Bill ‘the Lion Hearted’ Coolahan and a double Ashes victory

Roy Hay

We all know Australia won the Ashes against England at cricket last summer, but when did Australia first win the Ashes at football? This question might stump most football fans who might possibly plump for the victory over a full English professional side at Upton Park, London, in 2003. But the true answer takes us back to 1937 and the career of someone who is largely forgotten in the Australian football story—Bill Coolahan.
Bill Coolahan captained the Australian football team several times in the 1930s and Sid Grant said he was known to many as ‘Bill the Lion Hearted’ for his fierce tackling and refusal to countenance defeat no matter how desperate the situation appeared to be. He led Australia in the first two Test matches against an English touring team in 1937 and helped secure victory in the deciding match by example and a subtle piece of gamesmanship.
Born in West Wallsend, Bill Coolahan was the younger brother of Frank, who also played for Australia. It is said that the mining village turned out more representative soccer players than any other in the country. Frank toured Java (part of modern Indonesia) and Singapore with the Australian team in 1928. He was in the West Wallsend teams which won the Gardiner Cup in 1923, 1924 and 1926. The family were not wealthy and it was Frank who gave his younger brother his first pair of football boots. By the age of 18, Bill was in the West Wallsend senior team and had represented New South Wales, playing at full back against a Java team. At Wallsend he played as centre-forward so he was very versatile and a regular goalscorer. The state league Cessnock and Kurri Kurri clubs both tried to sign the youngster, but he resisted the offers.
Coolahan gained his first of three A or full national caps in 1938 against India, but he had already played several times in games which were not classified as full internationals and was to play in a few more during the Second World War. Probably the high point of his career was the series against the English amateur team which toured Australia in 1937. The previous English touring team in 1925, which was a professional outfit, had gone through its 26-match itinerary with a 100% record, scoring 139 goals and conceding only 14. The amateur team which arrived in 1937 was not as strong but still won eight out of ten games played, the only two losses coming in the first and third test matches when Coolahan was the skipper in the first and the inspiration in the third. The first test at the Sydney Cricket Ground was won by the odd goal in nine, with George Smith and Jack Hughes each scoring two and Billy Price one for the Australians, while Matthews and Stan Eastham each had two for England. One of Eastham’s goals was from the penalty spot.
England won the second test in Brisbane very comfortably by four goals to nil, so the series came down to a decider at the Newcastle Sports Ground on 20 July 1937 in front of a record crowd of over 15 000, who paid over £1100. England was without its influential skipper Bernard Joy, but Australia too was probably a player or two short of its best team. George Smith, who took over the captaincy, scored after a corner kick for Australia and then got a second goal after a move instigated by Coolahan. Coolahan rounded F. Riley, dummied his way past J. Sutcliffe, played a one-two with Jim Wilkinson before releasing Jack Hughes to set up Smith once again. England pulled a goal back through Riley who got to a loose ball just ahead of keeper Jimmy McNabb.
Immediately after the second half began, Coolahan sent Wilkinson away down the wing and his cross was turned in first time by Hughes. While the English were still recovering, Wilkinson found Smith with a cross and the striker headed home his hat-trick goal. As expected, England fought back and should have scored when E. Collins was brought down by Bert Murray inside the penalty area. Eastham stepped up to take the kick, having not missed penalty in 143 attempts. Enter Coolahan. ‘This will be your first miss in years, Stan. McNabb’s the best goalkeeper in Australia and he’ll stop it.’ Eastham replied, ‘I’ll break the net, and if McNabb gets in front of the ball, he’ll go through the net too.’ As Eastham began his run up, Coolahan added, ‘You can still bet me a dollar, if you want to, Stan.’ Later Eastham admitted, ‘Was I mad when he said that? First he sowed a small seed of doubt, then he ruined my concentration. I had made up my mind to put it left, but then I reverted to my natural method to go right and McNabb had actually dived half-way there before I hit it.’ Writing after the match, A.J. Boyd was rather sanctimonious, ‘the moral of this story is that such things are NOT DONE in Test matches’, but Lance Corporal Eastham was much more philosophical, ‘More fool me for falling for that one. I should have known better. It was smart and by falling for it, I lost the match.’ England did later pull a goal back through R.J. Matthews but Australia held out for the 4–3 win and the series.
England played an Australian eleven in Melbourne later in the tour and won, but this did not count as a test match, so Coolahan had his victory, even if via a little gamesmanship of which the current Australian cricket team would be proud.
And on the matter of cricket and the English cricket team, earlier in the year a New South Wales team beat the English cricket tourists by seven goals to two at football at the end of the latter’s Ashes cricket tour in which they also lost to Don Bradman’s Australians. The English cricketers had overcome a Victorian soccer team in Melbourne and George Duckworth, the English wicketkeeper and goalkeeper, said it was the happiest day of his life because he had captained England and they had won. But when it came to ‘The Ashes’, Australia beat England at both cricket and football in 1937.
Bill Coolahan continued to play for club and country until after the outbreak of the Second World War, captaining Australia against the Chinese tourists in 1941. He had moved from West Wallsend to Adamstown in 1935 and had one season at Lake Macquarie before finally hanging up his boots. He was inducted into the Australian Football Hall of Fame and the Hunter Region Sporting Hall of Fame. Though he played most often as a half-back, he scored over a hundred goals in his career. He deserves recognition as one of Australian football’s pioneering heroes.

The launch of Roy Hay and Bill Murray’s book A History of Football will take place at the MCG, Level 3 of the Members, on May 20.
Captions for pictures (forthcoming)
The team that made soccer history. The Australian team which beat the England team in the first test match on 10 July 1937. From right to left: Bill Coolahan (captain), Jack Hughes, Ray Bryant, Roy Crowhurst, Jock Parkes, Billy Price, George Smith, Tom Harris, Harold Whitelaw, Jack ‘Digger’ Evans, Bill Morgan and Jimmy McNabb. Source: The Referee, 15 July 1937, p. 1.
George Smith, carrying the match ball, leads the Australian team for the third test match against England in 1937. Source: Hetherington collection, Vol. 4, p. 115.
Headline from The Referee, The Referee, Thursday 22 July 1937, p. 13.
A cartoon of the members of the victorious Australian team which came from Northern New South Wales, by Ted Mulvihill. Hetherington collection, Vol. 4, p. 167.
Bill Coolahan retires. Source: Newcastle Morning Herald & Miners’ Advocate, Monday 9 November 1942, p. 6.
The Australian team which toured Java and Singapore in 1928. Frank Coolahan is at the far right in the back row. Source: Ozfootball website.

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