Our greatest sees bright future as football recognises its past

RAY Baartz will be another face in a room full of old mates tonight.

The Newcastle-based Men of Football are holding their third annual reunion at Newcastle Jockey Club.

The 650-strong group is a non-profit organisation made up of past and present football participants who, apart from enjoying each other’s company, raise money to help those in need.

The Newcastle branch is a virtual who’s who of Northern NSW football – Socceroos, national league players, coaches, journalists and senior administrators – from the 1950s onwards.

Baartz has been one of the driving forces behind the Newcastle chapter.

From its humble beginnings in 2010, when about 40 former players got together for a few beers and finger food at the Mayfield Ex-Services Club, the reunion has ballooned into a sold-out affair of more than 220.

‘‘The concept is starting to grow,’’ Baartz said.

‘‘A good mate of mine, Dennis Yaager, who I played with at club level and for Australia, is coming up.

‘‘He is based in Sydney and is looking at forming a Men of Football branch down there and wants to look at how it operates.

‘‘The idea is for it to spread right around the country.’’

Baartz was in a similar room of like-minded people a week ago when he was lauded as a member of Australia’s Greatest Team Ever.

The Adamstown Rosebud junior, who was signed by Manchester United as a 17-year-old before returning to play for Sydney Hakoah, was named at inside right alongside Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell in a three-man strike force.

Fellow Socceroo Col Curran, the only Newcastle player to compete at a World Cup finals, was nominated but missed selection.

‘‘It was a great honour and very humbling,’’ Baartz said.

The gala event organised by the Johnny Warren Foundation was the latest in various initiatives to link the present with the past and follows the official awarding of Socceroos caps and the formation of a hall of fame.

‘‘We have tended to let people drift away from the game when they have finished playing, drift into the never-never and be forgotten about,’’ Baartz said.

‘‘Now we have started to realise football has a history.

‘‘Clubs like Adamstown Rosebud are older than most English Premier League clubs.

‘‘People are starting to realise we do have a history and a tradition.

‘‘I know from my experience at the awards dinner the other night some of the younger players who came up to me and offered their congratulations said they didn’t realise just what went on and happened years ago.

‘‘Adam Griffiths was fascinated by some of the old stories and is coming up next week to talk about doing a documentary.

‘‘They respect and appreciate what the older teams went through to achieve what they did.’’

Baartz’s career was cut short at age 27 by an infamous karate chop to the neck from Uruguayan defender Luis Garisto in a 2-0 loss to the Socceroos in Sydney on the eve of the 1974 World Cup.

The blow, which instigated stroke-like symptoms, put Baartz in hospital.

‘‘I felt I was probably just reaching my best football,’’ Baartz said.

‘‘Who knows, maybe my better years were to come. When I look back on the injury, I was thankful it wasn’t more serious.

‘‘For a couple of days they didn’t know if I was going to live, let alone have all my faculties. I could have ended up in a wheelchair.’’

The Greatest Team Ever was selected by public vote and a panel of experts.

‘‘They had nearly 20,000 people vote online and also had a selection committee, which carried 50per cent of the vote ,’’ Baartz said.

‘‘I think that gave myself and some of the older guys a a chance to get a jersey.

‘‘The majority of people who voted online never saw us play. It’s a bit hard to vote on someone who you haven’t seen. Thankfully, myself, Johnny Warren and Joe Marsden got a chance to get into the team.’’

Apart from Baartz, inaugural Jets captain Ned Zelic also made the team and Newcastle’s Cheryl Salisbury was captain of the women’s team and had the honour of being named the Greatest Women’s Player of all time.

Baartz was chairman of the Jets advisory board that was disbanded early this year, and he still has an active role in the club.

Jets coach Gary van Egmond and a selection of players will be at the gathering tonight.

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