A quiet conversation with Frank
A Quiet Conversation with Frank - Quietum Sermone Cum Frank
Reigning premier Port Melbourne hosted old foe Coburg in last Saturday’s Victorian Football League (nee Association) televised Game of the Week. With the game still in the balance at three quarter time the home side cruised to a comfortable 46 point victory thanks to its seven goal to two final quarter effort. Despite a few “spot fires” the 156th meeting of these two mainstays of Victoria’s leading domestic football competition was a somewhat sedate affair - a far cry from the often brutal, always fiery, contests these two combatants fought during the late 70’s/early 80’s. Undoubtedly the most memorable of those showdowns was the 1980 VFA Grand Final.
One of the two men who umpired that epic finale was Frank Vergona. Recently I had the pleasure (by phone) to reminisce about the halcyon days of the “Sweet VFA” with Vergona. The topic of conversation quickly turned to that overcast Sunday afternoon more than three decades ago.
“1980 was my best year - I’d never been as fit. I upped my training regime to four nights a week with fellow umpire Roy Groom (whom he would share officiating duties in the big one that year) and the benefit showed out on the field. I was at the top of my game.”
The journey had been a long and hard one for the diminutive Vergona who, until his departure at the end of last year (2011), had taught Latin to students of Melbourne Grammar for the past 27 years. He commenced his whistle blowing career in the mid 60’s in the Geelong Football League, moving between competitions as far and diverse as the Footscray, Essendon, Diamond Valley & Federal Leagues. After a stint on the VFL Reserve Grade list Vergona joined the Victorian Football Association in 1973.
“I struggled during my first five seasons in the VFA; in fact I was dropped from the senior list a couple of times during that period”. As Vergona remembers it his problems started one afternoon at Port Melbourne in 1976. “I umpired a game at North Port between Port and Caulfield. Fred Cook kicked a bag, and the Borough won a typical high scoring game (24.15-159 to 21.16-142). My problem was Bob “Bullwinkle” Profitt belted a Caulfield opponent, I didn’t report him, and I was demoted”.
Fortunately Vergona was made of stern stuff, eventually gaining a cult following amongst the thousands of supporters that filled VFA grounds and the tens of thousands who watched the “Match of the Day” on Melbourne’s ATV0 of a Sunday afternoon in the late 70’s. Just as importantly he didn’t hold a grudge against the Borough. “I thoroughly enjoyed umpiring at Port Melbourne. I loved umpiring any game Billy Swan was involved in I couldn’t tell you how many times I gave him three votes.”
A fortnight prior to the 1980 Grand Final Vergona & Groom umpired the Second Semi Final at the Junction Oval between Coburg and Port Melbourne, the Borough registering an easy 50 point win. The vanquished ‘Burgers managed to see off a spirited challenge from Geelong West in the Preliminary Final to grab a place in the season decider on September 21. Did Vergona think the Lions were a chance to emulate their flag winning performance of the previous season? “No, Port had beaten Coburg on all three occasions throughout the year - I couldn’t see them losing”.
Coburg coach Colin Kinnear had other ideas.
Kinnear, who would coach the Sydney Swans for three seasons in the late 80’s/early 90’s, devised a game plan to stifle Port’s free flowing play, instructing his team to play the outer wing of the Junction Oval when in possession, dropping players back in defence when Port had the ball to deny their dangerous forward line of “Fabulous” Fred Cook, 1980 Liston Medallist Stephen Allender and Grant O’Riley any room to move. The masterstroke worked for all but the final 20 minutes of the game when Port broke the shackles to kick a match winning 6 goals in just over a quarter of an hour and deny Coburg back-to-back titles for the first time since the late 1920’s.
“I’ll never forget the roar of the crowd when Tony Ebeyer’s goal put Port in the lead for the first time since the first minute of the game – it was deafening. Port were undoubtedly the fittest team in the competition, I never thought they were out of it and it was no surprise they overran Coburg” Port Melbourne’s fitness program was overseen by Peter Saultry. In 1992 Saultry assumed the presidency of the Port Melbourne Football Club, an office he would hold until his official resignation at last year’s Annual General Meeting.
Within minutes of Ebeyer putting the Borough back in front, Vergona was involved in the game deciding moment. David Fisher, whose miracle goal in the 1979 Grand Final secured the Lions their first “senior” title in 51 years, found himself all alone 30 metres out when he received a pass from Gary Milroy. Fisher took off and seemed certain to put the Burgers back in front. Billy Swan ran Fisher down in a tackle that today would probably be deemed as a push in the back. Vergona paid holding the ball, the ball was cleared and Port held on. I didn’t ask Frank if he’d been star struck, and would’ve awarded the free to Fisher had the tackler been anyone else but “Swanny”.
Three more Grand Final appearances would follow in 1983 (First Division) 1984 & 1987 (Second Division). He called it a career, hanging up the whistle following the 1989 season. I asked Vergona if he kept in contact with any of his old umpiring comrades. “Apart from my visits to Melbourne Sports Books to see Santo Caruso, I haven’t seen any of the umpires for some time. There have been a few re-unions; the last one I attended was in the early 1990’s”.
Unfortunately Vergona has no interest in the current incarnation of the VFA, having not attended a game for almost 20 years. “I recently saw footage of the 1978 Grand Final, a classic between Prahran and Preston. 30,000 were in attendance that afternoon. I often wonder where all those people have gone.” Sadly last year’s Grand Final, fought out between the competitions oldest, proudest and fiercest rivals in Port Melbourne and Williamstown drew a pitiful crowd slightly in excess of 12,000.
Frank Vergona would love to know where “all those people have gone”. I’m sure the powers that be at the Victorian Football League wouldn’t mind knowing either.