The drought breakers: 1961 champions

Steve Butler

The men many believe did the most to make WA football famous have been officially recognised for being part of the best team in the State's rich sporting history.

The 1961 national championship-winning football side is the first team to be inducted into the WA Hall of Champions.

The team - a reputation builder for many of the State's football greats - featured members so famous now that one has Perth's traffic tunnel named after him, others have rooms, gates and roads in and around Patersons Stadium tagged in their honour, and another has a statue outside Fremantle Oval depicting a timeless mark.

Five members - coach Jack Sheedy, captain Haydn Bunton Jr, Graham "Polly" Farmer, John Todd and the late Jack Clarke - are already individual inductees into the hall.

But the side which broke a 40-year national championship drought by beating Victoria in a heart-stopping game at the Gabba also glitters with household names such as Denis Marshall, Mal Atwell, John Gerovich and the late Ray Gabelich.

The achievement was even sweeter considering the Victorian team was led by Australian Football Hall of Fame Legends, Ted Whitten and Ron Barassi.


Surviving members of the 1961 WA state team walk across their old battle field at Subiaco Oval. Picture at the back L-R are: Raymond Sorrell, John Turnbull, Lorne Cook, John Gerovich, Robert Graham, Guiseppe Fanchi, Keith Slater, Deniston Marshall, John Todd, Graham Farmer, Derek Chadwick, Malcolm Atwell, Kenneth Holt and John Dethridge. Front L-R are: Lesley Mumme, Haydn Bunton and John Sheedy Picture: Steve Ferrier/The West Australian


The Weekend West recently mustered 17 of the remaining 18 living members of the team for an emotional reunion at Patersons Stadium. Only Ken Bagley was unable to attend because of golf commitments in Mandurah.

It was clear Farmer was still the biggest legend of them all.

The game-changing ruckman attended despite ill health and several of his former teammates rushed to assist him down the stairs on to the famous ground.

The scene was as touching as it was surreal, 53 years after the team's euphoric victory which culminated in a packed street parade in the centre of Perth upon their return.

"It's very humbling, he's a magnificent guy," Atwell said.

"I worked with him as an apprentice motor mechanic. He's like a brother to me, Poll, and I'm always overawed by him."

Although the team members were clearly in various stages of health, a sparkling wit still connected them.

Todd said it was sad that the team had lost seven mates - Clarke, Gabelich, Dennis Barron, Barry Metcalfe, Con Regan, Norm Rogers and Don Williams.

But he believed the honour being bestowed on the side would provide a lasting tribute to them all.

"I think we're all very humble and very thankful that they're going to recognise that side," Todd said.

"It was the first time we'd beaten the Victorians in 40 years and that in itself was an achievement.

"I think if you'd asked every individual who participated in that series, they would all think this is terrific to be recognised so long afterwards. It's nice we still have a contingent of footballers who can relate to each other.

"Not one of them have aged, they look great, all young fellas and you can just formulate a picture in your mind how talented and how great they were back then."

Sheedy, a 2001 inductee into the Australian Football Hall of Fame, was adamant the 1961 carnival team was the best he had been involved in during his stellar career.

"When you looked at it, there were about five players who had won eight Sandover medals between them … that was enough to convince you it was a pretty good team," Sheedy said.

"Alongside that, there were some champion players in different positions, like Gerovich, (Keith) Slater, Atwell, (Robert) Graham and Denis Marshall. Gabo (Gabelich) was the last player the selectors allowed me to have and he was a match winner on the day.

"You don't very often get an opportunity to coach a team like that and win an Australian championship."


Members of the 1961 WA state team walk across their old battle field at Subiaco Oval. Picture: Steve Ferrier/The West Australian


Sheedy fondly recalled the team's plane making an unscheduled stop at Kalgoorlie on its return from Brisbane to Perth where they were greeted by a big and boisterous airport crowd. The local radio station had sent out the message that the heroes were going to stop by.

Bunton said the reunion with his old mates was a true spirit lifter.

"I don't see enough of these blokes any more," Bunton said.

"It's just great because it was a pretty emotional time. To win it, especially so close, was good."

After starting the game in brilliant fashion, Todd had been physically targeted by the Victorians to the point where he was ultimately sidelined by a cut right eye, a bruised thigh and a badly bruised chest.

He was replaced by Joe Fanchi, who would kick the late goal that sealed a nine-point win and gave them enough percentage to win the championship.

Fanchi has since been known as "the man with the golden boot".

"He's got to give a little bit of credit, it was all laid on there for him to excel," Todd said.

"And he's lived on that. It's amazing how Joe Fanchi has lived his life on being the golden boot. Les Mumme kicked a number of goals through the carnival and doesn't get a mention."

Fanchi said his assessment of the distance of his kick for the famous goal usually depended on how much he had drunk before telling the story.

But the boy from Kalgoorlie had embraced the golden boot moniker given to him by radio commentators.

"A lot of the guys have a bit of a go at you because you came on as a reserve," Fanchi said.

"A bloke like Toddy, I say to him, 'were you in the side?' and that sort of stirs him right up.

"They're saying, 'you only got one kick and everybody wants to talk to you'. But the important ones are the ones you remember.

"It was a marvellous feeling to think you came on as a reserve and helped with the winning of the game. I've dined out on it pretty regularly and I sell the boot every couple of years.

"I was really proud just to get in the side. Most of those guys there are pretty well legends in WA.

"We've had our 40th anniversary and we've had our 50th and now we're into the Hall of Champions. That's just unbelievable."

Atwell, one of the toughest players ever produced in the State, described the championship-winning match as "probably the most physical game that's ever been played by Western Australia".

"They were after us and they were going to cut us up by hook or by crook," he said.

"But thanks to Gabo (Gabelich) and a couple of other guys, they weren't so good at it.

"Toddy was a great, skilled player and they knew on that day he was playing bloody well. To get him off the ground would have been to their advantage and they tried real hard.

"The whole of Western Australia was behind us. We were a humble and fortunate group of guys to come together at the time under Sheedy."

Marshall recalled being staggered by the outpouring of support on the team's return to WA.

He said the win over the cocky Victorians had been a driving factor in prompting him to move to Geelong in 1964.

"They were dedicated players and all gifted. That '61 side is underrated to hell," he said.

"It (the 1961 victory) stimulated me enormously as a young bloke, having the Victorians beaten and being part of beating them."

Bagley, who had also celebrated a Swan Districts premiership in 1961, lamented that his golf commitments had robbed him of the rare chance to mingle with his history-making teammates.

He recalled not being able to sleep or eat the night before pitting his ruck-rover skills directly against VFL legends Barassi and Whitten and admitted he had questioned whether, as a raw 20-year-old, he deserved to be part of the star-studded side.

"I'm so sad that I missed it in the end, because my performance at the golf was pretty ordinary," Bagley said, sitting next to his framed State guernsey from the day.

"I only played in the last game because I missed the first two. But the one I played in was the big one, of course, and I was so pleased to be in that one.

"I think they'd run out of players, but that's the way it was and I was lucky enough to crack a game. It was one of the better ones I ever played in.

"It was really a situation that I'll never, ever forget. When I go through the list (of players), there's not one guy in that team you wouldn't go to war with. I'm very proud to be part of it."

·See Channel 7 news tonight and thewest.com.au for an exclusive look at the team's reunion.