Let’s get this straight, Billy Williams is a champion.
You think so the minute you meet him. Triple South Melbourne best and fairest, Bloods Team of the Century member, Australian Rules Hall of Fame. The only surviving Swan from the Bloodbath Grand Final. A ripper jag of titles, but there’s something more to it that that, which, on arrival, I can’t put my finger on.
His son, Rod greets me at the door, about 60 to look at him, solid, full of energy and enthusiasm. We’re at Billy’s apartment in Willy, not three kms from where he grew up, in the then rough industrial town of Newport. Once a Westie, always a Westie.
“Hello, Matt. Thanks for coming,” Billy says, putting his hand out, before I meet his wife, Maureen.
The bloke is about 90 and looks it. No way am I going to introduce myself as Old Dog! He’s a small man, no different than any other aged fella, other than they way he looks right into you.
“Right, let’s get to it!” Rod claps, super enthusiastic.
“The photos…” Billy says.
“You want to start with the photos?” Rod confirms with him.
We walk up the stairs to look at what’s on the wall. Billy points out so many of the greats he had the pleasure to play alongside – at South, in the nine games he represented his State with. Never himself though.
“Coleman… Alan Ruthven, Ron Clegg, Laurie Nash, Bernie Matthews, so many of them were good,” he says, but struggles to relive some of the memories.
Rod shows me the front row of the Victorian rep team.
“Bobby Rose, Bobby Davis, Charlie Sutton, Bill Hutchison… then there’s Dad!” he laughs. “In good company…”
I walk through the small corridor, surrounded by so many highlights, images from a forgotten world, another era. Of mud and blood and concussions behind play and ankle-length boots, one-on-one footy and no on-the-full for backmen.
For me, the photo that lingers is of Billy, young, with the long sleeves, hamming it up, shaking the hand of some big donk recruit who followed him from South to the VFA.
Billy looks so small, so happy. He’s half the size of the recruit, surrounded by snaps of other, grander moments and bigger name players, yet his smile dominates the wall.
Of all the photos he stares at this one the most, too. Just stands and watches it, without mumbling a word.
Soon enough we go downstairs, everybody sitting at the dining table. Billy flanked by Maureen and Rod. I ask him about the Bloodbath, held in the aftermath of WW2, at Princes Park, when the American soldiers had reign over the MCG.
I tried to get some backstory on it, but could find very little other than there was biffo everywhere, on and off the oval, hard rain, king-hits and kicking, police and trainers running onto the field to break up the violence. Not many details. According to George Gaetner, (a 17 year old who faked his I.D. and snuck into the press box) the media were supplied with two full kegs of beer rather than tea, and too drunk to make out the oval.
I sit in Billy William’s neat, warming home, waiting for him to spill knuckles and guts and knee-deep mud all over the table. To tell me about the game that survived by word of mouth, that has been passed down as folk law and will forever be legend.
“I don’t remember it,” he says, like fact.
At first I think Billy’s being honest, that his memory’s gone.
“Chitty knocked me out…” he tells me.
Whenever he pauses too long he turns to his son. Rod has heard all the stories before, and tries his hardest to nail them word perfect. He finishes the sentence, with the smallest nod from Billy, or, more so, a hardening of his jaw, confirming it.
“An elbow to the head,” adds the younger man.
“That’s what started it all,” Billy finishes.
“There’s irony,” Maureen adds. “Tell him…”
And wife and son wait to see if Billy can, ready to pick him up if his voice falls silent.
“When I was a kid I barracked for Carlton. Players worked on Saturday mornings back then, then they’d catch the tram to the oval, with their kit bags. Us kids would gather at the stop and vie for our favourite players. ‘Can I carry your kit bag, Sir?’ After a while, the players got to know us, have their favourites. I’d always carry Bob Chitty’s. I’d proudly walk beside big Bob. ‘Good work. Thank you little Billy’, he’d ruff my hair, then go in and biff someone. Then, my first year of football…”
“I don’t think he knew,” says Maureen. “It’s a shame. He went to his grave not knowing Billy was the same little kid. I wish we’d had a way to tell him. That he’d known.”
We talk more.
“You only had 19 in a team back then, we already had a player injured, so I had to stay on the oval, but was no good. I didn’t know where I was. Same with Clegg. He copped one, too. Chitty again. They had it over us, from that moment on.”
I look at the scores, and sure enough, Carlton pulled away in the second half to win easy.
Billy often looks frustrated with his memory, even apologises occasionally.
“I’m sorry, I can’t remember. You waited too long,” he tells me.
It chokes him up that, often, no words will come out. But his jaw remains firm. His eyes steady. Bloodbath out if the way, we take it back to the beginning. To a life of hard work, loyalty and determination.
Billy was south of the city through-and-through. His father steered the old punt across the Yarra, joining industrial west and the city, for 42 years.
“He had to have an sea captain’s licence, as he was crossing international shipping lanes, but the punt did him,” he tells me.
“Billy’s father hated football,” Rod adds. “Banned him from playing. But he’d jump over the fence and play for Spotswood juniors, then sneak back in.”
I ask why, and get an impression from the answers it was because of religion, but it seems nothing would stop Billy. Not if he loved it.
“I was a fitter and turner,” he tells me, in that frail voice of his. “While doing my apprenticeship I would ride from Newport to Sunshine for work, and play footy. It was a long way, on roads different to today, but no-one had cars back then. I was always either in the factory, or riding to it, or a game,” he grins.
I ask about his playing days.
“I had a run around with Carlton, but didn’t like it. They went against new boys. South were exciting. To run out as a kid with Herbie Mathews, Laurie Nash, Bob Pratt was amazing,” Billy tells me, then pauses.
Talking seems hard, remembering seems harder. I really feel for him. Maureen puts a brave face on it but I suspect she’s hurting.
“They were all great fellas, too,” he continues. “They were good with one another. You’d run around with them and when you got back to the rooms all your socks and jocks had holes cut in them! They loved to laugh. Jack Graham, Cleary. They were fantastic.”
“Who was the coach back then, Billy?” I ask.
He has trouble understanding my words sometimes, yet his son just has to say the exact same words, and Billy captures every one of them, easy.
“Bull Adams was the man,” Billy says. “He was a hard man. Oh, shit yeah! The players were only told once.”
Billy spent his first year in the forward pocket, then moved up onto the ball. Along the way he met Maureen.
“A Kensington girl,” he adds, with cheek and pride. Westie talk for ‘not quite local’.
“Though football,” Maureen adds, with the best smile ever.
I saw photos of them when I was walking up the stairs. So young, handsome and beautiful. So invincible.
Not that it was easy, both families were very religious.
“I was Catholic, and Bill wasn’t,” Maureen says, with sadness.
A huge thing in those days, especially in such religious families, yet Maureen seems as determined a person as Billy.
“When we had our children we didn’t christen them,” she adds, defiantly. “That way they could be whatever they wanted when they grew up. Not limited.”
I ask about the conditions back then, how they went about it under Bull?
“Training was hard,” Billy says. “If you trained hard, you played hard. We were all fit through our work. A lot of us did hard, physical labour, 45 hour weeks of it – five days plus Saturday morning before the game – so training suited. More contested work, skills. Less running.”
Billy tells me of his first year, in ’45, as a 19year old. The Bloodbath year.
“If Carlton beat Geelong and South beat Footscray, Carlton would replace the Dogs in the final four. The Dogs were fourth and in front all day, then, in time-on in the last I took a mark in the forward pocket and kicked the winning goal. Carlton beat Geelong and scraped into the finals.”
“So you cost South the Premiership?” I roar.
Billy laughs loud, a corker laugh. He still has his humour. They all laugh, like one. It’s magic.
“If it’s any conciliation, Billy, in 30 years of senior footy I’ve never kicked a winning goal,” I tell him. “They tattooed on my forehead ‘backman’!”
And he laughs again, even better.
“He was a hero on that day,” Maureen croons, in a soft voice, head tilting back to touch Billy’s shoulder, full of immediate affection. The sort that seems like just yesterday, forever.
After three years in a Newport factory Billy brought a fish and chip shop in Port Melbourne. A rough place, solidly behind the Bloodstained Angels, so Billy put a photo of himself playing in the window.
“Friday would do a roaring trade,” Ron says. “All the Bloods fans would come in, the wharfies, the railway workers.”
I ask about how wild the old sea towns were?
“Port Melbourne was always tough, but like anything, it depends on what you do, and how you get along,” he tells me.
All up, Billy played just seven years for South, but that was standard back then.
“There was no money in football,” Maureen says. “Five pound a week, which was a lot, I guess, but with two kids… I didn’t get to go to many games, I was busy raising them.”
“A lot of players moved on,” Billy explains. “I did my bit, 3 B&Fs in seven years, I was happy with that. Then it was time to think of my family. I swapped with a player from Willy called Young. Captain-coached there.”
“There were the two goal-kicking awards, too,” Rod adds. He seems to be genuinely exited by his father’s achievements, even after all these years. Forever the son in awe of the father. “To be up there, as a rover, on the goal-kicking board with Bobby Pratt, it’s pretty impressive,” he smiles. “That’s if the board still exists…”
Billy very much enjoyed his short time at Williamstown, coaching local. It felt right. Then, there was more hard work and heartache. Maureen was in hospital for three months with rheumatic fever.
“When I got out, the doctors advised I go somewhere further north, far from the sea.”
So Billy went looking for another coaching job, away from the industrial west of Melbourne, from the area he loved and grew up and played all his footy in.
“We moved to Pyramid Hill, which only had a population of 600, but was just marvellous. Terrific people. The best,” Billy says.
“Dad had been there for two years,” Rod says. “Living out back of the hotel, running it, coaching and playing, they all liked him so much that when the licence came up eight locals pitched in 500 pound each to loan him the money to buy it…”
“I did thirty years in hotels after that,” Billy gives a frail grin.
“All through football,” Maureen adds, for the second time.
The family tell great stories, about Jack Dyer, Laurie Nash, the Glenferrie oval, the way Lou Richards would chat up the umpires to get away with hitting you, the joys of playing at the Lake, even memories of the great Bobby Skilton. After a while I can’t tell who starts the sentences and who finishes them.
I get the idea Billy worships the memory of Jack ‘Basher’ Williams. South’s enforcer of the 40s. When Chitty took out Billy with an elbow, it was Basher who evened-up.
“A lot of them were like that, though. Fine people off the oval. Basher was a thorough gentleman. All the players would swear like sailors, but if any of them used a cuss word in from of women, ohh, he’d challenge them!
“On the oval, well. Basher once told me: ‘Don’t get in my way at training, or I’ll run through ya.’
“I thought, well, I’m sure of my position in the team, so I’ll let him go.”
Billy smiles a great old-time smile. I bet he was a ratbag back in the day. Suddenly, I’m gutted I didn’t know him then, that I couldn’t see it.
“Basher and I used to refer to each other as brothers because of our surnames, and the way he looked out for me. My big brother. We stayed in contact with him right up until he died.”
The heavy-set knuckle and the little rover.
We talk about the Swans flag in 2005, their fist in 72 years.
“In the start, when they stacked the social club and voted to move South to Sydney, they ignored our history. There was even talk about losing the colours, replacing them with the two blues. But over recent years they include us in everything. Freddy Goldsmith and I were invited to go up and present their jumpers that pre-season.”
“So this time you won them a flag!” I roar, and there’s that ripper laugh again.
“They gave us great tickets to the Grand Final, the whole family. They’ve been so good to us,” Maureen adds. “We’re invited to everything, they even sent me a letter when I was sick. A hand written letter!”
“They’ve won us for life. The Swans have continued to treat our family, their history, so well. For life,” Rod insists.
“Tell me about the game…” I ask.
“Oh, it was so special! So special! After the game, at the function…” says Maureen, loosing herself in the memory. “I didn’t think I’d live so long… to see a Premiership! I couldn’t believe it when Leo Barry took that mark…I just couldn’t believe it! Everybody crying. I still get emotional.”
And she excuses herself from the room for a few minutes.
It’s enough to make you believe in a club. Have faith. Respecting their past without living in it – that balance took years to get right. When they did they won a flag. No, it wasn’t just a co-incidence, these things count. They help so much in small, unmeasurable ways.
It’s pretty obvious that the Billy Williams story includes his family. I ask Rod about his playing days. He’s painfully modest, acknowledging he only got to play a handful of games, and, even then, only because they wanted to see if he had any of his father in him.
“I’ve no regrets,” he says. “For three years I got to see how they train, how they interact. To try and get a game. And I took Bobby Skilton’s place in the team once!”
“Well, there you go!” I say.
“Only because he had to play an interstate carnival!” Rod laughs at himself.
Like his father, like his father’s father, Rod stayed true to his roots, returning to be a part of the Williamstown FC committee for 16 years, before focusing on his children.
When it comes time to say goodbye, a lifetime too soon, Rod tells Billy to stay inside, he’ll walk me to the car.
Billy won’t have a bar of it. Determined.
I wait, as he shuffles after me, locking eyes and saying in that whispering voice of his, what a privilege it was to have me around.
He shakes my hand with the mightiest, firmest grip, despite his frail body. In its moment, in his stare, everything about him is still. For its length I can feel his fierce pride. The furthest corner of his mouth flickers that smile that once ruled the world.
I turn as I leave, noticing all three watching me.
I never knew Billy Williams back in the day, but can only greet people how they greet me. I think, now and forever, the Bloodstained Angels legend is a champion, because he has a champion family.
With love, with admiration, they speak as one. A team, used to hard yards, caring, always determined.
No wonder he’s still kicking.
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