I am seated at an Italian cafe in Pemulwuy in Sydney’s western suburbs, and my subject is late for our interview. As the minutes pass, I receive a call from James Chetcuti, a former president of Melita Eagles and a current director at Football NSW. ‘Look, is it possible if you can come to Sam’s house? He’s a bit frail. He doesn’t move around like he used to.’
I don’t mind. Sam Vella, the former president of Melita Eagles, lives just ten minutes drive from my home. I pay for my coffee and hop into the car. Driving through Blacktown, I pass fibro homes built on cheap land, a throwback to the 1950s where new migrants to Australia bought cheap and set down roots. Over the years many of the homes have been upgraded with cladding, along with the occasional brick veneer. Sam’s house is much like the club he presided over: understated, within his financial means and yet exuding a sense of pride. The Maltese are renowned for their lawns and gardens, and the grass out the front of Sam’s house is immaculately kept. As I enter, there is a sense of apprehension in the greeting. The people of football’s yesteryear have a story to tell yet many are not willing to hear it. A lot of time has passed since Sam has been asked to share his narrative. There must be a catch.
‘Everything you need to know about the club is in this envelope,’ says Sam brusquely as he hands me a C4-sized white envelope with the words ‘Melita Story’ written in black marker on the front. The penmanship has the noticeable trace of a hand that has become less steady over time. Sam takes the envelope back and begins to go through the contents. He is shorter than I remember. It was less his height and more his gravitas that made him stand out against the rest of the Maltese men I knew growing up. ‘Poor Sam,’ people said when I told them I would be interviewing him. ‘He’s so frail now.’ This lingers in the back of my mind throughout. I think we all remember him for the proud, powerful figure he once was.
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Melita’s story is marked by periods of great progress followed by rapid failure. Indeed in 1956 the fledging club almost ended as quickly as it began when the Maltese Settlers Association (MSA) decided to disaffiliate Melita following some conflict between members. The club lost its meeting place, but gained a new home ground at nearby Moore Park.
Sam Vella was also on the move. In 1956, Sam married Merle, an Australian woman. ‘My wife is Australian, but she was right in the middle of the Maltese,’ Sam explains. ‘All my friends were Maltese,’ says Merle by way of clarification. Sam and Merle bought a house in Dulwich Hill in Sydney’s inner west. ‘It was a big block,’ says Merle. ‘You could have built two houses on it, it was that big.’
Football continued to be central to Sam’s life. The rivalry between the two Maltese clubs – Melita and Malta Eagles – became so intense that both sides went to great lengths to strengthen their squads. Melita poached Joe Schieda from Malta Eagles, signed three Maltese internationals and Joe LaRosa from Hamrun Spartans, a club from the Maltese First Division. They also signed a Maltese under-21 player Eddie Calleja.
As a result, the clashes between the two sides were heated. ‘They were our bitter enemies,’ explains Sam, who estimates the first game at Moore Park drew a crowd of 2,500 to 3,000 spectators. Melita would win the game 3-0, with Malta Eagles having a player sent off for striking. In the return game Melita lost 3-1. When the referee blew the final whistle, Melita’s supporters ran onto the field to attack the official. ‘He was attacked pretty severely but the club had nothing to do with the fracas,’ said Sam in an interview.
‘I remember having witnessed this, as it was on for young and old. Even a group of baseballers having a game in the corner of Queens Park came over and joined in the fight.’
At that point, Melita were leading the competition, but after Eastern Suburbs Soccer Football Association (ESSFA) held an inquiry they decided to ban Melita forever. Melita won the appeal, however ESSFA refused to take them back. Facing oblivion, Melita were forced to either move to another association or merge with another club. Sam approached Lawrence Dimech from Malta Eagles about the possibility of amalgamating. But as Sam tells it, there was a greater reason for merging the two clubs. He felt it was not right for two Maltese clubs to compete so ferociously and pit the supporters against each other. Both men were of the same mind: football should unite, not divide the Maltese community.
Three meetings were held in a house in Enmore. Several points were thrashed out and a formal agreement was reached, and Melita Eagles United Soccer Football Club was born. It was agreed that the ‘colours of the new club be “Red and White”’ and that the new club ‘will not enter into any competition in which other Maltese Clubs participates (wherever practicable).’
The spirit of Maltese unity, however, was set against larger tectonic shifts in the administration of football in New South Wales. The birth of the united club coincided with the formation of a new breakaway NSW Federation of Soccer Clubs. Many of the migrant clubs were angry with the refusal of the Association’s to introduce automatic promotion and relegation, and Melita Eagles were one of the first clubs to join the breakaway competition.
In the first season of the competition in 1957, Melita Eagles finished premiers and grand final winners of the second division reserve grade competition. They played at Arlington Oval, not far from Sam’s new home in Dulwich Hill. As more clubs joined the Federation, the second division grew to two groups of ten teams each, and in 1959, Melita Eagles were placed in the third division.
But it wouldn’t last long, and the club was promoted back to the second division in 1962. They adopted the name Melita Eagles Newtown and played their home games at Fraser Park, just ten minutes drive south-east from Arlington Oval. By 1967, the club had progressed to the top flight where they struggled for several seasons before being relegated in 1970.
‘That is the story of Melita,’ says Sam, almost resigned to the fact. I ask him why the club struggled to play in the top flight. ‘We operate as a volunteer service,’ he replies. ‘Not like Marconi. They paid wages and high wages. We always aspired to be like Marconi and Hakoah…’
Many of Sam’s responses are incomplete and hazy, perhaps owing to a fading memory. This time, he regains his thoughts. ‘Because we are a small nation. We’re a nation, a small nation. You look on the map and you imagine it’s a fly’s shit! Through the initiative of the Maltese people this made from small, to not too big, and then down again.’ Sam often explains both the shortcomings and the achievements of the Maltese community through the size of the tiny Mediterranean island nation.