Almanac Obituary: Vale Bill Stephen – Legend of the Fitzroy FC

 

 

 

 

Vale Bill Stephen

 

 

by David Leydon

 

 

It is appropriate to start this story by me saying that Bill Stephen is a legend of the Fitzroy Football Club.

 

When news broke on the morning of the 24th  of August of the passing of Bill Stephen, it opened a well of sadness across those connected to the Fitzroy Football Club as well as the wider football community.

 

Born on the 1st April 1928, Bill played his first football at the Thornbury CYMS Football Club.

 

As the Second World War ended and the football world was back in full swing, Bill was invited over to Fitzroy and played his first senior game in 1947 under 1944 premiership coach, Fred Hughson.

 

Playing for Fitzroy was a great source of pride for Bill as he had been a lifelong Fitzroy supporter.

 

He quickly slotted into the back pocket and became the most reliable defender in the VFL.

 

Bill won the first of his Fitzroy Best and Fairest Awards in 1950 when he knocked off teammate Allan Ruthven for the Club’s top award in the season that Ruthven won the Brownlow Medal. He won his second Best and Fairest in 1954.

 

In 1955, Bill took over as Captain/Coach of a Fitzroy team that had lost a few of its stars through retirement and was in the midst of a re-build. It was during this period that as coach, Bill gave a very young Kevin Murray his first chance at senior football.

 

Retiring in 1957, Bill had played a total of 162 games (these were the days of 18 rounds per season). He represented Victoria 14 times, was never reported, and amassed a total 59 Brownlow Medal votes which was no mean feat for a back pocket.

 

As a player, Bill played alongside some of the greatest names in Fitzroy Football Club history. Allan Ruthven, Kevin Murray, Norm Johnstone, George Coates, Alan Gale, Tony Ongarello, Jack Gervasoni, Owen Abrahams and Graham Campbell. Just to name a few.

 

The finest on field memory for Stephen, I’m sure, was the magnificent one-point semi final victory over Carlton in 1952.

 

He also finished his first stint as coach at the end of 1957, and handed over the reins to the great Len Smith who guided the team to the finals in 1958 and 1960. This would not be the only time in his coaching career that Stephen had laid the groundwork with a group of young, up and coming players that he handed on to the next coach to develop into a formidable team.

 

By 1965 the club was struggling both on field and off with poor results, so they again turned to the trusty Bill Stephen to coach the team. His second stint as coach ran from 1965 to 1970. The club continued to struggle through those years, finishing in the mid to lower half of the ladder every year, but were always competitive.

 

Again, it was a period of player development. Under the guidance and mentoring of Bill Stephen, players like Garry Lazarus and Norm Brown reached their full potential as stars of the club. John Murphy was given his first games by Bill and went on to win five Fitzroy Best and Fairest Awards.

 

Harvey Merrigan, Alex Ruscuklic, David Wall and Barry Padley all went on to much bigger things after starting under Bill Stephen. At the end of his second coaching tenure, he had again laid the groundwork for the next era of success.

 

After coaching stints at Essendon and North Melbourne, a third and final opportunity arose at Fitzroy when 1978 coach Graham Campbell unexpectedly returned to Western Australia for family reasons.

 

Bill again took the top job for the what was to become a glorious 1979 season.

 

Boasting a team full of talent such as Garry Wilson, Bernie Quinlan, Warwick Irwin, Bob Beecroft, Micky Conlan and the great Ron Alexander, Bill guided the club to the finals for the first time since 1960.

 

But it is impossible to gloss over 1979 without mentioning some of the feats of this side.

 

In round one of that season, Fitzroy played against Collingwood at their Victoria Park fortress. Bill had been waiting all of the off season for that game and had developed a plan to bring the Magpies down in front of their adoring home ground army.

 

Aggression was matched with aggression. Fast running handball, handball, handball, long kick, mark, goal was the game plan. At the end of the match the Roys had won by a staggering 80-points!

 

On July 28 of that season, Fitzroy played against Melbourne at Waverley. This became one of the most memorable games of the modern Fitzroy era. Bill Stephen urged the Roys to attack at all costs and by games end, the scoreboard read:

 

Fitzroy 36-22-238 to Melbourne 6-12-48.

 

This for many years stood as a VFL /AFL record score. The 190-point winning margin still stands as a record today and a strong testament to the coach.

 

Later that season, Fitzroy went on to win the elimination final against Essendon by a staggering 81-points. This was Bill Stephen’s finest coaching moment.

 

Unfortunately, things didn’t go as well in 1980 and Bill handed coaching responsibilities to an eager Robert Walls and the club went on to finals appearances in 1981, ’83, ’84 and ’86. Again Bill Stephen had laid the groundwork for the next period of success.

 

Bill was always lauded and loved by Fitzroy fans. He was given Life Membership of the club in 1956 and was named in the back pocket in Fitzroy’s Team of the Century in 2001. And of course, one of his greatest legacies is penning the immortal words of the great Fitzroy Football Club theme song.

 

When I heard the news on Monday morning of his passing, the first person I thought of calling was my mother. She was Bill’s biggest fan in the early 1950’s and even tells the story of going to his wedding.

 

As I was halfway through dialling her number, my phone rang. She had heard the news as well and was already calling me.

 

The first thing she said was the familiar words I had heard her say so many times before, “Billy was such a nice bloke. A real champion. He was never, ever beaten by an opponent.”

 

My Dad was in the background echoing those sentiments. To a whole generation of Fitzroy supporters like my parents from the late 1940s and ‘50s, Bill Stephen was an iconic figure.

 

To those Roys supporters who grew up with Bill as coach in the late 1960s and again in the late `70s, he was every bit the champion our parents told us about.

 

I remember speaking to him as a nine-year-old and telling him, “my mum said you were her favourite player”. He had a laugh and cheekily said, “that wasn’t me, I’m not really that old, that was my father.”

 

Ward Leydon (Dad), Doreen Knowles (Aunt), Bill Stephen and Pat Leydon (Mum)

 

Bill made one of his final public appearances at the 2017 Fitzroy-Brisbane Lions Historical Society Annual Dinner. He spent ages talking with our family that night about the great old Fitzroy days.

 

Bill Stephen & David Leydon

 

That was what he did–with everyone. He always had time for all Fitzroy supporters young and old.

 

He loved the club, he loved the Fitzroy people and we ALL loved him.

 

To anyone and everyone who ever met Bill Stephen or admired him from afar, he was a gentleman, a Fitzroy champion and a legend and he will remain so forever.

 

 

*** All photos below from Pat Leydon’s 1952 Fitzroy Scrapbook

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This article by David Leydon was first published on the Fitzroy Football Club website.

 

If you would like to read a memoir from Bill Stephen himself, CLICK HERE.

 

 

Read more Footy Almanac articles about the Fitzroy Football Club HERE.

 

 

To return to the www.footyalmanac.com.au  home page click HERE

 

 

 

Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.

 

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Comments

  1. Great tribute David

  2. John Milton says

    David
    That was a beautifully written tribute to a fine gentleman. On the few occasions that I met Bill he was always happy to have a chat and made one feel special. A true Fitzroy legend who will be missed by all us Fitzroy diehards.
    Best Regards
    John Milton

  3. Shane Reid says

    Thanks David, really learned a lot reading this and appreciate the tribute.

  4. Thanks David, much appreciated. Vale Bill.

  5. David Leydon says

    Thanks for the kind comments everyone. I really appreciate it. We all loved Billy.
    Regards,
    David Leydon

  6. Heartfelt Comrade Leydon. Wonderful tribute. Bill was a lovely, lovely man.

  7. luke donnellan says

    Only met Bill once at the MCG but was certain my uncle played in the centre during this time. My uncle had played with Bill, but what really shocked me was his comment that we were related through Aunt Polly. I of course, didn’t know the family history. Bill put me at ease and we sat down and talked for half an hour about the old days of Fitzroy. The passion and love for the club was all there. It was an honour to have a small moment with a legend of the game, and a hero of the club.
    Thanks David for keeping the history of Fitzroy Football Club alive and kicking. cheers Luke

  8. Laurie Duncan says

    Really lovely tribute David

    Bill coached Yarrawonga (the mighty Pigeons!) to their first Premiership in 1959. He was captain coach of Yarra until 1963, then no playing coach in 1964 and then he returned to Fitzroy to coach in 1965. I was 9 years old in 1959 but I still remember the premiership. It is an overused term but Bill really was “much loved” in Yarrawonga and still is. I ran into him from time to time over the years and on at least two occasions I was wearing the Fitzroy colours- and it wasn’t at the football! He was a true gentleman.

  9. Daryl Schramm says

    Fabulous read. They are the first pics I’ve seen with the FFC monogram in blue. Always learning on this website.

  10. Luke Reynolds says

    Wonderful tribute David.

  11. Thanks for this tribute, David.
    RIP, Bill.

  12. Steve earl says

    Well done David a fitting tribute to Bill – a true gentleman I had the pleasure of knowing over the past 20 or so years , always ready to give his time provided it didn’t impact on the first love of his life , wife Betty.
    There wouldn’t have been an occasion in those years and my talks with him that Betty wasn’t mentioned
    Thoughts also to Eddie Goodger his great companion and ‘ side kick’ , as couples venturing to the border on many an occasion
    I’m sure the VAFA Roy boys will hold a fitting tribute at BSO when appropriate

    Fight with your defenders
    Under our flags, let victory
    Hasten to your manly tones
    May your dying enemies
    See your triumph and our glory

    Rest In Peace Bill
    Steve Earl

  13. A wonderful tribute to Bill Stephen, David.
    I never had the privilege of meeting Bill but it seems like he was a champion bloke who had time for everyone.
    His boxing background would’ve been very handy during the rugged on-field days of the 1940s and 1950s.

  14. Great reflection and carrer overview.. Love the personal anecdotes.

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