Towards the end of the 1986 football season, Subiaco coach Haydn Bunton junior was one of several men rumoured to be in the running for the role of inaugural coach of the West Coast Eagles. However, Bunton, who had always regarded Subiaco as ‘home’, was quick to dismiss the speculation, stating that it was his ambition to restore the Lions to their former greatness (see footnote 1).
Such a viewpoint seems either perverse or outlandish from an early 21st Century perspective, but at the time there was nothing perceptibly naive or irrational about it; Bunton was merely giving voice to aspirations of a sort that most or all of his contemporary WAFL club coaches would have been able to identify with. Few if any observers at the time could possibly have envisaged the structural rigor mortis which would all too rapidly emerge as a side effect of the VFL’s self-propelled transformation from the strongest of all the state leagues to a pseudo-national concern with responsibility for virtually every aspect of the game’s development and well-being. In this new context, the kind of ‘greatness’ to which Bunton referred would be rendered inaccessible to all but the ‘chosen few’, and even among these it would be, at best, a greatness artificially tempered and constrained (see footnote 2).
In 1986, the much-travelled Bunton was in the third year of his second spell in charge of the club which he perhaps loved above all others (see footnote 3). During his previous coaching stint between 1968 and 1972 he had laid the foundations for Subiaco’s 1973 premiership, a success which brought to an end a 49-year drought. However, since 1973 the Lions’ fortunes had again declined, with the team contesting the finals only once from 1974 until Bunton’s arrival ten years later, and winning just 55 out of 232 matches in that time for a miserly success rate of just 23.7%, easily the worst in the WA(N)FL during the period. Against this backdrop of perennial failure, the announcement in Subiaco’s 1983 annual report that Haydn Bunton junior had accepted a five year contract to coach the club gave Lions fans a rare reason to rejoice. The arrival of Bunton, if not quite tantamount to the ‘return of the messiah’, nevertheless seemed to provide genuine grounds for optimism. As a player, Bunton had more than compensated for any inherent deficiencies in pure footballing ability by bringing a superabundance of vigour, determination and intelligence to bear on his game, and it was these same qualities which he continued to exhibit, and to demand of his players, as a coach. (see footnote 4).
Bunton’s arrival coincided with the return from Victoria of Peter Featherby, who had played for three seasons under Bunton during his previous stint in charge, and was by this stage one of the most proficient on-ballers and prolific kick gatherers in Australia. The recruitment of half a dozen other league standard footballers provided the Lions with sufficient impetus to enable them to win more games in 1984 than they had managed in both of the previous two seasons combined. Admittedly, nine wins from 21 matches was only good enough to elevate the team one place up the ladder, from eighth to seventh, but 1984 was an especially competitive season in Western Australia and overall it was clear that definite, discernible progress had been made. The battle lines had now been drawn; further improvement in 1985 was both demanded and expected. The fact that the Subiaco Reserves team had won the 1984 flag - the club’s first at any level for ten seasons - was seen as providing further grounds for optimism.
Dual Sandover Medallist Peter Spencer from East Perth was one of several recruits to further bolster Subiaco’s playing ranks in 1985. With an accomplished and highly versatile pool of players now at his disposal Bunton was able to steer the Lions to their best season since 1973, only to see the ultimate prize of a premiership fall just outside their grasp as East Fremantle won a thrilling grand final by 5 points. Defeats of this sort are never easy to countenance, but it seems evident from history that, for many teams, they do prove instructive. This certainly proved to be so in Subiaco’s case. After warming up for the 1986 season with a 25.25 (175) to 17.11 (113) mauling of VFL club St Kilda the Lions went from strength to strength, ultimately qualifying to contest the finals as minor premiers for only the sixth time in the club’s history (see footnote 5).
An uncharacteristically lackadaisical second semi performance against East Fremantle reminded everyone that much work remained to be done, however, and for the following week’s preliminary final Bunton had the whole team primed to perfection, eliciting a 12-goal annihilation of Perth.
In the grand final, Sharks skipper Brian Peake won the toss but little else as Subi thereafter produced a performance of consummate fire, determination and skill to turn the tables and overturn the odds in quite emphatic fashion, winning in the end with apparent ease by 69 points. After rattling on six opening term goals to East Fremantle’s one, the Lions players already had a hand apiece on the premiership cup, and by half time, with Subiaco leading 13.4 to 3.7, the match was as good as over. Lions centre half back Mark Zanotti picked up the Simpson Medal as best afield, while back pocket Dwayne Lamb, ruckman Phil Scott, wingman Greg Carpenter, and on-baller Andrew MacNish were among many other Subi stars to shine.
The following week brought a challenge match at Subiaco Oval against VFL premiers Hawthorn. Fort much of the game the Lions appeared superior, leading as they did at every change by 10, 23 and two points, only for the Hawks’ superior fitness to enable them to get up at the death and snatch a scarcely deserved 18.11 (119) to 17.15 (117) victory. Dwayne Lamb, Mick Lee, Mark Zanotti and Brian Taylor were perhaps the most significant contributors to a Subiaco performance which suggested that, given different circumstances, Haydn Bunton’s aspirations of greatness for the club he loved might realistically have been fulfilled on a national stage. As it was, the 1987 season saw Subiaco having to front up without close to half of its premiership twenty, a situation rendered all the more galling by virtue of the fact that no fewer than half a dozen of the departing contingent still regularly plied their trade on Subiaco Oval, albeit in the ‘foreign’ colours of royal blue and gold. With the entrance into the VFL of a Perth-based club, West Coast, the Western Australian football landscape had changed dramatically, and for ever.
Overnight, playing football at a club like Subiaco went from being perceived as a pinnacle of achievement for a young player to merely a means toward an end - that end being participation in football’s self-declared elite competition, the VFL. Football patrons, recognising this change, modified their patterns of behaviour significantly as a result. In 1987, a season which very nearly brought the club a second successive flag, Subiaco’s matches attracted less than half as many spectators as in 1986. Consequently Haydn Bunton had, as a result of forces outside his control, suddenly been transformed from coach of a first grade football team the equal of almost any in Australia, to a mentor of largely youthful talent whose predominant aspirations lay elsewhere. This same tragic state of affairs was simultaneously played out at numerous other football clubs across the country, dealing the sport a body blow the scale of which will probably only truly become evident when the generation which experienced it has been replaced by the next.
In the meantime, however, there were still members and supporters to be satisfied, and football matches to be won. Subiaco Football Club in 1987, almost miraculously given its player losses, went within a single game of retaining its title. As it was, Claremont, which under Gerard Neesham’s aegis had introduced a youth development programme par excellence, proved much too good for the Lions in a one-sided grand final. (Claremont’s ‘reward’ for its initiative and enterprise would not ultimately be to its liking, however.)
With the attention of Western Australian football supporters increasingly being focused on the VFL, Subiaco’s membership figures, in common with those of every other WAFL club, continued to decline alarmingly. The 1988 season saw a 15% reduction in full memberships at Subi, while the total figures, despite being artificially buttressed by a large number of reciprocal West Coast Eagles memberships, nevertheless still dropped by 7%. The situation would undoubtedly have been significantly worse had the Lions not continued to perform with extraordinary distinction on the field, ultimately qualifying for a fourth consecutive second semi final.
In 1985 a crowd of 23,500, considered fairly modest at the time, had turned up for Subiaco’s second semi final meeting with East Fremantle. Three years on and considerably less than half that number paid to watch the Lions’ 25 point demise against reigning premiers Claremont in a game that was as good as over by half time. Bunton, however, would have taken heart from his players’ methodical second half fight back which gave the eventual score line a semblance of respectability.
In the preliminary final the Lions overcame a spirited challenge from East Fremantle to edge home by 3 points after a classic, topsy turvy encounter. Subiaco opened brilliantly to lead 8.2 to 2.4 at the first change but by half time the Sharks had pegged the margin back to 21 points. In the third term, leg weariness among a number of Lions players, who had only had a six day break compared to their opponents’ two weeks, seemed to be taking its toll. East Fremantle added 8.6 to 1.2 during this period and looked to be running away with the game. Prospects of a Subiaco recovery looked remote, but somehow the players managed to dig deep and find another level; the last quarter yielded 7 goals to 2, a heroic victory, and, most importantly of all, the seeds of a seventh league premiership.
The 1988 WAFL grand final promised an archetypal contrast in playing styles, with Claremont’s pace, precision, poise and panache pitted against the more traditional qualities of the Lions. Despite this, only 28,183 spectators turned up, the lowest grand final crowd since 1952, and scarcely more than attended the SANFL second semi final the same weekend.
According to the writer of a preview in the grand final issue of the ‘Football Budget’:
“Claremont must be favoured ..... because they have a more even spread of talent. But it will not be the one-sided clash which was the source of so much disappointment only a fortnight ago.” (see footnote 6)
In the event, this proved to be wrong on both counts, for after a closely contested first half the game was one-sided in the extreme as Subiaco, displaying great concentration, application and grit, ran right away from the Tigers to record a sensational, if somewhat surprising, 62-point victory. On-baller Mick Lee was awarded the Simpson Medal after a tireless performance; he was ably supported by ruckman Laurie Keene, a controversial inclusion after Subiaco had exploited a loophole in the regulations governing the eligibility for participation in WAFL finals games of West Coast Eagles players, as well as 6 goal half forward John Georglades, tenacious full back Rod Willet, and the evergreen Taylor brothers, Brian and Neil.
The Lions contested one further losing grand final in 1991 before Bunton departed as coach at the end of the following season, having supervised the most productive era in the history of the club since pre-World War One days. However, just as on that previous occasion the club was prevented from achieving sustained dominance by the intervention of nefarious external forces. In 1915, it had been the need to supply young men for the killing fields of Europe that had effectively quashed the club’s nascent greatness; three quarters of a century on and a cash-strapped Victorian Football League with its own survival as the paramount, some would say sole, item on its agenda wreaked much the same effect, this time permanently.
Over the ensuing decade the club experienced mixed fortunes, but no further premierships, although it came close under Gary Buckenara’s tutelage in 1995, losing the grand final to West Perth.
That same 1995 season saw a second Western Australian club, Fremantle, admitted to the expanded VFL competition which by this stage had become known as the Australian Football League, or AFL. As a result the playing ranks of the WAFL’s eight clubs became even more diluted, and the profile of the competition declined still further. The controversial admission to the league in 1997 of a ninth club, the Mandurah-based Peel Thunder, inevitably spawned a further deterioration in playing standards.
As football in Western Australia enters a new century the brutal fact is that once proud clubs like Subiaco no longer occupy pivotal roles in the game’s development, and the sort of greatness to which Haydn Bunton junior aspired has been placed forever out of reach. Attendances at WAFL fixtures had by the beginning of the 21st Century slumped to a level comparable with some of the stronger Victorian country leagues.
In a sense, life for those associated with the Subiaco Football Club has come full circle since its formation in 1896, and admission to the then second tier of organised football in Perth, the First Rate Junior Association (see footnote 7). The 1890s was a decade of large scale gold discoveries on the Western Australian goldfields of Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie; at the same time, the colonies of Victoria and South Australia were undergoing a severe economic depression, prompting many Victorian and South Australian men to uproot and head west in search of fortune. Many of these fortune seekers were footballers, and even those who were not often brought knowledge of and passion for the game. Inevitably, many headed further west, to Perth and Fremantle, once their gold-digging days were over, and the settlement of Subiaco was one of their most popular haunts. Indeed, examination of local school enrolment records at around the time of the Subiaco Football Club’s formation reveals that the overwhelming majority of pupils originated from outside Western Australia, and that of these by far the biggest proportion hailed from Victoria (see footnote 8). It is hardly surprising therefore that interest among Subiaco residents in the code of football which was still fairly widely known at this stage as ‘Victorian Rules’ was considerable.
Records of junior football in Perth at the close of the nineteenth century are scant, but it does not appear that the fledgling Subiaco Football Club, which chose maroon and blue as its colours, enjoyed much success in its inaugural season. Success would not be long in arriving, however.
Originally based on a stretch of common ground off Mueller Road the club found a more suitable home in 1898 at a new recreation ground in West Subiaco, later known as Shenton Park. This relocation to enhanced playing premises coincided with, and perhaps partly helped initiate, enhanced on field performances, culminating in Subiaco’s first ever premiership, clinched in mid-August, two games from the end of the season, with a four-point victory over Fremantle Imperials (see footnote 9). Two seasons later in 1900 Subiaco brought the nineteenth century to a highly satisfactory end by repeating the achievement after incurring just a single loss for the entire season.
Subiaco’s emergence as a junior football power was timely given that the Western Australian Football Association, after a number of seasons during which the game’s image had been severely tarnished by profligate roughness among its players, had begun to consolidate, and indeed was now looking to expand. Subiaco, along with fellow First Rate Junior Association powerhouse North Fremantle, appeared to have all the necessary credentials for admission to the higher tier (not least of which was the fact that both clubs had their own secure playing venues), and their elevation to the WAFA in 1901, bringing the number of clubs in that competition to six, was no surprise. Buoyed therefore by the all pervading optimism which embraced Australia as it embarked on the new adventure of nationhood, those associated with the Subiaco Football Club could probably see no reason to feel anything other than supreme, unbridled confidence as the Century of Change commenced.
Despite this, Subiaco’s first decade or so of involvement in the WAFA proved to be inauspicious in the extreme. In the eleven seasons between 1901 and 1911 the side finished bottom of the ladder more often than not, and managed a wretched success rate of just 18.3%. The club’s cause during this time was not helped by the fact that, for much of the period, it was effectively without a home ground, because Shenton Park had deteriorated to such an extent that, for several seasons, it was unusable. In 1908, however, a new ground, Subiaco Oval, constructed on the site of the club’s original paddock at Mueller Road, was opened, and both Subiaco and, in years to come, Western Australian football itself, had a new home.
At around the same time as the move the club began to recruit more ambitiously, but on field improvement was slow to arrive. In 1911, the side gave some signs of having turned the corner, but overall seemed incapable of maintaining a high level of performance for the entire four quarters of a game; ultimately, it finished second from bottom, albeit with the comparatively respectable return of four wins from 13 matches.
With the recruitment of South Australian football nomad, and eventual legend of the game, Phil Matson, Subiaco would improve considerably in 1912. Strongly built, swift of foot, combative, and a spectacular aerialist, Matson also possessed a formidable football brain which he would later employ to great effect as coach of the outstanding East Perth sides which dominated Western Australian football immediately after the Great War. Matson’s debut in a maroon guernsey was delayed by a clearance wrangle with his former club North Fremantle, but once this was resolved he quickly emerged as the lynch-pin of the team. As the 1912 season wore on it soon became clear that the chief protagonists in the battle for the flag were going to be perennial finalists East Fremantle and persistent under-achievers Subiaco. These two sides met on three occasions during the minor round, with Subiaco taking the honours overall with two wins to one, an achievement which effectively netted the club its first ever minor premiership.
The first weekend of the 1912 finals pitted Subiaco against third placed South Fremantle, a match which the Maroons won easily to set up the expected premiership play-off against Old Easts. Controversially, given the relative status of the two teams, the WAFL authorities (sees footnote 10) nominated Fremantle Oval, East Fremantle’s home ground, as the venue for this match. If Subiaco lost, it would be granted the opportunity to challenge, and the venue for the challenge final would be Perth Oval, but as minor premier it perhaps justifiably believed that it ought to have been granted the right to attempt to finish things off right away in front of a sympathetic audience.
The audience at Fremantle Oval was far from sympathetic to Subiaco, and the fact that the Maroons went into the game minus two key players in the shape of the season’s top goal kicker, Herb ‘Hubba’ Limb (injured), and the formidable future Sandover Medallist (with East Perth) William ‘Digger’ Thomas (suspended) made their task even more daunting - too daunting, in fact, as East Fremantle won with consummate ease, by 81 points.
With Limb back to spearhead the forward lines the following week, and the majority of the crowd staunchly behind them, Subiaco’s prospects appeared marginally better for the challenge final, but few seriously expected anything better than a defiant loss. As it was, the Subiaco team, to a man, played heroically, while Limb in particular was in resplendent form, snaring four of his team’s goals in a resolute 5.8 (38) to 4.5 (29) victory. Victorian captain-coach Joe Scaddan, “a man with the mental toughness of a Spartan” (see footnote 11), was another to perform with great distinction, as were centre half forward Phil Matson, followers Bill Loughridge and Tom Cain, and half back flanker Ernie Nelson.
The only occurrence to sour an otherwise superlative season came a few days after the grand final when Subiaco was beaten for the state premiership by Goldfields premiers Railways, 8.12 (60) to 7.9 (51). The match was played in Kalgoorlie.
With Matson taking over from Scaddan as the club’s on field leader, Subiaco continued as a force in 1913, securing another minor premiership which, as in 1912, would prove to be invaluable. In the semi final against Perth the Maroons played tiredly, losing by 15 points, but in hindsight this may have been just the jolt the players needed to enable them to overcome any subconscious complacency and approach the challenge final of three weeks later in the right frame of mind.
Somewhat surprisingly, Subiaco’s opposition in that challenge final turned out to be Perth, which had scored an upset victory over raging hot favourites East Fremantle in the final. Accordingly, although most pundits expected the Maroons to turn the tables, there was an equal consensus as to it being likely to be a tough, closely fought affair. Early on, however, it was anything but, as Subiaco quickly rattled on the first 4 goals of the game, only for Perth to mount a sustained fight back which saw it edge into the lead just before the long break. In the third term the Maroons appeared to have gained a stranglehold again, booting the only two goals of the period, but the final quarter would see the black and reds enjoying a considerable wind advantage. Realising what needed to be done, Phil Matson, who had been playing at centre half forward, positioned himself in the back lines, effectively as a loose man, and under his orchestration the Subiaco defenders withstood everything the opposition could throw at them. Neither side managed a goal in the final term, and Subiaco thereby clinched a second consecutive flag, winning in the end by 12 points, 6.7 (43) to 4.7 (31). Centreman ‘Digger’ Thomas, wingman Wally Short, back pocket Joe Bushell, three-goal full forward ‘Hubba’ Limb, and Matson starred.
Subiaco rounded off the season in style with a 15.11 (101) to 8.6 (54) win over one of Phil Matson’s former clubs, Boulder City, in the state premiership play off at the WACA.
In 1914 the Maroons finished third, and the following year, despite the fact that all sporting activity in Australia was being phased down because of the war, they managed to retain the nucleus of a strong side. Just how strong quickly emerged as the side won its first 10 matches of the season to virtually clinch finals participation with more than half of its games still to play. Whether the players subconsciously relaxed at this point is difficult to prove, but the fact that only five of the club’s final 11 matches were won suggests this may have been the case. Nevertheless, 15 wins from 21 games was still sufficient to secure the minor premiership, an accomplishment which, with events from the recent past in mind, doubtless afforded a degree of psychological reassurance.
This time around, however, the right of challenge did not need to be invoked as Subiaco overcame South Fremantle and Perth in straight sets - the latter by just two points thanks to a goal from Limb shortly before the final bell - to comprehensively reinforce its status as Western Australia’s leading club. Although, in light of events elsewhere, post match celebrations were restrained, there was undoubtedly a great deal of pride over the club’s meteoric rise from anonymity to greatness. Sadly, by 1916 the depredations of war were such that any ambitions to build on this greatness had to be placed on hold, although no one associated with the club could seriously have expected the hiatus in achievement to be quite so prolonged or, at times, demeaning.
The immediate post-war period in Western Australian football was dominated by East Perth, which was now coached by Phil Matson. In 1915 Matson had been replaced as coach of Subiaco by Jack Leckie, who in turn gave way to Wally Steele two years later. Steele, like Matson, was a South Australian, with many of the same attributes of character and qualities of leadership, or at least so it seemed. The Subiaco Committee’s decision to appoint Steele instead of Matson may, at the time, and without the benefits of foresight, have appeared as ‘line ball’; however, it was a decision which would dramatically - and for a long time to come - alter the balance of power in Western Australian football.
Steele was by no means a bad coach. In his five full seasons at the helm Subiaco contested the finals on three occasions, but was never able to progress beyond the first week. As the 1920s dawned, however, it was clear that Matson’s Royals were providing Western Australian football with a new benchmark. Season after season they proved themselves pre-eminent, as fortunes at Subiaco began to decline alarmingly. In 1922 and ‘23 the Maroons failed to contest the finals, and although the 1924 season yielded slight improvement - 7 wins and a draw from 15 games being good enough for third place on the ladder - there did not appear to be anyone on the horizon capable of seriously challenging the all conquering Royals.
No one would have been more gratified by Subiaco’s 1924 premiership success than Jack Hamilton. Earlier that same season he had been castigated by East Perth and state coach Matson after putting in what Matson regarded as ‘an uncharacteristically inept performance’ for Western Australia against the VFL at the Hobart carnival. Every player can be excused an occasional off day - if such indeed it was - but Hamilton must have felt he had a point to prove, and during the 1924 WAFL finals series he did so in emphatic fashion with a series of blistering displays. Nor was he alone: almost to a man, his Subiaco team mates lifted their level of performance to previously unscaled heights. In the first week of the finals the Maroons faced a supposedly indefatigable East Perth side which was chasing an unprecedented sixth consecutive flag, but even after conceding their opponents a sizeable first half lead Hamilton and Co. refused to admit defeat, and after the long break they gradually wrested control of proceedings to storm home to a memorable win by 8 points.
With the worst over, Subiaco then made light of successive meetings with minor premiers East Fremantle, emerging victorious by 46 points from the first encounter, played in fine conditions at Perth Oval, and then repeating the dose the following week with a 7.9 (51) to 3.6 (24) triumph at the same venue in the wet. Half forward Johnny Grigg was best afield for the victors, with centre half back Arthur Green, centreman Hamilton, ruckman Tom Outridge and wingman Joe Scaddan also prominent.
Shortly after the challenge final Subiaco headed for the goldfields to confront Boulder City for the state premiership. It proved to be a somewhat strenuous affair, but the Maroons finally overcame a defiant challenge from their opponents, a fine last quarter performance sealing a 12.12 (84) to 8.13 (61) win. This proved to be the last occasion on which the state premiership was contested.
The remainder of the 1920s saw Subiaco flirting with, but never again achieving, success. Not even the advantage accruing from a minor premiership in 1925 was sufficient to precipitate them to another flag.
The Maroons continued to perform competently during the first half of the 1930s, reaching the grand finals of 1931, 1933 and 1935, only to lose narrowly on each occasion. In 1937, however, Subiaco endured a calamitous season, managing only 4 wins from 21 fixtures to finish last for the first time since the war-affected 1916 season.
Desperate measures were clearly called for, but what the Subiaco committee eventually came up with bordered on the outlandish. In August 1937, after watching the visiting VFL players in training prior to the Perth Carnival, former champion ruckman, now club secretary, Tom Outridge was vocal in his admiration of three men in particular: Fitzroy rover Haydn Bunton, Geelong utility Les Hardiman, and Carlton half forward Keith Shea. Half jokingly, he suggested to his companions that it would be nice to all three them fronting up for Subiaco at some stage.
Realistically, landing even one of these players would have been regarded as a noteworthy recruiting coup, but the amazing fact was Subiaco somehow managed to lure all three of them to Perth in time for the 1938 football season.
Of the three, New South Welshman Bunton came with far and away the most glittering credentials, having won the Brownlow Medal on a then unprecedented three occasions (see footnote 12) and finished runner up once; he had also been awarded Fitzroy’s best and fairest award twice, and topped the club’s goal kicking list on three occasions. In seven seasons with the VFL Maroons he had played a total of 117 games and been a virtual ever present in the VFL interstate side. Quite aside from the bald statistics, however, many authoritative judges over the years have argued that Haydn Bunton senior would warrant serious consideration as the greatest individual exponent of Australian football in the code’s history.
Although much less well remembered these days, Keith Shea was also an exceptional talent, with 91 League games and 10 VFL interstate appearances under his belt, while the hard as nails Les ‘Splinter’ Hardiman was a former Geelong club champion who was a prominent member of the Cats’ 1937 premiership side. With three such gifted recruits in their 1938 line up the Maroons might reasonably have been expected to leapfrog up the ladder, but although the side won twice as many games as in 1937, this was only good enough to elevate them a single place, from last to seventh.
This continued ineptitude, though bewildering, did nothing to tarnish Haydn Bunton senior’s reputation. Week after week the supremely talented Bunton produced performances which lifted him head and shoulders above his peers. In 1938, he was a runaway winner of the Sandover Medal (see footnote 13), an accomplishment he repeated the following year, and yet again in 1941. Bunton also won Subiaco’s best and fairest award the same years, with the one in between being nabbed by Hardiman.
Despite Bunton and Company’s best efforts, however, the club’s on field fortunes were showing little sign of improving when global hostilities again intervened. For three seasons, the league effectively ran on auto-pilot, with the clubs being represented by under age combinations. Subiaco won a minor premiership under this format in 1943, but then lost both finals.
On the resumption of full-scale league competition in 1945, Subiaco’s fortunes did not improve. Indeed, for much of the next decade the WAFL premiership was effectively a four team contest, with West Perth, Perth and the two Fremantle sides consistently out-performing the other four clubs.
In 1959, however, Subiaco, which had not participated in a finals match since 1946, somewhat surprisingly re-emerged as a force. After winning 12 out of 21 minor round matches to qualify for the finals in fourth place, the side then annihilated Perth by 129 points in a boilover first semi final. The preliminary final two weeks later saw East Fremantle conclusively put to the sword, and so convincing had the Maroons been that many scribes gave them a realistic chance of overturning reigning premiers East Perth for the ‘59 flag. Alas, it was not be: in front of a then record grand final crowd of 45,245 the Royals led at every change to win what was nevertheless an exhilarating game of impressively high standard by 23 points, 12.19 (91) to 9.14 (68).
Between 1960 and 1967 the club contested the finals just twice, reaching a woeful nadir in 1967 with just three wins from 21 matches and a comprehensive wooden spoon.
The following season the Subiaco committee turned to a familiar name in a bid to resurrect the club’s fortunes. Nearing thirty-one years of age, Haydn Bunton junior had already accomplished much in football, but his appetite for a new challenge remained undimmed. As a player, he may have lacked his father’s poise, pace, elegance and flair, but a Sandover Medal win in 1962 and regular interstate appearances for both South Australia and Western Australia proved he was a more than capable footballer. In the coaching sphere, however, and as an on field leader, the younger Bunton truly excelled, and it was chiefly because of his abilities in these areas that the Subiaco committee decided to pursue him so determinedly.
Bunton’s arrival as coach in 1968 raised anticipation among Subiaco supporters, and indeed among Western Australian football fans in general, to fever pitch. During his previous stint in the west he had achieved the near impossible by transforming the perennial easy beats of the competition, Swan Districts, into a premiership-winning combination. Not only that, he had accomplished the feat three years in a row. Now Subiaco barrackers were hoping for the same miraculous touch.
Haydn Bunton junior was no miracle worker, however; no coach is. His success as a coach was based on sound, readily identifiable principles, and throughout his coaching career, in both Adelaide and Perth, his teams tended to function in similar ways. Intelligent use of handball, for example, was central to the Bunton credos:
Handball is a springboard of attacks and can do more to disorganise an opposition defence than indiscriminate handball, which too often suits backmen in other clubs, who can read the game. The trouble with hand ball is that it is an art which I consider more difficult to master and employ properly than disposal by foot (see footnote 14).
Bunton did not concoct the impossible on this occasion, but under his inspired tutelage Subiaco did improve enough in 1968 to qualify for the finals. It did so again in 1969 and 1970, but in five seasons at the helm Bunton was unable to steer the club beyond the first semi final.
In retrospect, former St Kilda rover Ross Smith, who replaced Bunton as coach in 1973, has tended to be regarded as the man who, in effect, manufactured a long overdue premiership for the Lions out of raw materials created and bequeathed to him by his predecessor. Such an assessment may be unfair to Smith. For one thing, after a sudden and quite dramatic upturn in fortunes under Bunton, Subiaco’s performances had once again declined. In 1971 (fifth - 10 wins and 11 losses) and 1972 (sixth - 8-13) the Lions had failed to contest the finals, and the little master’s coaching methods, once regarded as cutting edge, had been called into question.
Given the scale of Subiaco’s improvement in 1973, it is at least arguable that the lion’s share of the credit for the club’s eventual premiership belongs, in fact, to Smith, although even to argue the point is, in a sense, redundant, given that it is Smith’s name, not Bunton’s, which adorns the Subiaco honour board as the team’s coach for that year.
The tenacious and battle-hardened Smith, who had played well over 200 VFL games in 12 seasons as well as winning a Brownlow Medal, brought to the club not only an augmentation of Bunton’s coaching philosophies, but also a formidable, and at times decisive, on field presence. Put simply, he led from the front, at a time when the demands associated with coaching had still not quite burgeoned to such an extent as to render the role of captain-coach obsolete.
Despite the fact that the ever increasing inroads made by VFL clubs into player stocks was having an inevitable, inimical effect on standards the WANFL competition during the early 1970s was in a vibrant and healthy state. In 1970, a total of 810,113 spectators had attended the 21 rounds of the home and away series, which represented a weekly average equivalent to 5.7% of the population of the Perth-Fremantle metropolitan area. Gradually, however, as the decade progressed, attendance figures declined. By 1980, each weekend’s round of football was only attracting crowds equivalent to 4.1% of the metropolitan zone’s population (see footnote 15).
Subiaco won the minor premiership in 1973, thereby enabling it to contribute to its peculiar tradition of almost invariably losing a finals match en route to a flag (see footnote 16). Not that there was anything calculated about the Lions’ 13.7 (85) to 15.13 (103) second semi final loss to West Perth; it was simply a case of too many Subiaco players - most notably the captain-coach himself - being down on form.
Smith got himself, and his team, back on track for the following week’s preliminary final, in which Subiaco always appeared to be in the box seat against East Perth, although the final margin of victory - 10 points - was a little close for comfort.
With it having been so long ‘between drinks’ for the Lions, enormous interest was generated in the 1973 grand final. Anxious to keep the players’ minds focused on the task at hand, the Subiaco management committee forbade them from speaking to the media during the run up to the big game. This was probably just as well, for the grand final rapidly developed into a tense, dour war of attrition. At quarter time the Lions, having enjoyed first use of the breeze, led narrowly, 3.4 (22) to 2.0 (12), but during the second term the Cardinals responded vigorously, and at half time there was just a single point in it: West Perth 4.2 (26); Subiaco 3.7 (25).
It was at this point that Ross Smith began to tap into all his reserves of experience and skill, putting together “one of the most inspired and courageous exhibitions of roving ever seen at Subiaco Oval” (see footnote 17). Following their leader’s example, Lions players all over the ground lifted, enabling them to eke out what proved to be a decisive advantage. At lemon time, Subiaco led 7.10 (52) to 5.2 (32), a margin of only 20 points admittedly, but West Perth’s resistance had been broken, and the last term saw the Lions again outscore their rivals to win with deceptive ease. Centre half back Dennis Blair was awarded the Simpson Medal, although most observers rated Smith’s performance as having had the most decisive impact. Keith Watt, Dick Manning and Fred Davenport were other Subiaco players to perform well.
Subiaco’s failure to build on its 1973 premiership success was attributable to many factors, but of these the loss to Victoria of key players in the shape of ruckman Mike Fitzpatrick (to Carlton) and centreman Peter Featherby (to Footscray), not to mention Ross Smith’s return to Melbourne in 1975, arguably combined to be of greatest significance.
In the three decades since the ‘73 flag Subiaco has, at times, been forced to dig deep, even simply to ensure survival. However, it is a proud, resilient and forward-thinking club, and if such qualities continue to mean anything in future then it should be around, and winning premierships, for many years to come.
As far as most Subiaco supporters are concerned, one of those premierships ought by rights to have arrived in 2003, when the Lions qualified for the grand final ‘the easy way’, by overcoming West Perth in the second semi final, only to capitulate by 23 points against the same opponents a fortnight later when the stakes were at their height.
The 2004 season heralded one of the most significant developments in the history of the Subiaco Football Club with a move from the ground that had been its home for the better part of a century, Subiaco Oval, to West Perth’s former long term headquarters at Leederville. The move, which remains something of a contentious issue among some of the club’s supporters, involved the Lions entering into an historic ground-sharing arrangement with East Perth, with Leederville Oval being gradually transformed into ‘a football centre of excellence’.
To the delight of Subiaco’s supporters, footballing excellence was very much to the fore as the senior side topped the ladder with a 15-5 record heading into the 2004 finals. Once there, the players exhibited a single-minded determination to avoid the mistakes of 2003, resolve that was rewarded with conclusive wins over Claremont in both the second semi final (by 10 goals) and grand final (by 8 goals) to wrap up a long overdue eighth premiership.
The Lions performed even better during the 2005 minor round, losing only 2 of their 20 matches, but the finals proved to be a disaster. In the second semi final they were outclassed by South Fremantle to the tune of 60 points, while in the preliminary final, despite leading 5.3 to 1.1 at the first change, they went under by 24 points to a more resolute and cohesive Claremont team.
The Lions made conclusive amends in 2006, however. After again topping the ladder with an 18-2 record, they twice downed South Fremantle in the finals to secure their ninth senior WAFL flag. On grand final day they were irresistible, leading at every change by 6, 18 and 32 points en route to a resounding 83 point victory. Subi won 24.9 (153) to 10.10 (70), with Sam Larkins booting 8.3, club skipper Marc Webb winning the Simpson Medal, and ruckman Luke Newick and on-ballers Matt Priddis, Ben Keevers and Jarrad Schofield representing just the tip of the iceberg as far as fine performers for the Lions on the day was concerned.
A year later Subiaco made it two flags in a row for the first time since 1912-13, and ten senior premierships in all, thanks to a convincing 41 point grand final win over Claremont. Second after the home and away rounds, the Lions succumbed to a narrow loss at the hands of the Tigers in the second semi final before recovering form and confidence with a slashing 25.14 (164) to 10.9 (69) defeat of South Fremantle in the preliminary final. The grand final was all Subi from the start as they rattled on 4.4 during the opening stanza whilst keeping Claremont scoreless. The Tigers made a semblance of a fight-back in the second term, but still went into the rooms at the long break 21 points adrift. Then, in the third quarter, the Lions re-assumed command to add 5.3 to 2.2 and effectively put the match out of Claremont’s reach. Final scores were Subiaco 15.13 (103) defeated Claremont 9.8 (62), with full forward Brad Smith nabbing 7 majors in a Simpson Medal-winning performance. Allistair Pickett, Mark Nicoski, Luke Newick and Darren Rumble were other stand-out performers for the Lions.
Haydn Bunton junior’s aspirations of ‘greatness’ for Subiaco may not have materialised in quite the manner he anticipated, but to have survived, and still to be adapting, developing and succeeding in spite of sometimes inimical external forces, represents greatness of a different, and perhaps more enduring, kind. Subiaco supporters, and indeed true football supporters of all persuasions, will certainly hope so.