Remembering 'Uncle Joe' Vlasits: Australia's first international trophy-winning coach

"Uncle Joe knew more about you than you knew about yourself."

Joe Vlasits may have only coached Australia for a total of 23 matches between 1967 and 1970, but his far-reaching impact upon the birth of the Socceroos culture can still be seen today. 

From developing the likes of Johnny Warren and John Watkiss to making the bold decision to usher in a fresh crop of rising stars into the national team set up, Vlasits' approach paid incredible dividends in both the short and long term. 

Throughout his reign, Vlasits ushered in a new generation of Australians into a Green and Gold shirt, advocated for the formation of Australia's youth national teams and helped create the national coaching federation. 

Within his first year in charge, Vlasits led a squad that averaged just 22 years of age to defeat some of Asia's best, finishing a 10-game tour undefeated and lifting the Quoc Khan Cup in war-torn Vietnam.

READ: When Australia won their first international trophy in Vietnam in 1967

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The fact he was affectionately known as “Uncle Joe” says everything about the impression Vlasits left upon those he met. 

Football Australia Hall of Fame member Attila Abonyi was handed his first international cap under the coach as a teenager.  He repayed his boss' faith, scoring a hat-trick in his first 'A' international. 

"He (Vlasits) was unbelievable," reflected Abonyi. 

"Poor Uncle Joe was very old-fashioned, even in those days, but I don’t think I’ve met a more honest person. He had so much respect from all the boys - he was like a father figure.

"He was a tremendous, lovely guy, very hard working while very old fashioned in lots of ways - but absolutely brilliant."

Born in Hungary in 1921, Vlasits' brief playing career for First Division side NSC of Budapest was cut short due to injury. From there, he took up coaching and worked as a coach within the Hungarian national body, specialising in youth education. 

Vlasits relocated to Australia from his native Hungary in the late 1940s and soon began coaching within the NSW State League. 

Joe Vlasits
Joe Vlasits (right) and his Pan-Hellenic team in the 1960s

He would go on to win titles with Prague and St George, but it was his time coaching the 'Canterbury Kids' that many remember him for. 

The team possessing some of the nation's best rising talent, including the likes of Warren, Watkiss and Corry, took the competition by storm as they won the 1958 and 1960 titles. 

Fast forward to 1967, and one of Vlasits' first acts as Australia Head Coach would be to make a 24-year-old Johnny Warren captain of the side for the first time. 

The move signalled a changing of the guard, which some label a process of 'Australianising' the national team - promoting and developing young Australian born players into the national team for the first time. 

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Vlasits brought together players with an incredibly diverse set of background and taught them exactly what it means to wear the Green and Gold shirt. 

He also emphasised need for specialised coaches, players and administrators to further the development of the game as a whole. 

Former Australian captain Stan Ackerley recalls an amusing story that goes to show Uncle Joe's outstanding emphasis on man-management.

"Uncle Joe knew more about you than you know about yourself," he said. 

"During the day I worked outside in quite a physical job labouring with heavy machinery and when it came to our session Joe said ‘Stan you've had a big busy day today’ and I said ‘no Joe I'm fine!’

"He was a very caring person who knew stuff about you that made you think, 'where has he got that information?'

"I never heard him say a bad word, even in changing rooms where he should have done at times! But he was such a nice guy and I had a hell of a lot of time for him." 

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If engineering the birth of a never-say-die culture and turning around the disappointing results of Australia's 1966 World Cup Qualification campaign wasn't enough of a challenge, Vlasits' first major tournament in charge was truly a baptism of fire. 

He attracted some criticism from the Australian media for selecting a squad packed with debutants to venture into the South Vietnamese capital Saigon at the height of the Vietnam War for the 'Friendly Nation's Tournament. 

But Vlasits' side would defy the odds to overcome all of the nations in their way, coming from behind to defeat South Korea in the final and take home Australia's first international trophy.

READ: Remarkable story behind birth of Socceroos and first international trophy

All in all, he coached Australia for a total of 23 'A' international games — resulting in 13 wins, seven draws, and three losses at a solid 57% win loss ratio.

While Vlasits' men fell short of qualifying for the 1970 World Cup, eight players in the 1967 squad would go on to take their place in the team that qualified for Australia's first World Cup in West Germany four years later. 

Legendary Socceoros striker Ray Baartz, who also played his first international under Vlasits, powerfully summarises the coach's onlasting legacy.  

"Team spirit was his forte," Baartz said. 

"He developed the passion that defined wearing the Green and Gold and representing your country."

Joe Vlasits was born in 1921 and passed away at the age of 64 on this day (23rd April) in 1984.

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