If you wish to see the whole Italian Team of the Century, it’s available at: http://www.italianteamofthecentury.com.au/final-team.php
By Tony De Bolfo
The walls of Peter Pianto’s lounge room are cluttered with visible reminders of his glorious youth. There’s the Maskell Cup for best and fairest player in the Hampden Football League, as well as the glass-encased Geelong Team of the Century guernsey which shares space with his cherished wedding day photo.
Curled pages of his scrapbook, so lovingly compiled by his late mother, are crammed with matchday reports and sundry team clippings – sepia souvenirs of moments in time. And yet they only tell part of the tale of Peter Pianto and the sizeable Pianto family.
The story begins with Peter’s grandfather, Giovanni Pianto, disembarking the sailing ship Morning Star in Melbourne, via Liverpool, on June 24, 1862. Giovanni hailed from Villa di Tirano, a municipality in the Italian region of Lombardy, about 110 kilometres north-east of Milan and about 20 kilometres east of Sondrio, on the border of Switzerland. As of December 31, 2004, Villa di Tirano boasted a population of 2997, a handful of whom were identified as Piantos.
Giovanni was 20 years old and intoxicated by the smell of gold at the time he stepped from the deck of the Morning Star. Soon after his arrival, he made his way to the gold mining town of Eaglehawk, 157 kilometres north-west of the city. Eaglehawk, once occupied by the Neangar Aboriginal tribe, first attracted prospectors in 1852 when Joseph Crook stumbled onto a nugget while searching for stray horses. Legend has it that an eaglehawk soared over Crook’s claim and the town’s name was forged.
At some point Giovanni met Jane Fisher, by then estranged from Martino (Martin) Borserio – her first husband and father to four children – John, Sarah Ann, Martin junior and Johan Vincent. Archival information suggests that when the marriage broke down, Martin relocated to Walhalla where he worked as a timbercutter and Peter remembers that his father and uncle were also timbercutters “who went up north to cut redgum railway sleepers”.
Giovanni and Jane married in 1892, but by then they were parents to three children of their own – James, Mary and Peter (Peter Pianto’s father). Giovanni was only 54 when he died at
Eaglehawk in 1897, the year the VFL was founded, and Jane survived him by just over 30 years.
“I remember my grandmother, Jane Fisher . . . she was around 93 when she died and I was only a kid at the time,” Peter explains.
“You can imagine what it was like for 12 kids growing up through the depression – we were always on the lookout for something to eat and anything was a delicacy, including a tin of my grandmother’s biscuits. That was one reason why we often went to her house up the back, because we knew we would get a home made bikkie from her and that’s a great memory.
“The other thing I can remember is standing by her bed when she was dying, but she still loved talking to me for some reason. I used to love that and yet I was too young to realize too much about death.
“When she died we weren’t allow to go to the funeral because we were too young, but I remember that my brothers Joe, Bernie, my sister Carmel and myself – the four youngest kids – all climbed the pepper trees and started singing ‘Goodbye Nanna’ as the procession filed past.”
One of the great Geelong footballers, and son of Peter Pianto senior and Mary Luisa Monigatti, Peter Pianto was born on November 25, 1929. He followed siblings Jean, Marie, Mena, James, Doreen, Rita, Frank and Margaret into the world, and preceded Carmel, Joseph and Bernard.
Peter’s mother Mary was born near Eaglehawk in 1892, at a place called Whipstick where a lot of Italians worked as gold miners. She was born to Italian parents, Angelo Monigatti and Martha Francella.
“She [Mary] was the eldest of 11 kids, her mother died first [in 1906 after giving birth to twins] and her father died when she was 13, so she looked after that family until it all got too much,” Peter says. “Some of the kids were then sent to St Aiden’s Orphanage in Bendigo, and three of her brothers were sent to St Augustine’s Orphanage in Geelong.
“I don’t know how Mum met Dad, but by then she had effectively helped raise 10 of her brothers and sisters at home and later at the orphanages, and would later raise 12 of her own. She must have worked like hell out at the orphanages and that’s why she could do anything.”
Peter’s parents were both able to converse in Italian, but rarely did so because the use of the King’s English was paramount as far as they were concerned. They tended not to adhere to the Italian traditions as they turned their hand to farming and at the time of Peter’s birth they were running a property at Woorinook, between Charlton and Donald, on the Avoca River about 250 kilometres north-west of Melbourne.
“They got caught up in a seven-year drought and couldn’t take it any longer, so they left the farm, came to Eaglehawk, bought the family house in Victoria Street and it’s been the family house ever since,” Peter says.
“It was 1930 and I was only a six-month old baby when they made the move . . . I was baby number nine, so Mum had the last three in Eaglehawk.”
A timber fence separated Peter’s family house from that which his grandmother Jane, uncle Jim and aunty Mary shared. Neither Jim nor Mary ever married. Not long after the Piantos relocated, Peter’s father turned his back on timber cutting and got a job for the Lands Department. He would remain with the department for the rest of his working life.
“Dad was a great man . . . I often think about him,” Peter says. “He was a hard worker, had a great sense of humor, loved his family and was always home at night, and I couldn’t fault him except for the fact that he drank. But even then it wasn’t hurting him that much.
“I know that he used to take a swig out of a bottle of muscat, but as he couldn’t really afford a bottle in those days, he’d refill the bottle with water, so that by the time he got to the end of the bottle he was basically drinking water . . . but I only saw him drunk once.
“When I started getting up early in the morning as a kid, I’d light the fire. That was my job, Dad used to give me a shilling a week for it and I don’t know where he got it from.
“Dad would then rise, make a cup of tea and a couple of pieces of toast and take them into Mum. Mum would have her tea and toast and then she’d be up and straight into it.”
Peter speaks in glowing terms of his mother too
“Mum was a wonderful person, she was non-stop. She knitted all our clothes, including our birthday and Christmas presents, which were usually new pyjamas, and she made her own sauces, pickles and soaps. She mended our shoes, cut our hair and how she raised 12 kids I’ll never know,” Peter says.
When Mum died [in 1983, aged 92] she left behind 54 grand children and 58 great grandchildren. We’ve all had a lot of kids and they’ve spread far and wide. There’s Piantos in Eaglehawk, Piantos in Wodonga and Piantos in the west.”
Space, not surprisingly, was at a premium in the Pianto house. Peter recalls sharing a bed with his brothers Frank and Joseph, with James afforded the rare luxury of sleeping in a single bed in that room. The three oldest girls shared another bedroom and the remaining four another, leaving Mum, Dad and baby Bernie to sleep within the confines of the last room. And under the one roof the 14 Pianto family members lived, from 1930 until 1942 when the eldest girl Jean married.
Though the Depression years tested the very existence of so many Australian families, the Piantos somehow made it through. Peter cannot say why his family emerged unscathed, “but I know we were always well fed . . . always”.
“Dad had an enormous vegetable garden, so we had the right tucker for our meals,” Peter says. “I remember we used to have magnificent Christmas dinners, because Dad used to get a couple of goslings around September and fatten them up for the celebration.
“We also had a cow in a paddock next door. It wasn’t our property, but Mum was able to put the cow there, and we had chooks, ducks and at one stage a pig.”
That cow paddock also doubled as the venue for the first heated games of football involving the Pianto boys, and Peter’s memories of these contests are glowing.
“We used to play there for hours and hours until dark,” Peter says. “Mum never had to worry about us so much, because she knew we were all there playing football or cricket or whatever.
“Dad never had any idea about footy. He didn’t know which end of a football to kick. My brothers Jim, Frank and Bernie were all good footballers (and I reckon Frank was a better footballer than me) but we don’t know where we got it from.”
As the Pianto boys got older they ditched paddock football and began chasing leather on the gravel road. The danger was minimal back then, because the boys only had to negotiate the odd horse and cart rather than a car, and neighboring kids like Ian Snell, Horrie and Charlie Benbow, and Calvin Alcock were all willing participants in the fierce contests.
“In time we all played for Eaglehawk,” Peter says. “Eaglehawk won the seniors flag in 1946 and unfortunately I played for the seconds that year. “I started playing senior footy for Eaglehawk from the opening round of 1947 but unfortunately the seniors never won a premiership in the time that I was there.”
Forging his early career as a wingman, Peter emerged as Eaglehawk’s best and fairest player in 1948 – the year in which the team lost to Sandhurst in the senior Grand Final of the Bendigo League. Almost sixty years later, he was named first rover in Eaglehawk’s Team of the Century, which included the likes of Rod Ashman, Alf Baud, Des English, Ollie Grieve, Fred Jinks and Greg Kennedy, who all played for Carlton.
Peter’s lifelong links with Geelong were first forged with the help of an Eaglehawk Football Club stalwart and local Bendigo grocer, Don Murray. Legend has it that Murray confided in a brother-in-law based in Geelong that a young bloke named Pianto could play a bit.
Acting on the tip off, Geelong President Jack Jennings and secretary Laird Smith made for Bendigo, to Ashman’s Clothiers where Peter was now working as a tailor and presser.
“I didn’t have a clue that they had come up to see me,” Peter says. “My boss called me over and said ‘There’s a couple of gentlemen here who want to speak to you’, I said ‘What for?’ and he said ‘Football’. Straight away my ears pricked.
“I had no ambition to play League football at Geelong or anywhere else, but Jack and Laird painted this rosy picture and asked if I’d like to come down to try out. I told them that I’d love to, but I’d never get permission to play from my mother and father to do that.
“They then asked if they could speak to my mother and I said ‘No, leave that to me’, but in the meantime I signed this form . . . I couldn’t sign the bloody thing quick enough. If nothing else it gave me bragging rights back at Eaglehawk. It was an enormous feeling.”
Peter, of course, still had to break the news of the Geelong offer to Mum. As he says, “I wanted to go down, but I didn’t know how to get down because there was no travel like there is today, and I didn’t know how it would go down”. So it was with some degree of trepidation that he popped the question.
Initially, Peter’s mother rejected the proposal out of hand and as the Pianto children were always taught to be obedient, that might have been the end of it. “But I kept at it and at it, and I even lobbied Dad,” Peter says. “He was fine. His view was ‘I don’t bloody care, you can play football and it won’t worry me’.
“We were all so close that Mum was genuinely fearful of losing any of her children. She wasn’t overly possessive, but she was fairly possessive with her kids. It was all about family being together and she was worried about her little boy leaving the sticks for the big smoke and what was going to become of him.
“But I kept at her and at her and she must have thought about it for a while. Then one day she said ‘I think I would like to meet the Geelong people who have asked you down’. I couldn’t get around to Don Murray’s quick enough, because he was the middle man between Geelong and I.”
Peter conveyed the situation to Murray and in no time Jennings, Smith and another club delegate whose name escapes Peter appeared on the doorstep of the Pianto home.
Peter recalls that the trio mounted an impressive argument, assuring his mother Mary that her boy would be well looked after.
“I was not yet 21, but Mum relented and allowed me the chance to go to Geelong and try out with the team,” Peter says. “Jack asked if I could come down for a couple of weeks initially, to see how I’d fare in the opening practice matches of 1951, and that he’d guarantee the club’s payment of my travel and board costs.
“I had to catch the bus from Bendigo to Ballarat and a connecting bus to Geelong. I was then advised to head to Lindsay White’s Sports Store, tell Lindsay who I was and then be advised as to where my lodgings were for the next fortnight.
“Lindsay directed me to the Carlton Hotel in Geelong, but my travel and accommodation expenses were never covered because I was too shy to ask. In fact I never got a bloody cent for signing on in the first place.
“In 1966, when I came back to coach Geelong, Jack Jennings told me that Eaglehawk Football Club (which initially didn’t want to release me to Geelong) got 200 pounds for me and I never got anything. Jack always said I was the easiest player he ever signed – not that it worried me, I was just so glad to be given an opportunity.”
Peter excelled in those two practice matches. He then returned briefly to Eaglehawk to advise his parents that he’d been all but guaranteed a place in Geelong’s starting XVIII for the opening round of the home and away season, against South Melbourne at Kardinia Park.
“In 1951 I got a game and started to get a few write-ups, but Mum and Dad were unable to come down to see me play,” Pianto recalls. “I managed to make it into the Grand Final team. We won and I was lucky enough to have Mum and Dad there that day because they’d never before been out of Eaglehawk.
“In those days you had to queue up on match day to get a ticket into the ground and I can remember Mum, Dad and all my brothers and sisters waiting in the queue which stretched right back to the Punt Road Oval. They took their place in the queue at four o’clock that morning, but they all managed to get in.”
Remarkably, Peter’s instant adjustment to the tempo of VFL football was based on a misapprehension that League footballers were leviathans – a view formed after he saw a newspaper photograph of Geelong’s blond giant, Fred “Troubles” Flanagan in early 1951.
“I saw that photo and thought to myself, ‘What am I getting myself into here? They’re all giants’,” Peter says.
“But I was a bit of a fitness fanatic and I used to play footy as well as cricket through the summer, because that’s how much my brothers and I loved it, so when I got down to Geelong for my first practice match I was primed to really get into it.
“Anyway the game started and it didn’t take me long to come to the conclusion that all the other buggers around me weren’t fit. I was outrunning them and I had a burster of a game . . . the ball was virtually following me.
“I look back now and think that someone must have been looking after me. It just all seemed to fit into place.”
Peter’s first coach at Geelong was the legendary Reg Hickey, for whom he always had the deepest admiration. Hickey knew that while Peter hadn’t been raised in the traditional Italian sense, he was nonetheless from a tight-knit family and as such, needed to be safeguarded.
Peter suffered from homesickness through his first three seasons at Kardinia Park. “In fact I’d go so far as to say that it was my hardest battle,” Peter says.
“My first place of board was at Belmont, and fortunately for me the guy there was Geelong’s trainer Mark Pritchard, and that helped a lot. But I used to go to bed of a night and cry.
“My father used to drive an old grey Austin truck for the Lands Department and I used to ride in the back of it, so whenever I saw an Austin heading up the road in Geelong I’d look twice in the hope that Dad would be driving it.
“So I played footy in the winter down at Geelong and as soon as the season was over I’d head back home. I was lucky because I could always get a job at the Lands Department with my father and I used to head back there every summer for the first three years.
“In the end I faced up to it, overcame it and stayed in Geelong, because Geelong was big enough. I could have gone to Richmond, Hawthorn, Collingwood or Carlton, but I didn’t want to go to the city. So I know how important it is for clubs to look after any kid from the country, because he really does suffer from homesickness.”
In Reg Hickey, Peter had one such ally. Hickey was an astute judge of character and renowned for his management skills. From the time he took the helm in 1949 for what was his second stint as Geelong senior coach, he methodically introduced specialist players to fill virtually every position – from the Brownlow Medallist Bernie Smith in the back pocket through to prolific goalkicker George Goninon at full-forward – and of course Peter as rover to complement his great mate, the late Neil Trezise.
Under Hickey, Geelong experienced what was unquestionably its greatest era. Peter (or “Pint” as the renowned former Richmond ruckman turned commentator Jack Dyer dubbed him) was very much part of those all-conquering back-to-back premiership teams of 1951 and ’52 and as he says of those halcyon days, “I was in dreamland”.
“Nipper and I used to say ‘God we were lucky . . . we fell into it. ’ We had a great side and it was probably all due to Hickey’s ability to handle men,” Peter says.
“Hickey brought all the players together, helped them overcome their little hatreds or jealousies that sometimes surface at footy clubs and I think that was what brought on the total success of the team. It wasn’t so much good coaching, it was good management . . . that was why we were unbeatable in those early years, that was why we won back-to-back premierships and that was why we won 26 games on end, which is still a record.”
Paradoxically, that feeling of invincibility which pervaded amongst the players at Geelong post 1951-’52, ultimately cost them the premiership hat-trick in ’53.
“We finished so far ahead on top of the ladder after the ’53 home and away season that it didn’t matter, which brought on this sense of invincibility, particularly amongst the older players and what happened? We gave the other team a break and they took it,” Peter says.
By now, Peter Pianto was a household name in the VFL, firmly ensconced in the Geelong senior XVIII, his club’s champion in 1953 and very much part of the fabric of the Geelong community. After initially working on the assembly line as a welder at Ford (a brief, if traumatic two-week stint in which he somehow managed to burn his forehead with an oxywelder), and then as a fill-in panelbeater, Peter took on office work at International Harvester. It was there that he met his future wife Beverly Peel.
“Bev used to work upstairs as a head comptometrist with a number of young women and I used to pass through there via a walkway. I used to get embarrassed because there were all these girls, and when they found out who I was and that I was playing for Geelong it was like running the gauntlet,” Peter says.
“I used to say ‘Hello’, ‘Hello’ to each girl and Bev was always the last in line. She used to say hello to me, but I never really took much notice of it and unbeknown to me she said to one of the girls, ‘Hasn’t that fellow got nice eyes’. The girl said to her ‘Don’t you know who that is? That’s Peter Pianto who plays for Geelong’ to which Bev replied ‘That’s not him, he’s too small’.
Peter and Bev married at St Peter and Paul’s Catholic Church in Mercer Street, Geelong, in October 1957 – a pivotal year for Peter, for it coincided with his retirement as a League footballer at the relatively tender age of 28.
“I should have stayed on I suppose,” Peter says in hindsight. “But I got an offer to go to Coragulac [later the Colac Football Club] as captain-coach for 40 pounds a week and I have an article from an old edition of Sporting Life from the time, which declared me the highest paid VFL player ever.
“As it happened I’d been presented with an enormous offer to go to Tassie . . . it involved being put into a newsagency in Launceston and I’d have gone, but the club wouldn’t give me a clearance.
“Bev and me weren’t married then, but in ’57, just before I married, I said to the club, ‘Look, I’ve got no money’, other than an amount that had been accumulating over the years at Geelong as part of the VFL’s Provident Fund. But that wasn’t going to get Bev and I very far and we were intent on having kids.
The three-year guaranteed Coragulac offer, which amounted to a thousand-pound advance each year, effectively meant that Peter and Bev could afford their first home.
In the end, Geelong relinquished its hold on its loyal servant and as Peter says, “If the club had offered me anything similar, I’d have stayed”.
Peter served Coragulac in the then Polwarth League with distinction, commandeering the team to back-to-back premierships in 1958 and ’59 and a close second to Winchelsea in the Grand Final of ’60. In that time he built his house at Colac, ran a local sports store in partnership with an old Geelong premiership teammate, Jim Norman, and became a father for the first time.
Peter was then the recipient of an even more lucrative offer to cross the Nullabor to coach West Australian football League club Claremont. With Norman’s blessing, Peter made the move for what would be another three-season stint.
On-field success eluded Peter at Claremont “because my standards were too high and Western Australian footballers at that time generally weren’t committed”, so he returned to Colac at the start of season 1964 and Claremont took out the flag the following year.
Peter was coerced into captaining and coaching Coragulac, by now in the Hampden League, for one year in 1964. The following year he relinquished coaching duties and simply played. He was 35 years of age at the time, but everything clicked for him – so much so that he took out the Maskell Cup for fairest and best player in the competition “in what was the first year I’d ever abused umpires”. He found that out at midnight one evening, when members of the Colac faithful all but barged through the front door of his house to stir him from his slumber and pass on the good news.
Peter was then encouraged to apply for the position of senior coach at Geelong, the club he so admirably served as a player. Fearing that he was out of his depth, Peter sought counsel from his great mate Reg Hickey, who was quick to remind that when he first took over as coach from the Bendigo miner Charley Clymo in 1932 he was inexperienced.
“‘Hick’ said to me ‘Give it a go – you’ll do all right,” Peter says. “It was the same sort of advice I got when I was first approached to become a Geelong player.”
Peter applied and in 1966 won the role, for half the salary he had earned for coaching Colac. But money was never an issue for him. As he says, “Once my wife and I had built our house and established ourselves that was it. I never wanted to be a rich man, I just wanted to be comfortable”.
“I got Geelong into the Grand Final of 1967, we lost it narrowly, and by 1970 I’d had enough of football. I completed my term on what was originally a handshake agreement and boy, was I glad to get out of it,” Peter says.
“It really came to an end around the tea table at home. I said to Bev, we’ll get the kids tea and ask the question at the table. I said to them ‘Righto kids, I want you to tell me now . . . do you want me to coach next year or not? Those who don’t want me to coach put your hand up’ and the three girls put their hands up, one, two, three. That left Chris because Stephen wasn’t born then, and Chris never put his hand up because he wanted Dad to go on. But the girls wanted Dad home and they made my mind up for me.”
Peter and Bev’s marriage endured for 46 years, during which time they raised their five children – Christopher, Annette, Catherine, Janine and Stephan – into adult life.
Tragically, the lifelong union of husband and wife was brought to a pitiless end when Bev’s life was cut short by a brain tumor barely seven weeks after it was first diagnosed.
Bev was 70 years old when she died at the family home in Clifton Springs on August 1, 2003. “She went quick and that was one of the consolations,” Peter says. In the days, weeks, months and years since Bev’s passing, there hasn’t been a moment Peter hasn’t thought of her. He misses her terribly, but the five kids and ten grandkids are there for him because the Piantos have always been big on family.
“As kids we never wanted for anything and today when my brothers and sisters get together and try to analyse it we still can’t work out how Mum did it,” Peter says.
“I know Mum got a lot of help from her girls, who used to do a lot of work around the house with the washing and ironing and so forth, but we boys weren’t much bloody help, and I often think now, “Well, I could have done a lot more for Mum’. But I just never realized the hardship she was experiencing.”
For Peter the penny probably dropped when he first became a father. Does he have a theory on fatherhood? “It all depends on how you want to bring them up. Some people don’t care, but for those who do care there is a lot more work in raising children,” he says.
“People who don’t care just shuffle their kids aside and let them get around in dirty clothes, but those who care commit, and even the kids, when they get old enough, help to pitch in. When we were kids we couldn’t do the basic things like cooking, and Dad was working all the time so he couldn’t help much. Most of our chores were confined to the garden where we had to get in there, dig it up, water it, manure it and plant the vegetables, as well as look after the fruit trees . . . and that’s where our love of the garden came from.
“Every one of us has loved gardening and never minded a day’s hard work. It must be in the genes and while I didn’t experience a traditional Italian upbringing, perhaps it’s also the Italian way.”
Today, Peter spends his days fishing for flounder and whiting in the coastal waters off Clifton Springs. He doesn’t have much time for footy any more, although he still makes a point of heading down to Kardinia Park.
“One of the main reasons I go back is because of the past players. We all get together in the past players room before the game, at half time and then after the game when we play at home,” he says.
“I enjoy the company more than the footy, the footy’s so different and money’s ruining it. But you can’t afford to live in the past, I have no regrets and what I got out of football money couldn’t buy.”
Tony De Bolfo
Postscript: Peter Pianto died on February 19, 2008, and this was the last extensive interview with him, conducted in April 2006.