The Ballad of Hayden Bunton
Haydn Bunton - Legend And Myth
As the author of a song eulogising a great Fitzroy footballer I believe it may be appropriate to begin my reflections on the Haydn Bunton ballad by confessing that I am not, nor have I ever been, a dyed-in-the-wool Fitzroy barracker. I have in fact barracked for the Geelong Football Club for fifty years. This particular club loyalty was irrelevant when it came to writing the song.
The code of Australian football invented by Tom Wills has flourished for almost 150 years. No doubt, the tribal tradition of one-eyed passion for a particular club has been one main cause of this longevity. However, love for the game itself, and for its traditions and skills, meaning that we can rise to applaud all the great players, has been equally important.
I should never have become a Geelong supporter. There was no family association with far-off Geelong. My father, born in Essendon, was a Don. I can remember the football broadcasts on our loungeroom wireless, and over by the open fireplace my father talking excitedly about John Coleman. This was 1950. Essendon in 1950 were to complete successive (back-toback) premierships. My interest in football began about this time. I was four years old. I became hooked on the coloured football action (and composed VFL/VFA team) photographs in The Argus and the VFL/VFA footy cards that magically appeared in the cellophane of our Kornies packets.
The intensification of my interest in footy coincided with the rise of a new football dominance. In the 1952 season Geelong, who had "stolen" the 1951 premiership from a Coleman-less Essendon, set out on their record-breaking run of 23 consecutive victories (in fact 26 consecutive matches without defeat as one of the 26 matches was drawn). Geelong topped it all off by winning the 1952 premiership. Forsaking Essendon, I jumped on the bandwagon of the Cats.
1952 was the year when my interest in football started to become an absorbing passion. I began a scrap-book into which I pasted all the wonderful coloured action photographs that I had snipped from The Argus. Such was the impression made by "1952" that the VFL ladder of that year was imprinted indelibly on my mind. So indelibly and completely that I found myself, whenever called upon down the years to perform a "party trick", able to recite the twelve VFL teams' 1952 ladder finishing order in about four seconds.
The impact of "1952" probably partly explains why, at the same time that Geelong was being consolidated as my number one, Fitzroy became my second team. Collingwood, as runners-up, threatened more than any other my new allegiance to Geelong. The team that finished third were good enough to tantalise the imagination of a youngster emotionally responding only to "upperdogs" (and yet to become the "underdog" supporter of later years) but they offered less of a threat. Fitzroy were third in 1952, although only just. (The first semi-final victory over Carlton was achieved when 1950 Brownlow Medallist Allan "The Baron" Ruthven kicked the winning score in the dying moments of a nail-biting finish).
But it was the fascination with the Fitzroy jumper that was the clincher! Maroon and blue were made for one another and I was very impressed by them. In those days, Fitzroy were the Gorillas, but no matter: in The Argus colour shots, Fitzroy players seemed particularly dashing in their maroon and blue, with white ankle straps peeping out of their boots. The 1952 Kornies cards - Don Furness, Jack Gervasoni and George Coates - offered more rich Fitzroy colour. Until 1957 we lived in Camberwell. In the very early fifties, my father would occasionally take the tram to Hawthorn, and then walk to the Glenferrie Oval, to see the hapless "local" VFL team - Hawthorn - receive another thumping. Hawthorn lost every match in 1950! Sometime in 1951 or 1952 my father began taking me to some of the Hawthorn home games. He remarked that the Glenferrie ground was like a "sardine tin". There were several ways of getting into the ground. The most exciting way was to come through the turnstiles in the tunnel under the railway line on the southern side of the ground. You then had to sit in the elevated but narrow little outer along the rail line and put up with the trains clacketty-clacking past you every half an hour. Or you could come in from Glenferrie Road and stand in the outer section behind the goals at the eastern end. This was great. You saw a lot of the play when Hawthorn were defending the outer goal.
I loved hearing the crisp cracking sound made when Len Crane, the Hawthorn full back, kicked off. A big booming drop-kick every time, to a far-off pack on the wing. My father would point out some of the players to me. At a match between Hawthorn and Carlton, he pointed to one and said "That's Chooka Howell". On another occasion, Hawthorn were playing Fitzroy at Glenferrie. This time we were sitting on the railway wing. Pointing to 1950 Brownlow Medallist Ruthven, Dad exclaimed "That's the Baron!". The spectacle and the theatre of this particular match made a deep impression on me, and so did the Fitzroy colours.
And so, for me, for reasons to do mainly with aesthetics, Fitzroy was the "second team". In later years, as the nomadic old club struggled through one insecure season after another, many were to adopt Fitzroy as their second team. After all this insecurity, you could probably hardly blame Fitzroy for opportunistically going along with the VFL's Footsc ray merger proposal in 1989. At the time, Fitzroy's implication in the ultimately abortive merger definitely dampened my sympathy for the club's predicament. Still, along with thousands who value the game's hallowed traditions as much as we value our club of first choice, I was devastated by the final destruction of Fitzroy in 1996. However, none of this, not a word of it, explains why, one day in August 1999, I chose to write a song about a great Fitzroy footballer.
I grew up with a deep interest in the history of Australian Rules Football. This was initially developed by reading the five football publications published by The Argus in the early fifties. Later, it grew into a love of history in general. At Monash University in 1968, the "labour historian" Ian Turner, of "Ron Barassi Memorial Lecture" fame, announced his intention of writing a history of the game (in fact the first scholarly history of the game - Up Where Cazaly?). Seized by temporary insanity, I visited Turner at his home in Lennox Street Richmond one afternoon and handed over (for ever, as it turned out!) my once beloved Argus books. My lingering fascination with Haydn Bunton started with those books. I can remember taking particular note of the laudatory comments about Bunton in these publications¹.
The latter-day AFL has instituted a commemorative institution called the Hall of Fame and installed some former great players as "Legends". It might be more correct to describe these players as "Myths". What do we know of them? Footballers, until relatively recently, did not publish memoirs. Nor did (or could) they speak into the tape recorders of oral historians. Because they, and those who ran the sport in yesteryears, seem not to have left memoirs (or other material of an intellectual nature) to posterity we know very little about footballers in the past. What we do know is gleaned from tales (including, of course, contemporary newspaper reports) of their on-field football exploits. These tales have been told by others - more so than told by themselves. We therefore know something of what the players achieved on the football field but we know next to nothing about them personally.
Haydn Bunton was no shrinking violet. He was conspicuous and available in a number of different ways. On the field certainly, but also on the floor at Foys in the city, and on the airwaves and in print. With his newspaper column and his own regular 3DB radio program (and later radio programs in Perth and Adelaide) Bunton was the footy media star of his day. There are also suggestions of egoism in Bunton. But even he did not (to my knowledge) leave us an autobiography, having died before it became acceptable for footballers to do so. It is hardly surprising that there is a mystique about Bunton and other leading footballers.
Richmond's Jack Dyer has a well-deserved reputation for inadvertently, as a radio and TV broadcaster, mangling the English language. Ironically, therefore, it is Jack Dyer, in his own pioneering autobiography Captain Blood, who has written (or ghost-written) the most evocative descriptions of Haydn Bunton, as he appeared to Dyer on and off the field. In writing my song, I drew on Dyer's comments more than any other source.
What has emerged about Bunton seemed perfect for a song. He was a romantic figure, in all senses of the word. Dodging knucklemen on the football field, he was a symbol of good triumphing over evil. Adored by female fans for his matinee idol looks (Dyer's comparison is with Rudolf Valentino) Bunton perhaps had as much in common with the Errol Flynn pirate character of "Captain Blood" than Jack Dyer himself did. Also, Bunton died before his time. The fatal car accident in Gawler seems to have been caused by Bunton's desire to help those less fortunate than himself.
The way that Bunton created, for Fitzroy people at least, excitement (if not hope) in the midst of thirties economic despair invites a comparison with Don Bradman. The matrix from which Aussie Football's Bradman emerged was not altogether different from the cricketer's. Like Bradman, Bunton was a country boy. As a seventeen year-old, Bunton took his place alongside young Bradman in a NSW Country X1 against a more senior NSW X1 and apparently so impressed that great cricket judge Monty Noble that he was rated by Noble as a more likely candidate for future Test selection than Bradman and Archie Jackson¹. Later, when Bunton arrived in Melbourne, Bill Ponsford approached him to join St Kilda Cricket Club. Of course, Bradman continued his cricketing career; Bunton did not.
One particularly fascinating story about Bunton stood out above all others, and more than any other part of the Bunton myth provided the essential ingredient for a song. I found it in Mavis Thorpe Clark's biography of the great aboriginal leader Doug Nicholls (and also in The First One Hundred Years, a history of the Fitzroy Football Club by Sutherland et al). I was profoundly moved when I read about Bunton's gesture of friendship in the Fitzroy dressing room towards the diminutive aboriginal. Nicholls, a skilled and lightning-fast wingman, was newly-arrived from Carlton (where he had been snubbed) and from Northcote's champion VFA team. As possibly the only black man in senior football in Melbourne, what supreme courage he must have had to face on-field taunts and dressing-room ostracism! In later years, Nicholls stood out as a spokesman for his people. His greatness was finally acknowledged when he was appointed Governor of South Australia.
Bunton's greatness consisted in the fact he had supreme football skills but it was augmented by his display of charity and humanity to his aboriginal teammate. (The charity seems to have been reciprocated - Bunton became one of a group of Fitzroy players attending Nicholls' Church Parade). Today, we hear a lot about reconciliation between the races and reconciliation between the races in football. Black footballers like Ché Cockatoo Collins, Michael Long and Nicky Winmar, who have worked against the grain to establish the rights of aboriginal footballers, have been justly applauded. But what have white footballers done? It seemed to me that there was perhaps a great untold story of white footballers working against the grain of racism and in their own way pioneering reconciliation long before it was fashionable.
There seems to be an unwritten law that football songs should be comic or humorous, or at least not too serious. There also seems to be an unspoken assumption that football songs (and sport generally) should avoid the discussion of serious social themes. Perhaps this is because of the pervasive, male locker-room, larrikin tradition of shying away from the expression of emotion. I felt this tradition as a barrier to be overcome before the Bunton song was possible. Football songs do not have to be overtly political to be good - take Mike Brady's classic "Up there Cazaly", now not far from being a genuine Australian folk song. But many football songs are ephemeral because they assiduously avoid social comment. I wrote the Bunton song in outright rebellion against the genre of football songs of the "There's only one Tony Lockett" type. I tried to pack in as much social history as possible - the depression years, racism on and off the field, footy as an expression of (Fitzroy) community, the commercialisation of the sport.
In recent years, there has been an acceleration in the movement of football away from its social - that is, its suburban and community - roots. Footy has become a part of "The Spectacle" and the larger entertainment industry (particularly television). Certainly football is now an industry in its own right, and "Money rules as King". In the most recent period, a little sub-industry has been developing within the belly of the AFL as an integral part of club marketing strategies. We have AFL Halls of Fame, club Halls of Fame, AFL Teams of the Century, club Teams of the Century, and, like some footy version of the Top Forty, The Best Sixty Players in the History of Such-and-Such.
Central to the sub-industry is the comparison of great footballers across different eras. Books based on these comparisons are great money-spinners and marketing tools. They probe bottomless wells of nostalgia. They look wonderful on coffee-tables. They provoke interesting and never-ending arguments. As my ever-growing library (and ever-diminishing bank balance) will attest, I love them. But from the point of view of History, the comparisons are really analytically untenable. How can Thurgood be compared (quantitatively or qualitatively) with Ablett? Reynolds with Carey? Pratt with Dunstall? In the end, it really just comes down to a subjective choice, a personal point of view.
In mid-1999, Melbourne's Herald-Sun newspaper (following in the tradition initiated by Greg Hobbs and Scott Palmer) solemnly published a list of the best-ever footballers in order of merit, with Hawthorn's Leigh Matthews as the No. 1. The absurd pseudo-objectivity of this poll was the catalyst that sparked, at last, my song. I decided to declare my hand, and to do so in full consciousness that I was being totally subjective - expressing my own values. Just as my favourite modern footballer is not some Geelong player but, of all things, a Carlton player - Brent Crosswell - so my greatest all-time footballer also had to be someone who could be shown to have worked, and not purely on the football field, against the grain. Embedded in the song is the notion that human qualities, not just on-field performance, ought to count for something in the estimation of football greatness.
At time of writing, the still-extant Fitzroy Football Club is petitioning the AFL to help fund the erection of a statue of Bunton at the Brunswick Street Oval. Bunton will join Ted Whitten and other sportspeople who have been monumentalised. My song also puts the Fitzroy footballer on a pedestal. Anything unsettling, or incongruous with the image of perfection, has been scraped off the portrait. Bunton had his detractors. For Dyer, he was the ''umpire's pet''. Turner called him a "seraph". I was shocked to read in a book on the history of Norwood Football Club that Bunton had hectored Haydn Junior from the boundary like a bad tempered schoolmaster. I wondered what to make of the oft-mentioned opinion that Bunton, winning games for Fitzroy "off his own boot", was footy's (first?) supreme individualist. I chose to ignore his connection to the payments scandal of 1930. I also had to ignore the apparent truth that Bunton's kicking prowess was barely above average! Of course, wherever old men gather, some do not say Bunton. Some say Coleman, or Reynolds, or Pratt. And not all have a gleam in their eye. But can you imagine us, or anyone else, singing that?
The Ballad of Hayden Bunton
Words and music copyright Ken Mansell August 1999
In the year of 1930
Depression truly on
A lad called Haydn Bunton
To Brunswick Street has gone
It took him just one season
A Brownlow for to own
They had not seen his equal
In the Blue and the Maroon
In the gloomy hungry thirties
When Fitzroy folk were low
A touch of Bunton magic
Could set all hearts aglow
As he strode across the backline
And loped along the wing
With opponents in his slipstream
And the ball upon a string
Bunton was a glamour boy
Slick hair and brilliantine
Girls would swoon and flutter
As if on the silver screen
Stand at Foys shop window
See him through the glass
Hear the umpire's whistle
The game is on at last!
The bone crusher and knuckleman
Who roamed the football field
Would try to take out Bunton
Force the glamour boy to yield
But he weaved through all the traffic
Danced round the ugly ring
The graceful Fitzroy rover
With the ball still on a string
Wherever old men gather
To watch the big men fly
And talk about the Greatest
The gleam still in their eye
They all say Haydn Bunton
The boy from Albury
Was like a flash of lightning
And the best we'll ever see
When little Dougie Nicholls
Came down from the scrub
Football was a white man's game
At Carlton he was snubbed
Just an aborigine
They would not let him in
No-one saw his blinding pace
Just the colour of his skin
See the rub-down tables
Fitzroy kids in awe
An arm around the shoulder
Of the black boy near the door
When Pastor Douglas Nicholls
Was meek and scared and shy
He found a mate in Bunton
A Man before his time
He won three medals in the East
And three more in the West
You can talk of Coleman, Reynolds, Pratt
Well, Bunton was the best
He died still young in Gawler town
In Nineteen Fifty-five
And Haydn Bunton Junior fought
To keep the flame alive
Though Footy now is Business
And Money rules as King
The sport is so much poorer
Now that Fitzroy's left the ring
As we start a brand new century
We can recall with pride
That Aussie Football's Bradman
Played for the Fitzroy side
- See for instance "That 'Quicksilver Man' called Haydn Bunton", Football Headlines, circa April
- This particular Argus publication, produced only weeks before Bunton's death, was written by Hugh Buggy, Percy Taylor, and Peter Banfield. I vaguely remember that the the footballer's premature death in 1955 hit the football world like a thunderclap.