Happy 50th birthday to Stephen Silvagni.
Career : 1985 – 2001
Debut : Round 7, 1985 vs Sydney, aged 17 years, 346 days
Carlton Player No. 927
Games : 312
Goals : 202
Last Game : Semi Final, 2001 vs Richmond, aged 34 years, 107 days
Guernsey No. 1
Height : 194 cm (6 ft. 4 in.)
Weight : 99 kg (15 stone, 8 lbs.)
DOB : 31 May, 1967
Premiership Player : 1987, 1995
Best and Fairest : 1990, 1996
All Australian : 1988, 1990, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1999
VFL AFL Team of the Century: Full Back
Team of the Century: Full Back
Carlton Hall of Fame: 1996
VFL AFL Hall of Fame: 2005
Victorian State Player: 1988, 1990, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1999
Mark of the Year: 1988
Track watchers at Carlton Football Club in the early 1980s would have noticed a young Stephen Silvagni eagerly helping out at most training sessions. Whether it was retrieving a footy from over the fence, kicking end-to end with the players, or even helping to serve up the after-training meal, the skinny, dark-haired son of assistant coach and club selector Sergio Silvagni spent much of his spare time at Princes Park.
It was a fabulous era for the Old Dark Navy Blues, and a time of inspiration for a young boy who would go on to forge his own magnificent career. Carlton claimed three Premierships in four years from 1979 to 1982, and Stephen’s formative years were spent in the presence of some of the clubs’ all-time greatest players – including his own father. However, Sergio and his wife Rita deliberately kept Stephen’s football education low-key. They insisted that his studies at Marcellin College had to come first, and restricted him to school football.
Even so, Stephen was talented enough to be selected for the 1984 Victorian Under-17 Teal Cup squad. That led to his inclusion in an Australian team that toured Ireland, and before too long Hawthorn was trying hard to recruit him. Under VFL rules of the day, Steve was zoned to the Hawks, and they had first call on him – unless Carlton exercised their rights under the father-son rule. Hawthorn forced the issue when they set a 48-hour deadline for Carlton to decide, and Blues Secretary Ian Collins didn’t hesitate. Stephen became a Carlton player – on the minimum contract wage of the time.
“Serge was terrific in the way he allowed Stephen to develop naturally, rather than by force,” Collins said later; “some kids who play footy at a young age either get sick of it, or resent it and want to do other things. Consequently they never fulfil their potential. But Stephen wasn’t like that. There was balance in his life, which helped him in his football as well. There might have been mind games being played at the time of Stephen’s signing, but there was never any doubt – he was always going to be playing for Carlton. Serge and Rita wouldn’t have allowed him to go to Hawthorn, let alone encouraged him to go there.”
Stephen believed that he would begin his career with the Under-19s at Carlton, only to be stunned when coach David Parkin informed him during pre-season training that he had been earmarked for an early senior debut. When he was presented with the number 1 guernsey that his father had worn in his wonderful 239-game career in navy blue, it was only a matter of time until Stephen made his senior debut against Sydney at the SCG in round 5 of 1985. By the end of that first year, he was still a skinny, gangly 18 year-old, but he had already been matched against some of the best forwards in the game as a half-back flanker or back pocket. He was a popular winner of Carlton’s Best First Year Player award, and a very deserving AFL Rookie of the Year. Carlton finished fifth, and then abruptly sacked their incumbent coach David Parkin in favour of former club champion Robert Walls.
In 1986, Stephen’s second year was derailed before it got going when he tore a hamstring in his first game, only to contract glandular fever during rehab. It was about this time that he was christened ‘SOS’ – for Son of Serge – by friend and team-mate Peter Dean, and the nickname stuck for the rest of his career. Meanwhile, Walls believed that the agile youngster might develop into a handy forward, and so sent him up the ground for his first senior match for the year against Hawthorn in round 12. The experiment was only partially successful however, because SOS finished the home and away rounds with just nine goals, and he was returned to defence before the Blues beat Sydney and Hawthorn in the first two weeks of the finals to book a place in the Grand Final as warm favourites against the Hawks.
At training on the following Thursday night however, Walls called Stephen into the coaches room and shocked the 19 year-old by telling him that he had been dropped from the Grand Final team in favour of Ken Hunter, who had recovered from injury. It was scant consolation, but SOS was to be included in the Reserves side that was also playing off for a flag, against Footscray.
Understandably, the young man was gutted, but he later said; “There were two ways I could have gone into the Reserves Grand Final – either throw in the towel, or give them something to think about. Fortunately, I took the latter option and went well in what was a winning Grand Final.” He went well all right – playing at centre half-forward, he kicked five goals and was unanimously judged Best on Ground. Later that afternoon, Carlton lost the senior Grand Final by 42 points, with Hawk full-forward Jason Dunstall kicking six goals.
The shock of what Silvagni saw as a rejection by his beloved Blues was the spur to stardom for him in the ensuing years. Determined never to be left out of the senior side again unless injured, he dedicated himself to train as hard as anyone on Carlton’s list, and started running an extra three kilometre circuit of Princes Park before or after every training session. As his game evolved, SOS became the game’s outstanding swingman – a rock-solid defender and a match-winning forward.
In 1987 Stephen played one his most memorable games when Carlton revenged their defeat of the previous year to beat Hawthorn for the Premiership. At just 20 years of age, SOS held the Hawks’ stand-in full-forward Peter Curran to a solitary goal as the Blues triumphed by 33 points. In round 14 of 1988, playing at full-forward in the Match of the Round at the MCG, he used Collingwood’s Craig Starcevich as a step ladder to take a sensational Mark of the Year. In 1990, he won Carlton’s Best & Fairest award by 10 votes from club captain Stephen Kernahan, and polled 16 votes to finish third in the Brownlow Medal. Half-way through the next season however, in Round 14, 1991, SOS tore an ACL ligament in a knee and was sidelined the rest of season.
Back on track at the start of 1992, Stephen kicked 8 goals in Carlton’s 24-point loss to the West Coast Eagles in round 9 at Princes Park. He starred again at Princes Park in round 16, 1993, booting a huge 10.6 as the Blues piled on 20 goals after half-time to beat Fitzroy by 86 points. Even so, by 1995 SOS was firmly entrenched as the premier full-back in the game, and his battles with the gun full-forwards of the time – Lockett, Dunstall, Ablett and others – were eagerly anticipated. While tall enough at 194 cm to cope with most opponents, at 99 kg he sometimes found himself out-muscled, so he had become master of the desperate late spoil. With his steely concentration, his exceptional balance and agility, he was the anchor of a daunting Carlton defence in a team that won 23 of its 25 games for the season – including the Grand Final.
In that wonderful ’95 final series, the Blues played Brisbane, North Melbourne and Geelong to win the flag. Steve’s opponents in that series – in order – were Daryl White, Wayne Carey and Gary Ablett. The collective return by these three against him was a miserly one (yes, one) goal. Topping off a stellar season, SOS was named 1995 All Australian for the first of three successive years, and in 1996 (after winning his second Best and Fairest at Carlton) he was sensationally awarded the full-back position in the AFL Team of the 20th Century. It was a huge honour, and one not without its controversy in some quarters.
Steve later said about that award; “It didn’t really sink in until I was called up at the end of the night to join the legends who had already been named. I remember looking at the faces around me – the likes of John Nicholls, Alex Jesaulenko and Bruce Doull – wonderful players I used to watch as a kid, and thinking to myself, ‘what’s going on here? I’m twenty-eight and still have a bit of football left – I’m not finished yet.'”
And indeed he was not. With his stature in the game assured, Steve became much more a vital part of the on-field leadership at Carlton. His impassioned plea to his team-mates at three-quarter time in the 1999 Preliminary Final was one of the factors in the Blues glorious upset win over Essendon. And though Carlton lost that year’s Grand Final to the ‘Roos, SOS kept a rampant Wayne Carey to one major for the game and was clearly Carlton’s best.
In 2000, a groin strain sidelined Stephen from the first four matches. In May, he and his proud dad shared the limelight at the announcement of Carlton’s Team of the Century before a season of highs and lows culminated in a severe hamstring injury during the finals. The tendon was ripped from the bone and he was sorely missed on Preliminary Final day, when Essendon thrashed the Blues by 45 points.
Steve was still recovering through the 2001 pre-season, and although he was absent for three games early on, he was back to near top form when he played his 300th career game in round 11, 2001 against Richmond at the MCG. Carlton may have lost by 27 points that afternoon, but when the final siren sounded, the Tigers were herded to the visitor’s race by their coach Danny Frawley. In a unique mark of respect by a traditional enemy, Frawley and his players formed a guard of honour and SOS was clapped from the ground.
Later that year, Steve’s hip injury flared again. His doctors advised surgery, but he declined and soldiered on. In a strong finish to the home and away rounds, the Blues beat St Kilda and Collingwood decisively to book another finals berth, before meeting Geelong in round 22 at Princes Park. Although only pride was at stake, it was a spiteful match that the Blues won by 70 points. Late in the game, Geelong defender Darren Milburn crashed through SOS with a front-on shoulder charge as Carlton’s champion flew for a mark. Out cold before he hit the ground, Steve was stretchered off the field, and Milburn’s reputation was permanently blackened.
Two weeks later, Carlton’s 2001 season and Silvagni’s playing career ended with an 11-point loss to Richmond in a hard-fought Semi Final. SOS kept the Tigers’ Matthew Richardson to a handful of possessions and two goals, before announcing that he was taking specialist advice to call it a day after 16 gruelling seasons. Tributes galore from friends and foes alike poured into Princes Park over the following days and weeks, with the words respect, skill and courage commonly used.
Stephen didn’t remain at Princes Park for long after his playing career ended, later saying, “I always felt if I wanted to stay in football, whether that was coaching, or administration or whatever other level, I needed to go outside Carlton for experience – and that’s what I did.” Between 2002 and 2010 he filled various roles as an assistant coach at Collingwood, Sydney, the Western Bulldogs and St Kilda, before earning the prestigious position of List Manager at Greater Western Sydney.
In June 2014, during celebrations marking Carlton’s 150th year of VFL/AFL competition, SOS was honoured once more when he was officially recognised as one of the five greatest Blues of all time, alongside John Nicholls, Stephen Kernahan, Bruce Doull and Alex Jesaulenko. Having also won plaudits for guiding the Giants’ young roster through their first three seasons, Stephen then surprised and delighted Carlton supporters everywhere by accepting an offer to return home to Princes Park, and to take up a role similar to what he had done so well at the Giants.
“I always hoped there may be an opportunity I could come back.” said Stephen when the news broke in December 2014. “And when the club came knocking, it really did tickle my fancy. It’s nice to be home. I love wearing the navy blue. I always have.”
50 Games: Round 5, 1988 vs Collingwood
100 Games: Round 4, 1991 vs Melbourne
150 Games: Round 11, 1994 vs Fitzroy
200 Games: Round 12, 1996 vs Collingwood
250 Games: Round 2, 1999 vs Collingwood
300 Games: Round 11, 2001 vs Richmond
1987 – Premiership Player
1988 – Mark of the Year
1988 – Victorian State Player
1988 – All Australian
1988 – 7th Best & Fairest
1990 – Victorian State Player
1990 – Robert Reynolds Memorial Trophy – Best and Fairest
1990 – Peter Sullivan Memorial Trophy (Most Carlton Votes in the Brownlow Medal)
1990 – All Australian
1993 – Victorian State Player
1993 – 5th Best & Fairest
1994 – Victorian State Player
1994 – 2nd Best & Fairest
1994 – All Australian
1995 – Victorian State Player
1995 – 3rd Best & Fairest
1995 – Best Clubman
1995 – All Australian
1995 – Premiership Player
1996 – Victorian State Player
1996 – Robert Reynolds Memorial Trophy – Best & Fairest Award
1996 – All Australian
1996 – Carlton Hall of Fame
1997 – Victorian State Player
1997 – 4th Best & Fairest
1997 – All Australian
1998 – 8th Best & Fairest
1998 – Jim Stynes Medal (International Rules Series- Best Player for Australia)
1999 – Victorian State Player
1999 – 6th Best & Fairest
1999 – All Australian
2000 – 5th Best & Fairest
2001 – 6th Best & Fairest
2005 – VFL AFL Hall of Fame
2007 – Italian Team of The Century