I’m sitting in a kitchen in nowhere Tasmania, talking to a Geelong Footy Club great, Premiership Captain, Fred Wooller. On this hot, later summer day, he’s taken me on a journey, through the hard years, heading towards ’63 and beyond. About the nature of his club, his town, and the blokes around him.
“It was fantastic when Polly Farmer came down. He had played in a carnival with Davis years ago, but it had taken three or four years to get him over. There was so much publicity. Everybody knew him, even in his first game. It was an interclub practice match. There were 10,000 people there.
“They charged, what was it, fifty cents? And the 2,000 pounds they had to pay West Perth in transfer fees, they got in a day.”
I remember the club trying to emulate Farmer’s arrival when they flew Brian Peake to his first game in a helicopter, only for him to be towled by North’s Ross Henshaw. Wooller makes it sound like the gimmick it was. An entire town coming to a practice match to see one man, that’s genuine.
“Polly was terrific as a person. We all knew he got a little bit more to sign, and maybe he was getting a bit under the carpet, but we all accepted that. He fitted in so well. We became friends.”
Fred and Polly did a lot outside footy, go to the races, hang out, their wives were very close, the kids would play together.
“We wouldn’t have won the flag without him. Hell, no! Wouldn’t have even come close,” he insists
“Yes, Polly had a relationship with Billy Goggin on the oval, but not just him. Billy was on the ball a lot, and under his feet, so he got his fair share. Yet, if Polly saw Gordon Hines out on a flank, or Alistair Lord out on the wing, he wouldn’t worry about Billy. He involved a lot of people.
“He had that sixth sense. It was fantastic.
“Polly was the best player I’ve seen… And I think Garry Ablett Sr. is probably not far off equal to him. And the little bloke… Garry, he’s getting up there, now.”
I have a small chuckle to myself. Typical Cats captain. Many people say Graham ‘Polly’ Farmer is the best player to ever pull on a boot, for the way he brought so many teammates into a game. But Fred has gone Geelong 1, 2, 3 without batting an eyelid.
He truly loves the club that gave him so much. Even a Premiership.
“It was fantastic! I remember it as if it was yesterday….” he says. “I was crook in the morning, throwing up. I was often like that, but this was worse. I think it was only because of fear of failure. I was never that good a player that I could feel confident of beating my opponent every week, where as some people can just do that. I’d worry about how I’d go, and my team. That morning, oh, it was awful!
“Playing cards, at least, took a bit of the pressure off, but then at the ground, after the address, before we ran out, I threw up again.
“Once we ran out it was good, even though there were over 100,000 people there. We had Happy Hammond and his mate, the cat. But when they were playing the national anthem, my tummy was so upset, churning, I dry heaved on the oval.
“I remember the first bounce, my first touch. A couple of dropkicks. Then kicking the goal, just before ¾ time, that put us four points in front. It was touch-and-go up until that point. Then we got another through Ricey to go to the final break 10 points up.
“It was still a game. People say Bobby said ‘Show us your skills.’ I can’t remember that, but if it’s all a part of the legend…” Fred smiles. “Hawthorn had had a few hard games, they really had to be in front at ¾ time.
“Then, the last quarter, Polly started to dominate the game, we began snigging a few. It wasn’t an avalanche, we only kicked six goals, it’s not like it was ten. But there were parts of that game, in the last quarter, you remember. Westie kicking it out, Polly marking it, handballing to Billy Goggin who was running past, who delivered to Sharrock, who handballed back to Billy who delivered to Yeatesie, who kicked it to me in the goal square.
“Once Polly got the ball there wasn’t a Hawthorn player that touched it.”
Freddy jabs his finger across the table. Boink, boink, boink. A poke for each possession. It’s a famous moment in Geelong’s history. In an old school game built on contested footy, that passage was both ownership and victory.
“The most significant thing I can remember, though, was being presented with the cup… Turning around to the Southern Grandstand, full of our supporters, and hearing that roar…
“Every Grand Final I go to, at the footy, I can close my eyes and see that moment again. Even after 50 years…”
The other significant thing for Freddy was coming back to Geelong.
“So many people were out to greet us, the bus had a police escort. Two motorbikes and a squad car, the lights and sirens going. At the first set of lights at Corio there were hundreds of people. Everybody in their blue and white, tooting their horns, waving, cheering. Then you come into North Geelong, at it was the same thing… all the way until we got to the back of the Town Hall. And we walked around, and there was just this sea of people…!
“You never forget those things. Ever… It’s just a part of you…” his voice trails off.
“And to have those photos, as mementos, for memories, well, it never dies.
“They’re the days you live for.”
Then Fred Wooller tells me something that makes me understand why he was the Captain, and always will be.
“The other thing that’s important, to me, and probably is to everyone who’s ever won a Premiership, is when you walk off the ground, everybody in that team has an equal share in that cup. Nobody says: ‘I’ve got 10%, or 20%, or 25% of it.”
“I think that’s a vital thing for me to remember. I know you’ve got Champions, but everybody got their 5%. Everybody.”
The Premiership was in the bag, but Fred, Polly and the Geelong team had a few more games to go that year, though.
“Geelong were the first ever Australian Rules teams to play an International, at Hula lulu. Us and Melbourne. In ‘63, it was a huge thing, that trip!
“We were bragging about being the first Australian Rules team to land in another country, but then Melbourne caught an earlier flight so they could beat us there by a few hours. They sneaked under our guard!”
The world’s first peek at Aussie Rules, sure enough, became infamous for its violence.
“The fight started at Hula lulu and spread over to the two follow-up games in San Francisco. There were a couple of skirmishes around the ground, then the trainers and others got involved. Suddenly, there were fights everywhere. There were 15,000 at the ground, but I think after all the fights and all the media and camera crews and press over it, if we had played the next day we would have got 50,000.
I smile to myself. Fred goes on to tell me about their time in the States, the dodgy people, having the game recorded by the Voice of America. This, in a time when Melbourne to Geelong seemed like a hazardous journey. What an adventure.
By ’64 Fred was a veteran of 9 VFL seasons, and knew the clock was ticking. Players got eight pounds a game, four into a providence fund for when they retired, and maybe a few more under the table. Not a lot. After serving up their prime years a lot of them decided to think of their families. Freddy was no different.
Penguin, in North-West Tasmania, made him an offer that would see him getting more in his first season than he did in his entire Geelong career. In ’65 he left for the Apple Island.
“I didn’t realise until I got there it was such a small town compared to Burnie and Devonport. We only had one good year, where we almost made the finals, but that was as close as we got. It was difficult, coming from a VFL environment. You had the be the psychiatrist, the employment officer, peace maker. There was nobody else there to help you help the young kids through a bit. On the oval I found it harder than the VFL, slower, more congested.
“In ’64 we’d get 42,000 to watch us play against Collingwood, at a ground that was only meant to fit 24,000, then down here… it was a bit of a culture shock. But that’s the decision you make. We played some good games. I made some great friends, which is always important.”
We talk briefly about Fred’s time at Kyabram, a good standard of footy, then his path back to Geelong, where he served again as a member of the board, then more about Bobby Davis, and what made him so loved, such a personality. The things he did away from the oval. And finish talking about Polly.
Again, I’ll save the playing stuff for the book, but the last thing Fred says sticks with me.
“Polly’s not travelling too well these days. We go across to Western Australia to see him regularly. He remembers my wife and I, which is fortunate, but struggles with his short-term memory.
“He did so much for us, as a team, a club, for me, so much. As a friend it’s only right that we follow up, check in on him.”
And there, in a nutshell, is what footy is about. Is what life is about. And why some people never stop being Premiership captains.
Outside, the heat hasn’t lifted an inch, the cows can’t be bothered moving. It’s time for Fred to go back to chores and for me to be elsewhere. I thank him, gather the dog an ute, and bail, into the drought, glad to know that, occasionally, one or two of these old valley homes houses legends.