(I wrote a shorter version of the following for Footy Town - buy it - but since it contains one paragraph on cricket, and because of popular demand by one person, I will post it here.)
Last year troogling (Googling the truth) footy facts I stumbled across an article in the West Australian:
“The playing future of Wickham Wolves in the North Pilbara Football League is under a cloud amid a continuing trend of the club forfeiting games.”
Sounds dramatic, but football clubs all over this wide brown sunburnt country are struggling for numbers.
My eyes then lobbed on the adjacent photo:
“Picture: Jeff Farmer and Ashley Sampi have both played for the Wolves this year.”
A pair of authentic football guns playing together in the one country side. Melbourne’s Wizard Farmer, one of the top AFL small forwards of recent years (let’s just forget he ever made a monumental career blunder by moving to Fremantle – yes, I barrack for Melbourne), and the wayward Ashley Sampi, who took mark of the year (coincidentally against Melbourne) in 2004.
The Wickham Wolves were my first senior football club.
Through the 1950s, 60s and into the 70s my father had been an engineer in Melbourne but in 1973 decided to take up a post with Cliff Robe River Iron Associates, which had a head office in Perth and operations about 1600 kilometres up north in the Pilbara. The mine was based around Pannawonica while the shipping facilities were at Cape Lambert near Wickham, where the family was to relocate.
Since my brother and I were unable to commute to Brighton Grammar from north-west Australia – the Concorde had been banned down under and was unable to drop us at Moorabbin airport – and since BGS did not have a boarding school, we were sentenced to Melbourne Grammar where, as nine and eleven year olds respectively, we began our stretches at Grimwade House in Caulfield.
In a clear indication as to my potential toughness as a footballer, the Sunday night dad dropped us off at school to leave for WA I ran down Balaclava Road blubbing after his car.
Henceforth we flew up to Wickham for school holidays: Ansett to Perth and MacRobertson Miller Airways (MMA – “Mickey Mouse Airways”) to Karratha.
Tragically, mum died in early 1975 – funny the things you remember: Billy Swan’s “I Can Help” was No.1 in the Aussie charts – so it was up to dad to look after my brother and me, and since there was not much to do in Wickham dad used to take us to local footy on Sundays.
These trips were no casual saunter through Yarra Park to the MCG; nor were they a mere full kit expedition to VFL Park Waverley. It was 50.3 kilometres to Karratha, 71.3 to Dampier, 203 to South Hedland, 216 to Port Hedland (thank you, Google Maps) and about 400 to both Goldsworthy and Shay Gap (no thank you, Google Maps).
The very first Wickham Wolves match we ever saw was the 1976 grand final. The Wolves, spurred on by man-of-the-match Gary McPhail, stormed home to beat the Karratha Kats at Windy Ridge in Dampier to lift the premiership cup.
That was to be the Wolves sole flag. The following year the West Pilbara Football League, comprising teams from Karratha, Dampier and Wickham merged with the De Grey Football League, comprising teams from Port Hedland, Goldsworthy and Shay Gap to form the North Pilbara Football League. The increased depth in the competition meant the smaller Wickham was unable to repeat the success of 1976. The NPFL has since been dominated by teams from Karratha and Port Hedland, with only Goldsworthy (1977) and Dampier Sharks (1983, 1984, 2005 and 2008) winning flags.
I played my first game for the Wolves in the 1978 May school holidays when, as a skinny and scared 16 year old, I pulled on the yellow & black against Dampier in Dampier. I did not charge out that day confident I was about to rip the game apart. Squeaky me, fresh up from Melbourne Grammar, white skinned and hoping no one would notice me, up against wizened, hairy old miners who would most probably rip my head off.
As it turned out I went alright. Four goals out of the forward pocket, various other touches and I escaped unscathed, primarily because I only ever made a fleeting acquaintance with what is now called “impacting the contest”.
Not that the footy is what I remember most from that, ahem, auspicious occasion.
Windy Ridge runs parallel with the top of a “T” formed by Central Avenue as the vertical and The Esplanade as the horizontal. Day-dreaming and gazing around the ground I spotted a car tearing down Central set to swing onto The Esplanade. Clearly this lunatic was not going to make the turn. The intersection is about four metres above the ground and if this bloke over-shot he would land on the playing surface. What’s more, he would land on me. Miraculously, he smacked into one of the few road signs in the Pilbara and ricocheted in the direction he intended prior to his aggravated detour. Two spectators ran to a car and sped after the bloke. Later I found out they had collared him and dragged him to the police station. I also found out he had been handed over with bonus cuts and bruises which he had sustained as he “fell out of the car”. Pretty odd, I thought, but it was not until several years later that I was subsequently man of the world enough to realise what was meant by “fell out of the car”. Quite obviously he had a tall car.
The following year I again played for the Wolves in the May holidays. We faced Karratha Kats at Wickham and I did rock all. The only vaguely interesting memory from that day was a Kats player yelling “Sausage!” when the Kats kicked yet another goal on the way to thumping us. Unfamiliar with rhyming slang I had no idea why he was keen on smallgoods, but when I looked at him quizzically he must have thought I was issuing a tacit challenge so he gave me a “look” and I quickly scampered away.
1980 was my first year full time in the Pilbara. Leaving MGS (MCEGS as it was before it lost its religion) at the end of 1979 with a less-than stellar HSC result, sick of school and keen to stay up north, the only option open to me was an electrical apprenticeship at “Uncle Cliffs” as we called CRRIA. The idea of working at a mining company instead of going back to study in Melbourne was further sweetened by the prospect of owning a car, motor bike, boat, elaborate stereo system and various other trinkets; especially compared to my studious but shabby schoolmates struggling on op-shop clothes and Pablo coffee.
My first footy as a full-time Pilbara resident was a lightning carnival at Wickham Oval or Ralph Geronzi Park, as it is now known. Wickham was then a company town and Cliffs’ “town crew” looked after all the parks. Wickham Oval was a well maintained field with a concrete cricket pitch in the middle which was covered by a pile of sand in footy season – no drop-in pitches, it wasn’t that well maintained. Located at the edge of town it sat between neat rows of company housing, the primary school, a storm water drain and a several billion clumps of Spinifex. Naturally, the Pilbara being borderline desert, it rained.
Chris Peskett was Wickham’s club secretary and had, according to those in the know, pulled off a slick manoeuvre by having the Wolves play the first two games of the season at Shay Gap and Goldsworthy. Why Chris had been so clever became apparent to me on the rickety bus home at midnight after the Shay Gap match: get the two long road trips out of the way at the start of the season.
For Shay Gap & Goldsworthy you caught a bus at seven on Sunday morning and got home after midnight on Sunday night. The trip home was especially arduous. Sore from the game, gassed on cans of Emu Export Lager, eyes opened by the hard core veterans gambling hundreds of dollars on Manila, and bemused as staunch supporter Leigh Varis, who had started life in Kalgoorlie as Harry Varis, proudly displayed her two newly acquired assets. The last I heard Leigh was back in Kalgoorlie running a brothel and the Kalgoorlie-Boulder council. (Jokes in a self-addressed email to the publisher.)
And what was a road trip to the De Grey without a return stop at the Whim Creek Hotel, about half way between Hedland and Wickham? Perfect during a long bus trip – a chance to relieve ourselves, stretch our legs, and wash down the Emu cans with half a dozen swift middies of Swan Lager in the bar.
Nor was driving to Hedland and back much of an option. Dad had seemed to do it on the bit. But leave immediately after the game and you drove straight into the setting sun for two hours; even with a pair of the finest Le Spec sunnies it was hard work. Leave after sundown and you had to worry about road roos and falling asleep at the wheel.
1980 was Shay Gap’s last season in the competition as the footy club disbanded for want of numbers. Bit of a pity, since the Gap was a beautiful town nestled among the mesas several hundred kilometres north-east of Port Hedland.
Our coach that year was Dave Pearce, the manager of the local supermarket. For some reason I never found out, he disappeared after about six matches and club legend Bevan Parkes coached out the year. I did not mourn Dave’s departure since he had labelled me “Trigger”. Was he fond of alliteration? Did he think I had a short temper? Maybe it was a reference to 1930s and 40s Hollywood horses? Who knew? Anyway, good riddance to bad nick-namers.
(Bevan also coached out the next year when Gary van Mil pulled the pin with several games to go, and may have even done the same in 1982 when Russell Pickett was coach.)
Also disappearing that year was the Wickham jumper, which was the same as the WA jumper – black sash on yellow back ground. Someone had blundered washing the jumpers causing the yellow to shrink, but not the black. This left a tight jumper adorned with a saggy black sash. After the season we did not just change to repaired jumpers, we changed the colours to a white WFC monogram on a navy blue jumper much like Carlton’s jumper.
While the VFL and WAFL grand finals were duds in 1980, the North Pilbara grand final was a ripsnorter, with South Hedland’s Terry Tolchard kicking a bomb on the siren to pip the heavily favoured Karratha Kats.
South Fremantle beat Swan Districts in the 1980 WAFL grand final. Collingwood fans can legitimately, and regularly do, boast the Pies won the inaugural AFL premiership in 1990. Bulldogs fans can just as legitimately brag to have won the inaugural WAFL premiership, since prior to 1980 the WAFL was the WANFL. Not that Collingwood fans fondly recall the 1980 VFL grand final since the Pies were smashed by Richmond.
I don’t recall the 1980 VFL grand final being on television in Wickham. We only had ABC TV, so perhaps Seven and the ABC had failed to reach an agreement in the same way Nine had refused permission for the ABC to televise international cricket to “black spots” in the 1979/80 and 1980/81summers.
The VFL was on ABC radio, or “6WF and regionals” as it was called. Due to the two hour time delay VFL games started at midday and finished about 2:30, which took a little getting used to. I was in Perth for the 2003 AFL grand final and was still thrown by the early start time.
ABC radio also carried the horse racing – from everywhere. Our precious two and a half hours of VFL were pock-marked by “racing this time!” at Randwick, Flemington, Doomben, Belmont, Ascot, Upper Dapto South, etc.
If the racing cuts were aggravating, they were nothing compared to the WAFL cuts as the ABC threw from the VFL to the WAFL Match of the Day regardless of the state of the VFL match. In 2011 ABC television in Melbourne was castigated for cutting from the dying stages a Port Melbourne Williamstown thriller to Trekking in Austria. At least 6WF and regionals never blamed its "automated programming systems" even though it needed a few excuses as it repeatedly cut out the end of tight VFL matches. “Ohh, by the way, Melbourne beat Footscray with the last kick of the day.”
Not that I disliked the WAFL match of the day and fondly remember the work of George Grljusich, Wally Foreman, Keith Slater, Dennis Cometti - “In goes Michalczyk, in goes Boucher, oooooo, out goes Michalczyk” – and even back then Ken Casellas was still reading the statistics.
Incidentally, after North Pilbara won a Country Week cricket grand final in 1984, Ken Casellas wrote a scathing article in the West Australian about how Newman had dudded Bunbury out of the grand final berth. I am glad they did, since I made a 100 in the final.
The ABC match also took a different approach to half time. Rather than Megawalls, boundary riders, interviews, and all modern garnish ABC showed “Greatest Fights of the Century”. Not footy fights, boxing fights. Tunney vs. Dempsey, Carpentier vs. Battling Siki, Tunney vs. Gibbons, even Johnson v. Burns from 1908 in Sydney, and many other famous bouts. I was never much of a fight fan, but this seemed an ideal way to fill half time.
1981 and the fate that befell Shay Gap also befell Goldsworthy. With the mine closing down and the town disappearing, the football club left the competition.
That last year at Goldsworthy I took a mark about forty metres from goal almost straight in front. Lining up with slow and deliberate precision, well okay, casually smashing it on my boot, my kick drifted right and bounced smack, bang on top of the knob on the right-hand goal post. The man on the mark turned to me with a grin and said “Bet you can’t do that again.” Five minutes later I took another mark in an almost identical position and went through the same assiduous routine. This time my kick drifted left and bounced smack, bang on top of the knob on the left-hand goal post. The man on the mark turned and sagely advised “Told you so.”
Karratha Cardinals (now Falcons) joined the league in 1981. Coached by the combative Danny Malone the Cardies became a contender. Combative probably undersells Danny’s belligerent nature. Mind you, while Danny was a bit of a hard case, football in the Pilbara was a remarkably civil affair. There was no “Mullewa flu” which was a disease virulent in the Great Northern Football League, whose symptoms were a fake cough combined with a sudden withdrawal from your team on the Saturday before a trip to play Mullewa in Mullewa on Sunday.
Burrup joined the competition in 1982, but only lasted the one season, getting belted every week. In round two we played them at their new ground and were leading by twenty-plus goals with our trainer running around the boundary shouting that we should let them score or else we would not have a percentage. It had escaped her that Finucane Island had scored against us the previous week and we would also have plenty of chances to “allow” other teams to score against us in subsequent weeks.
Finucane Island, at the foot of iron ore stock piles, was in and out of the competition over several seasons without ever really threatening to take the competition by storm.
Port Hedland Panthers won the flag that year, but had spent big on luring players to the club and promptly went bust and disbanded.
It was also in 1982 that the Wolves unveiled the greatest football club song in the history of football club songs. The Teddy Bears Picnic became the Wickham Wolves Picnic.
If you go out on the field today,
you better go in disguise
If you go out on the field today,
you’re in for a big surprise
For every Wolf that ever there was,
will gather round for certain because,
Today’s the day the Wickham Wolves have a victory
Victory time for Wickham Wolves
The mighty Wickham Wolves are having a bloody good win today
See us, watch us drink our booze
We love to sing and dance after the match.
Dreadful, I know, but dreadful in a good way. Well alright then, dreadful in a bad way. A local folk band recorded it to be played over the PA before Wolves’ home games, only for us to cringe with embarrassment and hide in the toilets.
1983 and 1984 Wickham was strong, but came up against a powerhouse Dampier Sharks, who had recruited heavily from Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, most notably Brendan Bell, who went on to play for West Perth and from West Perth the Sharks picked up the Buffalo, Lindsay McGuinness. The Wolves beat the Sharks early in 1983, but after that did not come close with the Sharks ultimately smashing the Wolves in the 1984 grand final, also at Windy Ridge. No cut and bruised drivers this time, but I still have McGuiness’s No.4 jumper. Wonder if he still has my No.32.
Confession: in 1983 I won the Armstrong Jones award for “spirit, endeavour and clubmanship” which means, yes, I have won a “best clubman” award.
The bulk of Wickham’s key players left after the 1984 season and the Wolves slid down the ladder. The timing was all wrong. In 1985 the Wolves picked up several more talented recruits, most notably Steve Lally who would go on to play for Perth in the WAFL and Centrals in the SANFL. If the Wolves had kept the full list together for 1985, we would have been a great chance for a flag. Alas.
I also left at the end of 1984 and had to kiss goodbye to all those Monday sickies.
On the Wednesday after the grand final I got a call from dad. “Tony, Hayden Bunton wants to talk to you.” My response was terse. It was not as if I had played a blinder in the grand final. Not unless you consider kicking out and spoiling to be particularly noteworthy – and hello to you, Josh Gibson. But dad was not having a lend of me. I rang back and as I was about to go on annual leave in Melbourne, organised to meet “Bunts” and Trevor “Nizzy” Nisbett at Perth airport where they signed me up for Subiaco. Turns out they had been at the NPFL grand final and liked the cut of my jib. Not for long. My jib was not well cut for the WAFL, so after a tortuous pre-season, a hamstring injury in the second practice match against East Fremantle, a badly rolled ankle at training about two months later, and a frustrating time impressing no one, not to mention a woefully inadequate attitude – “too country” Bunts called me – I concluded a glorious career as a WAFL nobody.
1986 was more successful. Living in Perth I travelled down to Narrogin each weekend to play for Towns with some relocated mates from the Wolves. Coached by WA footy and cricket luminary John McGuire we won the premiership against perennial grand finalist Williams, Towns’ first Upper Great Southern flag for over 20 years.
One of the benefits of becoming an electrician was that I could get a job at pretty much any mining operation around WA. One of the drawbacks was that I was expected to work.
The following year I was at Brigades in Geraldton and although we missed the grand final, I represented the Great Northern Football League when we were the first team in several centuries (approximately) to beat the South West Football League in the Westfarmers Country Championships.
1988 I was in the Goldfields playing for Mines Rovers. Due to a late arrival courtesy of a less-than gruelling six month pre-season on holiday in the UK and US, and also due to two hamstring injuries I only played about half the games. The omens were less than propitious when, after playing a blinder in my first game for the Diorites (great nickname - it’s the rock you get gold out of), the president pulled me aside and worriedly asked “just warming up?” He’s thinking it can get better; I’m thinking it can’t get any better. But he was right to be worried. We finished top of the ladder, but lost the grand final to Kalgoorlie who finished fourth, and I played a shocker.
That was my last taste of country football. I returned to Melbourne and college, which I had managed to put off for nine years, to see out my footy career with Old Melburnians and Tooronga-Malvern (The Biners won the 1990 premiership).
Despite a career, for want of a better word, as an itinerant footballer (“journeymen” had not yet entered the vernacular), who enjoyed premiership success at two clubs, league representation, championship laurels with road-trips that were a cross between the mayhem of a Hunter S. Thompson assignment and the pranking of National Lampoon’s OC & Stiggs, goal-kicking awards, best & fairests and the chance to travel around WA, it is my time at the Wickham Wolves which most resonates. None of my footy memories compare to the lift I get recalling my days playing for the Wolves. I still have the friends I made back then (even if I don’t see them too often) and I still think of Wickham most days – even if I don’t want to go back there. Well, maybe for a look.
Whoever said “once you get the red dust of the Pilbara in you, you cannot get it out” was spot on.