‘MR. SOCCER……’

It’s 1950……. John De Luca is about to depart his native Sicily with his mother, to be re-united with his dad and two uncles , who have paved the way for them in Australia.

They’ve filled him with dreams of sunshine, wide open spaces, an outdoor lifestyle – and opportunities galore.

Just one last question……Do they play Football down there ?……..Yes, they do, was the reply……..

“I cried when I got here and realised the football they were referring to was played with an oval ball…….” John recalls.

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Gianni (John) De Luca hails from Ramacca, a municipality of around 10,000 people in the mountainous region near Catania, in south-eastern Sicily. Besides Catholicism, Football (‘The World Game) is its major religion and everything stops for the town’s clashes against neighboring teams.IMG_3798

John was 15, going on 16, when he made his senior debut. That was a big deal in itself, for a lad of such tender years to play alongside Ramacca’s stars. He was a favourite of the young fans, who jostled for the chance to carry his bag into the ground.

He’d played just on 50 games when he decided he may as well join his mum on her adventure to this mysterious country down south.

His Grandfather had migrated to Australia in 1925, and worked in coal-mining at Wonthaggi, before joining many of his countrymen in the Ovens Valley, as a tobacco-grower. His dad arrived in 1949; his uncles had been here since 1937.

“It was Show Day in Wangaratta when we got here, and my uncle and his wife took me down to have a look. It was just like the Carnivals we had back home……but I was intrigued by the people on a truck near the entrance…..they were Highland Dancers and the bagpipes were playing. I’d never seen or heard them before….”

He landed a job at Bruck Mills, and was in familiar company, as many Italians were employed there. It was, in fact, a mini-United Nations.

“We used to kick the soccer ball around the Sisely Avenue Army Barracks after work, improvising with a couple of gum trees as the goals,” John says.

“Jack Balloul ( a Canadian), who was the Production Manager at Bruck, was impressed with our enthusiasm, and got in touch with the Shepparton-based Northern Soccer League. He arranged for a team called Rayonaires to gain entry, and play their home games on the Bruck Oval.”

“We were a mixed lot. I think our side comprised 5 Italians, 2 Yugoslavs, 3 Latvians, a Pole and a Russian. “

“But in that first year (1951) we went through the season undefeated and beat Benalla 7-1 in the Final. We had some good players, don’t worry about that.”

How, with such a disparate group, did you manage to converse, I ask John.

“Ah, soccer was the ‘Professor’ – the common language.”

John reels off some of the players in that historic side: Steve Piorek, a nippy Pole, Antonio Ceppon, the goal-keeper, the Gigliotti boys, Steve Kostenco, a determined Russian player – and Dino Cheli, who was probably the biggest personality in the side.

The 18 year-old De Luca was the ‘baby’, and starred at centre-half. He was described in newspaper reports, as the team’s stylist, with a bag of tricks to command attention.

But it wasn’t all plain sailing. The side was decimated by departures the following year and only three players remained. It was symptomatic of the rocky ride that local soccer was to endure in its infancy.IMG_3791

“We changed our name to Wangaratta United in the early fifties, then when the town became a city in 1959 we went along with it and became Wangaratta City – the Devils.”

“Originally we’d adopted the Red and Black uniform of A.C. Milan, but for a time, had to wear Green and Gold in the NESL so as not to clash with the colours of the Lemnos club.”

By now, John was working with his dad, a builder, doing construction work for the Borough Council. Kerbing and channelling; building bridges – they turned their hands to anything that was required.

But if that was hard yakka, keeping a Soccer Club on its feet was equally as difficult.

“We moved our home games to Avian Park ( the interior of the Trotting track), to Our Lady’s School…then to Appin Park.”IMG_3796

“The Appin Park Oval was terrible in winter. One year there was six inches of water saturating one corner of the ground, and we had pumps working for 24 hours before a match to drain the water.”

“We went to the Council to explain our predicament. The snide response of one of the officers was: ‘Soccer ? That’s not a real game.’ That was an example of the sort of obstacles we faced……..”

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John stresses that his Club record 600-plus games with Wangaratta included many instances where he played two matches on the same day.

“We regularly found ourselves short in the Seconds. A couple of us would fill in, then we’d have to prepare for the main game.”IMG_3794

“In those days, dad and I organised three Dodge utes, which carted players and officials to the away games, sometimes as far away as Khancoban. We’d often drive around to peoples’ places and knock on their doors, pleading with them to play.”

“I remember once, getting onto four blokes from Bonegilla who we’d heard might be interested in playing. We found work for them, put them up in a room in Green Street and your dad (Len) gave us a good deal on four mattresses. That’s where they stayed for the rest of the season.”

“Another time, the Warden of the Beechworth Gaol rang and said he had a couple of prisoners who’d like to play. The only stipulation was that they had to behave themselves, and we needed to get them back to the Gaol by 7 at night.”

“Good players, John ?” I ask. “Oh, handy. But they liked their soccer – and they made up the numbers……”IMG_3793

Probably the highlight of the De Luca playing career in Wangaratta was being selected in a combined squad to play famous NSL team Brunswick Juventus at Benalla.

He savoured the challenge of matching wits with some of the nation’s stars – particularly against a club with such a rich Italian heritage.

Even in his twilight years, he still proved a more than serviceable player, but, in his late forties, felt it was time to hang up his well-worn boots.

Besides, there was more than enough to occupy his time……………
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Every sporting organisation needs a John De Luca………….Someone who typifies what the Club is all about………who throws himself into the hundred and one tasks that crop up, and confronts the obstacles when they arrive.

The sort who has stints as President, Secretary, Treasurer, Coach, Captain and Team Manager. Who handles the Media liaison; is down there marking the ground on match-day…… The type who has weathered the tough times and starts to see signs of change, as things turn for the better……………

John reckons one of those came after they’d been pestering the Council, who finally relented to the Soccer Club’s requests to move out to the South Wangaratta Reserve.

Finally, they had a place they could call their own.

Another came when they gained admittance to the Albury-Wodonga Soccer Association in 1977.

“It was a tricky process,” he recalls. “We had originally approached the AWSA, who said: ‘Yes, we’ll accept you.’ We received approval to leave the NESL, but there were a few hiccups placed in our way, before finally, we got the all-clear.”

“I suppose, if there’s one legacy I leave, I’m proud to have played a part in the Club joining the AWSA…….”

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It was an incredibly courageous decision. The Senior team had won the 1975 NESL Championship with a team comprised mostly of lads who had come through the local juniors, having won the U.16’s titles in ’71 and ’72 under the tutelage of Bob Leask.

A potential Golden Era was looming, yet the Club took the bit between their teeth and made the move. They were convinced that the AWSA catered far better for Juniors. It also had the advantage of reduced travel requirements.

The switch brought about a huge transformation in Wangaratta soccer. The club previously fielded just three teams; within a year that had expanded to six.

The emergence of the club’s Junior Program, inspired by Bob Leask, acted as the catalyst for this expansion and it has rarely abated.

Wangaratta is now represented by 15 teams ( including 5 girl’s sides). On Friday nights 250-300 kids play ‘Mini-Roos’ soccer, and on week-ends upwards of 500 are involved in games. It’s arguably the biggest sporting club in town, and it’s said that the club’s player registration vies closely with the top 10 in Victoria.

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John’s wife Beverly, whom he married in 1962, has shared the journey, and says they still get a huge kick out of the ‘Devils’ regular successes.

They ran a Cafe in Reid Street for eight years, before John worked for the next 20-odd at IBM. All the while, though soccer was at the forefront of their minds.

Wangaratta City’s first Life Member, first Hall of Fame inductee and inaugural Legend is nudging 85 now, but has played his part in ensuring that the Club holds a prominent position on the local sporting stage………..IMG_3790

” HE’S DONE ALRIGHT FOR A POM …………! “

Jon Shaw clearly remembers the first delivery he received in club cricket on Australian soil.

It was quick and explosive, rearing off a good length and heading for his throat. He swayed back and the Kookaburra seemed to follow him, whistling past his helmet grill as it sailed through to the ‘keeper.

The bowler snorted from mid-pitch : ” You better learn to handle the short stuff, mate. If you were that good, you wouldn’t be playing here ! “………….

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This was a world away from the English county of Nottinghamshire – where he had been reared.

His original idea of escaping another bleak English winter and broadening his cricket experience, had led him to Geelong. It was early October 1998; footy finals had just wound up, the rain had hardly stopped pelting down since he’d got there – and the job he had been promised through a local club still hadn’t materialised.

“Where’s the hot sun and the laid-back lifestyle that people rave about ? ” he wondered to himself.

After yet another cricket wash-out, Jon accepted an invitation, to spend a week-end in Rutherglen. The gregariousness of the locals impressed him, as did the warm weather and the ‘feel’ of the rustic old town.

So when they said they’d tee up a job for him and plonk him in their cricket side the next Saturday, they didn’t need to twist his arm.

That’s when he was ‘sat in his arse’ and received some ‘advice’ from the fiery paceman……..

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“I settled in straight away,” he tells me. “They were a good lot of fellahs and we got on well. One of our watering-holes was the Star Hotel. I glanced across the bar on one of the first nights I was there and caught the attention of a young girl. Three weeks later we became an item. It was Belinda, my future wife”

Jon enjoyed life in Rutherglen so much, he kept returning. Eventually, it became home, and he and Belinda and their two kids, William and Charlie are now firmly ensconced. Over the last sixteen years he has established a reputation as one of the greats of local sport……….

But let me take you back to the small town of Kimberley – population 6,500 – based about six miles from Nottingham.

It’s Nottingham Forest territory. Like most young kids in the area, Jon harboured dreams of one day running out in the Red and White strip of the famous old club which, in its most illustrious era, soared to European Cup triumphs in 1979 and ’80.

He was pre-occupied by soccer and cricket and showed promise as a goal-keeper with nearby Mansfield Town. But his thoughts of big-time future glory at the goal-front were bluntly scuttled by a realistic coach, who told him: ” If you’re not 6 foot tall when you turn 18, you’ll be wasting your time.”

No matter, his cricket talents were coming to the fore, as he moved through the ranks with Kimberley Institute, a leading club in the county.

He was firmly established as a leading all-rounder in the Notts Premier Leagueimg_2399 when he began the first of his forays to Australia. The concept of playing continuously certainly did his form no harm.

When he returned home for the 1999 season, his 49 wickets and 447 runs for Kimberley earned him selection for the Notts Cricket Board in a Nat-West Trophy game against Scotland.

During the succeeding three years he played a number of games for Herefordshire in the Minor Counties Championship.

But it was for his ‘home club’ Kimberley, that Jon continued to make an impact. When he made his last appearance with them – in 2009 – he had played 260 League and 82 Cup matches, taken 655 wickets and scored 6492 runs.

It’s a pretty handy standard, and the addition of overseas pro’s adds to the quality of the competition. Andre Adams, the New Zealand medium-pacer had a bit of success with Kimberley in the early 2000’s. Jon’s former Rutherglen team-mate and ex-Shield leggie, Josh Mangan, took the job on in 2008.

With the 5’9″ Shaw bowling at a brisk medium-pace and making plenty of runs in the upper order, he made an immediate impression on cricket in the North-East. img_2397What won people over was his enthusiasm for the game. Thus, when Country Week, or representative games came around, he was always among the first selected.

In his five trips to Melbourne Country Week, he has been awarded the ‘John Welch Award’, as the Best-Performed player three times.

His most memorable performance in the ‘big-smoke’ came in 2000, in a riveting match against Kyabram. Wangaratta scrapped their way to a hardly-defendable 8/139 and, with 3 overs remaining, Ky were cruising, at 3/121.

They finished eight runs short, at 8/131, with the work-horse Shaw tightening the screws, and finishing with 7/40.

He has performed at a consistent level in WDCA cricket over the years, twice winning the competition’s ‘Cricketer of the Year’ gong and finishing runner-up three times.

What’s surprising is the lack of premiership success that he has come his way, which means that he can look back on the 2001/02 season with some satisfaction.

Besides playing with Rutherglen, Jon had been making regular appearances with Springhurst in the Wangaratta Sunday Association. In a thrilling climax to the season, they clinched only their second WSCA flag, after scoring 3/151 and holding off a gallant Moyhu, who were 8/149 at the completion of their overs.

To complement this, he shared in the WSCA’s Division One title win at Bendigo Country Week, a month earlier, when they lost just four wickets in passing Kyabram’s 183. His 18 wickets and 138 runs had been a contributing factor in the successful week.

When he had finished criss-crossing the globe to play cricket, and he and Belinda finally called Rutherglen home, Jon had a few seasons with Wangaratta City Soccer Club.

In his seven years with City he spent two as playing-coach and a couple as co-coach. He reverted to his role as Goal-Keeper for much of that time, but also played as a striker for three years.

The club’s crowning moment came in 2015 when they broke a 20-year drought to win the AWFA League Cup, downing traditional rivals Myrtleford in a nail-biter.img_2400

As captain – and the competition’s leading Goal-keeper – Jon played a vital role in the victory.

He was approached by fledgling National Premier League (Division 2) outfit, Murray United, when they started up, but a dislocated shoulder forced him out of the game last season. He has taken on the position as Goal-keeping coach for the 2017 season.

Considering that Kimberley was Jon’s only club throughout his cricket career in England, he jokes that he’s become somewhat of a journeyman in Australia.

After a lengthy stint at Rutherglen he crossed the Murray River to join arch WDCA rivals Corowa for two seasons, mainly to link up with a good mate, Rod Lane.

His next move was to Albury club St.Patricks, as he was eager to experience the slightly higher standard and different culture and conditions of Cricket Albury-Wodonga.

Now he’s domiciled at the W.J.Findlay Oval, as playing-coach of Rovers-United-Bruck. His ambition, naturally, is to take last season’s Grand Finalists to the top – and so snare his first WDCA flag.

He has managed to combine his cricket with a couple of Half-Ironman events this season. But there seems no indication of a heavy sporting schedule taking its toll on the  frame of the 36 year-old, who looks trimmer than ever

Yes, he’s done alright for a Pom, has Jon Shaw……

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