It wasn’t just Australian football who lost a dear friend when Les Murray passed away on Monday at the age of 71 – it was all who loved the world game – a phrase he famously coined.
While most called football ‘wogball’ or ‘soccer’ Murray’s legacy in creating a term of endearment not only defined the sport, but for all who followed it in Australia – it meant a global connection.
Murray was an ever-present figure on Australian television screens for over three decades, not only presenting but educating a growing SBS audience about local and international football.
Through his passion and encyclopaedic knowledge, Mr Football changed the perception of the game and gave it a welcome home to the many migrants who looked at the sport as a connection to their homeland.
Murray was famous for pronouncing the names of footballers with Greek, Croatian and Italian backgrounds better than they could themselves. It wasn’t just that he said the names correctly, it was the way he said them – with a flamboyance that gave people from an array of cultures a sense of pride, respect and dignity.
Andy Paschalidis worked with Les Murray at SBS between 1984 and 1994 and he described that time as a seminal moment in Australian football.
“That was a golden period for football broadcasting in the country,” he says. “We didn’t realise it at the time but Les, Johnny and I were pioneers in terms of promoting the game.
“We were like three musketeers. We were all three different types of personalities. You had the quintessential Australian, Johnny Warren, who had been there and done it as a player but who had been ostracised for playing a game that was for ‘sheilas’, ‘wogs’, and ‘pooftas’. Johnny was the man that everyone listened to being that he was the ex-footballer, the ex-Socceroo, so he had the expert analysis.
“Then the you had the refugee, Les Murray. Les was the consummate professional – the guy with the serious face. He was the driving force behind the football coverage.
“Then you had me, the first-generation Greek Australian. I was just a young guy trying to follow my dream. I could have fun with the players, go to their homes, dressing rooms, and training sessions and bring the personality out of the players, coaches, and fans because I was also a fan. I essentially moved from a fan to a broadcaster. That would not have happened without Les giving me the opportunity.
“So, if that didn’t provide you with an example of what multicultural Australia was at the time then I don’t know what did and luckily the common denominator was the world game.”
Before they worked at SBS together both Paschalidis and Murray attended the Max Rowley School of Radio in Sydney. But it was while working at Soccer Weekly as a cadet journalist that he first met the Hungarian refugee, that would change the shape of his life.
“He opened the door for me. He showed me that I can live my dreams,” he says. “From my days at Kingsgrove North High School I always wanted to commentate and in 1984 he gave an untried, untested 22-year-old rookie a chance.
“They were looking for someone to go to Wollongong and commentate for the old National League show because no-one wanted to travel down so Les’s options were limited and that’s how I got that chance at SBS.
“In those days, I was calling the NSL with only a single camera. Then in 1985 I got a job at 2GB but Les wanted me to still be involved at SBS so he got me to write scripts for him for the news segment on the old Olympic National League show and that went really well.
“Then towards the end of 1986, I got a full-time job at SBS and then things moved quickly. After that I hosted a Sport Report Australia show and Les was doing the World Game and all the other football related product that SBS had.
“We ended up being on air together on a show called Soccerama which was a show that was produced out of Harry Michaels’ studios in 1986. It was a weekly show and I’d come on and do a news segment and it was fun and games with Les and that’s when the banter between us both started on camera.”
Paschalidis feels that Murray had a unique skill in both bringing football to a wider audience and giving the entrenched fan their weekly fix.
“His legacy will live on there is no doubt about it,” he says. The one good thing that Les and Johnny did was that they provided those foundations for football to get into the mainstream by educating the masses. So, it wasn’t just the football purist, we didn’t need to convert the football purist because they were always with us. It was broadening the horizon it was getting the game out to the masses.
“There have been times when other networks have tried to broadcast the game but no-one could do football like SBS did and Les was driving the bus essentially and we were passengers on that bus. We were pretty well blessed to do that week in week out.”
Recalling his time as a rookie at SBS Paschalidis, revealed that Murray’s hands-off approach allowed him to express himself.
“I was lucky because when I came in there was no role,” he says. “There was no set role that I took over from so it was basically a blank canvas. So, it allowed me to go out and create and do what I thought was going to work. I was a young guy, maybe I was a bit naïve in a sense and I didn’t truly understand what it really meant.
“There was no strategy or plan to how we did it, we just got on air and did what we thought was the best way of moving forward and promoting the game. So, we were fortunate in so many ways
“And then it just evolved into live hosting World Cups, World Youth Cups, National League so it was the staple diet of football fans back in the day.”
Murray’s love, passion and commitment to spreading the gospel of football has seen the NSW Government award the broadcaster a state funeral and Paschalidis believes it shows how much he was able to transcend the sport.
“That is huge,” he says.
“There is no-one who has done what he’s done in the game. No-one has achieved what Les has achieved especially his longevity in the game and to do it day in and day out, I don’t think anyone else will be able to replicate it to be honest. I just think that Les was a standalone in many ways.
“You can’t nurture someone to be like that. We can only continue to carry that baton with us. He’s passed it on after having retired from SBS after the last World Cup. He sets up the new generation of broadcasters and we’ve seen them on SBS and Fox Sports, to continue the mission of education and of making football the number one sport in the country.”