trip home was euphoric and the celebrations resembled those of a team that had just been crowned champions.
Now readers might say that’s a nice little football story but what is the point ? The point is that although our top local club football leagues, the Hyundai A League and W League and the various NPL competitions may not be of the standard of an English Premier League, a Bundesliga or La Liga, irrespective of the standard of play, Australian club football can be entertaining, exciting and most enjoyable. I look no further than Woonona Oval, May 26th 1968.
David Jack © 2020