Everyone in Australian football has a Johnny Warren story. That’s the beauty of Johnny’s legacy. He touched so many lives and influenced so many football people.
The late Johnny Warren has been gone for a decade, indeed 10 years to this day, but his influence has barely waned. So many people heard him, met him, followed him, believed him, and adored him.
I was a teenager in 1977 when Johnny Warren came to my home town Canberra to start up a club in the new National Soccer League. I remember it was big news.
Just a few years before Johnny was part of the Socceroos who qualified for the 1974 FIFA World Cup, an achievement that was huge at the time, but has grown in stature every year since.
Johnny Warren, Canberra City and the NSL were so far ahead of their time, it’s amazing to look back. Long before rugby league, union, AFL and cricket invited sleepy Canberra to be a part of their national competitions; “soccer” took the leap of faith.
Johnny wasn’t only the coach, he was the evangelist. He was in the newspapers, on radio and TV, everywhere. Doing what he always did. Telling people about the beautiful game.
Looking back, it was an incredible undertaking by a few diehards in Canberra’s football community, but who else than Johnny Warren could pull it off? Canberra City drew some pretty decent crowds and won a fair share of matches, before the economic reality of a small market took its toll.
Fans young and old know about Johnny’s famous line “I told you so”. In my observation, it was never said from a point of superiority. It was just that Johnny was utterly convinced beyond any doubt that that game he loved, the beautiful game of football, would inevitably find its place in Australian life.
He was right, of course. Australian football’s emergence is running to a storyline that Johnny Warren saw coming decades ago. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard along the journey.
The title of his biography – ‘Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters’ – is a backhander to the naysayers whose smug indifference to football stung Johnny throughout much of his life. In his time, he confronted ignorance and bigotry, but never lost his belief.
Today we are seeing Australian football take its place in the mainstream of Australian society, a natural role for a game that reflects the nation in all its diversity.
Wherever we look, the game is booming, just as Johnny’s sage words predicted. However, there’s much more to do. I’m reminded that even in the depths of Australia’s 32-year World Cup wilderness, Johnny would gently chide those who craved World Cup qualification.
“Why are you talking about qualification?” he would say. “We should be talking about winning the World Cup.” Johnny’s mission goes on.
Please share your memories of Johnny Warren on Twitter using the hashtag #ITYS (“I Told You So”)