Gippsland: A region at the heart of football

Growing up in Gippsland, former NSL player Manny Gelagotis (or Gotis as he was known) recalls the days helping out in his parents’ local cafe and playing as many sports as he could with his older brother, Peter.

Growing up in Gippsland, former NSL player Manny Gelagotis (or Gotis as he was known) recalls the days helping out in his parents- local cafe and playing as many sports as he could with his older brother, Peter.

Tennis, football and Australian Rules were just some of the sports Manny enjoyed outside of school. Living in the country provided so many sporting opportunities and when he wasn-t spending time with his family, Manny was training, playing or just kicking a ball around with the other local boys.

Football quickly became his passion. At just 15, Manny played at the senior level for two years in the Latrobe Valley Soccer League. Being so young, this set him in good stead for his future.

“I played in two outstanding sides in both years, first at Warragul and then at Traralgon Olympians. As a 16 year old I was awarded player of the year and was recruited to the Falcons in 1987.”

This was a really exciting time for the area. Morwell were an extremely powerful club, a football stronghold that saw them reach extraordinary heights for a regional club.

“They had a massive influx of British and European footballers in that era. For me, as the local guy, it was such a great feeling as it was really tough to break into the team, and once consolidated, it was a very high standard of football.”

After going to play for and coach Traralgon in the Latrobe Valley Soccer League for a few years, Manny soon returned to his roots and realised his dream of playing in the National Soccer League when he was recruited back to the Falcons by highly esteemed former Socceroos coach Frank Arok.

“I cherished the next six years, because it was always my dream to get to that level. Being a local gives you a bit more acknowledgement and the accomplishment that you have come through the region as a youngster and are playing at the highest level.”

This was the most thrilling and significant era for the Falcons who were the envy of all the other country clubs.

“We always attracted very high quality players and money was never an issue at Morwell. It was a club that everyone wanted to be a part of. Being so financially secure, with a great environment and great people, the opportunity was always there to succeed.”

Will Hastie, former Falcons player and active member of Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) also reminisces about the good old days in Gippsland.

His personal highlights were the friendships that formed and playing in front of the Gippsland fans every home game.

“There was no other football atmosphere like it. With Morwell-s competitiveness and the stadium and facilities, they really deserved to be in the NSL.”

When you walked in the door, Will said everyone felt a warmth that few other football institutions could create.

Morwell had a unique culture, with the presence of figures like Don Di Fabrizio as the backbone of the club. He was the “doyen” of football in the region and built something special in that stadium that symbolises all that was great about that era of football.

Manny and the boys used to call Don ‘God-, as whenever he turned up in his grey Mercedes-Benz it was like the godfather had arrived.

“There was a little bit of fear, when you-re young. Not that he was an imposing figure, but a wealthy man with a great presence. A lot of migrants from his era worked extremely hard and he was a pioneer in seeing Morwell get to the NSL.”

Will and Manny remain close friends and still catch up with some of the other former Falcons when they can.

“In sport, it-s not always common for professional athletes to become close friends as they all come from different walks of life. Morwell was so unique, in that the players got on tremendously and the bond we had still carries through to today.”

Will Hastie is aware of the impact the Falcons have made in the community and afar. When he was a Falcon, the team delivered the belief that the region deserved to have a competitive team in the national competition of football. This belief demonstrated to all the locals, particularly the youth, that if they put their mind to it and worked hard enough they could succeed at the highest level in whatever pursuit they chose.

Manny also recognises the contribution the region has made to the Australian football landscape over the years.

“Morwell has been quite a significant team in the last 20-30 years and back when there were thousands of kids all over the country playing football, reaching the heights they did was an amazing effort.”

In terms of the talent that has come from the area, Gippsland has contributed very heavily towards football in Victoria and Australia as a whole.

“We have been able to produce outstanding players: John Hutchinson, Archie Thompson, Scott McDonald and Eugene Galekovic just to name a few.”

“The region has been able to put some guys on the map, not only at an amateur level but also at a professional level,” Manny said.

Together with the Latrobe City Council, Melbourne Heart FC has orchestrated the return of elite football to the region for the first time in almost 10 years with their highly anticipated match against Wellington Phoenix FC on Sunday.

Manny is confident the game will be really well received by the locals.

“It is going to be an opportunity for the whole region to embrace Melbourne Heart FC and the game. People miss having that arena filled with soccer fans and it-s going to be fantastic.”

Heart are hopeful of building on the incredible crowds they drew during the Westpac Community Festivals in 2010 and 2011.

As the PFA Manager of Development and Community, Will deems that initiatives such as Sunday-s regional A-League match are what is required to make football bigger and better in this country.

“The investment that Heart and other clubs are making in football-s future, as a past player, is really impressive and makes us feel like we are a part of the game-s journey.”

He credits Sue Crow and Melbourne Heart FC for their club philosophy that centres on the important difference football makes to the lives of Australians.

“With the PFA Heroes program (which involves Heart players mentoring students in local schools) the Westpac Community clinics and Street Football initiatives, Melbourne Heart FC are definitely running one of the best community programs in the Hyundai A-League competition.”

Will believes that the work of PFA, the clubs and the players has significantly improved the round-ball game in the last 10 years and it will only continue to develop and grow in the future.

“There is no doubt that if we are one day to fulfil the dream of winning the FIFA World Cup, our football industry has to provide a world class environment for our players, fans and administrators to participate in.”

The Gippsland region will once again be buzzing with the best footballers performing on their doorstep, and Will hopes that the match will further drive the presentation of elite events throughout the area and inspire the next generation of star players.