AFL Round 9 – St.Kilda v Gold Coast Suns: Kenny Whiffen Will Live Forever in our Hearts

Do you ever meet certain people in your life who have lived exactly as they were meant too?  Had good jobs, loving families, lived life to the fullest, spent their ordinary lives so well they become extraordinary and they are the last to know it?

I met one.  His name is Kenny Whiffen, and he is 86 years old.  We finally managed to sit down for two interviews in 2013.  He was introduced to me by the maddest St.Kilda supporter we both know, and I first met him at the 2010 Grand Final breakfast at M’s place.  A party that boasted Barry Breen and Mike Williamson and Kenny Whiffen.  A day that started SO perfectly but has left Saints supporters broken hearted.  But I introduced myself to Kenny on that day and we chatted.

When I continued to write for the Almanac, one of my side projects was to talk to St.Kilda supporters of long standing, to learn why and how they sustain their love of this team.  To be a Saints supporter you have to find joys in other things than Premierships, as well as enjoy that one, amazing and almost missed 1966 one.  M taught me to enjoy the one, the 1966.  He said we made it once, one day we will make it again.  M changed my brain chemistry, I went from the negative to the positive in footy terms, and now, I embrace 1966 and the hope that it entailed and just keep on trucking.  M arranged Kenny and I to meet, but it didn’t happen until January 3rd 2013.

I sat down and recorded my chats with Kenny and even though I transcribed the tapes, I have yet to properly write up the story.  He’d been at the club 49 years when I interviewed him.  On Sunday night, at the Saints v Suns game, he was honoured pre-match for his 50 years of service to the Club.  Fifty years.  Who does that anymore?  Who is involved both in work and then in a voluntary capacity for 50 years?  Kenny does.  It is what makes him such an incredible person, and his story an amazing one.

The pregame presentation was from Robert Harvey, a legend himself and an appropriate choice, both beloved St.Kilda men.  Kenny was his natural humble self, as he thanked the St.Kilda Football Club for allowing him to be involved all these years and for the joy that it has bought to him.  HE thanked the Club.  The crowd gave an almighty cheer to Kenny, all 5000 of us who were at the game early. The end crowd was a miserly 11,600.

Nevertheless, Kenny was in his trainer gear as he still goes down to the rooms and helps with massages and bandaging.  He is still one of the men who service our young men.  Only months ago he lost his beloved wife Betty, after a long and happy marriage.  She had bought me afternoon tea both times I had visited, and I had bought them apricots from my tree and sugarless apricot jam.  It was good to know that Kenny continued on his contact with the Club, and it formally recognised him again for his service.

Other than the third quarter, it was the best part of the afternoon.  So as I miss the injured Armitage, Dennis-Lane, Gwilt, Fischer, Hickey, Gilbert, Wright, Templeton and Geary from our team, and watch our new young men learn the game and show flashes of brilliance, and as I watch the older players keep trying to keep this group together and propelling their development, I will contemplate some of the things I now know about Kenny.

Kenny said that if all the Saints supporters actually became members, we’d have a supporter base as big as Collingwood.  There are many out there who love their Saints, even though, using Kenny’s word, there hasn’t been much success.

Kenny’s association with the St.Kilda Football Club began in 1965.  He had played football himself, as well as been a boxer, and decided he wanted to become a trainer and work with footballers, so he, as well as working as a storeman for Myers (a job he had for 40 years), studied to become a trainer in 1964.  While he was studying, he met a St.Kilda administrator who suggested he come down to the Club and meet the coaching staff and players and be a trainer there.  This is how the love affair began.  He had grown up in Carlton and supported the Blues, but the moment he accepted the job at Junction Oval, he was a Sainter through and through.

From 1965, he would do training with the seconds until ¾ time and then get ready to help the firsts.   He said Essendon were the best side in 1965 (the Saints were minor premiers), becoming the Premiers, and even the best side in 1966.  He remembered what a terrible rainy and stormy day the Preliminary Final in 1966 was when the Saints played a better Essendon team.  He saw that the conditions on the day nullified Essendon’s skills and the Saints physical strength came through to get St.Kilda into the 1966 Grand Final.

Up until the Grand Final Day, Kenny was a trainer.  On the day, the normal runner, Ronnie Wilson, was crook, and Jeansy, the coach, asked Kenny to step in, so Kenny was the runner on that fateful day.  He said football was all about luck.  The bounce of a ball (2010), the conditions on a day (Preliminary Final 1966), what injuries the team had (2009).  It was all luck.

He said he jumped up and hugged Jeansy, with all the others in 1966.  He was sitting next to him when Barry Breen kicked the historic point, and the ball was grabbed by Des Tuttenham who kicked it forward, where Bob Murray marked in defence, and kicked it to Alan Morrow.  Jeansy asked Kenny how long was there to play, and Kenny answered 2-3 minutes, but when Bob Murray kicked it forward it was marked and the siren went and they all jumped on the Coach.  Kenny said when I re-watch the match again, he was in a black tea-shirt and cap. [I subsequently re-watched it, took photos with my IPhone and showed Kenny the pictures of himself.  He has never watched the replay that was given to him all those years ago.]

He said that if Murray had not marked it, Collingwood would have only have had to kick a point and it would have been all tied up in a draw.  If the Pies had kicked a goal, it would be just another Grand Final that the Saints had lost.

Kenny also said that during the run into the finals, Baldock was injured.  “Jeansy had asked him, can you go on?  They didn’t want him to go on at all, and of course, as soon as Baldock got off the bench, the crowd just roared, they just went mad.  It just lifted them like that.  It’s an unbelievable thing how they can lift.  I remember a match we played when Paul Callery got hurt, we played Hawthorn out at Carlton, and our reserves got beat by about 20 goals and we were about 10-11 goals down just before half time. Callery was only a little fella, he was the shortest bloke playing football, and the ball came in the centre and he got knocked down.  I ran out to him, I was the first one to get to him and he was choking.  I got his mouthguard out, and rolled him over and big Carl said, “Look what they done to your little mate, look what the so and so’s have done to your mate, and there was a bit of a fight starting and we went off at half time.  When they came back, they just lifted.  Goal after goal after goal.  And I will never forget it if I live to be 110, the crowd on the outer started to sing ‘When the Saints Come Marching In’, you know.  We were about 10-11 goals down, we were getting hammered, and they just lifted.  The ironic part about it was it wasn’t one of their players who knocked Callery down, it was Garry Colling.  Garry Colling was ruck rover and Callery was a rover, and he ran through and hit him with his hip.  And big Carl was saying, look what the mongrels have done. They finished up beating Hawthorn, it was terrific.  Unbelievable.”

This was in the 70’s. We talked about the effect of the crowd, and the 2009 game when you could feel the Saints fans becoming deflated.  Kenny said, “I remember Plugger saying that to play in front of that Grand Stand at Moorabbin made him a two or three goal better player.  He was a great fella.  A great guy. Very introverted, that’s why he got into so much trouble with the people interviewing him, he was very introverted, he [Plugger] would rather sit down and talk to people like us.”

Plugger preferred people he knew, and Kenny and he got on exceptionally well.  I said I imagined he’d get on with most players, and he replied:

“Well, I treat them as people, not as heroes.  You know, like I remember Burkey saying to Lowey, what do you think they’ll say about Whiffo when he goes?  Lowey said, “He said what he meant”.  That’s what I’ve always done.  I won’t mention his name, but we had one player there we got from Hawthorn, very ordinary player, but he came whinging to me one day that he wasn’t getting a go, you know, they won’t give me a go, I said, you know why you’re not getting a game, don’t you”, I said, because you can’t so and so play.  I put it right.  He left us and went to a VFL club and they dropped him, and he went to a junior club, and they dropped him.  I’ve never cow-towed to them.  I have always treated them like people you know, and it goes down all right.  It’s been a great journey.  I miss it now, but I’ve got to understand that I’m 85 years old.  It’s got to stop sometime.”

(For the rest of us mortals, a lesser number would have said it all.  For Kenny, it was 85!) That said, Kenny still goes down to Seaford and games and did what he did before.  He still rubs and still tapes but he doesn’t go onto the ground.  He goes on match day and does the same thing, looks after the players.

When he goes to the games, his wife Betty and daughter Joanne used to sit up in the player/family section.  He is proud of his daughter Joanne, who he says knows football backwards and forwards.  He used to take her down to the ground level as a little tiny tot, until she got older and he couldn’t take her down in front of the men. [Joanne married this year, to a man who played for the Saints for 7 games, hurt his shoulder and had to retire. Kenny and Betty shared this wonderful event in their family and Betty passed away shortly after.]

Kenny has not missed one game in all those years, but he told me he was so crook one game, the coaches sent him home, but he went up into the grandstand to watch his Saints instead.

He is the proud recipient of the Jack Titus Award, from the AFL, for services to Football.  He proudly showed me his award before I left his place.  He worked beside the champions, worked with Alan Jeans for 9 years, worked with Baldock and Breen and Smith and all the coaches and players.  He worked with Teddy Whitten and Bob Skilton in State of Origin matches as a trainer.  He connects to the players and treats them as equals, and therefore has long and good relationships with so many of the boys and men over the years.

He told stories of Alan Jeans, they became fast and true friends until Jeans died.  Jeansy was a police officer, and organised for Kenny to teach boxing and fitness to police at their gym.  When he started, Kenny said players were paid £13 per week, and the coach received £16 per week.  Jeansy had to ask the Police Service permission to work a second job.  They asked him how much he would be paid.  When he told them, they laughed and wondered why he’d bother. But Kenny said that Jeans insisted he be paid the same sum as the highest paid coach at the time, and he got it.

Alan Jeans served his apprenticeship under Coach Allen Killigrew, who both my Uncle Bob (a member for 65 years) and Kenny attributed the change in attitude of St.Kilda players, and the supporters, to winning.  Kenny remembers that Allen Killigrew not only pushed the players and demanded a winning culture, but had his people stir up the crowd to begin to make noise and barrack, and as the supporters supported, the players grew more confident.  The noise in the stands bought the players to life.  According to Wikipedia, Killigrew was a small man (163 cm or 5 ft 4 in), a small but effective rover for 78 matches for St.Kilda from 1938 to 1941, and 1941-1943.  He was club champion in 1940.

In 1956, when I was one year old, when the Olympics were in Melbourne, Killigrew coached the St.Kilda Football Club, demanding “guts and determination”, emphasising fast running and the use of hand pass as an offensive tactic.  He led St.Kilda to its first night premiership in 1958. He departed when he lost the support of the club, and went on to coach in the SANFL, for North Melbourne and in the WAFL.

Allan Jeans began coaching the Saints in 1960 with his first year as Coach in Season 1961.  His own 77 games for St.Kilda were mostly under coach Killigrew.  Kenny remembers his speeches to the men.  How rousing he was.  He remembers Allan as a good and long-time friend, mentor, companion and a champion of a man. Allan Jeans coached St.Kilda for 16 years, even taking them to another Grand Final appearance in 1971.  He retired from Coaching the Saints in 1976, but came back in 1981 to coach Hawthorn Football club until 1990 (except for 1999).  Under Allan Jeans, the Hawks won four Premierships from seven consecutive Grand Finals.  He finally retired after coaching Richmond in 1992.

In the 1971 Premiership loss to Hawthorn, Kenny is the trainer with the dark black hair.

Kenny has worked with all the Saints coaches since Allan Jeans, 16 in all (Eric Guy, Ross G. Smith, Mike Patterson, Alex Jesaulenko, Tony Jewell, Graeme Gellie, Darrel Baldock, Allan Davis, Ken Sheldon, Stan Alves, Tim Watson, Malcolm Blight, Grant Thomas, Ross Lyon, Scott Watters and now Alan Richardson.)  Quite a list.

We talked about all the ovals that the Saints have called home.  Kenny started working when the Saints started at Junction Oval, believing it was one of the best playing areas there was.  He said it was beautiful, except when it rained.  There were small grandstands, one little wooden one behind the goals and the other one.  Back in the day [and still now – interesting that Junction Oval is again in the spotlight as a possible other site for the Saints] it was run by the St.Kilda Cricket Club and the St.Kilda Social Club and the footy club couldn’t “get a go”.  In the Saints last year there, the training was between the two ovals, a little bit of grass part between the two.  The outside oval was being used by cricket and the main oval was being used by cricket and Kenny said Saints had to train in this little bit of parkland.  The Saints wanted to get a gymnasium but the powers to be wouldn’t give the Saints a space and that’s when the club decided to move to Moorabbin. [And even though they will keep the Seaford base as home, Moorabbin will be once again a place for the Saints second team and the museum (which is well worth a look).]

I was glad to get to know the history of the Saints through Kenny’s eyes, to meet his lovely wife, to chat with the most down to earth guy, and have these stories to share with others when our club is again struggling at the beginning of a new era.

Kenny Whiffen is part of the St.Kilda I love and it fills my heart with warmth that St.Kilda love him back with all their heart.  Go Saints.  Go Whiffo.

About Yvette Wroby

Yvette Wroby writes, cartoons, paints through life and gets most pleasure when it's about football, and more specifically the Saints. Believes in following dreams and having a go.


  1. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Great story Yvette and well played , Kenny Whiffen ultimate clubman ! I had the pleasure and privilege of playing under , Allan Killigrews coaching at , Norwood High he was the hot gospeller inspiring and a gentle man obviously I can’t speak highly enough of him , there was a amusing moment when , Bob Skilton came to present the trophies at presentation night , Killer introduced me saying I had the best football brain he had ever coached , Bob Skilton thinks he is being introduced to a champion followed by pity he can’t play . I thought it was funny and took it as a compliment

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