A tribute to Polly - WA's finest
Bill Dempsey spent 12 years of his childhood away from his family, taken and raised instead on a Darwin mission. In 1959, when he was 17, he was sent down to Perth to play football as part of a package deal the West Perth Football Club devised to get another young man down from the mission – one Jimmy Anderson. Bill was sent along as company for Anderson. He reckons he would have “gone to Hong Kong to play ping pong” if it meant getting out of the mission. “Not that it was bad,” he is quick to add. He just wanted to be gone; he wanted something else.
Bill also wanted to play at centre half forward but once West Perth figured out he could play, they put him in the ruck and that’s where he stayed. “343 games I played for West Perth and do you know how many I played at centre half forward?” he asked me. I guessed two. Not far off. “Three,” he said holding out three fingers that looked like they had been snapped off a Mallee tree.
“Didn’t you like rucking?” I asked. “Well,” he said, trademark chuckle lurking, “you have to run too much in the ruck.”
It was Bill Dempsey’s 70th birthday recently and I spoke with him not long after it. A smart, kind and humorous man, revered by his football club, his 70th was always going to be a fair do; full of family and friends.
One of those friends was Graham “Polly” Farmer. It is now well known that Graham, aged 77, has dementia - but at the time of Bill’s birthday, not many people were aware and Graham’s family were quietly concerned to ensure that he would be all right in such a public gathering, at such a large affair. Bill let them know he would be among friends – a kind of family really: old West Perth people who loved and cared for him. Who respected him in a way that is actually difficult to describe because we have debased so much of the currency of respect. We use, in football and general life, words like “legend” and “icon” so freely they have become a tad threadbare; a little empty in the formulation. The freight, to recast Emily Dickinson’s memorable phrase, is no longer proportioned to the groove.
Graham and Bill rucked together for West Perth from 1968 to 1971, winning two flags in that time. But Bill didn’t just see Graham play from close quarters in the same team. When he first played for West Perth, in '59-'60, Bill would pack his bags after a game in the reserves and race off to wherever East Perth were playing so he could watch Graham - and another Aboriginal bloke from the mission Graham had grown up with, Ted “Square” Kilmurray. It was more than just the kinship of colour and circumstance that drew Bill; he went to learn from two of the best.
For the purposes of this article, I asked Bill about Graham. I asked him if he was the best to come from WA. He didn’t pause to answer. He didn’t even try to argue the case. He was simply sure.
Consider this. Farmer was selected as the first ruckman in the AFL’s Team of the Century, the WAFL’s Team of the Century, the Indigenous Team of the Century and the respective Teams of the Century for the East Perth, Geelong and West Perth Football Clubs. He was the no-hesitation first ruck chosen in the Team of the Century for everywhere he played. He was a multiple best-and-fairest winner for every side he played in - 10 best and fairests in total. He received an MBE, for crying out loud – the first time such award was given to an Australian Rules footballer. He is an official legend in the Halls of Fame for both leagues he played in – one of the first 12 named as an AFL Legend. He won three Sandover Medals as the best footballer in WA and four Simpson Medals, an honour awarded to a Western Australian for standout performances in grand finals and state matches. He won a Tassie Medal for his performance in the 1956 Australian carnival. He was All-Australian three times. He played 356 league games in total – for 30 finals, 10 grand finals and six premierships. The teams he played for reached the finals in 15 of the 19 years he played.
You can guess Bill’s answer. Of course Polly was the best.
Farmer had hit his straps in elite-level footy a little earlier than when Bill first saw him. 1956, under the tutelage of captain-coach Jack Sheedy, was the year it all came together for him. When Sheedy came to East Perth as captain-coach he came as a huge exponent of the virtues of handball. A hard rover who didn’t mind whacking troublesome opponents, Sheedy coached as he played and the judicious use of hands in close was taught to all his charges. Already adept at using the ball by hand, Farmer and the dashing, handsome Kilmurray – all Brylcreemed hair and flashing smile – took Sheedy’s instructions regarding handball and turned them into dangerous art.
Farmer had realised early that the speed and precision of disposal was more important than the method itself. “As a youngster,” he once revealed, “I realised I was big and not so coordinated, and I found it easier to handpass than to try to evade players and kick. Perhaps I (also) handballed more than others because I understood that as a ruckman I had more opportunity to get the ball than most others.”
It is important to remember, while discussing these times, that no attempts were made to hide the widely held and deeply felt racist beliefs of most white Australians. Bill Dempsey sees it as added proof of their greatness that, despite this entrenched racism, both Polly and ‘Square’ won Sandover Medals as the best players in WA.
The level of abuse these Aboriginal men had to endure is difficult for us to understand. How and why they endured it is even harder. Bill told me that not long after he arrived in Perth, the older boy he came with, Jimmy Anderson – the one West Perth were really keen on recruiting – got homesick and went back to Darwin. He told Bill before he left that if Bill came back, he would be waiting at the airport to give him a hiding. Jimmy was older and had done more and was long considered by the children there to be the “king” of the mission. He told Bill he was to do the right thing by the mission, to do West Perth proud and to do the mission proud. “What about you?” Bill laughed. “Don’t worry about me,” said Anderson. “I’m the king.”
The idea that they were representing something more than just themselves and their teams was part of what inspired the grace under pressure these men showed. In many ways, Farmer is the “king” of Aboriginal players; the elder statesman by virtue of having been the best and the elder statesman by virtue of his admirably reserved demeanour. Farmer was reported only once in his 19-year career.
Retaliation to the taunts and derision heard off field and on was not an option. Too much pride, too much dignity to take the racist bait. Bill told me he switched off, but filed away the transgressions, absorbing the hate for later times. Times when he could quietly square up the ledger.
This was one part of rucking that Dempsey liked, and Farmer liked, too – the opportunity to run at and through men who had demeaned and belittled you. While Farmer always had a tremendous leap, able to get up high and dig his raised knee deep into the ribs of his opponent, after he injured his knee in 1962 he began jumping a fraction early in centre bounces; jumping on and then raising himself off his opponent. And making sure it hurt.
The reaction to Farmer’s injury both highlights his place in the football firmament and says something about football itself and what it means. Thousands of people had been turning up to Geelong training to see the new recruit from WA. There were nearly 42,000 people at Princes Park for the Round 1 game in 1962 between Geelong and Carlton – because of Polly. The damage to the ligaments of his knee restricted him to just six games in that season, but the genuine excitement he caused didn’t abate.
Say “Graham Farmer” near my father while he was alive and you would instantly hear the story of how the local paper in Melbourne (that’s what he called it; “the local paper”) ran a front-page banner headline after Farmer was injured: “BIG CAT HURT”. Telling the tale, he’d hold an imaginary paper in one hand and the claws of the other would pincer out the words as he slowly enunciated them: “BIG – CAT – HURT,” he’d say, “in bloody great big letters, like when war is declared. That’s all it said on the whole fucking front page.” His voice rumbled pack-a-day disbelief; an admixture of admiration for Farmer, for inspiring this, and a kind of contempt for those inspired.
I have never wanted to check the accuracy of this. My memory of his memory of it is best left undisturbed. The possibility of it though tells me plenty about us. Me, him, newspapers – us Australians.
Apparently Paul Keating used to tease Bob Hawke by asking him to imagine what we could achieve as a nation if we weren’t so obsessed with sport. Thus wound up, the sports-obsessed Hawke would then fume at a bemused Keating.
The thing is, we are obsessed and certain sportspeople have a near freehold on our collective imagination. This thought isn’t new or particularly exciting. What is of interest is how this occurs in each particular instance. What it is of a person that captures us, why them and what about them.
What is most illuminating about Farmer the footballer is how his particular greatness is expressed. Ask anyone who knows footy what Graham Farmer did, and you will at some point hear the phrase “he changed the game”. According to the AFL’s notes on him in their Hall of Fame, he “revolutionised the game”. And the usual understanding is that he changed the game with his approach to handball.
In an interview given for the Geelong yearbook, Farmer said: “I played that way ... [because] ... I was a team player. It didn’t worry me if I had 15 or 16 handpasses, which don’t stand out as much as kicks, because winning is the most important thing. My teammates knew I would give them the ball if they made position, whereas they wouldn’t be as sure with some other teammates who would try to evade the opposition and boot the ball because people regarded them as good footballers if they did that.”
This prevailing mindset - that to be a good footballer you kicked the ball long yourself - was a natural product of the way football had been played in Victoria until Farmer came. Football was modelled on war. Reasonably static lines of players, like muddy trenches, lobbed the ball between themselves, seeking to control the game by the gaining of distance - marking contest by marking contest. Hand-passing, gaining only short distance and no definitive control, was last resort.
Perhaps because he came from WA, where the dry, fast grounds made for faster play, or perhaps because he intuited the virtues of selflessness early in his life, Farmer, reinforced by his success with it at East Perth, took the use of handpassing way past anything seen in Victoria before. It was not just how often he went by hand, it was the speed, accuracy and distance he gained with it.
An already excellent tap ruckman, able to spot up his rover with deft taps or powerful punches forward, Farmer would also take clean possession in the ruck contest and fire out handpasses to team-mates out on the wing. Not long after arriving at Geelong, rather than bragging about the number of kicks they got away, Farmer’s teammates began an unofficial contest to see how many of his handpasses they had received.
All of this is the usual story told about Farmer. And all of this is right. People remember him marking the ball in the middle and firing 30-metre handpasses off to teammates up ahead, who, freed by the speed of the transfer of the ball – no waiting for Farmer to go back and kick – could sail on to goal unhindered. People justly remember him for handball.
In the Geelong yearbook account of Farmer, though, you begin to hear the rest of the story. The part that interests me. The part I believe may be the real change in the game Farmer helped to bring about.
Starting as a teenager in East Perth, Farmer trained with a dedication rarely seen in what was essentially an amateur sport: “I prepared myself to suffer the consequences of 100 minutes of football. I wanted a body strong enough to overcome all the things that were going to happen in a match.”
Farmer would even train the day after a game. At Geelong he would arrive at Kardinia Park early Sunday morning to lift weights. He would be joined by the other Geelong players around 11 am – but they weren’t there for training. They were there for drinking.
A teetotaller put off by the bitterness of drink, Farmer exhibited a level of professionalism normally associated with modern footballers. Teammate Billy Goggin reckoned that Farmer “... had no time for players who weren’t honest in their approach or weren’t prepared to work hard to improve. He just refused to train with them until they tried harder. He demanded perfection. Mistakes just weren’t part of his thinking.”
When he arrived at West Perth as captain-coach in 1968, Farmer immediately set in place a strict training regime that followed this thinking. Players – all of whom had dayjobs – were required to train Monday through Thursday nights, play on Saturday then train again on Sunday morning. “And if you blokes were serious,” he told Dempsey and the others, “you would be here on Friday night as well.”
Dempsey reckoned Farmer was able to instil this change because, as captain-coach, whatever Farmer expected of his players he did as well. He brought in a large punching bag and got the big men like Dempsey to hold it still as the other players ran in at fullspeed and hip and shouldered the bag. Over and over. Dempsey reckons he felt afterwards like he had been given a hiding.
Farmer was teaching them how to suffer. Pain is what happens to us. Suffering is what we do with it. “I prepared myself to suffer the consequences of 100 minutes of football.” By putting himself completely into what he did, by attending to the work of football so well, Graham Farmer effected change within the game as much as he did with his style of play. Perhaps understandably, lost in the extensive rollcall of his personal playing honours is an understanding of how Farmer came to achieve these honours – that they came through selflessness and a heightened awareness of the power of teamplay.
When Bill was telling me about Graham at his 70th do, he mentioned that for a while Graham had been sitting outside on his own – “like he does.” Dempsey reckoned Farmer wasn’t aloof so much as he held something of himself back when off the field. It may be that like Conrad’s Marlowe, making his way up the river to Kurtz, he found himself most truly through work; in the attention and clarity of awareness that good work demands.
I was asked to answer in this article if Graham Farmer was the best to come from WA and that’s why I asked Bill Dempsey that question. But comparing old footballers with new is a futile task. It’s like weighing memories. Dempsey said that one way we should know Farmer was the best was because of the quality of his opposition. And that’s true – Big John Nicholls from Carlton and Jack “Stork” Clarke from East Fremantle (a four-time All-Australian) would stroll into consideration of the greatest ruck of all time. But all I can say for sure is mostly this story is about memories and the need to shore them up. It may be true that what we know of ourselves no other man can know, but when one man’s memory dies – or his memories die with him – what we know of him is all and it is important, for the sake of all of us, that we keep that alive.