Almanac Footy Life: Billy Duckworth – Dudinin to domination

 

I was lucky to play in the era I did. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I put a lot down to Sheeds. I probably didn’t think I had the ability to play in the VFL, but it was Sheeds who eventually convinced me. Things fell into place for me at the right time.

 

  • Billy Duckworth – June 2024

 

 

Billy after a round of golf, at the nineteenth hole.

 

 

Dudinin is a small town around three hours east of Perth in Western Australia’s wheat belt. The district features sprawling broadacre farms, and the town has a population of 72 people. Billy Duckworth was farm-grown in Dudinin among the wheat and sheep. As a kid, he thought he was destined for a life on the farm. Originally, the 5000-hectare farm belonged to Duckworth’s grandfather on his mum’s side.

 

‘Mum was an only child so dad got lucky,’ Duckworth said of inheriting the farm. ‘I think it’s 100 years we’ve had it next year.’

 

His father, Arthur, was a prisoner of war during World War Two. Upon his return, he played cricket and footy for the local country side. Duckworth’s mum, Jess, was a good runner, a sprinter. Duckworth has a sister, Heather, and two brothers, John and Rodney, who is still working the farm. The parents encouraged their four children to play sport. As the youngest, Duckworth joked that his parents saved the best for last.

 

‘Coming from a farming background, we always played sport on Saturday,’ Duckworth said. ‘They’d stop working to take us to sport.’

 

He played junior footy and cricket for the local team. His father was a mad golfer once he retired from cricket. Duckworth recalls playing golf with his father at the local club.

 

‘Sand greens and natural grass on the fairways,’ Duckworth said. ‘Mum and dad were both involved heavily involved in the local golf club.’

 

In 1976, when Duckworth was 17, he went to Perth to study at TAFE. His brother John played with Fitzroy, West Perth and won the Magarey Medal in 1979 with Central District in South Australia. With Duckworth in Perth, officials from West Perth asked him to play Colts. At the time, he was living with three mates who enjoyed a good time. Duckworth found the training hard, and it interfered with his fun.

 

‘I was just out of school and I didn’t really have much commitment to it,’ he admitted. ‘So I gave that up.’

 

After a year in Perth, he went back home, playing football for Kondinin who were coached by his brother Rodney. Back then, the Western Australian Football League (WAFL) had country zones. Duckworth lived in the Claremont zone, but Kondinin were in the West Perth zone. With John’s history at West Perth, and Duckworth a West Perth supporter, it made sense for the club to extend another invitation.

 

‘They asked me to come down to try out,’ he said. ‘To do that, I had to get a clearance from Claremont to West Perth.’

 

Duckworth fronted for preseason training in 1980. Former Fitzroy player Graham Campbell was coach. Duckworth recalls about 120 players on the oval that first evening, all hoping to get a game. Campbell looked at the masses and told the forwards to form a group.

 

‘I was a half forward flanker in the bush,’ Duckworth said. ‘About eighty percent of the players went to the forward line. I thought I’ll go back. It’s probably going to be easier to get a game.’

 

Duckworth approached training as he did with the colts, admitting he wasn’t committed. He shunned the preseason, but his early-season form crossed interstate borders. Late in the season, a St Kilda official called him, offering a ticket to the VFL grand final. Duckworth had never been to Melbourne.

 

‘I had never been on a plane at that stage,’ he said.

 

Duckworth agreed to be St Kilda’s guest at the grand final. When Fitzroy and Essendon officials called and offered a grand final ticket, he told them he was going with St Kilda. The Essendon official ignored that, calling each week to find out if he’d changed his mind. Duckworth hadn’t. Essendon’s persistent official asked for a meeting when Duckworth was in Melbourne.

 

When Duckworth won the WAFL’s Rookie of the Year, Essendon upped the chase. A week before the grand final, the official called again, and asked if he would be in Melbourne for the grand final.

 

‘I haven’t heard from St Kilda, so I’ll go with you,’ Duckworth said.

 

The next day, the St Kilda official called, and Duckworth said their lack of contact had swung him Essendon’s way. On grand final day, Duckworth watched Richmond defeat Collingwood by 81-points. During the weekend, he signed a Form Four with Essendon, which tied him to the club for four years. In return for his signature, Essendon gave him $15,000. As for St Kilda, Duckworth never found time to meet with them.

 

To boost their chances at luring Duckworth east, Essendon sent him on the players trip at the end of the 1980 season.

 

‘A free trip to America as well,’ Duckworth said.

 

When he returned from America, he went back to the farm. ‘It was never a dream of mine to play VFL,’ he said.

 

Working on the farm, he played baseball and cricket during the summer. Long after preseason had begun, he went back to West Perth and his second year wasn’t as productive.

 

‘I got rubbed out for four or five weeks,’ he said.

 

The second-year blues, punctuated by an act of violence. It didn’t deter Essendon. Their new coach, Kevin Sheedy, would not be denied. Distance be damned. Duckworth recalls Sheedy flying to Perth a few times and driving three hours to the farm with his team manager.

 

‘He obviously saw something,’ Duckworth said. ‘We thought it was quite good. Mum would get the best cutlery out and have jam and cream scones. Dad would milk a cow.’

 

Despite the visits, Duckworth wasn’t sure if he would head east to the most demanding football competition in Australia. He was happy working on the farm and playing in the WAFL.

 

The decision to go

 

A week into January 1982, Duckworth was still at home. Contracted to West Perth, he wondered what to do – return to the club or head east. There was no urgency in his thinking. Despite being under contract, no one from West Perth contacted him, which bothered him. The days rolled on. One morning while lying in bed, he figured it out.

 

‘I woke up and said to mum I’m probably gonna go to Melbourne and give it a crack,’ he said. ‘I got in my car and drove over. Took me two weeks. I wasn’t very quick. Drove over with a mate. We got stuck a few times.’

 

It’s about 3,500 kilometres from Perth to Melbourne. Truckies can do the National Highway in three or four days. In his Cortina, Duckworth took his time. Stuck meant staying in small towns, settling in a pub for a counter meal and a few beers. Maybe staying an extra night and enjoying the local hospitality. As he drove through the arid Nullarbor, Duckworth figured he’d train a few times and see how it went.

 

Renting a house near Queens Park in Moonee Ponds, he fronted at Windy Hill in late January, unfit after eating pies and drinking beer during the road trip. He wasn’t prepared for the transition from the WAFL to the VFL.

 

‘The initial three months was murder,’ Duckworth said. ‘I had to train with a plastic bag on so I would sweat out the weight.’

 

During training, Sheedy watched his new recruit and scrutinised his skills with a frown. When Duckworth kicked on his left foot, he dropped the footy with both hands. Sheedy pulled him aside one night. ‘You have to learn to kick left foot,’ he said.

 

Before training sessions, Sheedy ordered Duckworth to practice the ball drop without a football for a few weeks. Then Sheedy gave him a football and told him to kick it to himself for a few weeks. Then Sheedy told him to kick on his left foot to a teammate who was ten metres away. Sheedy wanted Duckworth to get the ball drop correct, and wouldn’t budge on the exercises until kicking on his left foot came naturally.

 

‘I had to do that before training for about two months when I first started,’ Duckworth said. ‘In the end I could kick equally well on either foot. That’s just Sheeds saying let’s get the basics right.’

 

He trained with Neil and Terry Daniher, both mad trainers. Sheedy pushed the group through sprint repetitions – 10×400 – 10×200 – 10×100 – and that was just to finish training.

 

‘I’d never done any of that in my life,’ Duckworth said. ‘It was tough. I thought I’d get sent home. Eventually I got a bit thinner and was able to keep up with it.’

 

Welcome to the VFL. Murder…

 

Duckworth was given number 22. His first contract at Essendon was slightly better than his deal at West Perth, where he received $150 a win and $100 a loss. He didn’t care. He just wanted to play.

 

Before the 1982 season, Duckworth was interviewed by Lou Richards on Wide World of Sport. Duckworth wore a red and white striped t-shirt, his moppy brown hair down to his eyebrows. Richards introduced him as a star recruit from Western Australia, and asked about his background.

 

‘I played with West Perth back in the WAFL,’ Duckworth said. ‘I come from a farm back over there about 30 miles from where Ross Ditchburn comes from at Carlton. I played centre-half-back mainly for West Perth or a half back flank.’

 

‘Now you say you live on a farm just near Ross Ditchburn,’ Richards said. ‘Got a big property there?’

 

‘About 5,000 acres.’

 

‘What do you run there?’

 

‘Sheep and wheat.’

 

‘Well, football wouldn’t be a profitable proposition for you really would it?’

 

‘Oh no.’ Duckworth grinned. ‘I only really play for the joy of football.’

 

He appeared uncomfortable on screen, but had the expression of a man could only smile at how serious football was.

 

On the field, he found his comfort zone. Duckworth debuted in the opening round of the 1982 season against Footscray at Windy Hill. Essendon kicked 29 goals and won by 109-points.

 

‘I’ve probably gotten there at the right time,’ Duckworth said. ‘To get a foot in the door before we got real powerful.’

 

In his debut season, Duckworth played 20 games. Injury forced him out of Essendon’s elimination final loss to North Melbourne, but he had made his mark.

 

Duckworth looked like a country footballer. Socks down, jumper out, moppy brown hair and a no-nonsense smile. He stood 187cm tall and weighed 85kg. He played like a country footballer, and that is no criticism. He had that larrikin streak, and didn’t seem to take football too seriously. He was more skilful than people gave him credit for. What set him apart from his larrikin streak was effort. He hated losing, and approached every contest with one intent – to win it. His competitiveness at the ball and the man shone, and those watching knew he would never yield. When Duckworth was near the football, expectation rose.

 

1983 – interrupted by injury

 

In round one, Essendon played Sydney at the SCG. After the disappointment of 1982, much was expected of the Bombers. Sydney led by 48-points at quarter time. Duckworth was on the bench, his ankle in ice, watching the futile comeback. Sydney won by a point. On Monday, scans confirmed an ankle reconstruction.

 

‘That was my first operation,’ he said. ‘First real bad footy injury.’

 

Missing fourteen weeks, he came back in round 16 against North Melbourne. The 21-point loss kept Essendon in fourth place, where they would remain until the end of the season.

 

In the elimination final, Essendon knocked Carlton out by 33-points. They defeated Fitzroy by 23-points in the semi-final, and thrashed North by 86-points in the preliminary final. The win put Essendon into their first grand final since 1968.

 

Duckworth couldn’t play. In the preliminary final, during a scuffle with Jimmy Krakouer, his brother Phil ran in.

 

‘Phil drove his knee into my leg,’ Duckworth said. ‘I copped a very bad corky. I wouldn’t have played for four weeks.’

 

Looking back, Duckworth isn’t sure if Phil deliberately kneed him. ‘I’ve got no issues with that,’ he said. ‘That was footy back then.’

 

Sheedy ordered treatment. Duckworth iced the corky and had massage. After the grand final parade, he was put through a fitness test.

 

‘I couldn’t even move,’ he said. ‘I had to tell Sheeds I was no good.’

 

Sheedy picked Duckworth anyway, instructed him to take his bag to the MCG and pretend he was playing. Duckworth was told to stay in the rooms until the team sheets had been submitted to VFL officials.

 

‘In the end I got sick of it and walked out,’ he said.

 

Duckworth watched helplessly as Essendon lost by 83-points, a record grand final defeat at the time. He knew Essendon had a good list, but there were no future guarantees. Thinking it might be his only chance at a premiership, he was shattered.

 

‘That was the disappointing thing,’ he said. ‘You don’t know if you’re gonna get back there the next year.’

 

Sheedy’s address at the grand final wake is infamous. He roasted the players, and sent a jibe to supporters who were happy to make the grand final. Not good enough to get there, was Sheedy’s blunt message.

 

‘That was probably fair enough,’ Duckworth said. But he revealed that larrikin streak as he listened to Sheedy’s rant. ‘We’re all probably half a dozen beers in by then. I really didn’t take too much notice.’

 

The following day, when Duckworth woke in a haze, he was disappointed. The realisation set in. Supporters were despondent. The players couldn’t hide from the result. And Sheedy’s rant was front and centre.

 

‘He was probably most upset about it. All the players were,’ Duckworth said. ‘That was his way of getting across the point that we had to get better.’

 

 

1984 – the comeback

 

In 1983, Duckworth married Diana, his sweetheart from Western Australia. They bought a house in Moonee Ponds on the other side of Queen’s Park. Close to Puckle Street and Windy Hill, they were immersed in the local community, which featured rabid Essendon fans. He was recognised wherever he went, as all Essendon players were. There were great nights on the booze after a win. Duckworth heard the story about a player, long into his cups, knocking on a random door near Windy Hill and being given a couch to sleep on. Back then, Essendon, as all clubs did, had a bunch of players who partied and played hard.

 

It was a different era, where players could drink, smoke and do things other people did without recriminations. An era where players had responsibilities beyond football.

 

‘We worked during the day,’ Duckworth said. ‘Then you’d get to training. Three hours of training and your gym work and then if you needed a rub or ice treatment. You’d start at five and you wouldn’t get home until eight or nine.’

 

Sheedy trained his players on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and most Thursdays. Friday was a day off, then the game on Saturday and rehab on Sunday. His message during 1984 was simple – work hard – and the players responded.

 

‘We realised we had a good side and we had a chance,’ Duckworth said. ‘We were probably driven. It’s hard to really say. I used to play footy because I liked it.’

 

Essendon finished on top, with eighteen wins and four losses. Two of those defeats were to Hawthorn. In the semi-final, it was Hawthorn again by eight points. Forced into a preliminary final, Essendon took their wrath out on Collingwood, winning by 133-points.

 

The win set up another grand final clash with their nemesis – Hawthorn.

 

Duckworth started the grand final on Matthews, which was no surprise. It was no surprise when Matthews kicked the first goal after thirty seconds. When Duckworth upended Matthews with an elbow to the ribs and set him on his back, that was no surprise either. In a fury, Matthews regained his feet and held one finger up at Duckworth. It could’ve been a warning, which from Matthews was a violent caution, or it might’ve been an indication of the first goal.

 

Shaking his head, Duckworth appeared to wonder what all the fuss was about. Moments later, Colin Robertson ran into an open goal. Duckworth put the burners on and almost caught him. Under fire, Duckworth barged Brereton out of the way on the wing, knocking him over. Eight minutes in, Hawthorn led by 23-points, and Sheedy sent an instruction to Simon Madden to start a fight. Madden proved his clumsy pugilistic ability against Ian Paton and got reported. When Tuck took a mark around 45 metres from goal, momentum carried him to the ground. As Duckworth jogged past, he was clumsy with his feet and grazed Tuck’s shins. The resultant 15-metre penalty put Tuck closer to goal, but he missed. Minutes later, Duckworth took a chest mark at the top of the goal square and Matthews lurked nearby with his fist up. Too late to spoil, he clouted the back of Duckworth’s head. Rubbing his head, Duckworth took the 15-metre penalty and glared at Matthews as if to say it didn’t hurt.

 

Hawthorn led by 21-points at quarter time. In the second quarter, Ken Judge goaled. Duckworth grabbed him by the face and Judge reciprocated. Duckworth accentuated the contact, but umpire Glen James gave the all-clear and the Hawks led by four goals. Midway through the second quarter, the Hawks put five consecutive shots at goal on the full. When Matthews got a break on Duckworth at a throw in deep in the forward pocket for his second goal, Hawthorn led by 33-points.

 

In desperation, Sheedy moved Duckworth up forward. ‘He probably moved me because I was getting a flogging from Leigh,’ Duckworth said. He responded, and kicked Essendon’s first goal of the quarter at the 20-minute mark. The margin at halftime was 25-points. Nine minutes into the third quarter, Matthews’s third goal put Hawthorn five goals up. Goals to Leon Baker and Duckworth reduced the margin to 17-points. Late in the quarter, Judge broke free in the middle. From centre-half-forward, Duckworth sprinted and almost got him, but Judge’s kick found Brereton who set the margin at 23-points at the last change.

 

In the huddle, Duckworth wasn’t too concerned. ‘They got that early break,’ he said. ‘It was probably goal for goal during the second and third quarters. The lead never got out to any great margin.’

 

Sheedy gathered his players close for one last attempt at inspiration. ‘Hawthorn are tired, they’re flagging,’ he said. ‘They didn’t play last week. Just get the first goal.’

 

Essendon ran riot. Four goals in eight minutes put them in front. Midway through the final quarter, Duckworth was back in defence, replacing Kevin Walsh who had been knocked out by Robert DiPierdomenico’s elbow. The game, which had been a dour struggle for three quarters, opened up. Essendon kicked 9:6:54, a record final quarter in a grand final, and turned a 23-point margin into a 24-point win.

 

Only two teams – Essendon and Hawthorn (1971 – 20 points) have trailed by 20-points or more at three-quarter-time and won the premiership. Only eleven premierships have been won by the team trailing at three-quarter-time. Historically, Essendon’s win was a standout. No other team has won a grand final after trailing by 23-points at three-quarter-time.

 

Sheedy’s moves paid off. ‘You give him credit,’ Duckworth said. ‘He was willing to throw people around and mix things up. That was his coaching philosophy.’

 

As the players formed a celebratory huddle, Duckworth thought briefly about the last quarter and the belief that came with that first goal. He enjoyed the last quarter like no other. He wasn’t paying attention when the Norm Smith medallist was announced. ‘I thought what have I won?’ he said. ‘I didn’t grasp it. I didn’t understand it at the time.’

 

Pushed from the huddle, he jogged down the narrow aisle to accept the Norm Smith Medal as best on ground. With the medal around his neck, he punched the air and went to jog back to the huddle when Channel Seven’s Stephen Phillips pulled him aside. ‘We knew we just had to keep plugging away and the ball would come our way,’ Duckworth told Phillips. ‘And it did. It’s unbelievable.’

 

‘Go join in,’ Phillips said.

 

‘I bloody will.’ Elated, Duckworth ran back to his teammates.

 

Perhaps caught up in the euphoria of victory, club officials didn’t organise a photo of the premiership side for a couple of months. Duckworth was in Western Australia for a quick visit, and said he wasn’t flying back for a day. He asked if the photo could be taken when he returned. Unwilling to wait, club officials took the photo. In an era before digital technology, they used a file photo of Duckworth.

 

‘I look like I’ve got black eyes,’ he said. ‘My head is superimposed on it.’

 

 

 

 

1985 – another season interrupted

 

Duckworth was fit in the preseason. No plastic bags on his body at training, no left foot drills, and though he didn’t exactly enjoy training, it was easier. ‘It was probably the first time I’ve done a preseason,’ he said. ‘I used to go back to the farm during the summer. And I decided to stay in Melbourne.’

 

Round three at Waverley against Hawthorn. The ball in dispute. Duckworth running at Rodney Eade. A collision left Duckworth limping, his knee in agony. ‘I hit his hip bone,’ Duckworth said.

 

Scans revealed damage to the posterior cruciate ligament. Avoiding surgery, his leg was encased in plaster for ten weeks. ‘That was horrendous,’ Duckworth said. ‘My leg wasted away. It was disappointing. I was probably in my prime. You can handle three or four week injuries, but that was another 16 weeks.’

 

With Duckworth absent, Essendon were entrenched on top. He came back in round 20 against Melbourne, and retained his place for the finals. Essendon defeated Hawthorn by 40-points in the semi-final. Their opponents in the grand final would again be Hawthorn. The Bombers led all day and went into the last change with a five-goal lead. In the final quarter, they broke the record they set in 1984, kicking 11:3:69 to win by 78-points.

 

Duckworth ran up to the dais and accepted his second premiership medal. ‘I was very fortunate,’ he said. ‘Very lucky Sheeds had faith in me. We had it won halfway during the last quarter. So you enjoy the game a bit more, have a bit more freedom.’

 

Essendon dominated the season. For Duckworth, the first premiership was special because the club hadn’t won a grand final for 18 years. Back-to-back premierships confirmed Essendon’s class, and as winter turned to summer, Duckworth recalled the grand final with pride. Winning grand finals was magnificent.

 

‘They always are,’ he said. ‘That’s what you played footy for.’

 

Over summer, rival coaches wondered how to stop the juggernaut. Essendon was expected to dominate again. Opposition supporters grumbled at the thought of a three-peat.

 

 

1986 to 1988 – the comedown

 

 

In 1986, the Duckworths welcomed their first child, Stacey. In the offseason, Merv Neagle left Essendon for Sydney. Duckworth missed the first five weeks through injury. In round three, Tim Watson injured his knee and required a reconstruction. Essendon sat on top until round five, when further injuries hit the club. By round 12, they were a game outside the five before limping into fifth place. The final round against North Melbourne at Windy Hill was academic. Needing to win by about 300 points to make the finals, North led by 52-points at quarter time.

 

Duckworth didn’t see out the game. He didn’t see Ross Glendinning’s forearm. Usually impeccably fair, Glendinning lined Duckworth up at half forward and put him in an ambulance. In his playing gear, Duckworth lay on a hospital bed. Diana was with him, concern etched onto her face. Despite feeling drowsy, he knew a final was coming up and didn’t want to be ruled out through concussion. He turned to Diana, and hatched a plan.

 

‘You’ve gotta remember,’ he said. ‘Tell me when the doctor comes. If he asks how many kids I have, six or none, you’ve gotta come up with some signs so I can get out of here.’

 

The ruse worked.

 

On Thursday night at training, Sheedy eyeballed Duckworth in the rooms. ‘Are you right?’

 

‘Yeah, I’m good,’ Duckworth said.

 

‘Doc Reid said you’re not playing.’ Sheedy shrugged. ‘Bring your bag out and we’ll make a decision on Saturday morning.’

 

On Saturday, stinging rain tumbled down at Waverley. The ground was slosh. Duckworth carried his bag into the changerooms where Sheedy sought him out. ‘Are you good?’

 

‘Yeah, good as gold, I’m right to go,’ Duckworth said.

 

‘Okay, you’re playing then.’

 

Duckworth dressed to play, and Doc Reid fronted him. ‘What are you doing?’ Reid asked.

 

‘I’m playing.’

 

‘Who said you’re playing?’

 

‘The coach.’

 

Horrified, Reid hurried off to have a word with Sheedy. Despite his protestations, Duckworth played against Fitzroy. In miserable conditions, he kicked two goals in a one-point loss, and believes he wasn’t impacted by concussion. ‘That was the way it was then,’ he said. ‘You just played. Not being a hero or anything.’

 

A season that started out with talk of a three-peat dissipated in the rain, courtesy of Mick Conlan’s late goal.

 

In 1987, Essendon couldn’t get a run-on. Hamstring injuries kept Duckworth on the sidelines until round five, and he found himself the swingman again, regularly moved from a dangerous forward to kick a few goals. He played 14 games, kicking fifteen goals, and appeared at times to be hampered by injury.

 

‘That’s frustrating but that’s life,’ he said. ‘You can’t do anything about it. I probably wasn’t the most diligent trainer or look after myself too well.’

 

By 1988, Duckworth was 29, a wily veteran. He turned the clock back, playing 20 games in that swingman role between defence and attack. Again, Duckworth kicked 15 goals, usually when they were needed, including four in his hundredth game against Hawthorn.

 

In the return game against Hawthorn in round 18, Duckworth lined up against Brereton. Late in the third quarter, Jason Dunstall took a mark about ten metres from goal and went to ground clutching the ball. Duckworth’s feet harmlessly landed in the vicinity of Dunstall’s head. Mistakenly, Brereton thought Duckworth trod on Dunstall’s head. Grinning menacingly, Brereton grabbed Duckworth, who was grinning mischievously. Snarling, Brereton pulled Duckworth close and gave him a kiss.

 

‘That’s what we’re famous for,’ Duckworth said.

 

A famous kiss, a fleeting peck on the lips in a simmering moment. Better a kiss than a punch. Duckworth grinned in disbelief and mouthed off. Prodding Brereton with his forearms, one went dangerously close to Brereton’s chin. Brereton pushed Duckworth in the face, and umpire Ian Clayton paid a free kick as Dunstall kicked for goal.

 

Duckworth seemed bemused. Anthony Daniher patted Brereton on the head. Duckworth patted Brereton on the head as he ran past. Brereton argued with Clayton, then swore and heaved a frustrated breath. His frustration rose with each step and he barged through Essendon’s huddle. As Brereton said years later, he had never been angrier in his life.

 

‘I always regret that,’ Duckworth said. ‘He ran through the huddle but he was out the other side before we even knew what had happened. We were listening to Sheedy and he’s just come through. If we had seen him coming, one of us would have got him.’

 

Brereton is probably the only player in VFL/AFL history to barge through the opposition’s huddle. It is brave to do that. Crazy brave.

 

‘That’s Dermott,’ Duckworth said. ‘Flamboyant and he could play. He’s a terrific bloke. He was an entertainer.’

 

Essendon missed the finals by a game.

 

In 1988, the Duckworth family extended, with the addition of Michael.

 

1989-90 – the rebuild and the end

 

As Essendon rebounded in 1989, Duckworth was stuck on the sidelines. Hamstring injuries kept him out until round seven, and he would miss four more games later in the season. Coming back in round 22 against Melbourne, he was best on ground with 25 disposals, ten marks and a goal. The following week, Essendon defeated Geelong by 76-points in the qualifying-final. Duckworth was defeated by his hamstring, which ruled him out for the year. Without Duckworth, Essendon lost a semi-final against Hawthorn by 36-points and the preliminary final to Geelong by 94-points.

 

‘That was the reason they got beaten,’ Duckworth quipped of his injured hamstring.

 

At the end of the season, he told Sheedy he was done. ‘I wasn’t gonna play on,’ Duckworth said.

 

Sheedy convinced him otherwise. ‘No, you’ll play.’

 

Duckworth decided to go round again. Essendon played North Melbourne in the preseason grand final at Waverley. The six-goal win was expected, but Duckworth ended the game on the bench with another hamstring injury. He returned to the team in round four, only to reinjure it. Missing five weeks, he came back against Sydney in round ten, for the same result – another hamstring injury.

 

Sitting on the sidelines was frustrating. ‘I knew my time was up halfway during the year,’ Duckworth said. ‘The chairman of selectors said I wasn’t getting another game.’

 

Perturbed, he sought a meeting with Sheedy, who offered a denial. ‘No,’ Sheedy said. ‘I didn’t say that.’

 

Duckworth wandered off. ‘I thought bullshit.’

 

Essendon spent most of the season on top. Sheedy brought Duckworth back in round 20 against Carlton, and he emerged unscathed. Against Footscray in round 21, Sheedy pitted Duckworth against Terry Wallace in the centre, then shifted him to Doug Hawkins on the wing. Duckworth felt he was being played out of position.

 

In round 22, Sheedy dropped Duckworth so the four Daniher brothers could play their only game together. Duckworth didn’t begrudge the sentiment, but figured he had played his last game. ‘I thought I’ll struggle from here on in,’ he said. ‘I lost a bit of interest in it. That’s my fault.’

 

Essendon finished a game clear on top. A draw between Collingwood and West Coast forced a replay, and forced Essendon to wait three weeks for the semi-final against Collingwood. They played like a team out of touch, losing by 63-points. A 63-point preliminary final win against West Coast put them into the grand final. Collingwood won by 48-points.

 

After the season, Duckworth retired, and the family returned to Western Australia. He went back to West Perth, who were coached by George Michalczyk, but those twangy hamstrings interrupted his season. He strained a hamstring in the first game, and recalls playing about five or ten games in 1991.

 

That year, Diana gave birth to their third child, Shane.

 

By 1992, Jeff Gieschen was appointed coach, and wanted change. ‘We just didn’t get on,’ Duckworth said.

 

West Perth won their first game, then lost nine in a row by big margins. Duckworth was playing fullback. After a game where he conceded five goals, Gieschen sat him down in the rooms at training. ‘We’re going to drop you,’ he said.

 

‘Hang on,’ Duckworth said. ‘I’m 33. We’re getting beaten. I’m playing fullback. I think I’m doing all right for my age.’

 

‘No Billy, we’re dropping you.’

 

In 1993, Duckworth went to North Beach amateurs. He played three years, which included a premiership, until his knees gave out. Then he embarked on an incredible coaching career with North Beach. From 1996 to 2012, Duckworth coached ten premierships, including seven in a row from 2004 to 2010. He then coached their division-one team from 2014-15 and led them to grand finals.

 

He admits he learned on the job. ‘It took me a while,’ he said. When I first started, I thought they had to be like the AFL. Then you realise as you get more experience, you temper it back.’

 

With Duckworth as coach, the club attracted a core group of young players who had been overlooked by the WAFL. ‘I was lucky I got a good group,’ Duckworth said. ‘I had seven or eight people for most of that time who were good footballers. Once you got success, you’ve got people who want to come and play with you.’

 

The premierships rolled on. Duckworth described his coaching stint in his typical understated fashion. ‘It was enjoyable,’ he said. ‘My boys still play there, and I still go down there. I enjoy it.’

 

Looking back.

 

It is forty-years since Duckworth donned the Norm Smith Medal. Only in retirement did he reflect on the award.

 

At the time it didn’t really mean much,’ he said. ‘You’re more happy about winning the grand final because that’s what you aim to do with footy. As you get older, you probably appreciate it more. There’s only one given out every year.’

 

Duckworth’s name is forever etched on the list of footballers who dominated when it mattered most. In 2006, he returned to MCG dais to present the Norm Smith Medal, a superb AFL tradition. Wearing a black suit, pale blue shirt and dark red tie, he announced Andrew Embley as the winner. When Embley stepped up, Duckworth shook his hand and slipped the medal over his head. Having a Western Australian present the medal to a fellow Western Australian seemed fitting.

 

Duckworth loved his time with Essendon. ‘It was enjoyable playing footy,’ he said. ‘Living on the other side of the country after living in a small town all your life.’

 

It took him a while to get used to Melbourne’s winter chill, perpetual traffic and having neighbours, but the Essendon family embraced him and he immersed himself in the club. ‘It would have been hard if you didn’t have the footy club,’ he said. ‘You got to meet people and that made it a lot easier. It was probably the best thing I ever did.’

 

Duckworth was a swingman, but spent most of his time in defence. He played on legends of football, men like Brereton, Matthews, Brian Taylor, Kelvin Templeton, Simon Beasley, Jason Dunstall and Gary Ablett. On Thursday nights, when Sheedy told him his upcoming opponent, Duckworth never worried.

 

‘It was just a game of footy,’ he said.

 

Missing grand finals in 1983 and 1990 still irks him, and he offered critique to Sheedy years afterwards. ‘In 1983 I didn’t play, and you got flogged,’ he told Sheedy. ‘In 84 we won and I got best on ground. 1985 I played and we won. In 1990 you left me out and you got flogged again. So you’re not a very good coach.’

 

Duckworth still has the winner take all mentality, and it has transferred to the golf course. ‘I hate losing,’ he admitted. ‘I play a lot of golf now and hate losing, but I’ve learnt to hide my feelings. I didn’t do it too well on the footy field at times.’

 

One regret lingers – the curse of injury and his late arrival at Essendon. ‘I didn’t start until I was 23,’ he said. ‘I’m happy to get to where I was, don’t get me wrong. If I didn’t have those two long term injuries, I would have got to 150 games and been happy. You always think you could play longer than you can.’

 

In 2024, Essendon held the 40th reunion of that remarkable 1984 premiership. Duckworth loved the night where old mates relived that momentous grand final win. A life member of Essendon, he still follows them and longs for another premiership.

 

A career in football is never without enduring body issues. Duckworth described the impact of football in his matter-of-fact way.

 

‘I can’t complain,’ he said. ‘I’ve had both knees done (replaced). I had an operation on my shoulder and I lost the use of my arms. When I went in I could lift my arm. I went in for an operation on one and when I woke up I couldn’t lift my arms above my head. I can play golf because that’s momentum below my knees but I can’t lift anything above my head. There’s a lot of things I can’t do. I can’t reach things. Don’t feel sorry for me, I still had a good life.’

 

A good football life. A great story. A boy from Dudinin in Western Australia’s wheatbelt showed a bit of promise and went to the VFL, where he inspired his teammates with his tough, winner take all attitude. He won two premierships and a Norm Smith Medal. Played 126 games and kicked 64 goals then returned to Western Australia and coached ten premierships for North Beach.

 

‘I liked to play footy,’ Duckworth said. ‘I enjoyed it. Had a good time and made great friends. That’s the way I look at it.’

 

 

Billy is forever remembered for his game in the 1984 grand final.

 

 

You can read more from Matt Watson Here

 

 

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About Matt Watson

My name is Matt Watson, avid AFL, cricket and boxing fan. Since 2005 I’ve been employed as a journalist, but I’ve been writing about sport for more than a decade. In that time I’ve interviewed legends of sport and the unsung heroes who so often don’t command the headlines. The Ramble, as you will find among the pages of this website, is an exhaustive, unbiased, non-commercial analysis of sport and life. I believe there is always more to the story. If you love sport like I do, you will love the Ramble…

Comments

  1. Colin Ritchie says

    Thanks Matt, cracking read! Billy Duckworth epitomised the Bombers of the 80s. Fierce competitor, hard at the ball, never give in attitude, and the will to win. Along with Leon Baker and Paul Weston, he was a fab import for the Bombers in this Golden period.

  2. David lambert says

    Fantastic story mate and it back great memories of that eara

  3. Great story.
    I always admired Billy Duckworth for his ruggedness.
    He may have been rugged, but he was a good ‘footballer’.

    I was also a fan of Leon Baker for his skills and poise.
    Paul Weston sold me a pair of footy boots when I was 17 and he was back in the SANFL – it didn’t seem right having this guy from that 84 GF giving me boots to try on. (although I did go on to have a good season and earn a spot in the U19’s in those boots)

  4. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    I really enjoyed this Matt and learned a bit about the “other Duckworth”. Thanks.

  5. Adam Ivanson says

    Another great read Matt, keep ‘em coming!

  6. Thanks Matt. I really enjoyed such a detailed account. In Billy We Trust!

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