Almanac Footy: Vale – Serge

 

(This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on the Blueseum website in 2016.)

 

Champion Carlton footballer Sergio Silvagni has died, aged 83. His story is worth telling.

 

Silvagni’s story mirrored that of thousands of European settlers in Australia following World War II. Although his parents had migrated down under before the start of the conflict and settled in Carlton, Sergio grew up well aware that his Italian heritage made him vulnerable to discrimination. Team sports were a perfect a way of assimilating, so he took to the local game in primary school.

 

By his late teens he was a standout in senior school football with Parade College, and in 1956 he was invited to try out in a practice match with the Under-19 squad at Carlton. With more than fifty players involved and changes only being made at the regular intervals, he didn’t get a run until after half-time, when he was sent to full-back to play on the opposition’s gun full-forward. In Serge’s words, he ‘blitzed’ his opponent, because he was so annoyed at having to wait to get his chance. Only later was he told that the officials at the game knew he could play, but they hadn’t called on him earlier because they couldn’t pronounce his name!

 

Less than three years after his first match with the Blues’ Under-19s, the determined youngster with a wry sense of humour forced his way into Carlton’s senior team in 1958, and was assigned guernsey number 20. But such was his impact that prior to the next season his coach Jim Francis insisted that ‘Serge’ switch to jumper number 1. Meanwhile, when not playing or training with the Blues, he continued working in his father’s concreting business – hard physical labour that paid big dividends in the powerful 92 kg physique he developed.

 

By 1962 Silvagni (‘Hi Ho Silva’ to many Blues fans) had established himself as one of the very best ruck-rovers in the game. Unmistakeable on the field – a human bulldozer with his long-sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and his socks bunched between his huge calves and the top of his boots – he was a one-pace player who ran and worked as hard in the last minute of the game as he had in the first. When Serge took front position in a marking contest or swooped on the ball at ground level, few could shift him, and he revelled in the physical clashes.

 

Carlton made the 1962 Grand Final, but lost to Essendon. A couple of weeks later, Serge won Carlton’s Best and Fairest award with a record number of votes, polling in 19 of a possible 22 games. And in a portent of things to come, he was already developing a special on-field relationship with the Blues’ exciting ruck prospect John Nicholls.

 

Two years on, Adrian Gallagher came to Carlton from Yarram, and claimed a rover’s spot in the senior team from day one. From 1964 to 1971 Nicholls, Silvagni and Gallagher became the most effective on-ball trio in the game. Nicholls’ aerial dominance, Silvagni’s tenacity and Gallagher’s fluent disposal made them a potent combination.

 

Serge was honoured with the captaincy of Carlton in ’64, but the team fell away to tenth, then sixth in 1965, before the sensational appointment of Ron Barassi as captain-coach revitalised the club. Three seasons later in 1968, Carlton took revenge on Essendon and beat the Bombers by 3 points in a dour Grand Final to claim their first premiership in 21 years. Serge was among Carlton’s top half-dozen contributors on that special day, and topped off a great season with another Best & Fairest award.

 

Serge won a second premiership medal in 1970, when Carlton fought back to eventual victory from a hopeless position at half-time in the Grand Final against a dominant Collingwood. In surely what was Silvagni’s, and Carlton’s finest hour, the whole team adopted ‘Silva’s’ never-say-die attitude, and pulled off a football miracle.

 

By then aged 32, Serge wanted to retire after the 1970 triumph, but coach Barassi and the match committee talked him into just one more season. Somewhat understandably, the Navy Blues faded to fifth that year, despite another big-hearted effort from their socks-down champion. And when Serge eventually called it quits, supporters from every club acclaimed him. There was open, genuine affection for a man who had made the Carlton Football Club – and the wider community – a better place by his presence.

 

Serge’s story did not end there. After 239 games and 136 goals, two Premierships, one year as captain, two Best & Fairest awards and two Big V appearances, he went on to further serve the Blues as a committeeman, selector and even caretaker coach for three matches in 1978. In 1989 he was elected to the Carlton Hall of Fame, and in May 2000 – when the Carlton Team of the 20th Century was announced – Nicholls, Silvagni and Gallagher were right where they richly deserved to be, as the team’s first ruck combination.

 

Honours kept coming for Serge in 2007 when he was named in the Italian Team of the Century. At full back in that side, as well as in the corresponding AFL Team of the Century, was Stephen Silvagni – the champion son of a champion father. Then in May, 2016 – only months after his grandson Jack Silvagni was drafted by the Navy Blues – Sergio was awarded the ultimate accolade for a Carlton player when he became an official Legend of the Club.

 

Vale:  Sergio Silvagni

 

Career : 1958 – 1971

 

Games : 239

 

Goals : 136

 

Height : 183 cm

 

Weight : 92 kg

 

Guernsey Nos. 20 (1958) & 1 (1959 – 1971)

 

Premiership Player 1968 & 1970

 

Best and Fairest 1962 & 1968

 

Club Captain 1964

 

Victorian Representative 1962 & 1963

 

Carlton Hall of Fame 1989

 

Carlton Team of the 20th Century

 

 

WEG cartoon 1970

 

The Tigers (Covid) Almanac 2020 will be published in the coming weeks. It will have all the usual features – a game by game account of the Tigers season – and will also include some of the best Almanac writing from the Covid winter.  Pre-order right now HERE

 

 

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About

Conscription into the army ended Warren's dreams of becoming either a league footballer or a professional musician, but military service did at least teach him how to handle firearms, and to work behind a bar.

Comments

  1. Kevin Densley says

    Great piece, Warren, about an ornament to the game!

    For me Serge’s passing affected me in a surprisingly profound way, given that I’ve never barracked for Carlton. I suppose why it got to me so much is that he was one of the few players from any team who stayed strongly in my memory from childhood onwards. I distinctly remember Mike Williamson always referring to him as “the warhorse”.

    Condolences to his family.

  2. Warren Tapner says

    Thanks Kevin,
    John Nicholls and Sergio Silvagni were my earliest football heroes.
    I will always remember Serge in front of the television cameras, too. Laughs aplenty when he appeared on World of Sport.
    And what about Jack Silvagni’s last quarter, last Sunday against Collingwood?
    Bluebaggers everywhere shed tears – again.

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