Remembering Les Murray, Australia's face of football for 40 years

Remembering Les Murray, Australia's face of football for 40 years
From ESPN - August 13, 2017

It was 11 years ago on a sultry June afternoon, just after a late Tim Cahill double had conjured up Australia's first-ever World Cup victory from nowhere. In the bowels of Kaiserslautern's Fritz-Walter-Stadion, the visiting media contingent was in frenzied overdrive.

Scurrying towards the press conference room where Cahill and Guus Hiddink were about to talk about the Socceroos' 3-1 win against Japan, I bumped into Les Murray who'd just come off the air after hosting the Germany 2006 game for SBS in Australia.

Like me, Les was almost too stunned to speak, beyond the usual pleasantries, as we walked along the corridor with his co-host Craig Foster. But we exchanged smiles and a knowing look about what that moment might mean for football in our country.

Twenty years earlier, we'd been SBS colleagues at a time when soccer, as it was known then, was struggling in Australia. Years of poor administration had taken its toll, and the sport suffered in comparison with the established likes of Rugby League, Rugby Union and Australian Rules.

Les, who died on July 30 at the age of 71, was a jack of all trades at SBS after starting as a subtitler for Hungarian language programming. As well as his beloved football shows like On The Ball, and coverage of the National Soccer League matches, Les hosted Sport Report, a national programme that I produced. It gave exposure to neglected pursuits like fencing, inline speed skating and sphairee, a miniature form of tennis invented on Sydney's lower north shore.

My strongest memory of Les from that period was the many hours he'd spend at the SBS offices on the Sydney Harbour foreshore at Milsons Point with his great friend Johnny Warren. Johnny was a former Socceroos' captain and member of the 1974 World Cup side who was our network's main pundit. Like Les, he held the dream that the Socceroos would again qualify for a World Cup to help football take its rightful place as a respected and mainstream sport in Australia.

Raucous laughter would come from Les' smoke-filled office, as he and Johnny would engage in impassioned discussions about the great Brazil teams of the 1960s and 70s. And, of course, they would also pay tribute to the amazing Hungarians of the 1950s, led by Les' hero, Ferenc Puskas, who played eight years with Real Madrid.

Sadly, Johnny never got to see the Socceroos qualify for another World Cup, dying of respiratory complications related to lung cancer in Nov. 2004. But, like Les, he was awarded a full state funeral, and his optimistic slogan of "I told you so" became a mantra for the Socceroos as they aimed to prove their countless homegrown critics wrong.

But the first time I crossed paths with Les was in 1980 when we were both journalists for different publications at Fairfax Media in Sydney.

One afternoon, I looked across the newsroom at the old Fairfax offices at Broadway, and was struck by the slim and dashing man with salt and pepper hair who wore an open waist coat, and a pink shirt, with large collars. He looked more like a cabaret entertainer than a features' sub-editor on The Sydney Sun, where he worked alongside news editor John Benaud, the cigar-smoking brother of former Australian cricket captain and commentator, Richie.

Indeed, Les could more than hold a tune, and was the lead singer of a group called The Rubber Band, in the late 1960s and 70s. Les' iconic status as a football broadcaster would later see him featured in a 1990s song by Australia's TISM, "What Nationality is Les Murray?"


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