By Leon Georgiou
WITH 2021 marking the 50th anniversary of the Apollo Football Club, The Border Watch has taken a look back at the storied history, passionate players and die-hard supporters that make up the blue and white family.
The wider community is invited to experience the Apollo family first hand at the club’s anniversary celebrations this weekend at the Apollo’s home ground, Webb Street.
Tonight – 7pm: Meet and Greet.
Saturday – 11am: BBQ lunch, matches, dinner at the club (sold out).
Sunday – 9am: BBQ breakfast.
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
“So that’s how we started, slowly, slowly, but in those days, with having just a few people in the club, we did everything. Not only did we have to build the club rooms, but we had to, on Sunday, do the lines for the grounds, the ladies worked in the canteen, we did the refereeing, we did all sorts.” – Apollo Football Club founding member Michael Rigapoulis.
THERE is uncertainty over the exact day or month of Apollo’s founding.
But everyone agrees the club came into being in 1971, formed predominantly by members of the Mount Gambier Greek community.
Ultimately, the beginnings of the club were quite humble, there was no clubroom, no changerooms and there was only one senior team fielded.
The club would go into recess during the 1973 through 1975 seasons and return to the league in 1976, with an established home ground at Wirrina Park.
In some ways, 1976 could also be considered the founding of the club proper: as Apollo now had a home ground and also fielded both A and B grade squads, together with junior teams.
The club would remain at Wirrina Park until 1981 when the club was forced to relocate.
Consequently, Apollo would spend the 1982 season playing at Frew Park before establishing its current home ground at Hastings-Cunningham Reserve on Webb Street.
Like many soccer clubs throughout Australia during the 70s and 80s, Apollo had a decidedly ethnic makeup.
It would influence everything from the club’s name, colours, clubroom culture and rivalries.
The kit can be found sporting ΑΠΟΛΛΩΝ (Apollon) rather than the anglicised Apollo.
The blue and white club colours are reminiscent of the Greek flag.
And most of the clubs original membership during the 70’s were of Greek ethnicity.
But as Michael Rigopoulis – one of the original committee members – recalls, Apollo was not about ethnicity, it was about playing soccer.
Mr Rigopoulis explained the Greeks of Mount Gambier already had a community hall in which to gather, socialise and organise events.
Apollo was a place to watch and play a sport they were passionate about.
Despite the name and obvious Hellenic influence, being Greek was never a prerequisite to playing for Apollo.
The club’s teams have been filled with a multicultural mix of names from across the diverse Australian landscape – even as early as the 1980s.
Mr Rigopoulis said that the committee decided, relatively early on in the club’s history, that it should try and open up to people from all ethnicities, if it wanted to expand, compete and survive.
“The [predominantly] Greek committee at the time, we sort of decided at a meeting to invite others to come in from any other nationality,” Mr Rigopoulis said.
“Because we thought the Greeks eventually, there won’t be enough to carry the club forward.
After that, we got people in the committee and members and all that sort of stuff.
And here’s the result today. Because without all those individuals, the club wouldn’t exist.”
Michael’s son, Tony Rigopoulis, also played for Apollo.
He too acknowledges that whilst the club has a Hellenic influence, it’s the contributions of many people from across the Australian community that has kept the club going.
“The Greek roots are there, but I’d have to say personally, the Australian people that have contributed to this club have been amazing. It wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for them,” Tony said.
“This is the biggest game in the history of this club… ever. I want the adrenaline pumping, I want to see the enthusiasm there and I want you working for and supporting each other.” – David Beaman, pre-match address during Round 15 of Apollo’s inaugural premiership season, August 11, 1996.
APOLLO’S junior teams would win multiple premierships during the 1980s and the club’s B-grade team won Apollo’s first senior premiership in 1990.
But Apollo would have to wait a total of 25 years before claiming its first A-grade premiership title.
From 1991 through 1995, Inter and Croatia soccer clubs dominated the league.
But as George ‘Benny’ Anastasia points out in his book on Apollo’s premiership season, many of the key players from that first premiership squad, were starting to come together around 1994.
Coach David Beaman moved to Apollo from Centrals.
Phil Honeywell was recruited from Portland and Billy Xanthopoulos had returned to Mount Gambier.
The club’s development of junior players was also starting to pay dividends.
Nick Katris together with Jamie and John Stephenson would all make appearances in the A-grade squad in 1994 – with John becoming A-grade captain in 1995.
Tony Rigopoulis would return from Adelaide in 1995, whilst Sean Quinn was recruited from Centrals.
Jim Foster was recruited in 1996 and Dom Rinaldo came over from Inter in the same year.
Phillip Hariot, Darren Ripper, Robin Johnson, Geoff Dyson, Matthew Morale, Michael Lamb and Jack Berry rounded out the squad.
Apollo’s breakthrough would come in 1996 when it won its first A-grade premiership together with the league cup.
Billy Xanthopoulos was 24 years old.
He remembers the “pure joy and elation” within the clubrooms.
For him and others, that first premiership was dedicated to the founders of the club.
“For me, it was about winning it for the people who had established the club, namely the older Greek gentlemen,” Mr Xanthopoulos said.
“And to be able to give something back to them after they had gone through some pretty lean times, yeah, that was a special thing for me.”
Bill Stephenson said the celebrations were “crazy”.
“I think we were there [in the clubrooms] for three days, beer and scotch flowing,” he said.
Mr Rigopoulis, who was 25 at the time, said it was still emotional thinking about that first premiership.
“Looking at some of the Greek [founders], their faces, I think my grandfather was still present, it makes me feel a bit emotional now actually,” he said.
Petros Thomas – whom the clubroom bar is named after – is one of those founders who meant so much to so many of the club’s players.
Mr Stephenson recalls Apollo’s victory over club rival Inter in May of 1996.
The entire team “mud, sweat, boots and all” left Casadio Park and drove straight to the hospital, where Mr Thomas was, to give him the good news. Once again, the scotch flowed.
Apollo fielded a similar squad in 1997.
Shane O’Sullivan was recruited from Croatia, Nigel Inglis returned from the Northern Territory and Terry Stephenson came back from injury.
The club once again drew on some of its junior players with Russell Harris and Rohan Plunkett joining the squad.
Apollo would win back-to-back premierships in 1997 and again won the league cup.
Throughout these two seasons, Apollo would win 38 straight games – it went undefeated in 1997 and lost one game in 1996.
The B-grade also had success in 1997 winning the premiership and league cup whilst the Under 17’s won the league cup.
After the triumph of the 90s Apollo would once again have to wait for a return to premiership glory – with both Inter and Centrals dominating the last two decades of competition.
Apollo won a third title in 2010.
Former club president Adam Hodge explained that much like the 1996 season, Apollo had developed a strong A-grade squad through its junior development program.
And much like 1996, Apollo would win the league cup going through the season undefeated.
BUT WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
“Apollo is an extended family and a second home. I grew up in and around the club going along with my grandparents. Even played a season in the U17’s before the women’s league was created.” – Vicki Beumer when asked what Apollo Football Club means to her – via Facebook.
IT IS obvious that Apollo means a lot of different things to many different people.
But family seems to be a theme that recurs when speaking to people associated with the club.
You don’t need to look far to find two or three generations of a family playing for Apollo.
You can find stories of family in the club’s history, such as siblings Jamie and John Stephenson, who progressed through the junior leagues together and into the clubs 1996 premiership winning squad – together with their father Bill Stephenson who was the squad’s trainer.
These stories of family continue today.
Just last week, Paul Prentice played in the B-grade squad together with his two sons, Archie and Jock.
And that’s ultimately what Apollo is about, it’s the story of one giant family, brought together by a love of the world game.
Happy 50th birthday Apollo, here’s to another 50 or as the Greeks would say, na ta ekatostisis.