Over half a century ago, it would have been unthinkable for an Australian player to successfully make the leap from his country's humble local competition to the very top in England. But that is exactly the journey undertaken by Joe Marston. Over the last two decades numerous Australian players have made their way in professional ranks across Europe and elsewhere, but it was Marston who pioneered a once improbable pathway.
Australia made consecutive FIFA World Cups™ appearances for the first time this year, while close to 150 players now ply their trade offshore. The growth of the Australian game has been spectacular, but it was incremental, small steps that led to such development. Many of Australia’s 1974 FIFA World Cup squad pointed to Joe Marston as their inspiration. Australian-raised Liverpool star of the 1980s Craig Johnston says the heroes of Germany 1974 were his reason for initially playing the game, while current Socceroos superstar Tim Cahill lists Johnston as an idol of his early childhood.
In 2004, Cahill appeared in the FA Cup final for Millwall almost 50 years to the day since a Socceroo had first achieved the feat. Despite suffering the pain of defeat for his club Preston North End, that sunny day at Wembley in 1954 remains one of Marston’s highlights during a five-year stint in England. And there were plenty of those during a period which saw Marston also help his club from the old Second Division to within a whisker of the First Division title, and personal recognition with selection in the England Football League XI.
A quantum leap
Born in 1926, Marston was inspired in his youth by newspaper clippings a Scottish neighbour would thrust his way detailing football in the ‘old country’. Little did the young man from Sydney’s working class inner-west know what fate the football gods had in store. His dream as a youngster was simply to play for his local club, Leichhardt-Annandale. He achieved that by the age of 18, completing an apprenticeship with a local paint brush manufacturer during the working week. Playing for a club that were regularly challenging for honours helped Marston earn selection for Australia, and he made his debut in the nation’s first international after the war in 1947 at the age of 21. A crowd of over 40,000 at the Sydney Cricket Ground for the visit of South Africa displaying the nation’s latent interest in the game, despite the popularity of other football codes.
But it was a typically baking hot January day in 1950 when the phone call came that changed Marston’s life. “I was spending my summer weekends as a life-saver at Whale Beach (on Sydney’s outskirts) when I was told that a letter had arrived from Preston,” Marston told FIFA.com. A Leichhardt-Annandale supporter, who had contacts in England, had somehow successfully managed to coerce the Lancashire club into taking a punt on an unknown from a footballing backwater on the other side of the world. While a team-mate opted out of the offer, Joe and wife Edith decided to take the plunge and make their way to England. “The letter stated we were to come as soon as possible but we had a few things to organise and trying to buy an overcoat in Sydney in January is next to impossible.”
You had to play injured in those days. I recall once cutting my knee in the snow and at half-time they put some whisky on the wound, gave me a sip, and sent me back out.
The first training session was an eye-opener for a young man who, just a few short weeks earlier, had been patrolling a sun-drenched beach. The Deepdale pitch was rimmed by snow with a frozen and muddied surface meaning a prompt acclimatisation was needed. After biding his time with half a season in the reserves, ‘Josa’ was promoted to the first team and the rest is history. He played in an unbroken run of nearly 200 matches for the club, firstly at right full-back, and then as a centre-half, this in an era when no substitutes were permitted. “You had to play injured in those days. I recall once cutting my knee in the snow and at half-time they put some whisky on the wound, gave me a sip, and sent me back out!”
After winning the Second Division and promotion in 1951, Marston and his team-mates, who included the legendary Tom Finney, immediately made their mark among the elite. Indeed, they only narrowly missed out on the English title on the final day of the 1953 season; Arsenal edging them by a goal average of just one. Joe and Edith took a trip back to Australia at the conclusion of the campaign, taking in the FA Cup final in London en route back home. “Wouldn’t it be nice to play here,” Edith told Joe, while watching the famous ‘Matthews Final’ at the grand old stadium.
Twelve months later, the unthinkable happened, only for the dream to end with disappointment. A late goal saw West Bromwich Albion take the prized cup with a 3-2 scoreline and Marston still bows his head in regret at narrowly failing to block the decisive goal. The Australian assumed the captaincy from Finney for the following season, which was also highlighted by selection for the England Football League XI against their Scottish counterparts at Hampden Park. It was rare recognition for a foreigner and Marston was the only non-Englishman in the line-up that day.
The visit to Glasgow included rooming with the much-vaunted young talent that was Duncan Edwards. The Manchester United man, whose life was tragically cut short by the 1958 Munich air disaster, is described by Marston as having “incredible all-round ability, he had everything.” Marston, though, reserves special praise for Finney, describing the Preston icon as the “the best footballer I have ever seen.”
Though he may not have recognised it at the time Marston had climbed a mountain, setting the bar high for future generations of Australian players. Not that he received any fanfare upon his return home, despite immediately being called into the Australian side for another home series against South Africa. The 1956 Olympic Football Tournament was Australia’s debut in a world competition but Marston was ruled ineligible because of the strict amateur rules in place at the time.
Despite his five-year stint in England, Marston proudly represented his country on 35 occasions; a significant number in an era when international matches for a country with Australia’s geographical limitations were scarce. With equal pride Marston played club football until he was 38 before embarking on various coaching stints, including a brief spell at the helm of the national team in 1966, claiming the honour of being Australia’s first home-grown coach.
Numerous post-career accolades followed, including being one of only two Australian players (along with Johnny Warren) to become a Member of the British Empire (MBE). Perhaps his most treasured recognition is the Marston Medal, awarded annually to the player of the match in the Australian national league grand final. Australia’s oldest living national team player, who lives 90 minutes north of Sydney with Edith, still takes an active interest in the game, and in recent years has attended Socceroo internationals and matches of his local club, Central Coast Mariners.