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The lasting bond between Greek Australians and the first Australians

This is the story of how the Greek migrant community in the early 50s and 60s helped inspire Australia's first Indigenous soccer representative and how those same bonds are renewed decades later

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Scholarship sisters Gracie Johns and Shay Evans in a still from the Australian Soccer's Dreaming documentary. Photo: Supplied

04 December 2017

John Moriarty is part of the Stolen Generations. When he was four, he was taken to Roper River Mission from Borroloola then removed to Mulgoa, near Sydney, and a few years later to Adelaide. He then grew up in St Francis House, which happened to be right next to a soccer ground. At that home was also Charles Perkins and Gordon Briscoe and along with Moriarty all three would go on to have distinguished careers in soccer and Aboriginal affairs.

From 1961 to 1964 Perkins played for Pan Hellenic, now Sydney Olympic, and played in England where he was offered a trial with Manchester United. Briscoe, meanwhile, also played in England with then top-flight club Preston North End.

All three played for South Australia with Moriarty representing the state on 17 occasions with his performances at the Australian Championships saw him offered trials with Tottenham, Arsenal, and Everton. A fast winger with great dribbling skills and an eye for goal, Moriarty also earnt a call-up to the Australian national team in 1961. Unfortunately, timing did not allow Moriarty to represent his country as FIFA had banned Australia at that time.

Moriarty's football career began when he was 15, when he, Briscoe, and Perkins along with other St Francis House boys were watching a South Australian state intermediate team train at the soccer pitch near their home. One of the coaches asked the boys to give the team a warm-down after their training session. The warm-down turned into a full-blown contest and the boys from St Francis thrashed the state team. Afterwards, Moriarty was offered a contract with Port Thistle in Port Adelaide. This was in 1954 and he stayed until 1960 before moving to Juventus Adelaide where he played until 1965.

Moriarty says the bonds he forged with the various teams he played for and against, including West Adelaide Hellas, were everlasting.

"When I started playing soccer there was a huge influx of migrants from Europe and often they were described in a derogatory way as wogs, dagos and things like that," he says.

"Being an Aboriginal kid, we were pretty much in the same category. We were not part of the Australian society as we should have been. But I was embraced fully by the 'new Australians' as they were called. Through playing football, I met with the many nationalities that we played against. The teams in those days had names like Hellas, and Polonia, and so on and they welcomed me into their fold."

Moriarty says because the migrant community accepted him, it not only made him feel like an equal but that it inspired his career post football.

"I've got a lot of Greek friends who I played against and we still keep in contact," he says.

"Soccer just levels all of these things up, race doesn't come into it, it's your skills, the people and the game. It was that embracing by the people from the soccer fraternity that gave me the great opportunity to see there was no discrimination.
"New Australians gave me such an opportunity to see that there is a bigger world outside, and that is what inspired me to go to university to have some qualifications. So, whatever I do or say I'd be seen as something and not as just a black fella from the bush, which is what I am, but to have some sort of qualifications."

Shay and John. Photo: John Moriarty

Moriarty retired from football at just 27 due to injury, but became South Australia's first Aboriginal university graduate. He also was a prominent figure in the 1967 referendum that saw Indigenous people included under Commonwealth law.

In 2012, Moriarty, his wife Ros and son James created a football and scholarships program - John Moriarty Football (JMF) - in Borroloola.

Shay Evans is JMF's first athlete and has been with the program from the age of nine. Her life-changing opportunity came three years ago when Matilda's coach Alen Stajcic saw her playing for the Northern Territory. Soon after, she was offered a JMF Scholarship at Westfield Sports High School in Sydney, and the New South Wales Institute of Sport (NSWIS).

Shay was just 13 when she left her family and friends to make the 3,000 kilometre trek from her small remote NT community down to Sydney.

At this time Shay was given the opportunity to train and go to school and follow her football dream due to the generosity of the Johns family. Greek Australian Sean Johns explained how his daughter Gracie told them about the chance to board the young Aboriginal athlete and change her life.

"My daughter Gracie goes to Westfield Sports High and came home one day and said that the teachers were looking for somewhere for Shay to stay," he says.

"So, my gorgeous daughter put her hand up and said, 'we'll take her' and that was the first time we heard of Shay. So, we did commit to have her till she finished high school and the decision for us wasn't just about football; we wanted to give her an opportunity and we want her education to be part of this."

Gracie Johns, now 16, also attends Westfield Sports High and the NSWIS with Shay, and revealed that she was reserved when she first moved into the family home.

"Shay was very shy and quiet, and she had the biggest smile," she says.

"I just remember her smile being so bright. She didn't talk much at the beginning but once she got to know us a bit she got better and better and louder and louder.
"It's so inspiring what Shay is doing, the way she is keeping up with her schoolwork. The way she has completely left everything at home and come down here to Sydney has shown just how strong she is. She is just inspiring young kids to be more like her and it's just absolutely incredible."

Gracie Johns has represented Australia's U-17 team and Shay, who is now also 16, says she wants to follow in her scholarship sister's footsteps.

"It helps me to push myself and I want to work really hard to get there," she says.

"I love how Gracie helps me at school, with my homework and training. She pushes me to do stuff and become a better player. The Johns' are a great family, I love them and they really support me. I have Gracie beside me and we are pretty close because we go to school together and I join in with her friends - she is always there for me."

Sean Johns says Gracie and Shay have formed a strong bond and having the young Indigenous athlete join his family has a been life-changing experience for everyone.

"Right from the word go, Gracie took this attitude that Shay is part of this family and she is her sister," he says.

"Shay is a wonderful person and we think about what she has given up to come down here. She has left a quieter life to join the busy life of training, school, homework, and travels. These girls are busy and Shay has taken that all in her stride.
"She has given back to us in the way that she has approached it as much as we have given to her and she is a bright addition to the home and quite frankly we can't imagine what it would be like if she wasn't there. She's been a gift like hopefully we are to her."

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