Photos (Top to Bottom): John 'Snow' Compagne (fourth from left in back row) in the Devonport team at KGV Park; John 'Snow' Compagne (fourth from right in back row) in the Devonport City squat for a game at KGV Park [PlessPix]
John 'Snow' Compagne was one of the finest players to have graced the Tasmanian game, at club and representative levels.
His name is synonymous with Ulverstone and Devonport City, and he also had a stint with Launceston City.
He, and team-mate Anthony Guilbert, were two of the first young Tasmanians to try their luck with trials overseas.
Compagne is now retired, of course, but he is coaching at the Devonport academy and putting a lot back into the game.
I spoke with 'Snow' during the week and here is the interview:
Walter Pless: How old are you?
John ‘Snow’ Compagne: I recently turned 40 (back on November 7).
WP: Give me your playing background, please.
JC: I came through the junior ranks at Ulverstone and I made my full senior debut in 1987 as a 16-year-old. I didn’t take long to cement my place in the team as I was runner-up in the club best and fairest the following year and made it onto the board of the Rothmans Medal count for that season, the first year of the now defunct State League.
1989 saw me awarded my first of two club best and fairest awards with Ulverstone. The following year I was rewarded with the captaincy at Ulverstone at the age of 19. During this year, 1990, Anthony Guilbert and I were doing a large amount of extra training in preparation for the trip of a lifetime for any young soccer player. Thanks to the Ulverstone coach at the time, Alex McDonald, we both headed to Scotland for a trial with Premier Division club Hibernian, training with the likes of Scottish internationals Andy Goram and Murdo McLeod and Englishman Keith Houchen, who had played for Coventry City and scored the winning goal in the 1987 FA Cup final against Tottenham. The manager at Hibs at the time was Alex Miller, who later went on to become the assistant manager at Liverpool alongside Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez.
Our time at Hibs was easily the greatest experience of my football life and one that shaped the type of player I was to become in the future. Due to the restrictive nature of signing foreign players in Britain back in those days in comparison to now, only two foreign players were allowed to be signed on the books, and so the management at Hibs had to let us go. They did say to us that they were prepared to try and get us signed for a lower division club that may be prepared to take us on, but nothing came of it as we were determined to get a look in at another Premier Division club.
We sent a number of letters out to other clubs and we soon received one back from Heart of Midlothian, Hibs’s rival club in Edinburgh. We were mainly training with their reserves side while we were there, but we did also train with the likes of Scottish internationals John Robertson and Dave McPherson, to name a couple of big name players there. We continued to train with them for the remainder of our three-month stay before returning back home to Tasmania.
Season 1991 would probably go down as being the most successful one for me as an individual player. During the season, I captained the State Under-21 side in two games against the Australian Under-17 Joeys team, captained by a very young Craig Moore. I won my second club best and fairest that year, along with also being awarded the Soccer Writers’ Award for the State’s best player, and the big one, the Vic Tuting Medal for the State League’s best and fairest. But, all these individual awards weren’t the reason I played the game. I wanted to be a part of a successful team, so I moved to coastal rivals Devonport City in 1992 to play under my coaching mentor, Alex McDonald. This was not only a big move as far as my soccer was concerned, but also, personally, as my entire family had been a big part of the Ulverstone club, and still are today. I guess my time in Scotland had changed my whole outlook on the game and I was hungry for more.
It didn't take long to settle in at Devonport and we finished the season on top of the league, clear of second by a huge amount of points, only to be beaten in the Grand Final 1-0 by Croatia-Glenorchy, which the first time the premiership was decided this way.
We came out the next year with a point to prove and once again finished clear on top at the end of the home-and-away season only to once again lose the Grand Final. I was beginning to think that I would never win the big one. During this season, I was made captain of the side and I won my first best and fairest with them as well as winning my second Soccer Writers’ Award.
The State League season then went to a summer roster in 1993/94 and it was to be third time lucky as we went through the entire season being undefeated, including winning the Grand Final, and I finally had the opportunity to lift the State trophy as captain.
During the winter of 1994, I went back to Ulverstone to play in the Northern League competition and we won the premiership that year. I guess this was my chance to say thank you to the club that gave me my first chance to play senior soccer.
The following state league season was once again a summer roster and Devonport had not entered a team, so I ended up playing with Launceston Juventus as I wanted to continue playing at the highest level in Tassie. We made the grand final, only to be beaten by White Eagles and I ended up being awarded the club best and fairest for that season.
1996 saw Devonport re-enter the State League and I went back to captain the side once again. We didn't make the grand final that season, which was the first time I hadn’t played in one since its inception. We made the final in 1997, only to be beaten by White Eagles and, when the State League reverted back to the old system, top team as premiers, we ended up winning our second state premiership. A back injury forced me out of any action during 1999, the season Devonport went back to playing in the Northern League, and when the Devonport club approached me to coach the senior team for season 2000, I saw this as a great opportunity to get into coaching.
When the 2000 season commenced, I wasn’t planning on making too much of a mark on the pitch as I wanted to concentrate on coaching the team. However, it turned out I still had the hunger to play on and we ended up going through the season undefeated to win the premiership. It was a fitting way to end my first year of coaching the senior team in what was also a very difficult year for me and my family on a personal note, as my wife and I had lost our first child, Harrison, at birth in the January of that year. Out of this tragedy came a positive, as we were blessed with a healthy daughter the following year, and we decided to present a trophy to a promising young player, in memory of our son. We continue to present this award today as it has become a regular fixture at the club’s end of year presentations.
From here on, I declared that I was going to continue playing for as long as I could, or for as long as I would be beneficial to the team. The next eight years continued to bring more success to me personally and as part of a successful team. We won the Northern Premiership in 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2008. We won the play-off for the State Title in 2003 and 2004 and the State-wide Cup in 2002. I won my second club best and fairest award in 2003, the same year I also tied for the League leading goalscorer award.
I retired at the end of season 2005, or I thought I did. I took over as coach of the senior side for the last six games of 2006, the worst season finish since I’ve been involved with the club. When the club appointed current senior coach, Tom McGinn, in 2007, he asked me to make a come-back to help some of the younger players adapt to senior soccer. I saw this as my last chance to make a difference on the pitch.
Season 2008 saw me start a limited amount of games due to a recurring back injury, so midway through the season I decided that this was going to be the finale. I felt I had no more to contribute as a player and it was time for a young player to take my place. I left the game feeling more than satisfied with what I had achieved and what I had conributed to the game.
WP: Which were your best years and with which club?
JC: It could be said that the early 90s were my most successful, both as an individual and as part of a team. Clearly, 1991 was my most successful individually and 1992-1994 were very successful team-wise.
WP: How do you feel about being retired?
JC: When it came time to finally hang up the boots for the last time, I found it quite easy to walk away, pleased with my career. Now, I still go and watch the side play home games and, while it can be frustrating at times when the side is not playing as well as I think it should be, I haven’t got that hunger like I used to when I was younger. I am still very passionate about the game, but I realise that I can’t contribute anything directly, so I can go home not having to worry about the day’s result.
WP: Tell me about the Devonport Academy which you coach.
JC: I first came up with the idea to start the Academy back in 2007 after the bad season that the Devonport senior team had in 2006. Put simply, I felt the quality of the young players coming through the junior ranks through to the senior team weren't of a high enough standard, through no fault of the players. I felt the system was letting the better players down and that it was time to set up an academy-type program to cater for the elite juniors in order for them to receive specialist coaching.
Each year, we have a squad of 22 players go through the Academy and they remain in the squad until they reach the age of 14, when they are then eligible to move up into the club’s underage side(s). The number of players that graduate each year are then replaced by the same amount of new players the following year to maintain the squad of 22.
Our program is open to players that have turned 11 and is open to both boys and girls, and, in fact, next year we have three girls in the squad.
The training sessions are designed to not only develop the individual’s technical skills, but we also work on a lot of tactical drills to help each player understand what is required of them as part of a team.
WP: Do you see any promising youngsters coming through?
JC: In the current squad, there are five players that have been a part of this year’s State Under-13 team that competed at the National Championships and in this year’s Southern Under-15 competition. Out of these, one of the players, striker Michael Holden, was selected for the initial National Under-13 squad but failed to make it to the final 22.
Another of the players, Tyler Gavralas, I thought would have been selected but wasn’t. I believe he will become the complete player in the future. For his age, 13, he is a big lad, has great ball skills, a good tactical brain, and can run all game.
Another player from the age group below that will go a long way is Gianluca Pizzirani. That’s a familiar name to soccer followers from the 70s, 80s and 90s. He is the youngest son of Devonport club stalwart, Fabio Pizzirani, a player I had the privilege of playing with in my early years with Devonport. Gianluca had trialled with a couple of clubs in England earlier this season and they are interested to see him again in a couple of years time.
WP: What is the future for Devonport Strikers?
JC: At present, they are lacking one or two standout players that can steer them to victory on a regular basis. Over the past few seasons, they have relied heavily on Chris McKenna to score the majority of the goals for them, and with him being hampered by injury on a regular basis, the side needs other players to step forward to take a lot of the responsibility off him. The reserves side has won the past two premierships using a majority of young players, with a number of these filtering through to the senior side on a regular basis. It may not be for a few years yet, but that’s what we are attempting to do with the Academy program, fast-track young players to be ready for the senior team. I think the future is looking really bright for the Devonport Strikers as a whole club, not just the senior team, for many years to come.
WP: How does football in Tasmania now compare with football in your playing days?
JC: You quite often hear ex-players say that the competition isn’t as good as when they played, and I think it is basically true. I think the problem lies with not having a truly competitive league where you are playing quality teams week in week out, as was the case with the State League.
Also, gone are the days when you see quality import players coming to play in Tasmania. When I first started playing senior soccer back in the late 80s, I was constantly responsible for marking players of the calibre of Peter Sawdon, Brian Davidson, Colin Guest, Peter Savill and so on, who were all Rothmans Gold Medal winners. So, you knew you had to play well on these guys or they would make you look silly with consummate ease. You don’t see players of this class coming here anymore.
WP: What do you look for in a young player?
JC: The very first thing any player needs to possess is a high level of basic skills. The ability to have a good first touch and be able to pass the ball are vital ingredients for any player. Aside from basic skills, the player also needs to have a good attitude toward the game. In order to improve, they need to be able to be coached. This is something I haven’t had any problems with the players that have come through the Academy program so far. They have all been very willing to learn, thus making it easy to pass on my skill, knowledge and experience to them.
WP: How can football in Tasmania be improved?
JC: Firstly, and I know you would agree with me, we need to have a State League competition, but one that is viable and fair for all the teams that want to enter, and not just a select few teams being able to survive. It is clear that the standard of soccer in Tasmania was much better for having a State-wide competition.
Secondly, we need to resurrect the State senior team and have them playing on a regular basis against top level opposition. Our young stars of the future need to challenge themselves and this is the best way how. I certainly looked forward to playing for my home state and to see how I would fare against national and international stars. We need things in place for our young players to aspire to reach, otherwise we will lose some of them to other codes if we don’t.
WP: What does the future hold for you?
JC: Personally, I am very happy with my involvement in the game at this stage. It is an opportunity for me to put something back into the grass roots level of the game that has given me so many fantastic opportunities. I would love to coach at senior level again at some stage, but due to having to work every Saturday, this is not possible. So, I believe what I am doing is the next best thing, namely producing future senior players that can walk into any team and not have to be coached from scratch.
WP: Who inspired you as a player?
JC: Being a diehard Liverpool supporter since I first started playing soccer, I would have to say that Kenny Dalglish was the player that I most looked up to and drew my inspiration from. He played a huge part in Liverpool's success in the late 70s and through the 80s.
WP: How many times did you play for Tasmania?
JC: From 1992-1994 I played 7 games for the State senior team. My first senior game was against the Australian Olympic team (Olyroos) in 1992 and our team also included former Tasmanian Dominic Longo and former Socceroo keeper, Jeff Olver.
The next game was probably the biggest of my entire career. It was against new J-League team Nagoya Grampus Eight, consisting of numerous internationals, but none more famous than Gary Lineker, and I had the responsibility of marking him. Other games were against NSL clubs Heidelberg United, South Melbourne Hellas (2 games), Victoria and NSW.
WP: What was it like playing against Gary Lineker?
JC: This is a question I have been asked many times, and my answer is always the same - it was a great challenge. Here was a guy who had won the Golden Boot award at the 1986 World Cup and was a former captain of England and had played at some big clubs including Everton, Tottenham and Barcelona. You would be forgiven for thinking that I was a bit nervous facing such an enormous task, but I wasn’t really. I just approached the game the same way I did any other game and guess this could be put down to my experience in Scotland, having trained and played with and against players of a similar standard on a regular basis. And. to make a judgement on how I went, well I guess it’s quite simple - he didn't score. That was a similar result to what I had later on in the season when I was given the responsibility of marking NSL leading goalscorer Francis Awaritefe from South Melbourne.