Classic Finals | Johnny Warren's farewell

Michael Cockerill looks at some of the great grand finals of the past. Today, the great Johnny Warren signs off in style as St George triumph.

St George keeper Jim Fraser dives to smother the ball at the feet of Hakoah midfielder Joe Watson, with Manfred Schaefer watching anxiously in the background.

Leading into Sunday's Hyundai A-League title-decider, associate editor Michael Cockerill reminds us of some of the great grand finals of the past.

Grand finals are rarely about one man. But when that man happens to be Johnny Warren, things can take on a life of their own.

Many of the players involved in the 1974 NSW grand final struggle to remember the score. But, to a man, they all remember the moment "Skippy" walked off the park for what would turn out to be his last game as a professional. Warren's sense of timing, as always, was exquisite.

St George, the club of his heart, were underdogs going into the title-decider against minor premiers Hakoah.

The old Sydney Sportsground (on the site of the current Allianz Stadium) was packed to it's 20,000-capacity for the meeting between the two dominant clubs of the 1970s - clubs which, within a year, would lead the charge towards the formation of Australia's first national sporting competition, the NSL.

Going into the business end of the season, the Saints were forced into a heavy schedule of catch-up games forced by a series of postponements caused by having six players (Adrian Alston, Schaefer, Warren, Utjesenovic, Abonyi and Williams) away with the World Cup squad in Germany. In the end, St George fell two points short of Hakoah in the race for the minor premiership.

Fittingly, though, the two best teams emerged from a finals series which included APIA-Leichhardt and Western Suburbs to face off on the big day.

Hakoah were warm favourites - although the void left by the premature retirement of star striker Ray Baartz the year before (caused by the infamous karate chop to his neck from a Uruguayan player while playing for the Socceroos) had not been filled. But the inclusion of two Brazilian imports - Agenor Muniz and Hilton Silva - did give the eastern suburbs club a significant point of difference.

St George, for their part, had lost key striker Adrian Alston, who took up an offer to join English side Luton Town straight after the World Cup finals.

A young Kevin Mullen, included on the Hakoah bench for his first grand final, remembers walking down the tunnel and seeing the size of the crowd.

"It was huge, and I remember just trying to soak up the atmosphere," he says. "People talked about us being favourites, but I think the loss of Baartzy was huge. And don't forget, St George were virtually the national team in those days."

As it happened, Hakoah did get an early lead. Saints keeper Jim Fraser went out to the left of his area to collect a through pass but was beaten to the ball by Muniz, who then produced a pin-point cross for Joe Fletcher to head into an unguarded net.

"I had a bit of a shocker, to be honest, but the cross was unbelievable," recalls Fraser, who these days runs his own goalkeeping academy at Blacktown.

"It was a bit of a blow, but I was confident we could get back into the game. As it happened, their keeper (Martin Coe, whose son, Nathan, is now playing for Melbourne Victory) was man-of-the-match."

Sure enough, the Saints were quickly back into their stride with goals from former Hakoah favourite Terry Smith and Atti Abonyi, but with 20 minutes to go Hakoah had worked their way back to level terms. Then came the moment those who witnessed it will never forget.

Warren collected the ball inside his own half and strode towards the opposition goal. As he got towards the penalty area, the Hakoah defence converged, but just before Warren was crunched in a three-way tackle he managed to poke the ball into the net.

Queue pandemonium as the former Socceroos captain was buried under an avalanche of celebrating teammates. When the dust settled Warren, who was player/coach, stood up with his arms outstretched and signalled to the bench he was coming off.

"That's the thing I'll always remember," says Fraser. "It took us a few second to realise what was happening. Don't forget, it was only 3-2, and we still had 10 minutes remaining. Johnny must have been pretty confident we'd win the game. We had no idea it was going to be his last."

In the end, St George gave their talisman the perfect send-off as Smith completed his brace to round out the 4-2 scoreline. And as Warren drove to the post-match celebrations at the St George club in Mortdale, he confided to his best mate and team manager John Economos.

"He told me that was the moment he decided to retire," says Economos.

"Not when he got to the ground, not during the game, not when he scored. When he got buried by his teammates, that's when he decided the timing was right. When he raised his arms to the crowd as he walked off, it was his way of saying goodbye, although no one knew it at the time."

TEAMS (4-4-2): ST GEORGE: Jim Fraser; George Harris, Manfred Schaefer, Doug Utjesenovic, Harry Williams; Brendan Grosse, Johnny Warren, Willie Hamilton, John Stoddart; Atti Abonyi, Terry Smith. HAKOAH: Martin Coe; Greg Lynch, Alan Marnoch, John Watkiss, Henry Mowbray; Jimmy Mackay, Joe Watson, Agenor Muniz, Hilton Silva; Murray Barnes, Joe Fletcher.