Killa: the Alan Killigrew years at Norwood

Killa: the Alan Killigrew years at Norwood


Wally Miller OAM *

















A young Alan Killigrew began his football in the Peckenham Street tip in Prahran, Victoria.  He played there endlessly, kicking tins and stones, undaunted by the rusty cans, broken glass and rancid smell of rotting garbage.  With all of its limitations he considered that the Peckenham tip was far safer than playing in the streets. All he wanted to do was play football in the VFL. His ambition was further fuelled by the gift of a football from a devoted aunt. He was obsessed with the game and his extraordinary passion never wavered until his death in a Perth hospital on June 6th2001, aged 82 years.  He once said “that even at a young age I thought football was the greatest game on earth.  Today at not so tender age I see no reason to reverse this opinion.”  “I was meant to be a footballer just like it’s meant to rain. Chance stands no chance in my philosophy. There is too much effort and sacrifice spent in developing the skills of the game for it to be left to chance. You don’t become a player overnight, you learn inch by inch the hard way. You don’t choose football, football chooses you.”


The 168 cm rover was initially rejected by St Kilda and he moved to Murtoa in the Victorian country as an 18 year old contract player on one pound a game with free board and lodgings.  Back at St Kilda in 1938 he began an impressive 78 game career in the VFL with best and fairest honours in 1940 and Victorian representation in 1941.


The Second World War intervened and it was able seaman Killigrew in the Pacific theatre of war for three years. He often quipped “that I was the least able of all of them”. It was while on active service that he experienced back pains which was later diagnosed as tuberculosis of the spine. He briefly returned to football with St Kilda in 1945 but his body was no longer able to cope with the rigors of league football.


He said later “that unknowingly I played for St Kilda with tuberculosis of the spine. “I had about 10 aspros. It’s amazing I didn’t fall asleep against the post”. He was aged 27 years when he entered the navy hospital.  His illness was life threatening and doctors gave him little chance of ever walking again if indeed he survived.  Three years of hospitalization and rehabilitation in the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital kept Killigrew away from his beloved football but it didn’t dent his passion or enthusiasm.


He started coaching at his old school, Christian Brothers College, St Kilda in 1950 and led the school team to three premierships. Norwood ruckman, Geoff Feehan  was a student at CBC.  He played in Killigrew’s teams longer than any other player, first as a school boy, then for two years at St Kilda followed by three seasons at Norwood. Feehan was inspired by Killigrew’s coaching and claimed that his doctrine had meaning and clarity from his first game to his last.


Hotel interest took Killigrew to Ballarat in1954 and there his coaching ability and reputation skyrocketed. In successive years he took Ballarat East and then Golden Point from bottom to grand finalists.  In both games his team was beaten by less than a goal. He became renowned for his motivation and inspiring player addresses. The terms “hot gospeller” and “football evangelist” began to be freely bandied around.


St Kilda picked up on his Ballarat deeds, had one of his half-time speeches recorded for their committee’s assessment and consequently he was offered the coaching position at St.Kilda for the 1956 season. Killigrew coveted the St. Kilda job, was overwhelmed by the offer but fully understood the enormity of the task, as St Kilda was the poorest performing club in the VFL. In three years at the helm he recruited extensively and vastly improved St Kilda’s fortunes. He established a winning culture with a team that previously accepted defeat too easily. In 1957 St Kilda won eight games and a night premiership and he had set the foundation for future success.


Following a disagreement with management, Killigrew quit St Kilda at the end of 1958 while still contracted. Later he openly regretted not trying harder to resolve the dispute but he was dogmatic and never returned to that club.


At the end of the 1958 season Norwood toured Tasmania and by chance met up with a St.Kilda contingent who were enjoying their end of season in Launceston.  Norwood committeemen interviewed Killigrew and he was favourably impressed with the history, tradition and performance of the SA club.  In an on again off again relationship during the ensuing few months Killigrew eventually took charge of Norwood in  January 1959, replacing Haydn Bunton who had signed to coach City South in Launceston.  He quickly fell in love with Adelaide and with the Norwood people. He had a profound impact on everyone he met.


Killigrew was not told of the serious drain on Norwood’s playing resources since their last tilt at a premiership in 1957 but he soon realized that he was short staffed. Norwood lost its first five games, four of them by embarrassing margins.


He tried 21 new players in 1959.  Of his three interstate recruits, only John Vickers became a regular, long serving and valuable player.  Trying to implement the elements of Killigrew’s game plan with constant team change proved to be a frustrating period for players and coach alike. Management and supporters wondered if Killigrew was in fact the real deal or just an extroverted showman.


There was some derision levelled at the outspoken, firebrand coach from Victoria during this period of heavy losses. Amongst some adverse media comment Port Adelaide’s Secretary/Manager, Bob Mclean, in his Saturday morning radio programme said “that a desperate Killigrew had recruited a Chinese rover from Darwin called “win won soon”. Killa never forgot that one.


After the break-through win against South Adelaide at the Adelaide Oval Norwood gathered momentum and finished the year with seven wins and 11 losses.  It could have easily been nine wins as Norwood went down by less that a goal against West Torrens at Thebarton and by a last kick 90 yard goal against Port Adelaide at the Parade. Norwood supporters were angry and emotional after that last gasp loss. They felt that umpire Laurie Sweeney’s decisions had favoured Port Adelaide throughout the day.  A mob stormed the southern stand corridor, pounded on the umpires’ room door demanding an explanation or perhaps they had more sinister motives.  It took 15 minutes for the unruly mob to dissipate. It was only then that the umpires could be ushered into the empty reserve grade room for their after match shower.


As a measure of the team’s improvement in 1959 Norwood convincingly defeated fourth ranked Sturt at the Parade in the last minor round game.


Not to be playing football in September was an unusual occurrence for Norwood and while there was some disappointment the majority of people could see that Killigrew’s philosophies were being understood and accepted. Norwood was once again an exciting place to be. It was a wholesome player environment too and long gone were the back stabbing and constant innuendo associated with Jack Oatey’s dismissal and the two year reign of young Haydn Bunton. The gospel according to Killigrew was spreading and he quickly became a media favourite. He was different but remarkable good for South Australian football.


Not satisfied that he could win with his current playing list Killigrew , embarked on a recruiting spree in the off season in much the same manner as he had done when first appointed to St. Kilda.  Along came Peter Brenchley (Melbourne), John Elder (Collingwood), Geoff Feehan (St. Kilda), Ian (Buster) Gordon (Ballarat), Phil Stephens and George Dellar (St. Kilda) to bolster the local playing depth.  He added Brian Bowe and Lester Ross from St Kilda the following year and Les Amery in 1962.  Vickers, Feehan, Dellar, Ross and Bowe all made their homes in South Australia and Ross’s two boys, Lester jnr and Jonathon later wore the red and blue of Norwood.


Each player was offered £100.0.0 signing on fee and this money had to be raised progressively by Assistant Secretary  Ian Ramsey through his Sunday morning concerts and gambling tables. Some players began to have doubts if their monetary promise would ever be fulfilled, such was the slow drip feed of funds.


Some Norwood people were delighted to receive the influx of talent but others were outspoken in their condemnation of Killigrew’s recruiting policies. “What will happen to our juniors and local players?  They are being excluded by Victorian rejects. It will be the ruination of Norwood” they cried.  These feelings were largely put to bed by the euphoria of 1960 and 1961 but they were always simmering in the minds of some administrators and came to the fore late in 1962.


He changed the name Redlegs to the Demons and introduced a new style jumper with a red yoke similar to the Melbourne Football Club strip.  Norwood ran with the Demons tag for three years and it was enthusiastically embraced by the media. The change was seamless for the majority but there were many traditionalists irked by the adoption of the Victorian image. “Norwood has always been the Redlegs” they vehemently maintained.


While Killigrew was adamant that his 1959 list was inferior he maintained that if any local lads were good enough of course he would play them. “I’d be a fool not to,” he said.


In 1960 supporters were instantly captivated by the raw power and goal kicking of Phil Stephens.  He drew people through the gate and was picked in the state team which defeated Victoria at the Adelaide Oval in July. His progress, following earlier appendix surgery, was a daily news feature.  Bunton returned to Norwood and was admired for his courage in overcoming his wrecked knee sustained the year before in a Tasmanian car crash.  Bill Wedding progressed from a gangling fledgling ruckman to a dominant force and John Lill’s artistry gave Norwood another potent forward.  Killa joked that Lill was assured of a game because he had never before coached a player with a philosophy doctorate.


With Norwood playing an exhilarating brand of football at times in 1960 everyone wanted a piece of Alan Killigrew.  The little man was dynamic.  He appeared on Channel 7 black and white TV, commanded an audience on radio and wrote columns for The Advertiser.  He was stopped in the street by supporters who wanted to hear what he had to say on any subject.  His name was abbreviated throughout the land and he was just “Killa” to everyone.  On match days supporters clamoured into the social room and peered, three deep, over the dividing cupboards into the players’ room to hear his pre-match and half-time speeches.  It was standard practice for Killigrew to deliver his “bleed and believe” talks while standing on a rub down table, collar unbuttoned, tie pulled down with a hand towel at the ready to mop up his ample sweat.  He did however, speak privately to every player about their particular task before his group oration began. They were very private conversations and not for everyone’s consumption.


Norwood was front and centre in those years and it was Killigrew who orchestrated the euphoria. He was a brilliant orator and motivator but he was also a football thinker. It was obvious to all that one of his teachings demanded fierce pressure on the opposition’s body but he had advanced thinking on the use of handball.  He said, “We created scrimmages and undid them with handball”. Of course there was a lot more to it than that. Killigrew’s game demanded discipline and gut running to create two against one, three against two or as many to the fall of the ball as possible. It required decision making of when to go to the contest. Deft, short, soft handball to a teammate in the clear with full face of goals was a key element in his game plan. He also had strict rules when defending. He taught footballs’ “percentages” thoroughly. Character and courage were pre-requisites to being selected in a Killigrew team. He may have robbed some individuals of their natural flair to achieve the common good, but he lifted others, not so gifted, to greater heights. He demonstrated enormous affection towards his players and this was reciprocated by the vast majority of his charges.


Off the field he introduced more social activities.  Social functions became compulsory. He maintained that you had to love your teammates to have success and you had to know and understand them socially in order to bond on the ground.


The Bath Hotel on the Norwood Parade was the social headquarters and the living quarters for some.  Hosts, Lance and Pat (Mother) Thyer were very much a part of the football family. However, any venue would do when 6.00 pm closing time came on match nights and if a generous supporter’s home had a piano so much the better.  “It’s a Grand Old Flag” always got a repetitive run with or without musical accompaniment.


Norwood’s defeat of Port Adelaide in the 1960 Preliminary final was one of Killigrew’s major triumphs. Port had won six consecutive premierships and dominated the competition leading up to the 1960 major round. They were a highly skilled team but were also known for their physical intimidation of opponents. Norwood took them on; eye ball to eye ball and when it came to heavy body clashes,  Norwood gave it back in spades. It was a meritorious win by 27 points – 8 goals 11 to 3 goals 14.


There was never any thought of disciplining Haydn Bunton or John (Painter) Vickers who, in the still of the night, attempted to turn the black and white stripes on the famous Black Diamond corner in the centre of Port Adelaide into a red and blue monument.  Killigrew was pleased with his players’ spontaneity and secretly wished that they had more time to complete their mission before the law intervened.


As much as the club was on a high leading up to the grand final Norwood could not get the job done against North Adelaide.  Norwood and North met three times in the minor round; Norwood won at the Parade and Prospect and North won at Kensington. The winning margin for each game was less than a goal.  And so was the grand final on a very warm day at the Adelaide Oval on October 1st. North held a slight advantage throughout the day but Norwood went eight points up in the last quarter and the Norwood faithful dared to hope. After North regained the lead there was no further score for the last 11 minutes of the game. The ball was in Norwood’s forward pocket when the siren sounded.


Killigrew was shattered by the loss. As a devout Catholic he had prayed for a Norwood victory and was in disbelief that his boys could be defeated on the big stage in the ultimate game of the year.  “I cried a river,” he lamented.


Norwood’s end of season trip was to Perth and those who were unable to secure leave from their employment joined with the reserves contingent on a long weekend jaunt to Kangaroo Island.  The reserves had won the 1960 premiership under coach Neil Dansie in the grand final curtain raiser and secured their first flag since 1939.


History was repeated in 1961.  Norwood again challenged from fourth position and defeated Port Adelaide in a thrilling and heroic preliminary final by just two points.


The grand final on September 30thwas played in 96 degrees fahrenheit (36c) and was aptly named the “Sauna Bath Grand Final”   West Adelaide controlled the game and won convincingly by five goals. The Norwood players were physically spent and it was reinforced again of just how difficult it is to win from fourth position.


Several disappointed and exhausted players delayed their return to the sombre after match gathering at Norwood to visit their team mate, Wally Miller, who was still paralysed in Northfield Hospital after a serious injury in round 16. Some hospital rules were broken on that occasion.


Killigrew needed two experienced recruits to bolster his team in 1962.  It was just too hard to keep challenging from fourth position. The committee though, was reluctant to commit to the expense or philosophy of securing more VFL players.  Killigrew always struggled to deal with football club authority.  He respected their position as elected club leaders but he didn’t attend meetings and only felt the need to interact with his players and match day staff, which he embraced wholeheartedly.  He much preferred to discuss matters with his friend, head trainer, Tiger Potts, rather than consult with President, Ted Heidenreich.


There were wholesale personnel changes in 1962. When finals time arrived there were 13 new faces in the line-up when compared to the 1961 grand final team.  Nevertheless there was still optimism, particularly after the stunning first semi final result against a star studded West Torrens team. In historical terms that will rate as one of Norwood’s great victories.  But the Demons fell at the next hurdle in the preliminary final against West Adelaide and finished the season in third position.


Killigrew began to think that maybe the players had become too accustomed to his message and were no longer listening with the same intent as in previous years. The lack of unqualified committee support and some haggling over the terms of his verbal contract convinced Killigrew that it was time to move on.


It all ended where it started, at and end of season trip to Tasmania. North Melbourne was negotiating with Killigrew and those close to the coach during the trip sensed that his departure was imminent.  Some were shocked but others unsurprised because Killa never stayed in one place for very long.  Most players were disappointed.  They were Killigrew’s disciples after all.  Captain, Peter Aish, who was devoted to Killa and inspired by his coaching lost his enthusiasm to continue his 162 game career following Killa’s decision to move on.


Enduring mate ships were forged during this time with a lasting legacy of unforgettable memories.  The 1961 “blood bath” at Thebarton, the come from behind victory over Port Adelaide at the Parade on Anzac Day 1962, the heroics of preliminary finals, and Killigrew’s famous Anzac Day speech are not only vivid player memories but remain a part of Norwood’s historical fabric.


Famed St Kilda and Hawthorn coach Allan Jeans, was profoundly influenced by Killigrew when he first played with St Kilda in the mid-fifties.  He steadfastly maintained that Killigrew set the standards for St Kilda’s premiership in 1966.  Jeans journeyed to a Perth hospital to comfort his ailing mentor when Killigrew’s health rapidly deteriorated in June 2001.


In a tribute to Killa after his death former North Melbourne captain, Alan Aylett said, “Killigrew made an enormous impact on the culture of North Melbourne.  Even after 12 years of VFL football I was able to learn a lot from his coaching. His passion and love of the game was infectious and unforgettable”.


Although he was ubiquitous and  a football nomad he nevertheless called Norwood his football home and after his coaching days were over he often returned to the club to help out with recruiting, fulfil speaking engagements and more.


Alan Killigrew loved the game for his whole life, every inch of the way. The only time that he thought otherwise was when misinformed people doubted his sincerity, passion and unbridled enthusiasm for the game and for his fellow man.



“After all, what is a football club?  It is grass in the middle, posts at the ends, and bricks and mortar.  It’s the people that give it soul.  A football club is a living body”. Those reflective words penned by Alan Killigrew, say a lot about the man and his remarkable football journey that had a profound impact on so many people.



Alan Killigrew


Born: 27 January 1918 died: 10 June 2001


Played: 78 games with St Kilda, one for Victoria


Coached: St. Kilda 1956-1958: Norwood 1959-1962: North Melbourne 1963-1966: Subiaco 1967: Wilston Grange (QAFL) 1973: Victoria (1966 Hobart Carnival)



VFL:                coached 124 games      won: 46:          lost: 76           drew 2

Norwood:        coached 82 games        won: 45           lost: 36                        drew: 1

Subiaco:           coached 21 games        won: 3             lost: 18


* Walter (Wally) Miller played 64 games for the Norwood Football Club from 1958 to 1961  before injury cut short his playing career. He served the club in a number of capacities from 1968 to 1996 including secretary manager / football director from 1970 to 1992. He was a director of the Adelaide Football Club from 1997 to 2002 and was instrumental in the national development of modified rules for juniors. He is a life member and Hall of Fame inductee for both the Norwood Football Club and the SANFL .

In 1986 he was awarded the Order of Australia Medal for Services to Football.



Article originally published on Redlegs Museum



  1. Malcolm Rulebook Ashwood says

    I would like to add I had the PRIVILEGE to play under Allan Killigrew at Norwood High in 1979. He had a profound influence on me and yes he still had the ability to inspire and have every one highly motivated. The odd silly free kick was given away early due to players being too pumped up. I am sure there wasn’t a Premiership table overall but I certainly remember it as my favorite junior footy.Killer organized Bob Skilton to come and present the awards re presentation night and Killer introduced me to Bob saying this kid has the best footy brain I have ever coached, Skilts sort of stood up to attention thinking he was about to be introduced to a future Champion until Killer uttered, “pity he can’t play.”
    Bob Skilton was horrified and says you can’t say that,I replied yeah I’m terrible and that as far as I was concerned I had received a huge compliment and Killer was only being honest about my ability.Allan Killigrew I can not express my thanks and express how lucky I was to have the great man as a coach.

  2. A great read i knew many of these names when playing with Norwood in 60 70’s Killer had all the courage, coaching skills he instilled into his team ..Not many like him Pinches #18 past player

  3. Luke Reynolds says

    Fantastic read Malcolm, thanks for sharing this.

    Can only imagine your response if a coach came in to Norwood now and tried to change the name to the Demons!!

  4. David Butler says

    Great read. They don’t make characters like that any more. We needed a ‘Killa’ rev-up at Prospect yesterday!

  5. Keiran Croker says

    Great read. Killa had a great reputation through the media when I was young. I think he did stints on the early World of Sport? Great to get a personal perspective Wally.

  6. Thank you Wally what a wonderful tribute to my father – stay true and God Bless you

  7. Graham Cullen (Casey) says

    A great coach he took me on board from the Raggies in 1962 & he was tough because i was a,lazy trainer/ player.
    I remember hiding on a bench in the dark oposite the grand stand because the only lights on the Norwood oval was in front of the stand.
    He caught me, kicked my arse & give me 5 laps & watched me.
    Top man well respected by all players

Leave a Comment