The World Game resumes its monthly series on Australian stars who left their mark on our football. Kevin O'Neill, who at 95 years of age is the oldest living 'Socceroo', recalls the halcyon days when he had to buy his own boots to be able to play the game he loved.
Kevin O'Neill, who is recognised by historians as the oldest living 'Socceroo', gave a rare insight into his long amateur career that started while Australia was at war.
O'Neill, 95, said he was privileged to be able to play the game he loved even though he hardly ever got paid and had to make huge sacrifices just to realise his dreams and aspirations.
O'Neill spent most of his career playing for Cessnock in the NNSW federation and he also represented Australia 12 times in full internationals or 'tests', as certain international matches were known back then.
He was simply an international player those days. The 'Socceroos' nickname would come much later.
He also played for two years with glamour club Prague in Sydney but, since he worked in the coal mines in and around Newcastle, he preferred to live in his hometown of Cessnock and commute to training and games.
"I had a Holden those days and it did not worry me at all to drive to Sydney on a Sunday morning, play the game and come back home to be ready for work on Monday," O'Neill said from his home at a retirement village in Cessnock, which is a gateway to the Hunter Valley.
"The problems arose when we had midweek Ampol Cup games in Sydney. It was common for me to finish work at the mine at three, drive to Sydney, play the evening game, drive back home and arrive after midnight, then go to work the next morning at seven.
"That was very hard and for that reason I used to take a friend of mine just to keep me company, especially for the trip home.
"The drive to Sydney and back usually took about seven hours. The reason I did it was because of my love of the game. It had to be.
"I never really got paid to play for Cessnock because I was a pure amateur. It actually cost me money to play. On a couple of occasions I got paid six pounds at the end of the year to cover my expenses. It was not even enough to buy a pair of boots so I put it in the kids' money box.
"When I was at Prague, the club provided boots for us. The club also told us at the end of the championship-winning season in 1959 that they were flying us to Melbourne to play two friendly matches. After playing the first game I walked off the field and felt I was not in the best shape to play the second game the next day.
"I was told if I did not play I would not get the bonus of 30 pounds. So I said to the club that I would play even with one leg to get the cash - and I did."
O'Neill was happy to share some of his experiences from a world that cannot be any more removed from that of today's game.
You grew up in the Hunter Valley, where there are as many wineries as football clubs. What attracted you to the game?
"I lived opposite the Cessnock ground and I always played football when I was young. The vineyards were never a temptation. I don't drink and I don't smoke."
The first three years of your career in first grade were in wartime. What was that like?
"I was 17 in 1942 and playing juniors for Cessnock and a year later I was in first grade for Kurri Kurri. To be honest, the war did not really affect me up here in Cessnock. I actually wanted to enlist but my mother would not let me sign up, first because my brother was already in the war and, secondly, I had a good protected job in the coal mining industry."
You played most of your 22-year career in the Hunter except for two seasons with Prague.
"NSW Football had a breakaway in 1944 and the strongest teams from the Newcastle area went to the new competition. I was asked to join West Wallsend because I was told the club would make me a better player. I joined up on one condition: that when the breakaway competition was over I would go to Cessnock."
The Cessnock Eagle newspaper once described you as one of the most popular footballers in the game. What type of player were you?
"I was free and easy. And pretty versatile too. At Cessnock I played left-half, centre-half, right-back and even on the wing for the national team. I used to like playing in different positions."
What are your best memories from your 14-year 'association' with Cessnock?
"We were the best side for several years in the Northern NSW federation and the 1956 team that won the championship was the best I have ever played in. We had seven internationals. On our day we would beat anybody."
You achieved the honour of winning the NSW championship with Prague and had the privilege of playing alongside Leo Baumgartner. What do you remember of that team and that very special player?
"Leo always wanted the ball at his feet. If you put it a metre away from him he'd be cross with you. But by the same token I would go crook on him if he did not give me the ball where I wanted it. So it was even-stevens, I suppose. We had a great side at Prague but I reckon our Cessnock team of 1956 would have held its own against Prague."
How often did you train with your clubs and what was a typical training session like?
"We used to train twice a week, usually for a couple of hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We used to first run around the ground a few times, then do some physical exercises and finally play a little game. We never worked on skills because in the first years of my career we did not even have coaches. I always wore bandages at training and in matches to protect my ankles and after training or a game I would run cold water on them and make sure they were okay."
You were selected in the Australian team that toured Africa in 1950. Your first football trip abroad must have been a great experience.
"It was just a terrific experience, something I would not have gained if I went on my own. The situation in South Africa at the time (apartheid had been in force for two years) meant that we could not associate with non-whites.
"I remember catching a plane from Williamtown to Adelaide, then on to Fremantle, from where the whole team caught a boat to Cape Town. I was sick all the way and so pleased to finally get my feet on firm ground. From Cape Town we flew to Johannesburg and funnily enough some of the players who were not sick on the boat got sick on the plane.
"We played against Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) twice and South Africa four times. We won two matches and lost two against the South Africans and I think the tour leaders wanted to play a fifth 'test' but they declined so we came home."
Despite the fact that you were one of the most prominent players of your generation - you captained the national team three times - you missed out on the 1956 Olympics squad. What happened there?
"I think I know the reason. My wife was not well in the months leading up to the Games and I refused to play in a trial match between NSW and Victoria in Melbourne because I had to look after her. So I was not picked. NSW selectors tried to get me in to no avail."
Would that be the biggest disappointment in your career?
"I don't know. I did have another huge disappointment in 1948. I was selected to tour New Zealand, where we were to play four international matches. After a trial match at Wallsend, my workmates told me 'pack your bags, you're going on tour... you can't miss out'. But I did miss out because an official from Queensland nominated a player from his state for my position and the selectors went with him. Those days the national team was picked by representatives from all the federations."
You played a few times for Australia alongside captain Joe Marston. Tell us about him as a player and a person.
"A really nice fellow. He was a good player and a good leader."
In 1958, you played four times for Australia against the touring Blackpool side that had Stanley Matthews on the right wing. Are you glad you were a right-back and did not have to face him?
"Blackpool played five matches in Australia but I did not play in their first game at the Sports Ground in Sydney, so I went to watch Matthews play. Yes, you could say I was lucky not to have to deal with Matthews but, mind you, their South African left winger Bill Perry (who scored Blackpool's winning goal in the FA Cup final against Bolton Wanderers) was quite a handful, too."
Are you still in contact with any of the surviving players of your time?
"Out of the Cessnock team of 1956 there are only two others left: Jimmy Porteus and Billy Thompson, whom I sometimes visit."
Finally, if you had one wish from your playing career, what would that be?
"Stay young, I'd say."
KEVIN O'NEILL FACTFILE
1943: Kurri Kurri
1944: West Wallsend
1961-63: Lake Macquarie
1950-58: Australia (12 matches)
1959 NSW championship (Prague)