The Captain of Geelong’s 1963 Premiership team, Fred Wooller, comes to my dot town once or twice a year. There’s an in-law he visits, and helps out around the property. He works hard, stays low-key and is gone again. Yet is happy to see me and talk footy.
It’s late summer, the drought is biting hard. We sit in the cool of a neat kitchen, framed by views of yellow grass on rolling hills. It’s going to be a hard season on veteran’s bones and farmers.
Fred is friendly. Still tall, still strong, he’s happy to share. A gentleman.
“Our background, my family were battlers, I lived in an old, wooden house. For a long while it had no electricity or running water. We had candles, I rode my pushbike to school. Then I got an apprenticeship at the coal mine. I’d ride down to the pit every day. About five or six miles. I’d ride to football training too. You’d always find me on my bike, I guess, heading to school, footy or the mines.”
“Footy was just fun back then, for us, anyway. On Sundays you’d have your family lunch, some friends would come around, and you and them and your big brothers would go down to a paddock to have a kick. It was all you had to entertain you the country. Footy and cricket.”
Fred started club footy as a 15 year old playing against the men in Bacchus March. It was ’54, Geelong were in the finals. Fred would train local once a week, and scrounge for a lift to Geelong for the other night. He then played a handful of games, on permit in ’55, for the Geelong Juniors, and was put on their list the year after, ’56, as a 17 year old.
“My first Senior game was against South Melbourne at the Lakeside Oval. I used to be a mad supporter of the Swans. My bedroom had a big poster of Ron Clegg on it! He had gone away to Captain/Coach, but made his comeback, my hero, in my first game. He was a champion CHB as well as a CHF, but luckily, he played forward that day, and I managed to kick 4 on debut.
“We made the Semi Final that year, against Footscray. It was close, we’d lost Bobby Davis. I was having a shot for goal and kicked into the man on the mark. We got beaten by two points. The coach, Reg Hickey, let me know.
“Hickey was a bit of a contrast to Bob, probably a stronger individual, disciplined. He’d had a great deal of success in the early 50s. He wasn’t hard, but he was tough. Nobody questioned his methods.”
In ’57 Fred got his license but could still only train at Geelong once a week, borrowing cars to make the trip.
Geelong moved him to full forward, where he topped the club goal kicking and, still a teenager, was selected for the interstate carnival, rubbing shoulders with the legends of the game. The person who left the biggest mark on him, though, seemed to be Kevin Murray from Fitzroy, just starting his career, like Freddy.
“He trained so hard. He just wanted to be perfect at everything he did.”
Despite Wooller’s personal achievements, Geelong were on the way down, finishing bottom of the ladder for two years. Then, club champion Bob Davis took over in ’59.
“There were many reasons we, Geelong, were struggling like that. When Davis was appointed coach he set to work. From ’60 to ‘62 he and Leo O’Brien recruited 12 of our 18 Premiership players. That was one of his greatest skills. Not so much for is coaching, but as a recruiter. He was phenomenal! They got the two Lords, West, Walker, Wade, they got Devine, they got Polly in ’62.
“Billy Goggin, myself, John Yeates, Colin Rice… there were probably only five of us there in ’59 who played in the ’63 Premiership It was an extraordinary effort not enough credit has been given to.”
I try to picture being in a team on the rise under the happy-go-lucky Bobby Davis.
“Bob, he was a bit more flamboyant than Reg,” Fred tells me. “He wanted people to show their skills, more so than be defensive. He encouraged them to play with more flair, for you to run and move on and kick it long. He probably didn’t have the discipline in the group, but he had some fantastic individuals in that side.”
And with Tommy Morrow at selection and John Hyde helping on the bench, good advice.
“Above all else Bobby taught players to love their footy. To show their ability… and kick goals.”
Like Blight, I mention. Wooller doesn’t disagree.
At first, Freddy was not really a part of the click. He never had jokes played on him, or shared the bus trips. Being from Bacchus March made him a bit of an outsider. But, at 21 he got married and moved to Geelong, and in that, I suspect, truly became a part of the club.
I ask Fred about the pros and cons of playing at Sleepy Hollow.
“Yes…” he searches for the right words. I can tell he wants to nail this. That he loves and breaths Geelong and the topic is important to him. “Let’s say there was so much attention paid to us by the people of a one team town, some of the players got… lost. The local paper and radio station were full of adulation for Geelong players. They were getting a lot of publicity, and we weren’t winning enough to be honoured with it.
“One of the up sides, though, was we had a huge home ground advantage. The other teams all had to come down, by train, usually. Some teams would arrive the night before and stay at hotels to try and beat our advantage.”
I try to picture it. The distance, the hassle, the chore that, these days, is only a 45 minute drive along a smooth highway.
Things have changed. Distance has changed.
“But it worked both ways. We had to travel every second week. You get on a bus, and you had to stop at Werribee. It was only single lane traffic. We’d walk along the side of the road to do our exercises, the whole team, on this thin strip, drinking Haorlex or whatever it was they gave us, not an arm’s length from all this passing traffic. The Geelong people heading to the footy would all toot us, but it was dangerous.”
I feel like Fred is taking me back to another time. I ask about the pre-game. About all of it.
“Heading to Melbourne, we used to play cards in the back of the bus. Poker. There was the trainer, the timekeeper, Bobby Davis, myself, Hydie – who was a selector by this time. Billy Goggin, Ronnie Richards, McLaren, Russ Fleming, the treasurer sometimes played,” Freddy laughs.
“We cleaned Bobby out a few times. He’d try and bluff ya, but we’d always catch him. Blind poker. It’s a game of patience.”
“The bus would get to the ground only an hour before the game. We’d stand in the race and watch the seconds until ¾ time, then go in and get ready. Some used to have a smoke at half time. John Brown (the Premiership winger, and school teacher) would have a go on his pipe. We took it very serious, but occasionally, on a very cold afternoon, somebody would bring out a port wine for us to swig, to get feeling into our fingers again.”
And on the return trip?
“Coming home, the trainers would fill a few rubbish bins with the beer, the ice… we’d have a few cans. There were some great home trips. The mood varied depending on if we won or lost, of course, but the best thing was everybody went down on the bus together, and everybody came back together.
“It was good we all lived in Geelong, we did a lot as a group. After we’d had a drink with the opposition we’d all go back to somebody’s house. The trainers would buy hamburgers or pizzas and bring them around.
“I think that’s why this group of ours has been so solid in their friendships for fifty years. It’s probably one of the most valuable parts of who you are, footy, the way it shapes your lives. Most of my best friends are footy related. It forges bonds. We have a ’63 gathering every year.
“Four or five of us have even been having New Years together, us and our partners, for about 25 years.
“That’s the other thing, all these smaller groups evolved. It’s so satisfying to see, after all these years, teammates that are still mates.”
The big picture. I ask him how he got to be Captain of all these mates and teammates, and what it was like?
“In those days it was usually appointed by the selection committee. Yatesy was Captain before me, in ’62, but he got hurt before the finals and John Devine was made acting Captain. Next year, two names were put to the players to vote, Devine’s and mine. I was lucky enough to get the most votes. Then, when I left, the committee took the decision back off the players and appointed Polly, so John missed out again.”
You can be unlucky like that.
“It was a great honour. Those things come along to a few people. You don’t think you’re worthy of it, but when you get given it, you try your best. And lucky enough – you can be terribly lucky in footy. I was fortunate enough to be at Geelong first up, then I was fortunate enough to be there when Davis took over and there was a change in recruiting, I was lucky enough, then, to be a part of a resurgence, then I was fortunate enough to be acting Captain, then even more fortunate enough to be Captain when we won the flag.
“Being a Captain helped make you a leader. I wasn’t rated as highly as some of the others in the side, so it made me work harder, think about the team issues. ‘How do I encourage him?’, ‘How can I help him get the ball?’
“And when I retired and went on to be managing director of various aspects of the club, I always fell back to the footy things. ‘What does that person need to perform better?’, ‘How can I help this person up?’”
By this stage Freddy was getting work through the club.
“When I left the mine I was an electrical mechanic, but when I went to Geelong they talked me into selling cars! You got good perks, your own vehicle. I’d never had one before, but I didn’t like selling them.
“Around about then they built this bowl-o-matic in Geelong. The managing director of the Cats, Mr Whelan, was its director. A few of the committee put my name up to run it. Suddenly, I had three assistant managers. It was very popular. We’d start at 8am, and, on Saturdays, often go until 6am the next morning. People kept coming from the cabarets and stuff after hours. It was a huge business. Enormous. 24 lanes and flat out.
“When we played at home, I’d do the night shift after the game, from 8 at night until about 3 in the morning. The boys would come in. We even gave some of them jobs as instructors. The hardest part was sneaking them games in front of the people who’d queued up! Alistair Lord met his wife there, who used to be my secretary. Doug Wade actually married one of my instructors.
“Sleepy Hollow was what people used to say, but it wasn’t sleepy.”
Again, Fred Wooller has me trying to picture things. The comradery of such a group, of such a large, locked-in town. A bowling alley so full of life and noise, pushing through until dawn. A nexus, outside the club, for all the players. Magic times.
“Overall, the culture of a one team town worked both for and against us. It created something else a lot of clubs didn’t have. You could be a player for Carlton, and living at Bundoora or anywhere. You could have come from anywhere in that side. Geelong players were from Geelong.”
Outside, the sun’s gong nowhere, like it hasn’t for ten months. Only the day is slipping by. I’m in my work gear, ready to go put in some hours in the gully of a property just back from here, but my head’s in Geelong, hook, line and sinker.