How a pair of former ALM team-mates led Royals to the NPL amid a youngster’s inspiring fight

“Football is not only secondary, it’s relatively nothing compared to the situation that we’re in.”

When a teenage boy suffers a stroke in the middle of the night, questions of football seem trivial and a family’s only focus is his hope of recovery.

But five months since 15-year-old Oscar Ferrante’s life was turned upside down, it’s football that has helped him and his family to deal with what happened – as well as helped those around him to be inspired by his fightback.

You might recognise Oscar’s surname as the nephew of former Melbourne Victory and Wellington Phoenix midfielder Michael Ferrante. His father is Vitale Ferrante, head coach of Essendon Royals who was preparing the team for a season in the fourth tier of Victorian football when Oscar suffered a stroke in March.

Oscar Ferrante (C) back at Essendon Royals in June. Source: Essendon Royals

A promising U16JNPL player, Oscar’s stroke turned everyone’s lives upside down. But as Michael relates for KEEPUP, an incredible sporting tale has unfolded since, helped by another A-Leagues alumni pitching in to help.

“In the middle of the night we got the devastating news,” Michael recalls of finding out that his nephew was seriously ill.

“Vitale rang me, I was in bed in shock. We let that night pass, there was no talk about football at all. That wasn’t even secondary, it didn’t even come into our mind. We were trying to come to grips with the situation unfolded.”

Michael Ferrante had been preparing to captain the Royals in the 2022 State League 1 North-West season at the age of 41, starting with the Australia Cup clash against rivals Caroline Springs George Cross.

But in the darkest of times for him and his family, Michael faced a big decision as Vitale stepped away from the Royals to begin Oscar’s rehabilitation journey.

Michael Ferrante in action against Sydney FC in round one of the first ALM season in 2005-06.
Michael Ferrante (L) celebrates with Kevin Muscat (R) after Victory won the 2007 Grand Final.

“Football wasn’t on my mind and to be fair, it wasn’t on V’s mind at all but it was a conversation that had to be had,” said Michael Ferrante, who was in Victory’s squad for their inaugural A-League Men season.

“I didn’t really have an opinion. I didn’t bring it forward then V said to I had to take over the role. That’s what he wanted and what Oscar would’ve wanted. The club had the same mentality as well.

“If it wasn’t for V and the way he spoke and wanted me to take over, I probably wouldn’t have done it. I don’t think I would’ve been mentally there. From V’s conversation, I really had no other alternative than to give it a crack and see how we went.”

It was the start of something powerful at the Royals. This wasn’t just about the Ferrantes. This was also about the Royals family rallying around one of their own – a youngster cruelly struck down.

Vitale Ferrante (L) and son Oscar (C). Source: Essendon Royals

“It was a pretty trying time. The boys embraced it,” said Michael Ferrante.

“We prayed every time we were together. We thanked God to be in a position to do something we loved. Oscar and many millions of people like him, when it hits closer to home you realise.

“It’s a kid, at the moment he is still recovering and thank God he is, but doing what he loves was cut short. We prayed every day just to thank God that we’re in the position to be together, united, healthy and we took that mentality right from that Wednesday night through the whole season.

It was a great power that came over the club especially as Oscar recovered and came through his situation. It was very enlightening for everyone.

Oscar is continuing his intensive rehabilitation but he was able to return to the club in June, having been discharged from hospital.

His presence and spirit galvanised Michael and the Royals in their season, and they began to dream of promotion, especially with the additional support of head of football and ex-A-Leagues striker Vaughan Coveny, as well as technical director and former head coach Michael Curcija.

But the friendship of an A-Leagues legend, dating back 14 years, proved pivotal. Team-mates at the Phoenix, Andrew Durante answered Michael Ferrante’s call at Essendon.

Andrew Durante (L) and Michael Ferrante (R). Source: Essendon Royals

“He is just one of those guys that if you don’t like Durante, there’s something wrong with you,” said Michael, who had tried to convince Durante to lace up his boots. “He has that aura about him.

“The way he can communicate with me, the masseur, the president on the all the same level is testament to him for the status he holds in the game.”

Part of the coaching staff since June, the former Western United captain worked on the defensive side and made an instant impact as the Royals kept seven clean sheets in 11 matches to close out the season.

“Just to have him around at a critical time,” Michael added. “We pretty much couldn’t lose a game with 11 matches to go. Bring his professionalism and character into the group. Credit to him. He stuck around and he is still around.”

Incredibly Essendon were unbeaten in their final 12 matches after winning 10 and drawing twice. The Royals sealed their promotion on the penultimate day of the season – a 5-0 rout of Keilor Park – before closing out the campaign with a 1-0 win over Whittlesea United.

While George Cross won the league, the Royals – boasting former Victory forward Kenny Athiu and Davey van’t Schip (son of ex-Melbourne City boss John) – joined them in NPL3 as runners-up.

Essendon Royals celebrate their promotion. Source: Essendon Royals

“I would go as far as saying it’s probably the highlight of my career, my footballing career,” said Michael Ferrante – an FA Cup Youth winner alongside the likes of Michael Carrick and Joe Cole at West Ham.

“Yeah we won the FA Youth Cup, you’re a young guy and you think it’s just going to happen regularly. You don’t really appreciate the moment when you’re younger.

“But this one, after your career is coming to an end and get a coaching role, you really appreciate the whole 25-year journey. It just accumulated this season – the elation, satisfaction and gratefulness. It’s up there with one of the best moments of my career.”

As for Durante, he just wanted to help a friend.

“I was just so happy for them [the Ferrante family], first and foremost because I know what it meant to them. They’ve been heavily involved with the club for many years now,” Durante said.

“You could tell when Mick would say his speeches at half-time or before or after the game, just how much it meant to him. You could hear the passion.

“I don’t think another coach would’ve had that amount of passion that he spoke with cause you could just tell it meant so much. The players would’ve definitely reacted in a positive way towards it.”

Ferrante (L) and Durante (R) were team-mates in Wellington.
Phoenix captain Andrew Durante (L) as Michael Ferrante (R) stands over the ball in 2008.

Durante, who has returned to ALM champions Western as player welfare and development manager, added: “It was a really emotional season for everyone at the club with everything that happened with Vitale and Oscar.

“It meant probably more than ever. The Royals hadn’t been promoted for a very long time. For Mick to be able to do that, along with Davey van’t Schip, it was a really amazing feeling when they sealed promotion.”

An NSL champion with Sydney Olympic in 2001-02 and an A-League Men winner during his time with Newcastle Jets, Durante is no stranger to silverware. But this season hit differently for the 40-year-old.

Durante won the ALM Championship with the Jets in 2008.
Durante retired from football in 2021.

“The scenes after it [securing promotion], it was an amazing feeling,” Durante said.

It’s division four in this country but man, I was pumped. I was so pumped to be down there and to be involved in the celebrations. It was a great feeling for everyone involved – fans, young kids. The young kids came in the change room and were singing and celebrating.

“To see promotion/relegation first-hand and to be involved in it… to see what it meant to the fans and players. It was amazing. Someday, the A-Leagues really needs promotion and relegation.”