St Mary’s FC: The Green Machine

One club in Northern Territory football stands head and shoulders above the rest – St Mary’s. The club boasts a rich culture and has achieved unrivalled success in its 60 years of existence.

St Mary’s Football Club was formed originally to provide an opportunity for Tiwi Islanders employed by the armed services to play football in Darwin. In 1952, Ted Egan AO, in cooperation with Father Aubrey Collins, was the influential man that formed what would later become one of the most successful football clubs in Australia. The Tiwi Islanders were employed by both the Royal Australian Air Force and the Army and worked in groups of around 40. Apart from Wanderers, Saints were the only club in the league to allow full-blood Aboriginals to join their side in the early 1950s, a decision that has caused the club to not look back. The inclusion of Islanders in the side was an obvious recipe for success and indigenous footballers have always been an important part in the composition of the club.

The Saints officially entered the Northern Territory Football League on 22/09/1952 for inclusion in the 1952/53 season. Fittingly, Ted Egan was elected as the inaugural captain of the side. The club was an immediate success and finished in a respectable fourth position in its first season in the competition. Two seasons later, the Jack Sweeney-coached Saints side achieved its first premiership success defeating Buffaloes by five goals in the 1954/55 grand final. Egan captained the first premiership side which was a reward for the hard work he put into the club. His contribution was phenomenal and he would later be awarded an honorary life membership of the club.

After solid foundations were laid during the first few seasons, St Mary’s built on to become the most dominant club in the competition. The club has won 29 premierships in 60 seasons at an average of almost one every two seasons, a feat that is arguably unrivalled by any football club in the country. Another extraordinary achievement is the fact that the Saints have only missed out on the finals twice since its inception into the NTFL. After its first premiership flag in 54/55, more success was just around the corner. The Saints added another flag the following year and further back-to-back flags in 58/59 and 59/60 to become the most successful side of that decade. The club made an abundance of grand finals during the 60s and 70s, resulting in six premierships, but it was not until the 80s and 90s that success became well and truly synonymous with the St Mary’s name. Many football followers held the opinion that the Saints were head-and-shoulders above the rest of the competition and were simply unstoppable at times. The club’s grand final record confirms this opinion. An amazing five successive flags between 83/84 and 87/88 was strong evidence of the side’s dominance. After falling short of a grand final appearance in 88/89, Saints won the next three premierships, defeating rivals Darwin in all three grand finals. A surprise grand final loss in the 92/93 season saw the Saints respond by winning a further four premierships in-a-row. By now the Saints were well and truly the dominant force of the Territory competition. Between the 1994 and 1997, St Marys set an Australian Football senior record by going on a winning streak that lasted for an amazing 55 matches. The club has continued its winning ways claiming the most recent NTFL premiership with only one loss for the season.

St Mary’s has been a breeding ground for footballers that have become household names across Australia. The footy factory at the Saints has produced stars of the game including current Hawthorn livewire Cyril Rioli. As well as producing AFL talent, many players have gone on to make a name for themselves in other state leagues across Australia. David Kantilla was a pioneer for Tiwi Island footballers making the cultural leap in order to play in leagues outside of the Territory. Kantilla started with the Saints, playing two seasons before making the move to South Australia to play with South Adelaide in the SANFL. His SANFL career started with a bang with the lanky Islander thrilling the crowds from the onset and booting six goals in his first game. He went on to win both the club best and fairest and leading goalkicker award in his first season. By the end of his career he would become inducted into the South Adelaide Hall of Fame and be regarded as one of the most famous figures in Territory football. Another Saint that made the trek to South Australia to play football was a skilful half-forward by the name of Michael Graham. Known to the fans as “The Flash”, Graham played almost 300 games with Sturt and was undoubtedly one of the most exciting players in the SANFL competition during the 1970s. Saints has also had an unofficial connection with Western Australian club South Fremantle. Benny Vigona is one of many St Marys players that have left their mark with South Fremantle in the WAFL. After winning consecutive best and fairest awards with St Marys, Vigona made the move to the west and quickly became one of the most skilled players in the Western Australian competition.  

The Saints are well and truly a family club and has produced many famous football families in the Top End. Most notably is the Long family who in 2003 unbelievably notched 1000 senior games for St Marys between the seven brothers (Noel, Brian, Patrick, John, Steven, Chris and Michael). 1993 Norm Smith medallist Michael Long came out of retirement to make an appearance in a special game to celebrate the achievement of reaching the cumulative tally of 1000 senior games. The family set an Australian record with the most number of brothers playing in one side with six brothers playing together on two separate occasions. Their father Jack Snr, who donned the green and gold jumper in the 60s and 70s, is believed to have played over 200 games for the club. Though unfortunately, no exact number is known as many records were lost during Cyclone Tracy in 1974. Of course you cannot mention the Long family without also paying tribute to the Rioli family. Much is known about the late Maurice’s illustrious career at the top level with Richmond but he is definitely not the only Rioli to have an impact on the football club. Cyril Rioli Jnr, the father of current Hawthorn superstar, played 263 games including 12 premierships with the Saints. He possessed amazing skill and poise, which he has fortunately passed down to his son, for current football followers to enjoy. His brother, the late Sibby, was also a talented footballer and was seen as a human highlight reel in during his time with South Fremantle. Fortunately for the Saints the future looks very promising with members of the Long and Rioli family forming the current day St Marys line-up.

Not surprisingly many NTFL records are held by St Mary’s footballers. Michael Athanasiou is the competition’s games record holder with 328 (14 were played with Darwin). The consistent defender played in a record 12 premierships from his 17 grand finals (another record) with the Saints. Fast-leading full forward Dennis Dunn is the NTFL’s all-time leading goalkicker with 817. Dunn kicked seven or more goals on 46 occasions with his highest tally being a haul of 20 against Waratah. Another St Marys player Brian Stanislaus is second on the all-time list with 772 goals. The man known as “Broady” is regarded as possibly the greatest set shot for goal from within 40 metres to grace the field in the Territory.

John Taylor has unquestionably earned the title of super-coach. Taylor, originally from Geelong, was considered an outsider when he first arrived at the club in 1983, but it did not take long for him to gain the respect of the players and supporters. His amazing coaching record speaks for itself; in Taylor’s 13 years at the helm he steered the club to 11 premierships and one other grand final appearance. He coached 229 wins for only 23 losses resulting in a winning percentage of 90.87%, putting him in the Don Bradman class of football coaches. His coaching record is unlikely to be beaten and he is a life member of the football club.

The club’s home ground is TIO Stadium, the Territory’s premier football ground. The Saints also have an impressive clubhouse only a drop-punt away from the oval. The facility can be attributed to the hard work by former long serving president Vic Ludwig. Ludwig served as club president for 42 consecutive years between spanning from the early 1960s until the 21st century. In that time, the club only missed playing in the grand final nine times. St Marys are successful right through to the core achieving plenty with its women’s and juniors sides. The NTFL women’s competition commenced in 2005/06 and since then the Saints have won five out of a possible seven premierships. Likewise, the junior Saints sides have achieved much success, in particular the U16 side that went on a winning streak of 60 consecutive matches during the late 70s – an NTFL junior record.

The achievements of the Saints sides in previous decades have set a tough precedent for the current teams to follow. But the professional atmosphere and high standard the club sets for its players allows the side to maintain and build on this success. It is largely because of this that the modern day Saints continue to go marching in …

 

* Many of this information was provided by David “Rex” Nixon, a proud supporter of the St Marys FC.

 

Twitter – @JClark182

About Jackson Clark

Born and bred in Darwin, Northern Territory, I am a young, aspiring football writer that lives and breathes the game of Australian Football. I'm also a keen player and coach.

Comments

  1. Tavis Perry says:

    Well done Jacko,

    A really good read mate. They’re certainly an impressive club & I love how they develop their local players. They way they have run their club for the last 30yrs is similar to what Geelong have done since 2007. No doubt they’ll be hard to beat next season, too.

  2. Ted Egan’s life is quite unbelievable. St Mary’s is a success story by any judgement.

Leave a Comment

*