Safro's Sydney: Les, legacies and the Sky Blues

BLOG: A week is a long time in football. There it is, the ultimate of football cliches.

Somehow, the ludicrous Nikola Petkovic suspension for a red card that never was is but a distant memory, washed away by Janko and Dimitrijevic wonder strikes. 

The most important football story of the week isn’t the confusing suspension of player and referee, not the Melbourne Derby, not the first leg of the ACL final or Manchester United-Chelsea. And not even Real’s mauling of Barca at the Bernabeu.

What SHOULD be the biggest story of the week is the retirement from the airwaves of Australian football icon, Les Murray. It is impossible to discuss football on Australian television sets in any context without Murray’s name up in the most prominent of lights.

Anyone can Wiki his biography and marvel at the man’s achievements. I suggest everyone does. Instead of retelling Murray’s career, I will make this personal.

As a football loving kid growing up in the early ‘80s, my viewing options were limited. English football was all we had and while I fell in love with it, it did narrow the field, especially in terms of seeing a variety of football styles.

Then SBS came along and Les Murray brought us the National Soccer League. World Soccer was a weekly highlight as Murray would bring into my living room derbies as diverse and passionate as Red Star-Dinamo, Boca-River and Real-Barca.

I watched as SBS exposed us to Italian football at its glorious peak, bringing Maradona, Platini, Gullit, van Basten, Rijkaard and Baresi to our screens and educating us mere mortals that there was more than one way of playing the game. What an era that was.

I watched as Les Murray and Johnny Warren brought World Cup after World Cup into my living room. And most personally of all, I watched as Murray brought us glorious Socceroo World Cup qualifying failures, one after another.

Scotland. Israel. Argentina. Iran. Uruguay.

The pain, the sheer gut-wrenching agony of knowing that once again we had failed to make it onto the world’s biggest sporting stage. And done so to howls of jubilation from a cross-section of small-minded Australians who could not see beyond the next mark or scrum. 

And we knew that Les, despite his on-air professionalism, suffered with us. He was one of us.

Our more recent World Cup and A-League successes somewhat passed Les by as Fox picked up the baton. But none of that could have been possible without Les Murray’s missionary zeal with which he brought football to us in the previous three decades.

I was fortunate enough be seated next to Murray at a Sydney FC function a few years back. I was actually sandwiched between him and Mark Bosnich and while Bozza regaled everyone at the table with one story after next (yes folks, Bozza is the same in real life as he is onscreen!), Murray indulged me in a one-on-one football conversation and was even prepared to discuss my opinions in between his cigarette breaks.

Les Murray’s legacy cannot be overstated. The man leaves an indelible mark on Australian football and I thank him from the bottom of my heart.


EVER the purist Murray would approve of the Sydney FC football style change from pragmatic to skilful and entertaining. The Sky Blues have played spectacular football recently and all of us welcome the change.

After two emotionally draining encounters in three days, the Sky Blues travelled up to Suncorp to face the defending champions, a task next to insurmountable in recent seasons.

Whatever Graham Arnold is selling, the Sydney players are buying it. It certainly helps that last year’s  players, who didn’t have a preseason with us in 2013 – Petkovic, Ognenovski, Antonis and Dimitrijevic particularly - are now supremely fit. But beyond pure fitness, our squad seems focused, mature and full of belief. 

Structurally I thought Arnie had it all over Mike Mulvey and Brisbane, pressured in their own back third, did not unlock the opposition from the back as has been their trademark. Michael Theo’s absence is surely part of the problem, but there appears to be a malaise in the Roar squad right now.

Despite the game not reaching the emotional heights of last week’s Sydney Derby, the Sky Blues maintained a high level of intensity throughout the match without compromising possession. No one maintained the rage more than Sasa Ognenovski, fast becoming Sydney’s spiritual leader. Arguably the league’s hardest, most intimidating player without being dirty, the Roar attack appeared frightened when looking up and seeing Big Sash’s shadow barrelling towards them. And his leadership on the park kept the Sydney players focused.

Every successful team needs its tough leaders. We would not have won our last title without Terry McFlynn while Manchester United needed its Roy Keane as much as Arsenal needed its Patrick Vieira.

This was no one man effort though.  Every Sydney midfielder and striker attacked, making us far more difficult to read each time we had the ball. One minute Antonis would pop up out on the left, next minute he would be leading the line up front. Janko moved effortlessly from attack to deep midfield, confident in the knowledge that Ibini or Dimitrijevic would replace him positionally. At times, the Sydney and attack interchanged almost futsal-style. For a purist it was good to watch, and effective too as we pulled the Brisbane defence out of position time and again.   

In some ways, we out-Roared the Roar on Friday night. Brisbane’s much vaunted possession game was still on show but our 10-man defensive press rendered it largely toothless and when we had the ball, we took far better options.

With the pace of Brosque, Ibini and Gameiro troubling Brisbane all night, the midfield was happy to pick out willing runners. And when these were closed down, magicians Antonis and Dimitrijevic had no trouble cutting inside and driving hard at the Roar underbelly.

The first goal will be a YouTube hit for years to come. Marc Janko’s chest and first-time volley was stunning and the quality was such that it briefly silenced even the Sydney fans.  I am prepared to back it for Sydney FC’s greatest all time goal for its sheer quality. With that strike, Janko has written himself into Sydney’s history books.

The second goal was hugely deserved by a player who should have a massive say in our title aspirations this season. After dominating last week, Milos Dimitrijevic rewarded himself with a bomb from outside the box, beating Jamie Young all ends up.

Back to Janko and we now know what the fuss was all about. No longer lumbering, his movements were sharp, he popped up all over the place to take shots and get involved in build-up play while his leadership qualities were there for all to see.

Now we just need Bernie to up his game a bit. His defensive effort was first class once again but to me he hasn’t looked a shadow of his former self with the ball at his feet. He seems to be playing in a fog and isn’t always taking the best option. But it’s a long(ish) season and he’ll come good. Fortunately, we are not over-reliant on any one player, so Ibini will have the chance to get back to his best relatively pressure-free.

The changed backline worked well as a unit. That said, I really hope Arnie doesn’t get any ideas about playing Seb Ryall in the centre and shifting the returning Petkovic to left back.

Ryall is a right back – arguably the best in the league – and needs to stay there. And the Ognenovski/Petkovic central defensive partnership, also among the league’s best, must remain first choice. You don’t strengthen one position by weakening another.

We host the Mariners next week, a club with a few problems on and off the field. They delight in beating us, and often have, but on this occasion I believe we will be too strong for the visitors.

Early days but I am finding it hard not to get at least a bit excited about what I’ve seen so far. We seem to combine fitness, graft, determination and belief with tactical acumen at both ends of the park, technique of the highest order and, finally, the ability to unlock defences. A combination which is long overdue.

Not a bad recipe for success but I hope the boys keep their feet on the ground.

It’s only round three.

But what a start.