Explore the History of australian football

Fred Castledine

​The great "Polly" Farmer

Haydn Bunton junior

Syd Jackson

​Kevin Merifield

​Kevin Merifield

A Review of the 1963 WA Football Season

​Ray Sorrell

​In 1963, Western Australia were Australian state champions, having triumphed two years earlier at the Brisbane carnival. Since then, however, their interstate record had been frankly dismal, with their performances in 1963 reaching an all time nadir. All three of the state's matches for the season were played in Perth and resulted in a highly ignominious 9.10 (64) to 6.13 (49) reversal against Tasmania followed by back to back narrow defeats against the VFL. The Tasmanian match was played in highly inclement weather conditions, which arguably suited the visitors, but the margin and style of their victory were nevertheless surprising. When the two sides had previously confronted one another at the Brisbane carnival the sandgropers had romped home by 111 points. Tasmania's triumph in Perth was only that state's third such success in nine matches between the teams.

​Despite the interstate set-backs, domestic football in Western Australia was flourishing, with the elusive million spectator barrier for the season growing ever closer. In 1963  a  total  of  908,153 patrons attended   matches, making the game almost as popular on a per capita basis as it was in Melbourne.

Since 1961, Swan Districts under the astute coaching of Haydn Bunton junior had provided the Western Australian National Football League with its undisputed benchmark. The Swans’ game was based heavily on maintaining possession at all costs, and their pronounced reliance on handball set them aside from most of Western Australia's other  clubs, and recalled the great South Fremantle teams of the late 1940s and early 1950s. However,  the team was also tough, well-drilled and boasted an exceptional work ethic.

During the three seasons prior to Bunton's appointment as the club's senior coach the Swans had finished second from last once and slumped to the wooden spoon twice. By contrast, their record in their first three seasons under Bunton brought a 68% success  rate and the club's first three senior grade premierships. The fact that Bunton was key to this renaissance was   further   attested   to   by   his winning a hat-trick of club fairest and best awards in 1961-2-3, and he was also a major contributor to each of the Swans' grand final triumphs. Bunton was also    an expert tactician, and had the knack which all good coaches seem to have of being able to prime his charges to be at their peak when it mattered most - in September. The 1963 season afforded arguably the    most noteworthy example of the    club's    three successes, as Swans' form during the minor round was mixed, and they only managed to qualify for the finals in fourth place with a 13-8 record. Once there, however, they reigned supreme,    with a 15.11(101) to 7.11 (53) first semi-final demolition of East Perth being followed by a hard fought 10 point triumph over Perth in the final. This meant that, for the second season running, Swan Districts and East Fremantle ended up playing off for the premiership. In 1962 Swans  had held off a determined Old  Easts combination by 18 points after kicking straighter and keeping their nerve when the pressure was on. A year later, victory was slightly more  comfortably  achieved, 17.10 (112) to 13.12 (90), but it was to be Swans' last premiership victory for almost two decades.

The league, conscious that the game was fast expanding, was discussing plans for the future. Subiaco Oval was, strictly speaking, too small to accommodate the crowds of 40,000-plus which were now  turning up for grand finals, with the level of congestion proving such that many of these would-be spectators were unable to witness any of the action. A similar situation existed in South Australia at the Adelaide Oval. In Perth, tentative plans to develop and extend Subiaco Oval were taking place in 1963, whilst at the same time there were also many who favoured the idea of following the SANFL's lead and expanding the league competition by the addition of two new clubs. In the end, however, it was agreed to maintain the status quo.

Football throughout the state was in the midst of a boom period and some of the country leagues, particularly in the wheatbelt and south-west, boasted clubs which were sufficiently wealthy to be able to compete with their league counterparts in the city for the services of leading players.    

Haydn Bunton junior's achievement in elevating Swan Districts virtually overnight from their widely acknowledged status  as West Australian football's Cinderella club into one of the most powerful teams in the land was one of the most noteworthy coaching feats of the twentieth century. Prior to 1961, Swans had only qualified for the finals in open competition three times since they made their WANFL debut in 1934. The 1960 season marked the fifteenth time in succession that the club had failed to contest the finals, with third  from bottom in 1953 and 1955 their best finishes during that period.

Bunton was a motivational leader par excellence, at a time when the playing coach was gradually becoming less popular. However, the likes of Bunton and Bob Johnson in Western Australia, Neil Kerley in South Australia and Ted Whitten in Victoria were proving that if clubs selected players with the right qualities as coaches they could still make a success of the job.

Bunton's style was to lead from the front, and constantly to keep his players geed up and focussed by verbally challenging and exhorting them. He insisted  that all of his players match him in energy and determination regardless of whether or not they were capable of emulating his skill levels. As a child, he had suffered from a chronic, debilitating illness, while just three years prior to his arrival at Bassendean he had had to have his right kneecap removed following a car accident in Tasmania. As a player, his ability to obtain possession of the ball under duress was arguably unequalled: in one match against South  Fremantle during the 1962 season statisticians credited him with no fewer than 88 kicks, 55 of them in the first half. His handball statistics were not recorded, but given that Bunton was renowned at the time as one of the most prolific exponents of that particular art it is hard to imagine his not exceeding 100 total possessions for the match, an incredible and possibly unsurpassed, achievement.

Swan Districts' grand final opponents East Fremantle were - and remain - far and away Western Australian football's most successful club. By 1963, Old  Easts already had a total of 21 senior grade premierships to their credit, and only once - in 1898 -  had they succumbed to the wooden spoon.   They   had   also   won  an under-age premiership during world war two when the WANFL had operated an age-restricted competition. However, their form of late had, by their own high standards, been modest; they had consistently reached the finals - nothing new or different there - but not challenged seriously for premiership honours. Their most recent flag had been obtained in 1957 courtesy of a 16 point grand final defeat of East Perth.

In 1962 East Fremantle had appointed former Melbourne ruckman Bob Johnson as captain- coach and this generated the onset of a renaissance in Old Easts’ fortunes. Johnson, like Bunton was an   inspirational  on-field   leader.

Standing 6' 6' (198cm) he played mainly at full forward, typically stationing himself right at the goal front, and relying on his height, weight, strength, and experience to enable him to outmark his opponents. In his four seasons with the club he amassed tallies of 74, 65, 105 and 92 goals, besides leading his charges to the grand final every year, although only once -    in 1965 - did    they actually manage to capture the premiership.

Things in 1963 might well have been different had Johnson not sustained a broken jaw in the last minor round match of the season and been forced to  miss the finals. In the event, he took the unusual, indeed arguably unprecedented, move of acting as his own runner - the legality of which quite a few observers questioned - but although he was able to steer his charges to a comfortable second semi-final defeat of minor premier Perth, Swan Districts in the grand final proved too strong and won with some comfort by 22 points.

In 1963, Perth was fast approaching the most auspicious phase in the club's history, but the final pieces of the jig-saw of success had still to be set in place. Chief among these pieces  would be the appointment as coach of former East   Perth stalwart Mal Atwell in 1966, and the emergence of rover Barry Cable as one of the finest and most influential players of the decade (and beyond). From Narrogin in the West Australian wheatbelt region, Cable made his league debut as an eighteen year old in 1962 and  quickly emphasised his prowess  by winning the first of an eventual  three Sandover Medals just a couple of seasons later. Between 1966 and 1968 Perth won a hat- trick of grand finals, stamping the side as one of the greatest in the history of West Australian football, and Barry Cable's contribution was unsurpassed as he won the Simpson Medal for best afield  every time.

In 1963, however, such glittering success remained a pipedream. Not that the Redlegs were an incompetent team - far from it. During the minor round in particular they impressed and after topping the ladder heading into the finals they were many pundits' tip for the flag. However, although it may  be  something  of  a  cliché to assert it, major round football is an altogether different ball game, and the Redlegs, who had not qualified for the finals since 1959 (when they had lost the first semi final to Subiaco by 129 points), lacked experience. This was particularly evident in the second semi-final when they meekly succumbed to a more desperate and determined East Fremantle. The final clash  with Swan Districts was a different matter entirely, however, and with a bit more ruthlessness and good fortune they might  well  have earned another tilt at Old Easts in "the big one". As it was, their sluggish start to the match cost them dear, but the longer it went on the more of a stranglehold they achieved. In the end though, despite managing 35 scoring shots to 23, they bowed out of finals contention to the tune of 8 points. A year later the Redlegs would  endure a distressingly similar finals campaign losing the second semi- final badly to East Fremantle, and the final by a whisker against Claremont. However, the experience gained would arguably stand the side in good stead when it embarked on an era of dynastic proportions in 1966.

East Perth in 1963 were still coming to terms with the loss two years earlier of Graham "Polly" Farmer, who had been cleared to the VFL. Farmer was arguably the finest ruckman, if not indeed the finest footballer, in Australia at the  time, and his absence needless to say left an enormous gap in the Royals ranks.

In 1961, Farmer's last season with the East Perth, the Royals had reached the grand final against Swan Districts, whom they had comfortably defeated a  fortnight earlier in the second semi. However, the grand final proved to be a triumph for Swan Districts’ coach Haydn Bunton junior, whose masterful deployment of his ruckmen Fred Castledine and Keith Slater effectively nullified "Polly" Farmer's influence and was, ultimately, the difference between the two teams:

"Fred (Castledine) had to come in  and  get hold - get his (Farmer's) left arm out of the way. Once he had that arm out of the way, that was it. Keith Slater was coming in on his right, and Castledine was getting in the way of that arm before he could get it up ........... We had rehearsed this." 

Without Farmer, the Royals failed to qualify for the finals altogether in 1962, but in 1963  there were signs of an impending renaissance. During the minor round they were the only team to overcome eventual premier Swan Districts in all three encounters, but when the two sides met once again in the first semi final Haydn Bunton's charges were running on full throttle and romped home by eight goals.

This was a prelude to one of the worst season's in Royals club history up to that point as in 1964 they slumped to the wooden spoon prompting the departure, after eight predominantly successful seasons, of coach Jack Sheedy.  Improvement under his replacement, ex-Fitzroy defender Kevin Murray, was gradual, but during the second half of the decade East Perth was a perennial grand finalist, without ever quite managing to "bring home the bacon". Jack Sheedy returned to the club as coach in 1969 but was unable to steer the Royals over the line against a supremely powerful West Perth combination on grand final day. Sheedy only spent a single season back at East Perth but it was a highly influential one and arguably sowed some of the seeds of the club's next senior grade premiership, in 1972.

An off the field highlight in 1963 was the Royals' post-season trip to south-east Asia, making them the first WANFL club to embark on such an undertaking.

West Perth began the 1963 season, the last of four under the coaching of Arthur Oliver, in outstanding form, thrashing Claremont away by 77 points, and East Perth 17.14 (116) to 12.6 (78) at Leederville. However, after kicking themselves out of contention in round three against Swan Districts, the Cardinals' confidence seemed to wane. Thereafter, their form was haphazard in the extreme, and they ultimately missed out on finals participation by a couple of wins. Better times were round the corner, and West Perth finished the 1960s as one of the most powerful clubs  in the WANFL.

Subiaco's form since reaching the 1959 grand final had been unspectacular, and with newly-appointed coach Kevin Merifield at the helm this trend continued in 1963. The side managed to win just 8 of its 21 minor round matches and finished sixth. However, the arrival of former Swan Districts triple premiership ruckman Kevin Slater as coach in 1964 would herald a change in the Maroons' fortunes, albeit only a brief one, as they promptly qualified for the finals. Subsequent seasons saw them unable to maintain this improvement though, and it was  not until the appointment as coach of Haydn Bunton junior in 1968 that they began to re-emerge as a consistent league power.

Seventh in 1963 was South Fremantle, whose glory days of the initial decade after world war two were fast fading in the memory.  The Bulldogs' dismal season was more a result of inconsistency than any fundamental lack of ability. Indeed, the red and whites managed to achieve a win against every other team in the competition except East Perth. Moreover, half a dozen of the team's reversals  were by margins of 10 points or less. A dire start to the season which brought 7 losses from the club's first 8 games did not help matters, and neither did the departures of star centreman John Todd, and ex- Victorian Glen Bow, who had been an extremely handy  acquisition, and indeed who had won the 1962 fairest and best award. Overall, the 1960s would prove immensely disappointing for the Bulldogs, but the ensuing decade would herald a marked improvement in fortunes.

In 1963, Claremont had  gone a dozen seasons without featuring in the September action, and after managing just 4 wins  from 21 matches for the season  few if any of the club's supporters would have expected more than minimal improvement in 1964. The Tigers' job was made even harder by the loss to Victoria at the end of the 1963 season of Deniston Marshall, one of the finest rebound half back flankers of his generation. However,    former    club   stalwart Kevin Clune returned to Claremont and went on to win the fairest and best award. The club appointed former East Fremantle rover and 1950 Sandover Medallist Jim Conway as coach and sole selector and he managed to mould the Tigers into a tightly knit, hardworking unit which eventually won their first premiership since 1940 after scraping into the finals in fourth   place.   Witnesses of the club's often dire 1963  performances are probably still having to pinch themselves.

Despite the rapidly escalating loss of top players to the VFL the 1960s developed into one of the most exciting phases in West Australian football history. By no means all of the best players emigrated, and the WANFL competition was unpredictable and fiercely contested, arguably more so than any other major league in Australia. Five of the eight league clubs won flags, and Perth between 1966 and 1968 and West Perth in 1969 would not have looked out of place in the nation's premier competition, the VFL.

Amateur football in Western Australia had enjoyed a brief halcyon period in the 1950s but the ensuing decade heralded an apparent decline in standards. At the 1962 Australian Amateur Football Championships in Melbourne the state had lost all three of its matches to finish last, a result that would be duplicated in 1964 in Adelaide and 1967 in Launceston.

Nevertheless, the widespread upsurge in football’s popularity which had been evident since Western Australia's senior state side captured the Australian championship in Brisbane in 1961 undoubtedly impinged on the amateur game, which  was attracting more players and spectators than ever. Wembley  won the A Grade premiership (the Sandover Shield), TTC Claremont were B Grade premiers, and Mount Lawley triumphed in C Grade, which had been re-constituted in 1963 after a six year gap owing to  a significant influx of new players.

Football’s buoyant condition throughout the state was further emphasised in country leagues, many of which were attracting both record attendances and record revenue. The Avon Football Association, based across a region 100-170 kilometres due east of Perth, was a case in point. In 1963 it had been blessed by the talents of established Claremont league player Kevin Clune, presumably for predominantly if not entirely economic reasons. Meckering, a club which would go out of existence at the end of the decade, won the first of an eventual three senior grade premierships in 1963.

Elsewhere,, Esperance won the Esperance Districts Football Association premiership, Ramblers were the inaugural premiers of the Gascoyne Football Association, the Goldfields Football League flag went to Ramblers, Rovers won the Great Northern Football League based in and around Geraldton and Northampton, Three Springs achieved success in the North Midlands Football League, while The Hassells were premiers of the Ongerup Football Association, another competition to see the light of day in 1963. Meanwhile, the ultra-strong South-West Football League, based in and around Bunbury, went to Carey Park  for the first ever time, and Cuballing triumphed in the Upper Great Southern Football League.

WANFL premiers in the other two grades, reserves and colts, were Perth - the latter for the fourth time in five. The Rodriguez Shield, awarded to the club with the best overall record in all three grades, and which had been introduced half a dozen seasons earlier, perhaps not  surprisingly was also claimed by the Redlegs.

The 1963 Sandover Medal was won, to popular acclaim, by East Fremantle's Ray Sorrell, a player rated my many, including quite a number of Victorians, as the finest centreman in Australia at the time. Sorrell actually tied for the Medal with East Perth's Syd Jackson, but Jackson had been suspended during the year and hence was deemed ineligible. Sorrell and Jackson both reaped 20 votes, one more than Frank Pyke (Perth) and three ahead of Derek Chadwick of East Perth. An idea of how highly Sorrell was regarded can be discerned by the remarks made   about   him by champion Essendon and VFL champion Jack Clarke: "He was fast, strong, intelligent in both attack and defence and a powerful kick. I've played against him three times, and I’m  sure  I  haven't  beaten  him once.”

Leading goalkicker for the year was former Essendon star full forward Ron Evans of West Perth, with 97 goals, all booted during the minor round.