The death of broadcaster Les Murray at the untimely age of 71 deprives Australia – not just football in this country – of one its greatest supporters.
As the game nurtured him, so he helped football transform itself from a predominantly migrant activity in this country into what he loved to call “the world game”. He opened the eyes of his new compatriots to what they would otherwise have ignored.
Through his partnership with the former captain of the Socceroos, Johnny Warren, Les became football’s public face in Australia. Alan Crisp called them Mr and Mrs Soccer, but never told us which was which.
Together, Murray and Warren enabled SBS to establish itself as something more than a niche broadcaster. Their enthusiasm carried them through some very low spots as Australia’s football teams reached the last qualifying stages for successive World Cups, but always just managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Though Warren did not live to see it, Les was there when Australia returned to the World Cup, in Germany in 2006.
The coverage of successive World Cup finals every four years, which used the matches as windows into the host countries, was real education and pioneering broadcasting. The Tour de France has followed and extended the pattern they set.
It wasn’t just the Socceroos or the National Soccer League that benefited from the efforts of Murray and SBS. They were always on the lookout for the next generation of talent here and overseas. So, if you followed them, you would soon learn about emerging players, new schemes for coaching and training, and ideas about how the game was developing.
Not all their ugly ducklings turned into swans, and sometimes their enthusiasm went too far. But you could never fault the commitment of their defence of the code against unjustified criticism from those whose only interest in the game was to do it down.
Les was the archetypal team member – whether it was playing with his fellow musicians in their Rubber Band, taking part in veterans’ football, attending grassroots football clubs to promote their anniversaries and celebrations, or joining me to try to explain why the Golden Team of his native Hungary – of Puskas, Hidegkuti and Kocsis – did not appear in Melbourne in 1956 to defend the Olympic gold they won in Helsinki four years earlier.
After his interview with Jeno Buzanszky, at the time one of the only two survivors of that team, we had reassurance that our argument that the Soviet authorities had put pressure on the Hungarians to withdraw did indeed have legs.
All this was done by Les without infringing his amateur status as far as the game and its history was concerned.
Only a couple of years ago I tried to get him to contribute to a book I was putting together, but this time he said he could not do so. Then, he reflected:
Sometimes when I think about the hours I put into the game, I guess I only get about ten cents an hour for my efforts.
My immediate response was:
Les, you get ten cents. How do you get so much!?
The unspoken answer was always that he gave so much more.
One of his last public occasions was probably as close to his heart as anything he did in his career, when he unveiled a golden statue of Ferenc Puskas in the corner of Gosch’s Paddock, just outside football’s Melbourne home.
A proud Hungarian, born László Ürge in a small town outside Budapest, Les was an equally proud Australian. He was an inspiring example of the ability to hold more than two allegiances: he was a citizen of the world, and he never tired of explaining the wider ramifications of what that meant.
He tried to put that into practice as a member of FIFA’s Ethics Committee as the governing body went through scandal after scandal. He did not get everything right, but he looked into that cesspool and tried to tackle it as best he could.
Les wrote several books about the game from his unique perspective. Sometimes you got the feeling that he believed it only began in this country around the time he and his migrant colleagues arrived in the 1950s. Bill Murray and I tried very hard to persuade him otherwise, but when he launched our history of the game in 2014 it was clear that he still clung to his own ideas.
I will miss one of the most generous and inspiring human beings I have come across since we migrated to this country. Les was a great Australian.