It’s a sunny Saturday, and Penshurst Park in the St George area is buzzing.
Hurstville Football Club’s first-grade side, led by captain Paul Gagro, is set to open their new synthetic facility, facing off against Camden Tigers in their first match of the League Three Men’s campaign for 2022.
As Hurstville walks out to a cheer from the fruitful fans, the weight of the badge they’re wearing is clear to see.
After 50 years, the club believes they finally have the facility to match their ambitions in Australian football.
A tight tussle ensues for 90 minutes as Hurstville look to make their new ground a fortress with a victory to open the stadium.
The match is dramatic and exhilarating, with three goals, two red cards, a saved penalty and a tension-filled final 15 minutes, outlined by the vocal home crowd.
But the final whistle blows, and to the eruption of supporters, Hurstville win.
They invite their crew into the changing rooms and begin a passionate, ten-minute-long celebration, filled with singing that quickly turns to shouting.
“It (Hurstville FC) means everything to me,” Paul Gagro said a few weeks prior to the opening win.
“The club made me fall in love with football as a kid and is the reason why I still play today.
“Being of Croatian background, it means football is automatically part of your life, it’s in our blood.
“We spend weekends watching or playing football from an early age, and it pretty much goes that way for your whole life to be honest.
“Everything’s centred around football for us, and it always has been and always will be.
Hurstville was founded in 1970 by Croatian migrants, originally under the name Hurstville Zagreb, which is still prevalent in their district association and is an Australian-Croatian club currently playing in the League Three Men’s competition.
Gagro has been in the first-grade squad since 2011, making this his 12th year at the Croatian club.
Hurstville, whether ending in Zagreb or Football Club (re-named in line with regulations) has continued its Australian-Croatian culture and influence throughout its over 50-year existence.
“Close to half our squad is of Croatian background, and most of us have been friends since we were kids,” recalls Gagro.
“There are people currently in the first-grade squad now that I played with when I was five years old when I started at the club, and we’re still playing together 25 years later.
“My best friends have all come from when we started at the club playing together and our families are all friends – that’s what it’s built on.
“Our culture and our mateship are how we as a smaller club have always been able to succeed – it’s those foundations and our Croatian heritage that keeps us together and that community sense that allows us to back each other up.”
The culture that’s been instilled within Hurstville’s squad comes from John Gagro’s tireless work behind the scenes, with the Chairman of the club establishing an atmosphere from which players, staff and volunteers thrive.
“He is the reason we are where we are today,” says Paul Gagro.
“I see first-hand how much work he does to ensure the sense of community remains throughout the whole club.”
Paul Gagro believes that cultural identity formed in the foundations of the team gives Hurstville a competitive edge over opponents, given the passion and pride which is instilled in the players.
“It means a little bit more to us to be honest,” he said.
“We’re playing for the club, for the badge and for our families, we’re playing for all the volunteers in our community who allow us to play, and that culture really stems from that.
“We’ve got the same core group of players with three or four players within the squad who have played first grade for over ten years, me being one of them – this is my 12th year in first grade, and there’s seven or eight who have been here long term.”
As well as Gagro, Stephan Perak and Dario Borovickic have also been in the senior squad for over 10 years, while Jesse Gagro (Paul’s brother) and Daniel Kocina – both coming up from the junior ranks of the side – are coming up to a decade in the first team too.
“This is what really holds our club together, because the new people who come in, whether they are Croatian or not (there are more non-Croatians than there are Croatians in the squad), they see that comradery and mate-ship and how much it means to us, and they honestly fall in love with the club.
“They’re not even Croatian, but they just fall in love with the club, the people at the club and the volunteers – it’s just an amazing environment and people want to be part of it.”
Gagro has been captain of Hurstville for five seasons during his 12-year spell with the first team.
The passion is easy to see within the players at the club, particularly after the celebrations of a win, where they often remain in the sheds for up to 10 or 15 minutes to sing songs and congratulate each other, before usually going to a players’ house or a pub to get together and reflect on the week.
“We work hard and fight hard on the pitch, we don’t like losing and are very competitive, but at the same time we do like to celebrate and have fun when things go well,” said Gagro, which was clear as they opened their campaign with a victory.
“We love to sing and dance and we create that atmosphere of togetherness.
“After winning a game, we always go do something afterwards together as a squad, whether it be going to someone’s house or going to a pub and having food and drinks.
“It’s not necessarily a Croatian tradition, but it’s that bond as a group – we work very hard and expect a lot from each other, but we do celebrate together and ultimately we are teammates but we’re good friends off the field.”
Including Hurstville’s opening victory, they have won five, drawn once and lost just two matches, while remaining unbeaten at Penshurst Park.
Every win has followed with those expressive celebrations, as they currently sit second on the League Three Men’s table.
“It’s for Croatians and non-Croatians, and I think that’s why our club is so special and when people come, they don’t want to leave, because we are so close together off the field.
“This goes all the way from our under 6’s in our association to the Leagues competition, to women’s football and to our all-age over 45s.
“Everyone’s together, everyone supports each other and that’s what makes the club really special.”
-By Jack George