You hadn’t really been to the footy in the 1960s until you’d stood on the terraces under the scoreboard at Princes Park and listened to the supporters barracking for Carlton in voluble Italian. Only the names of the players were recognisable (and in a lower, growlier register, the odd umpire’s name). Foremost among them was “Serge”.
One of Sergio Silvagni’s many accomplishments was to popularise the game among the big but hitherto distant wave of post-war Italian migrants in Melbourne. He was one of them. His father, Giacomo, was a so-called “new Australian”, a concreter.
Serge Silvagni marks against Hawthorn in 1967.Credit:The Age.
Young Silvagni built his footy muscles working in the family business. Old teammates marvel to this day at his strength, though he always deferred to 1961 Brownlow medallist John James. Old teammates marvel at that.
Stocky, bandy-legged, often in long sleeves, always with his socks down, you only had to look at Silvagni to know he was a footballer. You only had to see him play once then to know he would still get a kick today.
Silvagni and contemporaries Ron Barassi and Kevin Murray were pioneers of this new all-areas position called ruck-rover. He, John Nicholls and Adrian Gallagher were Carlton’s tight-knit first ruck, a three-man platoon that drove the Blues’ revival under Barassi.
Silvagni was a champion schoolboy athlete – and ruckman! – at CBC Parade. In a Carlton thirds trial match, he was left on the bench until the last quarter – because the coach could not pronounce his name. The coach said he knew he could play anyway. In 1958, Silvagni vaulted straight from the Under-19s to the firsts.
Silvagni marks.Credit:The Age.
Playing as a forward the next year, he kicked 40 goals. One day, a 15-year-old Carlton fifths player watched him kick six and scrambled to get his autograph. That boy was Gallagher, the very same, and he has the autograph book still, and the memories.
“I marked them all down in the Record,” Gallagher said. “He was kicking the longest torpedo punts I’d seen. They were like Toby Greene’s the other day, going one way, then came back. He was my favourite player.”
Silvagni won best-and-fairests in 1962, a grand final year, and 1968, a premiership year. That’s the mark of a footballer. As Nicholls once said of him: “You don’t demand respect. You command it. He did.” Silvagni was captain for one season in 1964, handing over without demur the next year to arriving messiah Barassi. That’s the mark of a clubman.
Indeed, no name is more synonymous with Carlton than Silvagni. He served the club as reserves coach, and for three games stand-in senior coach, and on the committee.
Serge Silvagni and son Steve. Credit:The Age.
He and son Steve are both official club legends, both in the team of the century (also the Italian team of the century) and now Steve’s son Jack is carrying that big name forward. It is a long time since anyone at Carlton did not know how to pronounce Silvagni.
In 1969, Silvagni retired to become the club’s runner, but 15 rounds into the next season, Barassi talked him back into action. A little more than two months later, he played his reliable part in the most epic premiership of all.
Ruckman Percy Jones remembers Silvagni in the last quarter. “I looked over and all the young Collingwood blokes were cramping,” he said. “Nick [Nicholls] and Serge were running and chasing and tackling, all the way along the boundary line, still going.” Silvagni was 32, Nicholls 31. “He was a goer, Serge, a true goer,” said Jones.
A year later, Silvagni retired for good after 239 games and 136 goals. But he never left Carlton, nor the hearts of the supporters.
Third generation: Jack Silvagni in action.Credit:Getty Images
He was never one for tub-thumping and so played a lesser public role than others from his Carlton era. But he was a fixture at the club, and in time he played – conspiring with his wife Rita – the unique role of patriarch, adding nearly 400 more games and another pair of premierships and best-and-fairests to the family CV. At Carlton, No. 1 is No. 1.
Steve preceded his father into formal Blues’ legend-hood by nearly two decades. When Serge at last caught up in 2016, he protested mildly. “I was never that good,” he said. “I was a battler.” There are countless Carlton fans to protest that, in at least two languages.
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