Phil Matson: Prince of Coaches

The East Perth Royals – or Young Easts as they were then known, to differentiate themselves from Old Easts (East Fremantle) – enjoyed a golden run just after World War I, winning their first WAFL premiership in 1919 and then another six in the first eight years of the 1920s. The key to the Royals’ success was the much-travelled Phil Matson, who quickly became known as the Prince of Coaches. The following profile of Matson is taken from a small book (44 A4 pages) – 1919 The Royal Domination Begins – commemorating the centenary of East Perth’s flag. I was helped with the book by passionate East Perth volunteer Nick Di Campli and Royals marketing manager James Sansalone. The cover of the book is shown in my (FitzroyPete) updated Almanac profile, with copies (on matt finish paper) soon to be available for $25 from the club (royals@eastperthfc.com.au, 08 9443 2259). Assuming I don’t go to the great football ground in the sky in the meantime, I plan on writing a commemorative book for each of the remaining six Matson premierships (2024 and 2025 will be years off). I hope you enjoy reading about the colourful life of the great Phil Matson.

 

THE ROYAL MASTERMIND

PHILLIP HENRY “PHIL” MATSON

Born: October 22, 1884; Died: June 13, 1928 (aged 43 years 235 days)

East Perth Career: 1918-23; Games: 35; Goals: 35; Premierships: 1919, 1920, 1923 (player); 1919, 1920, 1921, 1922, 1923, 1926, 1927 (coach)

Coach of the EPFC 1906-1944 Team of the Century

 

It’s doubtful if there’s been a more influential figure in the history of the East Perth Football Club than the great Phil Matson. And one can only wonder what Matson may have achieved if his life hadn’t been cruelly cut short in a fatal car crash when four months shy of his 44th birthday.

 

In his time at East Perth alone, Matson coached the club for 9.5 seasons – the 10th being incomplete for obvious reasons – taking the Royals to seven premierships, a second (1918) and a third (1924) placing. The blue-and-blacks’ five consecutive flags (1919-23) was an Australian senior-level record until Port Adelaide’s six straight from 1954-59. East Perth won 120 of 165 games (44 losses, one draw) while Matson was in charge, a winning percentage of 72.73. Not forgetting that he was a champion player long before he saw the light and ventured to Perth Oval.

 

But let’s go back to where the Phillip Henry Matson story began. The sixth of 12 children, Phil was born in Exeter, a suburb 14km north-west of the Adelaide CBD. His parents, Emma Duffield and George Matson, were actually Fremantle residents who moved to Adelaide soon after they were married. According to Lionel Frost, author of Immortals: Football People and the Evolution of Australian Rules, the Matsons kept an orchard and vegetable garden. With so many mouths to feed, things were understandably tough and, at the age of 10, young Phil sold fruit from a basket at the Port Adelaide wharves.

 

That was his first job in a working life – footy aside – that included spells as a brewery salesman, farmer, fisherman, miner, railway navvy, storeman, tram driver and (the most well-known) trotting bookmaker. Plus, he ran hotel two-up schools and an illegal gaming house. Four years after he started selling fruit, Matson left Adelaide for Kalgoorlie and the town’s many gold mines, the first of four stints in WA.

 

Of his return in 1902, long-time East Perth historian Bill Forrest, in a feature appropriately titled The Prince of Coaches, wrote that Matson “boarded a steamship (in Adelaide) bound for Fremantle, promptly losing most of his money playing two-up on the boat. Virtually penniless, he found work and continued his (then) swimming career with the Claremont Amateur Swimming Club.”

 

And what a swimmer Matson was. Forrest noted that he won the 220-yard (200m) breaststroke title at the 1905 Australasian championships in Melbourne in an unofficial world-record 3min 17sec. He defended his title in New Zealand two years later and even shaved three seconds off his previous best during the 1908 “home” championships at the Claremont Baths. However, it wasn’t until the formation of the International Amateur Swimming Federation (FINA) in July 1908 that world records were officially recognised. Had Matson not accepted £20 (about $2,800 at current prices) in 1909 to become a professional footballer, a place in the Australian team at the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games beckoned. According to Lionel Frost, Matson held State titles in events ranging from 100 yards (91m) to five miles (8045m).

 

At the same time as he was smashing swimming records, Matson was also making a splash on the football field. Persuaded to play in a Claremont side that was one player short, in the “Second Junior Teams” competition, Matson won the club’s 1903 best-and-fairest trophy. He played a single WAFL game for West Perth in early 1904 before joining South Bunbury for the rest of the season, appearing in the Tigers’ winning Grand Final, and 1905. Then it was on to the gravel playing fields of the Goldfields.

 

Bill Forrest wrote: “In 1906, he accepted a three-year contract with the Boulder City Football Club in the powerful Kalgoorlie competition, playing in premiership teams in 1907 and ’08; the year he was selected in the WA team for the Australian (National Football) Carnival in Melbourne (he also played in the 1911 and 1914 ANFCs, the latter as captain). It was there that officials of South Australian club Sturt enticed him to coach the side, which had collected five wooden spoons in eight years.”

 

Matson took Sturt to the 1910 Grand Final, the Double Blues losing to Port Adelaide – the team representing the locality where Phil sold fruit as a boy – by four points. His Sturt teammates nicknamed him “Aeroplane Matson” because of the heights he flew while playing at centre-half-back. In a 1952 feature in The Western Mail, Tasman Gay revealed that Matson felt he played his best football at Sturt, reflected by him finishing runner-up to Port’s Sampson “Shine” Hosking in the 1910 Magarey Medal. Matson rated the 1910 Double Blues combination – known as “Dempsey’s Immigrants” – as the best he’d seen. The authoritative Australian Football website said John Dempsey was an ardent Sturt supporter who arranged accommodation for and employed the club’s recruits, many of whom had been signed at the 1908 Carnival.

 

In 1911, Matson was on the move again and began his third stint in WA. He had a season at North Fremantle, the Magpies finishing second on the WAFL ladder before losing their semi-final to East Fremantle. Having finished second-last in the same season, Subiaco embarked on a massive recruiting drive, with Ken Spillman, in Diehards: The Story of the Subiaco Football Club, 1896-1945, saying Matson’s signing to play at centre-half-forward was “the icing on the cake”.

 

Of his time at North Fremantle and the first half of his career at Subiaco, Tasman Gay wrote: “With these sides, Matson played some of the most dazzling football of his career. He was the champion of those days; an unbeatable mark and a player whose doggedness and ruggedness never acknowledged defeat. When Matson was having a good day, the football was worth travelling many miles to see, and there is no doubt that the great unattached football public of those days flocked to the match where he was playing. His dazzling marking and all-round ability were a magnet, and the crowd wanted no other idol with Phil in the side.”

 

However, Matson’s heart trouble, attributable to a bout of influenza in 1915, restricted both his appearances and his on-field dominance when he did play. A Lionel Frost source said: “His (Matson) heart had shifted round a few inches from its normal position and this made him somewhat easier to check than in his heyday as a player.” According to WA historian and East Perth identity, the late Lyall Hunt, Matson was “rejected for military service on health grounds”.

 

Matson played in the Maroons’ 1912, 1913 and 1915 premierships, the middle one as captain-coach. When Subiaco finished fourth in 1914, Matson was inexplicably replaced in favour of non-playing coach Jack Leckie. He continued as a player but when Leckie departed at the end of 1916 and Matson was still not reappointed, his days at Subiaco were numbered. That the floodlit WACA track, where he was now working as a Western Australian Trotting Association (WATA) bookmaker, was close to Perth Oval made his move all the more attractive.

 

Most think of the Matson Royal dynasty as being from 1918 to 1924 and then 1926 to mid-1928. True, though Matson played in Subiaco’s opening game of 1918 before his appointment as coach of East Perth. One of his new comrades was William “Digger” Thomas, who’d played under Matson when the Maroons won the 1913 title. Matson played six games for the Royals in 1918 – Rounds 7-10 and the two finals matches. Of course, the Round 10 fixture was against Subiaco and was notable for the Maroons being awarded the game (despite losing on the scoreboard) after they protested against Matson’s inclusion in the East Perth line-up.

 

Of Matson’s move, the Historical Timeline on the Subiaco Football Club website simply said: “His defection to East Perth altered the destinies of both clubs.” That qualifies as a massive understatement. After being runner-up to East Fremantle in 1918, Young Easts proceeded to beat Old Easts in three successive Grand Finals (1919, 1920, 1921), West Perth (1922) for something different, and then “the old reliable” East Freo (1923) again.

 

Matson played in three of the five wins – 1919, 1920 and his final game in 1923, just 16 days short of his 39th birthday. He was an influential figure in the ground-breaking 1919 victory. However, arguably the best of Matson’s 35 matches (he also kicked 35 goals) came in the title decider a year later, in just his second game for the season after pulling on the boots against Perth in Round 6.

 

The West Australian enthused about Matson’s performance. “The old champion’s presence had an inspiring influence with the Royal Blues. A football genius, bright and sunshiny, with a winsomeness that can hold a side together, Matson did much to win the game for Young Easts. First up forward he did fine work, and then when the great (William ‘Nipper’) Truscott was beating his man in the centre and leading to his attackers so well, it was Matson who took him on, and in his matchless style killed Old Easts’ centre supremacy and gave his own side the call in play in the key position.”

 

In 1924, Subiaco gained some consolation for having lost Matson when it defeated East Perth in the second semi-final en route to the flag, though Matson had the honour of coaching WA at the ANFC in Hobart. Whether it was the end of the winning run, the need for a new challenge, or maybe financial reasons, Matson headed to country Victoria in 1925, taking Castlemaine from cellar dweller to minor premier in the Bendigo Football League. Though Castlemaine lost the Grand Final to South Bendigo, Matson’s coaching – and his imposing record – impressed a number of eastern seaboard clubs.

 

Indeed, Richmond appointed Matson as coach, replacing Hawthorn-bound Dan Minogue, only for the VFL to refuse his transfer request from Castlemaine. Lionel Frost said there was a belief the VFL’s decision was based on Matson’s alleged criticism of the Victorians’ rough play during the 1924 Carnival. However, Frost pointed out that Matson himself was an exponent of the “physical approach”, both as a player and coach. There were theories that WA clubs’ reluctance to clear players to Victoria and the generally strained relations between the WAFL and VFL worked against Matson, while another school of thought was that some VFL club delegates may not have approved of his gambling, drinking and domestic arrangements.

 

After the 1924 hiccup and Matson’s absence in 1925, normal service resumed in 1926 when the “super coach” returned to East Perth – his fourth stint in the West. Triple premiership player (1921, 1922, 1923) Paddy Hebbard had performed an admirable job as replacement coach in 1925, engineering an upset semi-final win over eventual grand finalist Subiaco before losing to East Fremantle in the Preliminary Final. However, the Royals proceeded to take all before them in 1926, thrashing Subiaco by 50 points in the Grand Final.

 

Of Matson’s influence, Anthony Barker wrote in Behind the Play: A History of Football in Western Australia from 1868: “In the eyes of contemporaries, East Perth’s dominance was above all due to the coaching of Phil Matson. The West Australian’s football correspondent SBG blamed Matson for the ‘hollow fashion’ of East Perth’s 1926 triumph and for the accompanying decline in public enthusiasm. The ‘Matson touch’ was so special that the WAFL should pay him £10 (about $800 at current prices) to coach all its teams.”

 

Defeating South Fremantle in the 1927 play-off, though the Royals had to exercise the “right of challenge” after a Preliminary Final loss to the red-and-whites, meant East Perth had won seven Grand Finals in nine years. Reflecting on the Matson era in 1952, at a time when South Fremantle and, to a lesser extent, West Perth ruled the WAFL, Tasman Gay said: “Many football followers claim that the brand of game East Perth played then was superior to anything seen today.” In addition to another flag, Matson coached WA in the 1927 ANFC in Melbourne, with East Perth – as was the case in 1924 – having eight representatives.

 

The Royals made an unspectacular start to 1928, winning four of their first seven games, including a battling victory at Claremont on June 9. However, the match was quickly forgotten when news broke that Phil Matson had been in an early-evening traffic accident on Monday, June 11. Reports say he was travelling along Hampden Road, Nedlands, towards Subiaco, in a truck driven by 1912 Maroons premiership teammate Horrie Bant. The truck evidently failed to negotiate a curve, shot off the road, and crashed into a telegraph post. Bant was flung clear, but unfortunately Matson was hurled against the post.

 

Tasman Gay noted that “over 400 persons” either phoned or called into (Royal) Perth Hospital to inquire after the unconscious Matson during the two days doctors fought to save his life. Though Matson, sadly, never regained consciousness, he would’ve appreciated the sincere concern for his wellbeing. And being a bookmaker, Phil would’ve been chuffed that a well-known bookie, according to The Mirror, said to one of Perth’s renowned surgeons: “You’re on a thousand pounds (about $80,000 at current prices), doctor, if you can save Phil!” The doctor reportedly smiled sadly and replied: “If I could achieve such a miracle, I’d add another thousand to yours and we’d donate it to the hospital.”

 

However, “Phil Matson was beyond human aid from the moment he was carried from the scene of the impact … And when he went out in the early hours of Wednesday night, the State lost not only a great player but the greatest football brain that it has ever possessed.”

 

The plaudits were plentiful, both with respect to Matson’s dynamic play, his inspiring coaching, and his life outside football. The Mirror stated: “The hearse that carried his remains to the grave was loaded with an imposing array of beautiful wreaths and the throng that followed it was comprised of men of every walk of life, for Matson had friends and supporters whose interest extended far beyond football.” Understandably, Matson’s high profile meant that he was forever in demand. Lionel Frost described how Matson rarely drank as a young athlete, but in later years “developed a fondness for beer and the bonhomie of fellow drinkers. The owner of the Subiaco Hotel paid Phil a retainer to sit in the bar to attract and talk to the customers.”

 

Of Matson’s playing ability, Bill Forrest said: “Not especially tall, he was powerfully built, vigorously competitive and a brilliant kick, whether stab passing or unloading with a long kick into the forward line. His aerial flights were spectacular and thrilling. He possessed stamina as well as explosive pace and was blessed with a ‘football brain’ without equal. Quite simply, Matson was a gloriously gifted sportsman.”

 

John Devaney wrote in Full Points Footy’s WA Football Companion: “The prime features of Matson’s play were his sure ball handling, excellent field kicking, and supreme adaptability which enabled him to play almost any position (though he was at his best in the centre or at centre-half-forward) … with equal success. He was also a fine overhead mark and, although highly aggressive in his approach to both the ball and the man, he was nevertheless impeccably fair.”

 

But it’s his coaching for which Phil Matson is most revered. The day after his passing, The Daily News said: “His own all-embracing experiences of the game taught him all the tricks of the trade. Some of his moves staggered by their daring. Even those who proclaimed themselves sound judges would denounce his tactics as calculated to bring about the downfall of his team, but Matson knew best. It was the very daring of his methods, in many cases, that ensured their success.”

 

Alf Moffat, then president of both the WAFL and Australian Football Council, told The Daily News: “With the players, Phil Matson seemed to be a super-coach, having a personality which enabled him to extract from those he was handling the best that was within them. His pre-match and half-time addresses were of such a nature that players and others privileged to hear them became inspired with the sound advice he tendered.”  Matthew Glossop endorsed Moffat’s thoughts years later in The Royals 1906-1976. “Players often told others that Matson’s vigorous and candid urging won matches for them, as he was an inspiration to the team, and to them his every word was gospel.”

 

Lionel Frost though it “ironic that Phil Matson, the man whom West Australians came to describe as ‘the prince of coaches’, and one of the first coaches to assist on hard training and the development of a disciplined system of team play, was himself a natural, intuitive footballer … Though Matson lived his own life in a footloose and intemperate way, like all great coaches, he could communicate with his players and insist on high standards without alienating them … A Matson-coached team was always greater than the sum of its parts, and his East Perth team also had the level of discipline and team orientation needed to stand up to physical pressure and lift its game when matches, and premierships, were in the balance.”

 

Perhaps the Matson “fear factor” inspired his players to exert the requisite physical pressure that caused opponents to crumble. Consistent with this, a 1927 article in The Sporting Globe said: “The man who lags behind, and is a little fainthearted, is no good to Phil. He likes his players to get into the fray with deadly earnest. They must not hang out, and must bump harder than they are bumped.”

 

An anecdote in The Royals: 100 Years of Football Tradition highlighted how Matson was not averse to using reverse psychology. Staunch Owens’ nephew Len Owens, a former journalist with The Daily News, revealed that Matson once got stuck into the eventual seven-time Grand Final winner at half-time, accusing him of not trying hard enough. Staunch believed he’d been playing OK, but went out and tried even harder, with the Royals getting up to win. After the game, Owens confronted Matson and said: “What the bloody hell was that half-time burst about?” Matson replied with a wry smile, “You silly bastard, Staunch, didn’t you see the disgusted looks on the faces of the other guys. They were all ashamed of themselves the way they were playing and to hear you get blamed for it really stirred them up.”

 

The Daily News wrote: “As a coach, the most glowing tribute to his qualities would be paid by the players who served under him. In this capacity, the members of the East Perth team would know him best. These and other footballers credit him with being a genius as coach.” That 18 of his charges have been inducted into the East Perth Hall of Fame indicates Matson knew how to bring out the best in a player. The select 18 are: Ernest “Ike” Allen, Reg “Nashy” Brentnall, Hugh “Bonny” Campbell, Larry “Plum” Duffy, Wally Fletcher, Harry “Nugget” Gepp, Jackie Guhl, Bert Harrold, William “Paddy” Hebbard, Archie Herd, Charlie McKenzie, George “Staunch” Owens, Henry “Harry” Sherlock, Val Sparrow, William “Billy” Thomas, William “Digger” Thomas, Ben Wallish and Albert “Nails” Western.

All up, Matson played and/or coached nine clubs and was involved in 13 premiership (five as a player, four as player/coach and four as coach) and four runner-up teams in 25 completed seasons. The Matson football family tree warrants an article in itself. Those who’ve appeared in the WAFL bearing the Matson name include sons Phil junior (22 games with East Perth in 1932) and Russell (11, Perth, 1927-29), nephew Don (82, East Perth, 1947-53) and another relative, Bill (23, East Perth, 1968-74).

 

 

About Pete Carter

Author of "Dreamer, Drifter, Drunk" (see www.fitzroypete.com.au) and the soon-to-be-published "1919 The Royal Domination Begins"; diehard Fitzroy supporter who's never forgiven the AFL for its "clinical execution" of the RoyBoys; fanatical fan of and club historian at WAFL club East Perth, the Mighty Royals; lover of all things willow on leather; worshipper of the great Allan Border and disciple of the feisty Rodney Hogg.

Comments

  1. A huge effort, FP! Surely there are the makings of a genuine single volume in your projected series of these premierships. Plug the idea with whichever clubs, associations, etc that are relevant. Too historically important and too good an offer for them to turn down, IMHO. Good luck.

  2. Thanks for your very kind words, Ian.
    Half the fun was researching the stories on Trove.
    The 1919 match reports – and I daresay the same applies with the early days of rugby league – were more colourful than most of those seen in newspapers today.
    Refreshingly, the Almanac gives a different and more interesting perspective than just listing how many disposal, tackles, insider-50s a player might have.
    Back to the book, I plan to consolidate the seven premiership books into the one volume further down the track.
    Compared to the VFL/AFL, the WAFL is a bit light on for historical works.

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