‘Mr Soccer…’ KB Hill

It’s 1950……. John De Luca is about to depart his native Sicily with his mother, to be re-united with his dad and two uncles , who have paved the way for them in Australia.

They’ve filled him with dreams of sunshine, wide open spaces, an outdoor lifestyle – and opportunities galore.

Just one last question……Do they play Football down there ?……..Yes, they do, was the reply……..

“I cried when I got here and realised the football they were referring to was played with an oval ball…….” John recalls.

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Gianni (John) De Luca hails from Ramacca, a municipality of around 10,000 people in the mountainous region near Catania, in south-eastern Sicily. Besides Catholicism, Football (‘The World Game) is its major religion and everything stops for the town’s clashes against neighboring teams.

 

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John was 15, going on 16, when he made his senior debut. That was a big deal in itself, for a lad of such tender years to play alongside Ramacca’s stars. He was a favourite of the young fans, who jostled for the chance to carry his bag into the ground.

He’d played just on 50 games when he decided he may as well join his mum on her adventure to this mysterious country down south.

His Grandfather had migrated to Australia in 1925, and worked in coal-mining at Wonthaggi, before joining many of his countrymen in the Ovens Valley, as a tobacco-grower. His dad arrived in 1949; his uncles had been here since 1937.

“It was Show Day in Wangaratta when we got here, and my uncle and his wife took me down to have a look. It was just like the Carnivals we had back home……but I was intrigued by the people on a truck near the entrance…..they were Highland Dancers and the bagpipes were playing. I’d never seen or heard them before….”

He landed a job at Bruck Mills, and was in familiar company, as many Italians were employed there. It was, in fact, a mini-United Nations.

“We used to kick the soccer ball around the Sisely Avenue Army Barracks after work, improvising with a couple of gum trees as the goals,” John says.

“Jack Balloul ( a Canadian), who was the Production Manager at Bruck, was impressed with our enthusiasm, and got in touch with the Shepparton-based Northern Soccer League. He arranged for a team called Rayonaires to gain entry, and play their home games on the Bruck Oval.”

“We were a mixed lot. I think our side comprised 5 Italians, 2 Yugoslavs, 3 Latvians, a Pole and a Russian. “

“But in that first year (1951) we went through the season undefeated and beat Benalla 7-1 in the Final. We had some good players, don’t worry about that.”

How, with such a disparate group, did you manage to converse, I ask John.

“Ah, soccer was the ‘Professor’ – the common language.”

John reels off some of the players in that historic side: Steve Piorek, a nippy Pole, Antonio Ceppon, the goal-keeper, the Gigliotti boys, Steve Kostenco, a determined Russian player – and Dino Cheli, who was probably the biggest personality in the side.

The 18 year-old De Luca was the ‘baby’, and starred at centre-half. He was described in newspaper reports, as the team’s stylist, with a bag of tricks to command attention.

But it wasn’t all plain sailing. The side was decimated by departures the following year and only three players remained. It was symptomatic of the rocky ride that local soccer was to endure in its infancy.

 

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“We changed our name to Wangaratta United in the early fifties, then when the town became a city in 1959 we went along with it and became Wangaratta City – the Devils.”

“Originally we’d adopted the Red and Black uniform of A.C. Milan, but for a time, had to wear Green and Gold in the NESL so as not to clash with the colours of the Lemnos club.”

By now, John was working with his dad, a builder, doing construction work for the Borough Council. Kerbing and channelling; building bridges – they turned their hands to anything that was required.

But if that was hard yakka, keeping a Soccer Club on its feet was equally as difficult.

“We moved our home games to Avian Park ( the interior of the Trotting track), to Our Lady’s School…then to Appin Park.”

 

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“The Appin Park Oval was terrible in winter. One year there was six inches of water saturating one corner of the ground, and we had pumps working for 24 hours before a match to drain the water.”

“We went to the Council to explain our predicament. The snide response of one of the officers was: ‘Soccer ? That’s not a real game.’ That was an example of the sort of obstacles we faced……..”

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John stresses that his Club record 600-plus games with Wangaratta included many instances where he played two matches on the same day.

“We regularly found ourselves short in the Seconds. A couple of us would fill in, then we’d have to prepare for the main game.”

 

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“In those days, dad and I organised three Dodge utes, which carted players and officials to the away games, sometimes as far away as Khancoban. We’d often drive around to peoples’ places and knock on their doors, pleading with them to play.”

“I remember once, getting onto four blokes from Bonegilla who we’d heard might be interested in playing. We found work for them, put them up in a room in Green Street and your dad (Len) gave us a good deal on four mattresses. That’s where they stayed for the rest of the season.”

“Another time, the Warden of the Beechworth Gaol rang and said he had a couple of prisoners who’d like to play. The only stipulation was that they had to behave themselves, and we needed to get them back to the Gaol by 7 at night.”

“Good players, John ?” I ask. “Oh, handy. But they liked their soccer – and they made up the numbers……”

 

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Probably the highlight of the De Luca playing career in Wangaratta was being selected in a combined squad to play famous NSL team Brunswick Juventus at Benalla.

He savoured the challenge of matching wits with some of the nation’s stars – particularly against a club with such a rich Italian heritage.

Even in his twilight years, he still proved a more than serviceable player, but, in his late forties, felt it was time to hang up his well-worn boots.

Besides, there was more than enough to occupy his time……………
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Every sporting organisation needs a John De Luca………….Someone who typifies what the Club is all about………who throws himself into the hundred and one tasks that crop up, and confronts the obstacles when they arrive.

The sort who has stints as President, Secretary, Treasurer, Coach, Captain and Team Manager. Who handles the Media liaison; is down there marking the ground on match-day…… The type who has weathered the tough times and starts to see signs of change, as things turn for the better……………

John reckons one of those came after they’d been pestering the Council, who finally relented to the Soccer Club’s requests to move out to the South Wangaratta Reserve.

Finally, they had a place they could call their own.

Another came when they gained admittance to the Albury-Wodonga Soccer Association in 1977.

“It was a tricky process,” he recalls. “We had originally approached the AWSA, who said: ‘Yes, we’ll accept you.’ We received approval to leave the NESL, but there were a few hiccups placed in our way, before finally, we got the all-clear.”

“I suppose, if there’s one legacy I leave, I’m proud to have played a part in the Club joining the AWSA…….”

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It was an incredibly courageous decision. The Senior team had won the 1975 NESL Championship with a team comprised mostly of lads who had come through the local juniors, having won the U.16’s titles in ’71 and ’72 under the tutelage of Bob Leask.

A potential Golden Era was looming, yet the Club took the bit between their teeth and made the move. They were convinced that the AWSA catered far better for Juniors. It also had the advantage of reduced travel requirements.

The switch brought about a huge transformation in Wangaratta soccer. The club previously fielded just three teams; within a year that had expanded to six.

The emergence of the club’s Junior Program, inspired by Bob Leask, acted as the catalyst for this expansion and it has rarely abated.

Wangaratta is now represented by 15 teams ( including 5 girl’s sides). On Friday nights 250-300 kids play ‘Mini-Roos’ soccer, and on week-ends upwards of 500 are involved in games. It’s arguably the biggest sporting club in town, and it’s said that the club’s player registration vies closely with the top 10 in Victoria.

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John’s wife Beverly, whom he married in 1962, has shared the journey, and says they still get a huge kick out of the ‘Devils’ regular successes.

They ran a Cafe in Reid Street for eight years, before John worked for the next 20-odd at IBM. All the while, though soccer was at the forefront of their minds.

Wangaratta City’s first Life Member, first Hall of Fame inductee and inaugural Legend is nudging 85 now, but has played his part in ensuring that the Club holds a prominent position on the local sporting stage………..

 

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This first appeared on KB Hill’s On Reflection site. To read more of his wonderful stories, visit his website here.

Comments

  1. Dennis Gedling says:

    What a fantastic read. So many stories like this scattered through the history of the sport in this country.

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