‘People and Memories’, part 1

Bill Healy

Everyone has a story to tell and I love hearing about people’s footy journeys.  Why they support their teams; about their heroes; the triumphs and heartaches; how they maintain hope during dark times; who has accompanied them on their journey; and, if they’re older, about life ‘back in the day’.  This season I’ve had the pleasure, no, privilege, to spend time with six devotees of VFL/AFL clubs and hear their stories.  We’ve sat in lounge rooms, kitchens, an office, a city food court, the walkway at Etihad Stadium, just talking footy.  It’s been beautiful. Every interview went longer than planned, with conversation regularly drifting to that game, that day, that player, that season, or to totally unrelated topics and I always walked away with a warm feeling in my stomach.

I thank Bill, Gerard, Joan, Barry, John and Ian for their time and trust (and coffee and biscuits).

I hope the Almanackers who take the time enjoy this humble journey through Victorian and football history.

For me, footy is about so much, but mainly, people and memories.

 

People and Memories

Bill Healy – Fitzroy FC/Brisbane Lions

 

Bill Healy sits at the kitchen table in his weatherboard and mud brick house, nestled in a forest off a dirt road in the village of St. Andrews, an hour north of Melbourne.

 

Today, the view across surrounding hills is green and peaceful. It cannot be more different from February 7, 2009, ‘Black Saturday’, when roaring infernos tore through the region, coming within a kilometre of destroying St. Andrews, home to artists, writers, and long-term locals. Many died, even more lost homes and the locals were left deeply shocked and traumatised.

 

A sudden, fateful wind change took the fire front away from St. Andrews, probably saving those like Bill and family preparing to defend their homes, but tragically continuing on its murderous path up through the neighbouring town of Kinglake.

 

‘Next time we’ll leave,’ Bill says.

 

When conversation turns to Bill’s journey as supporter of the Fitzroy Football Club, and more recently, Brisbane Lions, the life returns to his face.

 

‘I grew up in Melbourne, a member of three tribes – the Catholic Church, the ALP, and the Fitzroy Football Club. And they’ve all turned to ruin!’ he laughs.

 

Catherine Camm, Bill’s future mother, was born in 1905, lived in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, and attended St. Brigid’s on the corner of Nicholson St and Alexandra Parade. Football allegiances were determined by geographical boundaries or main thoroughfares. If you lived on the west side of Smith Street, you followed Fitzroy. The east side, you were Collingwood, the mortal enemy.

 

Footballers lived in the suburb they played for. Triple Brownlow medallist, Haydn Bunton, lived on Falconer Street, near the Edinburgh Gardens, and Wilfred ‘Chicken’ Smallhorn, who also won a Brownlow, was a door to door salesman.

 

‘They were locals [the players],’ Bill says. ‘That sense of tribe, of belonging, was just so powerful.’

 

In the period between the World Wars, when Catherine stepped out to local dances at the Fitzroy Town Hall, she often socialised with her Maroon heroes. One unforgettable night she danced with Haydn Bunton, becoming the envy of every young woman present. Bunton was the heart throb of the day, with his sharp suits, wavy, brilliantined hair and matinee idol looks. Catherine loved retelling the story.

 

‘He was a lovely man, a lovely man,’ Bill imitates his mother.

 

Those who missed out on being swung around the floor by Bunton had to be content with the view from the fence at the Brunswick Street Oval, or the front window of Foy and Gibson Department Store where he worked.

 

These were good times for the Maroons, as they were then known, winning seven Premierships between 1898 and 1922.

 

Catherine married Bill’s future father, Tom Healy, an Essendon supporter, and moved to Glenhuntly. Bill was born during World War Two, four years after elder brother, Tom. Bill was injected with his mother’s ‘Fitzroy madness’, while Tom became a Carlton fan due to the influence of their paternal grandfather.

 

Their childhoods were filled with street cricket; footy on the radio; the Sporting Globe; footy cards from Kornies cereal packets; and schoolyard fights over the weekend’s results.

 

The pall of war hung everywhere. Air raid trenches, dug in the school grounds, flooded when it rained. Groceries, eggs and butter were rationed.

 

During the 1950s, the Healys ran a service station in Oakleigh, so trips across Melbourne to Fitzroy games were rare, yet cherished.

 

Brunswick Street Oval – a perpetual mud heap surrounded by heaving, vocal terraces – was an intimidating place for opposition. A tattooed, wild looking Kevin Murray had joined established champions Allan Ruthven, Butch Gale, Don Furness and Wally Clarke.

 

Bill recalls a trip to Windy Hill, Essendon’s home ground, and gaining access to the away team rooms thanks to an uncle’s influence. Awe struck, he was introduced to heroes Doug Nicholls and Owen Abrahams. Bill Stephen, Captain Coach at the time, addressed the players while standing on a rubdown table.

 

Bill was married for the first time in the mid-60s. Children soon followed, again making Saturday afternoons at the footy difficult. Bill has five surviving children from two marriages and a growing band of grandchildren. Family football allegiances vary.

 

Bill attended games regularly from the 1980s when Fitzroy played at the Junction Oval. This was a successful period, highlighted by Bernie Quinlan’s Brownlow Medal in 1981 and a Preliminary Final appearance five years later against eventual premier Hawthorn. One memorable Saturday afternoon at Princes Park, two late goals, including the winner by Paul Roos, claimed victory against Collingwood.

 

From the early 1990s, Bill sensed the end was near for Fitzroy. Seasons of poor on-field results, combined with an increasingly perilous financial situation, in which players often went unpaid, meant survival in the AFL’s corporatised environment impossible.

 

Led by CEO Ross Oakley, the AFL also wished to decrease the number of traditional Victorian clubs, while introducing interstate teams to the expanded national competition.

 

‘The AFL were hell-bent on culling… and Fitzroy were always on the brink.’

 

Bill was ambivalent towards the proposed merge with North Melbourne, considering it a takeover in the Kangaroos’ favour, however, supported joining with the Brisbane Bears when it was announced Fitzroy’s jumper, Lion symbol, club song, and a handful of players, would be retained.

 

That didn’t make the death of Fitzroy any easier to bear. The last Melbourne game, against Richmond at the MCG, August 25, 1996, which he attended with wife Margaret and friends, brought great heartache.

 

‘The four of us [sat] up the back of the Southern Stand crying…. There was a mixture of sadness, tears, betrayal by and hatred for the AFL.’

 

Fitzroy Football Club’s final AFL match, the following weekend, in far off Perth, ‘rubbed salt in the wounds’.

The following season, the Brisbane Lions and Port Power (Port Adelaide) joined the competition.

 

Bill retired from a career in social work and mental health in 2006 though he and Margaret continue to work part-time. Their spare time is taken up with family commitments and attending the Lions’ Melbourne games.

 

They enjoyed the Brisbane premiership years, particularly the involvement of former Rooboys Alistair Lynch, Chris Johnson and Martin Pike, and they consider Jonathan Brown a ‘son of Fitzroy’.

 

The merger has been good, but it’s not quite the same as Saturday afternoons on the terraces at Brunswick Street, or dancing with Hadyn Bunton.

 

‘It’s like going to your nephew or niece’s wedding. It’s a lovely day, but it’s not quite the same as if it was one of your own kids.’

 

Inevitably, conversation returns to Black Saturday.

 

‘I looked death in the face… It has had a profound effect on me.’

 

The next day, Bill wrote a lengthy and eloquent email about the role football has played in his life.

 

‘Being a Fitzroy barracker was a part of my identity… my connections to one of the powerful narratives of my family passed down in my case from my mother…Very often in difficult personal times Fitzroy and footy gave me a place of solace, of normality and retreat even if ever so temporary.’

 

 

Comments

  1. Trevor Blainey says:

    On the day of the 2001 Grand Final i stood with my then 14YO son adorned in Bomber scarves at the local tram stop at about 1.30 waiting for the 48. we’d just managed to buy tickets very late as the news broke that they would open the top deck of the Olympic Stand. but at 1.30 it looked like we’d be late. up pulls a pretty old Volvo wagon and woud we like a lift to the MCG? why not thinks me and in we hop. the driver, a man a bit older than me is wearing an old Fitzroy scarf. an MCC member he’d been sitting at home wrestling with his conscience. a Fitzroy stalwart he hadn’t been to a game of any kind since 1996.

    but it got the better of him and he was making a late dash for the game. he explained why but it didn’t need saying. the Roys had always been my second choice, the events of 1996 rankled with me and they weren’t even my mob. he talked about Murray and Roos and Pert and Wilson and Quinlan and many others besides. my son sat in the back and i know he was tuned in.

    we got to the ground and he dropped us at the Jolimont overpass and went in search of a park. we didn’t even exchange names. as disappointed as we were after the game (its often suggested Essendon got flogged that day but they were in it until very late) we immediately thought of the Volvo man. I’m glad he went. I’m glad we met him. I hope he went to Brunswick Street Oval the next day. Matt (son) played a couple of seasons for the Fizroy Ammos a few years later.

  2. Andrew Starkie says:

    Thanks Trevor, great story. I love footy people but there’s something extra interesting about Roy fans. and players. Bunton and Smallhorn are such mythical characters.

  3. Mike Delves says:

    My memories are very similar to Bill’s.
    My family’s connection to Fitzroy goes way back to the 1880s. My great grandfather was on the council for many years & mayor at the turn of the century. He had a boot factory in North Fitzroy & also lived there.
    His son Bill played cricket & baseball for Fitzroy in the 80s & 90s & was a great supporter of the Maroons
    during their halcyon years prior to the Great War.
    Bill & his family moved to the southern suburbs before the war, but the whole family remained staunch supporters of the Maroons
    My father, also Bill, often told me that Hayden Bunton was the greatest footballer he ever saw & that he had beautiful balance & was great on both sides of his body. He was also a good cricketer & played in a premiership side for Fitzroy in the 30s.
    After the war we moved out to North Essendon & at school I was the only boy who didn’t barrack for Essendon. They were tough times for the Gorillas, but we had Muzza, Butch, Abey, Pluto & Clarkey to keep our spirits up.
    In 1960 we made it to the preliminary final only to get narowly beaten by Collingwood on a very wet & muddy MCG. I can still see Butch Gale completely exhausted after the match after battling much bigger opponents in the ruck & never coming off the ball!
    In those days I was playing baseball for Fitzroy & we used to play before the footy Seconds & after our match it was into the cars & off to the footy where we would arrive at about quarter time & watch the game from the forward pocket at the eastern end where the Bunton Pavilion was later built.
    Then came the good years in the mid 80s with Bernie, Roosy & the Tank until that fateful day in 1996
    when we played our last game at the G. I was there with my 2 boys & we cried through most of it. I was so upset that I left my car keys & mobile in the car in the carpark – they were still thers when we finally got back!
    Like Bill I was in two minds about Brisbane but when they announced the colours & theme song I decided to join up – and am I glad I did. To have the former Fitzroy boys playing in those premierships cemented our feelings for the mighty Lions.

  4. Great article, loved it. As a pies fan will never forget going to Victoria Park to see us play Fitzroy for the last time in 1996. And the Roys controversial banner. I like what Brisbane has done to keep the Lions legacy alive, if only they would wear something resembling a Fitzroy jersey instead of a stupid cartoon Lion.

  5. AS,
    A very enjoyable read.
    Thanks.

  6. Phil Dimitriadis says:

    Great piece Andrew. There are so many old Roys like Bill out there who’s memories should be preserved for ensuing generations to read and understand that no footy club should be taken for granted. Port fans might be feeling a little uneasy at the moment as talk of revoking their licence intensifies. If Port goes could the Roys be back as part of a Tasmanian deal? How ironic would it be?

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