An interview with Mike Denton

During our recent request for contact by former players, coaches, volunteers and fans etc, one of the first to complete our brief contact form was Michael Denton, who played for St George Budapest between 1969 and 1973.

This was at a time when the Saints were one of the dominant clubs in the country, a side made up of numerous Socceroos, and a team regularly claiming titles and Cups.

Mike was kind enough to provide us with his story of how he came to arrive at the Saints, how important his five years at the club were, and how, even now, fifty years later, he is still keeping a keen watch on the Saints’ performances.

“Prior to coming to St George, I had scored 21 goals in a struggling team, and was initially the only player retained for the following season. However I then got a letter saying that the incoming manager wanted to build his own squad and my services would not be required. I had some offers from clubs but really wanted a change.

I just happened to see an article in a magazine called Soccer Star that a gentleman called Andrew Dettre was in England to cover the European Cup Final between Man Utd and Benfica and to look for players for a club in Sydney. It gave contact details so I thought I would contact him. Much to my surprise he rang me within a day or two and we had a chat about my career to that point, after which he said he would talk to the club (by this time I knew it was St George-Budapest) and who had just had a very poor season. He promised to be in touch but I was still surprised when a few weeks later I received a package in the mail containing a 2 year contract and instructions to organise a visit to Australia House.

Years later I discovered that I was the 4th player in a 3 player package, which probably accounts for the fact that l came out as a “10 Pound Pom”.  I got a job at the ABC Mail and Despatch Department off William Street but with no soccer I was pretty despondent until pre-season training started for the 1969 season. Training then was behind Wentworth Park and I was lucky that Frank Arok had been appointed the new coach which meant everyone started equal. I worked hard and made the starting lineup for the first game of the season v Yugal-Ryde which we won 11-1. I scored 4 but George Yardley scored 6. However George returned to the UK and the goal scoring mantle fell to me. I ended the 1969 season as the competition’s top scorer with 21 goals much to a lot of people’s surprise. After all I was the cut price recruit. In my favour however was the fact that I had no expectations only a strong desire to give everything I had and my ability to score goals. The general standard was pretty good but I was unused to playing in such small competitions. The club itself was professionally run, once Frank arrived and the players were generally welcoming and once the football started I was fine”.

Mike played in four successive Grand Finals for St George between 1969 and 1972, but the Saints were victors on only one occasion, which, for obvious reasons, provided him with his greatest disappointments.

“Grand Finals were probably the most disappointing part of my time at Saints. In 1969 we drew 1-1 with APIA in the first game. In the replay we were missing players from the Australian squad who were off to World Cup qualifiers. However with 10 minutes to go we led 2-0 and looked like winning. Unfortunately we gifted them a goal for Ernie Campbell and he scored twice more so we lost 3-2. In 1970 we played Yugal on a ground that was covered in water and was inexplicably passed fit to play. Yugal dealt with the conditions better and won 4-0. In 1971 we beat Western Suburbs 3-2 thanks mainly to a brilliant performance by Alan Ainslie. In 1972 they had an Interstate Club Championship series in which we won all our qualifying games only to lose 1-0 to Marconi in the Grand Final”.

Mike’s success in front of goals (42 goals in 44 league games in his first two seasons) saw him selected for the Australian squad which toured extensively for six weeks at the end of the 1970 season. The tour took in matches in the Pacific, South East Asia, Europe and Central America, with Mike collecting full international caps against Iran, Israel, Greece and Mexico.

“The day after our Grand Final loss to Yugal, I got a phone call from Johnny Warren to congratulate me on being selected for the National Team’s World Tour. I thought he was kidding but the following day I got a telegram from the ASF telling me to report to a tailor in the city to be measured for a blazer and trousers. I also had to apply for Australian Citizenship which I did. On the tour we went first to New Caledonia for two games. I started on the bench for the first game but Adrian Alston collided with a post and the coach Rale Rasic sent me on. I must have done ok because I played in every other game on the tour apart from one and was part of the team that beat Greece 3-1 in Athens, becoming the first Australian team to beat a European nation in Europe. It was a very tiring tour and we lost our last three games but overall it was a great tour and something I never expected to do. Rale named me as fifth best player on the tour, although as I discovered the following season that meant nothing”.

1971 was to prove a full and busy year for Mike. Having met his future wife Pauline in 1970, they married in January 1971, with Mike being given a week off from preseason training for his honeymoon (although he was also given a training schedule to follow…). St George had received an invitation to travel to Japan in March of that year to compete in an invitation tournament, a competition the Saints duly won.

“The club had received an invitation to compete in the International Cup in Japan against Japan, Japan B and Frem Copenhagen from Denmark. The only people who gave us any chance were us. Our first game was against then Olympic bronze medallist Japan which ended 0-0, we then played Danish cup holders Frem who had five Danish Internationals in their team and had delighted in telling us how many they were going to beat us by. In the event we won 3-0 and followed that up with a 6-2 win over Japan B to win the trophy On the tour we played four friendlies: v Macao which we won 6-1, v Jardines (Hong Kong) won 6-2,  v Toyo Kogyo (Mazda) won 3-2 and Hitachi, won 2-1. So our overall record was P7 W6 D1 L0 Goals For 26 Goals Against 8. My main memories are of proving how good we could be and the performances of Atti Abonyi, Adrian Alston and John Warren etc. We did something no one expected. Also the friendliness of the Japanese and meeting a  Japanese lady who spoke Hungarian much to the delight of our officials. For me personally the chance to play in Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium so soon after playing for Australia v Mexico in the Azteca was very memorable”.

1972 was to prove a very successful year for the Saints, as Mike entered his fourth season with the club. In his three seasons to date, Mike had scored 59 league goals in 65 matches, a phenomenal record. The season started with success in the Ampol Cup, a 2-0 victory over Prague, and ended with the title being claimed by the Saints, three points clear of both Marconi and APIA.

For this season, rather than a traditional top four finals series, an interstate round robin series was held between the top eight NSW and Victorian teams. Sadly, St George went down 0-1 to Marconi in the final.

Mike’s final season with St George was 1973.  Missing only one league game, Mike again hit double figures, finishing the season with twelve goals. For the first time in five seasons, and the only time during Mike’s time with the club, St George failed to make the Grand Final, going down by the only goal to Marconi in the preliminary final.  This was to be Mike’s final game for the club.

Feeling unregarded by then coach Mike Johnson, and believing that his chance of being recalled to the Socceroos team was unlikely, Mike elected to move to Tasmania at the end of 1973, the home state of his wife, Pauline.

“We decided to move to Burnie on the north west coast. I linked up with a club called Burnie Spartans, one of two clubs that existed in Burnie then. I scored 54 goals in 21 games, setting a club and league record. I was player-coach the following year and scored 55 goals thus breaking the record again. The following year saw Spartans amalgamate with Burnie Rovers and the new Burnie United emerged. I continued as player-coach and we finished runner up to Devonport City. A new State League emerged the following season but we were overlooked and in the following two seasons we lost only one game, a cup semi final, so we were champions twice and cup winners once. In 1977 we actually got promoted to State League and while I continued as a player I decided I much preferred coaching young players so I applied to coach primary schools and North West Rep teams in State Championships”.

Mike had the opportunity to coach his sons and daughter, but remarkably, continued to play as well as coach, continuing to play for the Burnie first team into his forties, and the reserves until he was 55. But coaching was his main priority, and this included such diverse roles as the Director of Coaching for NSW Amateurs in Western NSW and schools coaching in the United States, before returning to Tasmania and the north west.  

Combined with his coaching duties, Mike also played his part in promoting the game, contributing to The Advocate newspaper in Burnie for fifteen years.

“As well as coaching I wrote on north west local soccer for fifteen years for The Advocate in Burnie which also allowed me to cover Australia’s only visit to Tasmania when Frank Arok was the coach. I was also able to renew my acquaintance with Les Scheinflug and Raul Blanco when they brought the Youth squad to Tasmania to play a local U21 side before heading to the World Cup”.

Since moving to Western Australia, Mike continued to coach locally, and has spent five years coaching at Aubin Grove United.  Only illness prevented him from coaching last season, in what would have been his 69th consecutive season involved with the game. A truly remarkable achievement. Now however, he expects to be back coaching this season.

In all Mike scored 130 goals in 168 games for St George in all competitions, proving to be one of the most prolific strikers the club has seen.

But when asked about his career, Mike defers to others.

”I scored  a lot of goals for Saints but never regarded myself as anything but a journeyman footballer. I was just lucky to play in a team with players like Johnny Warren, Manfred Schaefer, Attila Abonyi, Adrian Alston, Harry Williams, Dragan Ujtesenovic, Bobby Hogg, Alan Ainslie and John Stoddart etc.

And I owe everything since coming to Australia to Andrew Dettre. I worked hard when I arrived but he convinced Saints committee to give me a chance. Without him I would never have had that chance”.

And his biggest honour?

“Being named as one of ten immortals of the club in the 25th Anniversary book. Along with being selected for Australia it was the biggest honour I have ever received in the sport.”

Still keeping an eye on the Saints, Mike’s last words are very welcome.

“I would like to wish all the teams, particularly the senior men’s and women’s teams the very best of luck in 2024. I watched quite a few games last year on the streaming service and hopefully there will be somewhere to watch again this year.”

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