Red, white and black
For over half a century, AJAX (Associated Judaean Athletic Clubs) has been a significant feature of the VAFA landscape, both in terms of on-field achievement and in the broader, less easily measurable sense of its general espousal and furthering of the Association’s aims and ideals.
The club emerged from the semi formal annual matches begun in the 1930s between teams representing the Jewish communities north and south of the river Yarra. A proposal to form a club representative of the entire Melbourne Jewish community had been made as early as 1955 by an avid football enthusiast called Daryl Cohen, but it was 1956 before the necessary concerted action began to be made. Eventually, with the promise of financial backing from the Ajax Roof Organisation, a healthy-looking balance sheet thanks to a series of successful fund-raising nights, and a home ground at Peanut Farm Oval, Blessington Street, courtesy of the intervention of local parliamentarian Baron Snider, all the major ingredients necessary to produce a viable amateur football club had been procured. The club therefore applied for admission to the VAFA’s E Section for 1957, which was duly granted, and within four months of the inaugural AGM the team was running out onto Peanut Farm Oval for its first match.
Coached by Peter Charlestone, and with Lionel Rosenberg as captain, AJAX won that opening fixture against Insurance Social Club Association comfortably, and went on to enjoy a fine season. After winning 13 and drawing 1 of its 18 home and away fixtures to qualify for the finals in second place, it scored a comfortable win over Port Melbourne Amateurs in the second semi final so as to not only qualify for the grand final, but also secure promotion to D Section.
Port Melbourne, a club with which AJAX would enjoy a vigorous, at times feisty, but overall good-natured rivalry, turned the tables on grand final day, winning a hard fought game by 9 points. However, when the disappointment at losing faded, the club was able to reflect with considerable pleasure on a season that had seen its initial ambition of holding its own considerably surpassed.
Daryl Cohen, the man who, in a sense, had started it all, would go on to play a number of key roles in the club’s development. Vice-captain of the team in its debut season, he went on to play 93 senior games, and on his return to the club as coach in 1975 was responsible for initiating arguably the greatest era in its history. As an industrious and inspirational president in 1979 and 1980 he had the satisfaction of overseeing both a B Grade flag and the club’s first assault on A Grade.
Thoughts of A Grade were still a long way off in 1958, however, as a horrendously inconsistent season yielded just 8 wins from 16 matches for sixth place on the D Section ladder. According to Keith Isaacs, president of the Ajax roof organisation which continued to support the team, “the AJAX Football Club was just a bunch of players who get together for weekly matches”. That the players were stung by such criticism was made apparent both by their words and actions. irst, they issued a joint statement declaring that they felt they had done a good job in adjusting to the more demanding standards of D Grade. Secondly, and arguably more tellingly, they set about dominating D Section in 1959 to the extent that only one match for the year was lost, and promotion for the second time in three seasons was earned. Unfortunately, the single loss occurred when it was least welcome, on grand final day - how the AJAX players must have wished for a restoration of the challenge system of playing finals that the VAFA had abandoned only two years previously!
Midway through the 1960 season the club lost the services of its coach, Peter Charleston, the man who had masterminded its ascent through the grades, and in hindsight this can be seen as a prelude to the difficult times that lay just ahead. At first, however, the club still seemed to be on track to continue its upward progress. After a season of consolidation in 1960 it could be considered unfortunate to have missed the finals the following season only on percentage. However, the loss of a large number of key players made it not only impossible to build on this promise, it actually precipitated a decline that was even more dramatic than its rise had been. By 1964 the side was back in E Section, and just about the only good thing to be said about this was that two years later it spawned the first premiership in the club’s history. Key players in the AJAX team that beat Old Ivanhoe Grammarians in the 1966 E Grade grand final at Ross Gregory Oval, Albert Park included eighteen year old centreman Stan Duzenman, centre half forward Henry Jolson, key defenders Alan Synman and Ron Merkel, ruckman Hiram Janover, and wingman Barrie Jurberg (another eighteen year old). Coached by former skipper Lionel Rosenberg, and with Janover as captain, AJAX won the grand final by the emphatic margin of 71 points, 19.14 (128) to 8.9 (57).
As intimated above, the late 1970s proved to be a halcyon period for the club. Between 1975 and 1979 it went from E Grade - where it had been for five years at the start of the 1975 season - to A Grade, winning E Section (1975) and B Section (1979) premierships on the way. Its overall success rate from 1975 to 1979 was 77.2 %, and it contested the finals every year.
The greatest day in the history of the AJAX Amateur Football Club was Sunday 16 September 1979 when around 6,000 spectators witnessed the senior side’s 13.14 (92) to 11.20 (86) B Section grand final triumph over Marcellin Old Collegians. It was the crowning achievement of a season that also brought a fourth competition best and fairest award in five years for probably the greatest player the club has produced, Michael Ritterman. The victorious side was coached by Sid Myers, whose ruthless attitude to the game ruffled a few feathers at first, but who proved his credentials in the best possible way, by instilling a winning culture in the team. Best afield in the grand final win was rover Mark Kalmus, playing his last game for the club, but victory was attributable more to all round team solidity than individual excellence. Nevertheless, it goes without saying that the AJAX side of the time boasted many fine players, including dazzlingly skilful wingman Henry Bluzer, formidable key position player Mark Schulberg, long kicking on-baller Phil Rozen, and forward Robbie Kaye, who won the VAFA’s B Section goal kicking award for the 1979 season with a tally of 51 goals, including a couple in the grand final.
It is now nearing thirty years since that triumphant day in 1979, and although the club has not really built on that success in on-field terms, it nevertheless remains a vibrantly healthy and valued member of the VAFA. Whilst accepting that all clubs bring with them certain elements and attitudes that are unique, there really is no other club in Victorian football quite like AJAX, not merely by reason of its Jewish roots, but also in terms of things like its renowned hospitality and friendliness, which many a visiting interstate team has had reason to be grateful for.
As far as performances on the field of play are concerned, the last few seasons have suggested that an imminent return to the level of achievement enjoyed in the late 1970s might not be out of the question. In 2003, the side earned promotion to C Grade after reaching the D Section grand final, albeit that this was lost to Monash Blues. After spending a couple of seasons finding its feet, the team then fought its way through to another grand final, which club president Amir Perzuck, once he had overcome an understandable sheepishness at the platitude, could not resist labelling “the one that got away”. If ever such a cliché is appropriate, however, it is after your team has lost a match by 1 point in which no fewer than 42 goals have been registered. Such was Perzuck’s misfortune in witnessing AJAX amass 21.11 (137) to St Bede’s Mentone Tigers 21.12 (138) in the 2006 C Section grand final.
Although it would have been impossible for either players or supporters to think logically in the immediate wake of such a defeat, the truth of the matter is that both grand finalists would have started the 2007 season in B Grade regardless of the result of the match. For a club like AJAX, reaching B Section for only the third time in fifty years has to be regarded as a major achievement, but unfortunately it was unable to maintain its status after one of the most nail-biting relegation battles imaginable. When the 2007 season ended, the teams finishing in positions fifth to eighth had 7 wins, while ninth placed AJAX had 6. Just one more win would have secured the club’s B Section status because its percentage was comfortably superior to that of both Old Melburnians and Beaumaris.
The 2008 season saw AJAX comfortably qualifying for the finals in third place with a 12-6 record but Oakleigh promptly destroyed the team’s premiership aspirations with a 12.8 (80) to 7.14 (56) first semi final win.
The Road To A Grade: A History Of The AJAX Football Club by Barry Markoff, page 21.
President's report 19/09/06, on the club's official website at http://www.ajaxfc.com.au/html/s01_home/home.asp?dsb=145.