The dictionary defines superlative as “of the highest kind, quality, or order, surpassing all else or others. Supreme.” It might also define Luke Byles. As a clubman, a leader, a friend to many, a sporting role model and as a representative of the Heidelberg United Alexander Football Club. He is of the highest kind, quality and order. Supreme.
The late Paddy Bannon was a club champion, Warrior legend and skipper of the now legendary Heidelberg United team circa 1977-81. I watched him play and knew him in passing and I am sure he would have no qualms about me saying that there was a spiritual passing of the baton a couple of weeks back. As if paying tribute to Bannon, on the day following Bannon’s Melbourne wake, Byles led the Warriors out onto Lakeside Stadium, where they claimed a third successive Victorian Premiers Plate.
Bannon’s rightfully lofty status as one of the all-time-greats of this club has surely now been equalled by Byles, who statistically becomes Heidelberg’s most successful skipper in 61 years of club history. This is not a comparison piece. But Byles now deserves his rightful place in the upper echelons of the pantheon of club champions at a time when this current team is reaching its zenith.
Byles is a formidable player. Imperious. In the words of Henry Kissinger: “The task of a great leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have never been”. And Byles has done just that, captaining the club to each of its seven remarkable triumphs over a simply stunning three-year period.
Troubling that the child-like ramblings of HUFC TV colour man Doug Hodgson can provide a prompt in such matters. In truth, Hodgson is a terrific game analyst, as well as being a former player of considerable renown and a Warrior champion in his own right. But on the day Heidelberg clinched its third consecutive Premiers Plate, Hodgson asked had Byles been captain all throughout the club’s three-season run of seven titles and cups. That confirmed, Hodgson was truly gobsmacked.
“That’s amazing”, was Hodgson’s wide-eyed response. “That’s incredible. What a record. There won’t be too many captains to play the game at a high level to have that sort of record. Unbelievable. What a player”, Hodgson gushed.
Since Byles debuted as a Warrior in 2010, and setting aside any mention of his brief and tawdry affair with South Melbourne Hellas, he has been magnificent all along the journey. So consistently good has he been over his 225 games at Catalina Street, he is taken for granted with ease. He was sensational in last year’s grand final and voted just behind Tom Cahill for the Jim Rooney MedaI.
I recall writing at the time that “his strong will, bold on-field leadership, trench toughness and cool head were critical”. But, think about it. When is Byles not so grand, or a less than magnificent leader and inspiration? He plays a good game every week, a great game at least once a month and plays a stinker so rarely it is hard to recall the last.
The Twin Towers central defensive pairing of Byles and Steven Pace, is club folklore already. The dream combination. Two cogs working in perfect unison. Our own Oscar and Felix. And Pace, a blue riband legend and club champion in his own right, is an unabashed fan of Byles and what he brings to the team and the club.
“Luke is a leader of the highest quality”, enthused Pace. “As captain of the team he has always led from the front and he sets a high standard at training for his teammates to follow. Everyone knows how important it is to create a strong culture at a football club. That’s what champion teams and championships are built on and this can only be achieved with the right leader.”
All leaders are driven, but it’s the great leaders who can take those around with him. I’ve no doubt Byles lifts those around and would gladly sacrifice personal most valuable player accolades for making most players valuable on game day. Coach, George Katsakis, speaks in reverent tones about Byles and what he brings to Heidelberg United Alexander. “Very few people both have and show the passion for this club that he has”, Katsakis says of his skipper.
But while ‘Kats’ calls his long-time captain the team’s “general”, I reckon Byles plays the game more like an NFL quarterback. Byles’ familiar thunderous, loping gait takes him ranging up and down the ground as required. Always searching for angles and options and measuring the percentages. He reads
plays and situations as they unfold and sculpts his reactions accordingly. Always looking up-field for the next big play. Near impeccable decision making on the run and under fire. Evaluated and balanced, Byles negotiates his way through games, ice-cool in a crisis, sentinel watchfulness when all is calmed. He plays taller than he looks off-field. And ‘Iceman’ he might be, but Byles also brings intensity and an edgy, simmering aggression capable of focused damage, like an M18 Claymore with a touchy tripwire. Tread carefully.
Away from game day, Byles is a popular figure around the club. “He is highly respected on and off the pitch by all who know him”, opines Pace. Always ready with a greeting and a handshake, Byles attracts the affection and admiration of Heidelberg fans for such a variety of reasons these days, and his place in in our hearts is now forever and will remain untarnished, on and off the field. He has the swagger, good looks and cavalier charm, reminiscent of a modern day Errol Flynn, I reckon. And always that cheeky, wicked gleam in his eyes, like he knows something we don’t. Or that he has to be somewhere else. And always purposeful.
Just as he will be on Saturday, as the battle-hardened skipper and champion will slip on the leader’s arm band once again and lead the team into battle against Bentleigh Greens in the cut-throat semi-final at Shark Park. And you just know that Byles will lead the charge and he will stand tall when they come at him, as hard as they always do. Great leaders don’t need to tell you they are leading. They show you.
Game on. Can’t wait. Bring it home boys. Warrior Nation