Feature

From 2014: Farewell old friend

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SBS is sad to advise that earlier today Les Murray passed away after a long period of illness. Les will be remembered not just for his 35 year contribution to football in Australia, but for being a much-loved colleague, mentor and friend who has left a unique legacy. To say he will sorely missed is an understatement. In 2014, at Les Murray's retirement party, long-time friend and colleague Craig Foster paid tribute to the iconic Les Murray.

Thank you for the opportunity to briefly add to the tributes and imminent farewell of my longtime colleague and friend, Les Murray.

It is has been so often said that Les Murray is an 'icon', a term worthy of further consideration.

The dictionary has multiple definitions:

Sorry old friend but, even though we have been treated to some marvellous sartorial efforts throughout your lengthy career in the video retrospective today, I am not so sure, so we must look deeper.

Here we find the perfect enunciation of the celebrated career of Les Murray, who has become a symbol of belief - a belief in football which itself has become a powerful and influential cultural movement.

As any who spend a moment in public with Les quickly realise, he is a loved figure and, having had the privilege to work alongside him for over a decade, I have seen the deep affection the football community of Australia has for the man who is the personification of their love of the game - a game they deeply believe in.

Today this belief is comparatively easy: we are after all club champion of Asia, have qualified for successive World Cups and possess a phenomenally popular and burgeoning professional competition. A few decades ago it must have been far more difficult to stand in front of a sceptical, often disbelieving and sometimes downright hostile nation and demonstrate unrelenting passion, love and respect for football. 

These were the so called dark years and, in this sunless period of the game where hope was often forlorn, there were few lights to navigate by.

Les Murray was one.

In a land of boof and biff, it was an act of great moral strength to face Australia every day, and in showing such respect for the game, allow fellow football lovers to feel the self respect they craved when others tried so hard to take that away.

It took, above all, that most rare of commodities when we are faced with the great challenge to act contrary to prevailing wisdom, to accepted norms, to the bludgeoning voice of the crowd.

In this, Les Murray stood almost alone.

I say 'almost' because it is entirely fitting that we celebrate a singular career in the week marking the 10th anniversary of the passing of Les's great friend and colleague, the legendary and visionary Johnny Warren. Together the dynamic duo double-handedly provided a template for the nation on how to talk about, cover, broadcast, write about, protect, enthuse, evangelise, promote and dream about football.

It is most fitting that the term most-used in this week that the Western Sydney Wanderers became continental champion - 'how far the game has come' - is also marked by milestones for two men that were gun-toting freedom fighters in an era the achievements of today were but the stuff of dreams. Back then the game's daily existence was the stuff of nightmares.

'I Told You So', said Johnny, and might well Les add: 'I fought for Johnny's right to speak and by extension the game's, and created the platform for him to tell you so.'

Les and Johnny, Mr and Mrs Football as they were sometimes known, made individual contributions of extraordinary breadth. Johnny was, of course, a great champion on the field of play, but much of the rest was arm in arm.

What a testament to their legacy that today football is becoming the establishment. We can say that the game is now finally ready for Les to go, and his work is done.

Les is forever linked inextricably with SBS, for which he was the perfect vehicle to promote multiculturalism and it likewise for him to sell the world game. He coined that by the way.

It was a soft sell because, to his interminable credit, Les believed fundamentally that the game was entertainment enough, that the great players said everything that needed to be said, 'show Australia the best football and they will understand', he would say. As such, SBS became known for the wonderful highlight reels of Maradona and Pele, Cruyff and Van Basten, Ronaldo and Platini.

These were, Les recognised, the ultimate promo reel, the perfect propaganda tools.

Substance over style became the SBS football mantra, let the football speak and, 35 years later, more Australians are paying attention and understanding every day.

The intent was not simply to promote the international game, but our own stars as we grew. Only on SBS could the historic Socceroos qualification campaigns, the famous Young Socceroos teams, the Women's World Cups, sit proudly alongside the Serie A and European Cup.

To Les, they were one and the same and this is an important distinction to understand. All were considered equal, and treated as such.

Only SBS could possibly have schemed to bring AC Milan, Juventus and other great clubs to Australia because only SBS, under Les's continued exertions, cared. They cared because he cared, and the network under his control was an incredibly powerful promotional vehicle.

SBS. 'Soccer, Bloody Soccer'. Even 'Sex Before Soccer'. This eccentric channel that so obviously and proudly loved this beautiful game, what the hell were they thinking? That question isn't asked anymore.

Les has become far more than a 'football man'. He is a symbol of the multicultural success of this nation as a Hungarian refugee immigrant who embodies the rich diversity of this nation.

In the same way, he also played a huge part in creating the ongoing and often strained and problematic discussion around an Australian football culture and identity, since he was not bound by the prevailing cultural cringe harking back to the mother country and its complex contribution to the Australian game. He has in his soul a love and appreciation for the artistic game borne of a childhood steeped in the 'Danubian school' and the 'Magnificent Magyars' of Puskas and Kocsis.

This inherent belief in technique, beauty and the primacy of the great player has always infused Les's appreciation and therefore coverage of the game, and for this Australia is in his debt.

Not for nothing do our own greats like Mark Viduka, Paul Okon, Timmy Cahill or Harry Kewell say they grew up watching SBS. But it was Les that made sure they watched a certain type of game, one that both he and Johnny wished our game to become.

Les is best known for his on air duties, but his colleagues know well his leadership abilities and the extraordinary support for football he gave as head of sport and every fan, particularly those that grew up watching Eapana '82, Diego in Mexico '86, Italia '90,  have Les to thank for the gift of World Cup football.

Les set the culture at SBS as to how these games must be covered. I remember well my first World Cup in 2002, and working with Les and Johnny, Andrew Orsatti and Kyle Patterson. What struck me as a recently-retired player was the absolute insistence on excellence, on knowledge, on study and research and on, of course, cultural respect and sensitivity.

Why was it so important to Les that every Korean name, every Russian, Spanish, Italian was perfectly pronounced? Because for every game, no matter how small the particular community may be in Australia, someone was watching. We should respect their team in exactly the same way as our own.

In doing so, we respected the game. This is a lesson I never forgot.

All of those professionals who learnt their trade under Les, or furthered their career under his care, all are the better for the experience.

Andrew Orsatti is now Head of Communications for FIFPro, Kyle Patterson Head of Corporate Affairs at FFA, Stephanie Brantz at ABC, Simon Hill, Andy Harper, John Aloisi and Ned Zelic at Fox Sports, the well-known Andy Paschalidis and our own David Basheer, the list is long and distinguished and a rarely acknowledged contribution.

Today's presenters are inheriting Les's legacy. The likes of Bash, Lucy Zelic and David Zdrilic, will in time count themselves most fortunate to have begun their career before Les hung up his lapel microphone. Many times in future they will find themselves considering, 'how would Les have handled this situation?'

Today, Les is famous for his pronunciations and I am not alone in missing hearing him say the 'Santiago Bernabeu', indeed entire hit songs have featured only this, Les Murray pronouncing football names.

On a personal level, I'll miss the old boy and our chats over a glass of wine at World Cups, while he went through several packets of fags and I developed mild emphesema. His historical perspective and knowledge is very rare, 'Back in the 50's, Fozz..' he would say and off we would go again on a journey back in time.

Those 4am UEFA Champions League mornings, both of us grumpy as hell, cursing the boring and pragmatic coaches, the moments in 2006 when neither of us could hold the tears back as Australia showed the world, Berlin, Cape Town, Rio, great memories.

So Les, in conclusion, we have established that you are indeed an icon in the proper sense of the term.

You are a symbol of the passion, understanding and newfound self respect of Australian football and the cultural movement it now represents.

Few can say that in a lifetime they were able to make a major contribution to changing a game, and therefore a nation. You can and and that is why Australian football, like everyone here today who are proud to have called you a colleague, holds you to its heart.

Like they, I wish you the greatest happiness in retirement, you've surely earnt it, old friend.

Fozz