For many years, Swan Districts was very much the Cinderella side of the Western Australian National Football League, an object of pity or scorn, but seldom much respect. After breaking through for a first ever premiership in 1961, however, Swans went on to enjoy more success over the ensuing three decades than any other club in the competition. Admittedly, since claiming their seventh flag in 1990 their fortunes have declined somewhat, but never to the extent of attracting pity or scorn from their competitors (see footnote 1).
In actual fact, Swan Districts’ entry into WANFL ranks in 1934 was not an altogether inglorious one. The side was competitive right from the start, and 7 wins from 18 fixtures represented an Australian record for a club in its debut season in any of the three major state competitions (VFL, WANFL and SANFL).
Many members of Swan Districts’ original league side had had previous experience with other WANFL clubs, and this may in part explain its initial high level of competitiveness. Prominent Swans during the club’s early years included Clem Rosewarne, 1935 Sandover Medallist George Krepp (see footnote 2), Ted Holdsworth, Rupe Maynard, Andy Zilko, Jack Murray and Hughie Forbes.
After finishing seventh in its debut season Swan Districts rose to fifth in 1935 before slumping to seventh again, albeit with 9 wins from 20 games, the following year. In 1937 the side really came of age, however, winning 14 out of 21 minor round matches to qualify for the finals in third place. Perhaps predictably, however, on first semi final day reigning premier East Perth proved to have just that little bit more finals know how than the Swans and edged home by 14 points.
If 1937 was, in the circumstances, highly creditable, the 1938 season, despite following a superficially similar pattern, ultimately proved a major disappointment. Swan Districts again qualified for the finals in third place but then succumbed to East Perth once more in the first semi final, this time by the agonising margin of a solitary point. Final scores were East Perth 8.18 (66) to Swan Districts 9.11 (65).
In retrospect, Swan Districts’ first five seasons in the WANFL can be looked upon as something of a honeymoon period. Starting in 1939 the club’s fortunes deteriorated sharply, and for most of the next two decades Swans (or the Magpies as they were known for a time) were very much the sort of chopping block they might have been expected to have been from the start.
After finishing sixth with a 7-13 win/loss record in 1939 the team plummeted to its first wooden spoon the following year with just two wins from 20 games. A second wooden spoon followed twelve months later, and when the WANFL senior competition was suspended owing to the war in 1942, Swan Districts proved incapable of raising a team to participate in the under age competition which replaced it.
The WANFL continued on an under age only basis for a further two seasons with Swans resuming participation to finish second and sixth (see footnote 3).
The recommencement of full scale senior football in 1945 saw Swans put in an encouraging season to reach the first semi final before losing to South Fremantle. The club’s first nine senior seasons had yielded a respectable 38% success rate and three finals appearances, but it was to be another 15 years before the side would again contest a finals series. During those fifteen years Swans barely managed to win 20% of their games and ended up with the wooden spoon on no fewer than seven occasions. Sixth position on the ladder in 1953 (7 wins) and 1955 (5 wins) represented the side’s best return.
By 1961 the popularity of football in Western Australia was at an all time high with an average of more than 30,000 spectators attending each week’s round of matches. The unexpected success of the Western Australian state side in capturing the national title at the Brisbane carnival was one important factor in reinforcing the game’s popularity. However, arguably of even greater importance was the equally unexpected emergence of Swan Districts as a league power for the first time, providing the WANFL competition, which had consistently been dominated by the same few clubs since the end of World War Two, with a long overdue shot in the arm.
Swan Districts took a gamble in 1961 by appointing the young Haydn Bunton junior as senior coach. Bunton, whose father had won three Sandover Medals with Subiaco in the 1930s, had spent his early years in Perth but had played virtually all of his football in South Australia (see footnote 4). Bunton’s courage and dedication were undeniable, but his coaching pedigree was limited. Many felt that what Swans most needed, after succumbing to a second successive wooden spoon in 1960, was an experienced hand at the helm, but almost immediately Bunton set about showing that the committee had made an inspired choice:
Bunton extricated players from beer gardens around Perth and the city’s resort beaches, provided them with a sense of belonging, and set each player a personal challenge. To a man, the players responded to their coach, a supreme leader and master tactician, and won ... (see footnote 5)
Among the newcomers to respond to the Bunton technique was rover Bill Walker, who would go on to become arguably the greatest player in the history of the club. Nevertheless, it was Bunton’s “genius (that was) solely responsible for the club’s dizzy climb from the bottom to the top of the premiership table in one winter” (see footnote 6). Or perhaps, as one senior player archly put it, “He conned us into playing good football” (see footnote 7). During the minor round Swan Districts won 12 out of 21 matches to finish second on the ladder to East Perth but most observers considered it of critical significance that the Royals had won all three head to head clashes during the year. The East Perth lobby grew even stronger after the second semi final which resulted in a thoroughly convincing 48 point triumph to the Royals, and when the black and whites had to struggle all the way to overcome Subiaco in the following week’s preliminary final the only doubt in most people’s minds was how much East Perth would end up winning by.
People had reckoned without Bunton, though, and the 1961 grand final became, above all else, a testimony to his tactical ingenuity. East Perth’s key player was Graham Farmer, arguably the greatest ruckman - some would even say the greatest player - in the history of the game, and Bunton reasoned that, if Farmer’s influence could be significantly reduced, Swans would be better than an even money chance. He was right. Thirty years later he recalled the simple but masterful ploy he devised to stymie Farmer’s impact and, in effect, win the 1961 grand final for Swan Districts:
“Fred (Castledine) had to come in and get hold - get his (Farmer’s) left arm out of the way. Once he had that arm, that was it. Keith Slater was coming in on his right, and Castledine was getting in the way of that arm before he could get it up ... We had rehearsed this.” (see footnote 8)
Swans ruckman Keith Slater played the game of his life (see footnote 9) to realise Bunton’s ploy and, with the likes of Bunton himself and Bill Walker crumbing superbly, East Perth remained distinctly second best all day. Final scores were: Swan Districts 17.9 (111); East Perth 12.15 (87) after Swans had led at every change by 17, 13 and 31 points. Keith Slater later admitted that:
“I got away with a few illegal things in the grand final of ‘61. That’s the luck of the draw.” (see footnote 10).
Most of the ‘illegal things’ must have remained unobserved because Slater was a clear choice for the Simpson Medal as best afield, with full back Joe Lawson, rovers Bunton and Walker (five goals), centre half back Ken Bagley and wingman Johnny Mack also impressive. The match remains one of the epochal moments in Western Australian football history.
Swan Districts did not have things all their own way in 1962 in what was an extraordinarily evenly contested season, with a mere 6 wins separating first from seventh, and even bottom side Claremont (4 wins and 17 losses) managing a stirring come from behind victory against eventual runner up East Fremantle. Ultimately, however, 14 wins from their 21 minor round matches was good enough to see Swans top the ladder for the first time in their history; East Fremantle was half a win behind, while South Fremantle and West Perth, both with 12 wins, made up the remainder of the ‘four’.
The second semi final saw Swan Districts firm as premiership favourites with a 17.9 (111) to 11.10 (76) defeat of East Fremantle, but Old Easts’ stunning 22.14 (146) to 9.16 (70) preliminary final obliteration of the Cardinals caused many pundits to regard the grand final re-match as ‘line ball’.
Swan Districts, however, with Keith Slater controlling the rucks, and winners on every line such as full back Joe Lawson, centre half back Bagley, wingman Brian Gray, half forward Keith Watt and forward pocket-cum-rover Walker, exploded out of the blocks with 7 opening term goals to 1, and by ‘lemon time’ the grand final was effectively over. Old Easts at least managed 5 late goals to reduce the margin at the end to 18 points, and they did provide the Simpson Medallist in Ray Sorrell, but no one at the ground was left in any doubt that Swans were by some considerable measure the superior team.
Swan Districts also provided arguably the two finest players of the season in captain-coach Haydn Bunton junior, who won both the Sandover Medal and two of the three main media awards, and shrewd and highly effective ruckman Keith Slater, who was successful in the other media prize. Bunton’s Sandover victory made him the first son of a former winner to claim the honour, his father Haydn Bunton senior having been a three time Medallist with Subiaco. The younger Bunton may have lacked his father’s elegance and poise, but no one could possibly question his determination, strength of will and toughness; as a child he had suffered for many years from a serious, crippling illness, while only three years earlier he had had to have his right knee cap removed following a car accident in Tasmania. As a player, his ability to win possession of the ball under duress was unequalled; in one match against South Fremantle during the 1962 season statisticians credited him with no fewer than 88 kicks, 55 of them in the first half. His handball statistics were not recorded, but given that Bunton was renowned at the time as one of the most prolific practitioners of that particular art, it is hard not to imagine his having exceeded 100 total possessions for the match, an incredible, and quite possibly unsurpassed, achievement (see footnote 11).
The 1963 season brought something of a premiership hangover as the side struggled to make the finals, losing all 3 minor round encounters with first semi final opponent East Perth in the process. However, when it really counted Swans turned the tables in style, with their 15.11 (101) to 7.11 (53) victory being rounded off with a 10-goal final term.
A fortnight later, however, the team was good deal less convincing, and indeed could justifiably be regarded as fortunate to escape from its preliminary final encounter with minor premier Perth 8 points to the good. After a solid first half Swans appeared to go to sleep and only straight kicking enabled them to keep their noses in front.
Given this, East Fremantle, which had comfortably accounted for Perth in the second semi final, understandably started the 1963 grand final as warm favourites, but recent history had shown that this was precisely how Swan Districts liked things. Playing with all the vigour and tenacity for which they had become renowned they never allowed their opponents to settle and, after the opening term, were always the better side as they pulled away in the last quarter to win 17.10 (112) to 13.12 (90) in front of a then record crowd for a WANFL grand final of 46,659. Full forward Eric Gorman played his best game of the season and perhaps his life to register 9.1 while other outstanding performances came from centre half forward Ken Bagley, centreman John Turnbull, centre half back Fred Castledine, half forward flanker Craig Noble, and back pocket ‘Tony’ Nesbit.
The 1964 premiership hangover was even more potent than in 1963 and Swans plummeted to sixth with just 9 wins. It was the signal for Haydn Bunton to end his association with the club and return to Norwood.
Under new coach Fred Castledine Swan Districts re-discovered the winning habit in 1965 as they topped the ladder after the home and away rounds with 15 wins from 21 games before comfortably downing Claremont in the second semi final.
Swans’ grand final opponents East Fremantle had won only 11 minor round games to scrape into the 4 and had then had to struggle hard to win both its finals matches. Not surprisingly therefore it was Swan Districts who were most people’s favourites to land the flag, and for the first three quarters of the grand final everything appeared to be proceeding according to predictions. Anyone entering Subiaco Oval at ‘lemon time’ in the 1965 grand final would have looked at the scoreboard which showed Swan Districts 14.5 (89) leading East Fremantle 9.14 (68), noted that Swans would be kicking with the aid of a fresh 3 to 4 goal breeze in the final term, and automatically arrived at the conclusion that the match was as good as over.
Tragically, the Swan Districts players, without Bunton to keep them grounded and focused, must have arrived at the same conclusion, for somehow they permitted their opponents to stage arguably the greatest last quarter come back in senior Australian football history and add 9.4 to 2.1 to win comfortably by 21 points. Defeat dealt the club a body blow from which it would not recover for the better part of a decade.
Between 1966 and 1973 Swans won just 44 and tied 2 of their 168 matches for a success rate of 26.8%. They failed to contest the finals each year and in 1968, 1970 and 1971 ended up with the wooden spoon.
The 1974 season brought a partial recover as Swans defeated Subiaco by 23 points in the first semi final and were competitive a fortnight later in going down to Perth by 15 points. The team finished third again in 1975 but then missed the finals for four seasons straight.
The appointment as coach of John Todd in 1977 was the catalyst which would eventually see the Swans return to their triumphant ways, but at first the going was hard. John Todd was in many ways an atypical Western Australian coach. Whereas the best Western Australian teams have traditionally been renowned for producing highly-skilled, open, flowing football, Todd tended to favour a more ‘Victorian’ approach. His teams were tough and determined, capable of brilliance, but more typically achieving victory by relentless running supplemented with substantial amounts of vigour. It is probably no coincidence that Todd went on to become the first coach to steer the West Coast Eagles into the finals as his style was eminently suited to the dog-eat-dog desperation of the VFL. That it was also suited to the more open style of football on offer in the WAFL only became clear very gradually. Consecutive wooden spoons in 1977 (3 wins) and 1978 (4 wins) gave no indication of what was to come, but a climb up the ladder to fifth (11 wins) in 1979 showed that the Todd formula was starting to reap dividends.
In 1980, Swans won 18 of their 21 minor round matches to top the ladder going into the finals but the consensus was that there was very little to separate them from second ranked South Fremantle, and that whichever side found closer to its best form in the finals would take out the flag. Sadly as far as Swan Districts were concerned that side proved to be South Fremantle.
The second semi final was closely contested but the Bulldogs’ eventual 10-point win was entirely justified. Swan Districts then showed just how much of a gap existed between the top two sides and the remainder of the competition with a 76-point annihilation of East Perth in the preliminary final, but in the ‘big one’ they were unable to come to terms with South Fremantle’s fresher legs and went under by 58 points.
South Fremantle again proved to be the Swans’ nemesis the following year, this time in the preliminary final, and even more emphatically, by 73 points.
The constant loss of top players to the VFL was having a seriously detrimental effect on the standard of football being displayed in the WAFL and it was somewhat surprising that Swans, who at this point in time were possibly being affected more than any other club, remained a force.
As reigning grand finalists Swan Districts qualified to participate in the VFL’s night competition, the Escort Cup, and performed well to defeat Glenelg 21.14 (140) to 15.12 (102) and Collingwood 13.9 (87) to 11.11 (77) to qualify for the quarter finals. However, when the competition’s organisers, AFC Pty. Ltd., made an unscheduled change to the fixtures, Swans responded by sending a reserve team to Melbourne to contest the quarter final against Richmond. Not surprisingly, the Tigers advanced to the semi finals with some comfort, and from an objective standpoint the upshot of it all was that Swan Districts ended up being debarred from entry to the competition until 1985. Subjectively, however, the upshot was rather more favourable: coach Todd used the incident to whip up a fervour and a resolve among his players that would not be satisfied by anything less than the 1982 WAFL premiership.
With 16 wins in the minor round, Swan Districts went into the finals second to Claremont on percentage but the fact that Claremont shared an emblem - the Tiger - with Richmond probably made Todd’s task of motivating his players that much easier. Swans were seldom in any trouble against the Tigers in either the second semi final (won 14.26 to 12.10) or the grand final (won 18.19 to 11.12 in front of a crowd of 50,883) and duly recorded their fourth flag. Itinerant centreman Leon Baker vied with half back flanker Graham Melrose (Simpson Medal) for best afield honours, while full back Tom Mullooly, utility Alan Sidebottom, wingman Phil Narkle and rover Mike Richardson also shone.
The 1983 season brought an almost identical minor round performance but on this occasion 16 wins was only good enough for third spot on the ladder. Undaunted by this, however, Swans then proceeded to display some of their best football of the season to overwhelm East Fremantle by 59 points in the first semi final and minor premier South Fremantle by 74 points in the preliminary final to qualify for a third consecutive premiership play off. Once again the opposition was provided by Claremont, and once again Swan Districts proved too strong, leading at every change by 10, 23 and 30 points before consolidating in the final term to run out winners by 21 points, 15.14 (104) to 12.11 (83). A crowd of 47,760 spectators saw rover Brad Shine win the Simpson Medal with sterling support from ruckman Peter Sartori, back pocket Bill Skwirowski, centre half back Murray Rance, ruck rover Jon Fogarty and half back flanker Don Langsford.
For many West Australians, the highlight of the 1983 football season was the state team’s achievement in winning the Australian championship for the second time in four years. Swans’ contribution to this triumph was considerable, with Tony Solin, Murray Rance, Don Langsford and Phil Narkle playing in the four-goal defeat of South Australia, and Solin, Rance, Langsford and Ron Boucher contributing to the championship-clinching victory over the Vics. Moreover, the victorious Sandgropers were coached by Swans supremo John Todd whose tactical insight was arguably the prime factor in Western Australia’s ability to improve dramatically after half time in both matches (see footnote 12). Todd was rewarded by being named coach of the 1983 All Australian team.
The big question in WAFL circles now was whether John Todd could emulate Haydn Bunton and bring a hat trick of premierships to Bassendean. The loss of Phil Narkle, Leon Baker, Peter Kenny and Mike Smith to the VFL and veterans Stan Nowotny, Graham Melrose and Alan Cransberg to retirement prior to the start of the season obviously did not help, but Todd was a past master at inspiring players to new heights. In 1984, the team won two fewer games than in each of the preceding two seasons but this was still good enough to secure the minor premiership. Surprisingly, however, Swans then suffered an unaccustomed finals loss - the first in eight major round games - by 26 points to East Fremantle in the second semi, and although they recovered to beat Claremont in the preliminary final the following week neither the margin (21 points) nor the standard of the performance did much to convince that they would be capable of turning the tables on the Sharks in the ‘big one’.
The Swans players had the scent of history in their nostrils, however, and when the quarter time siren went in the 1984 WAFL grand final the scoreboard showed East Fremantle an astonishing 64 points in arrears. Thereafter, the game was a good deal more even, but the damage had been done: Swan Districts won 20.18 (138) to 15.12 (102), thereby apparently giving birth to a new footballing ‘tradition’ - whenever Swans won a premiership, they automatically went on to win the next two as well! (see footnote 13)
Rover Barry Kimberley was the recipient of the Simpson Medal for best afield, while ruckman Michael Johns, half forward flanker Don Holmes, half back flanker Don Langsford, and on-ballers Brad Shine and Gerard Neesham also produced noteworthy displays – although to describe players any of John Todd’s teams in terms of their ostensible on field positions is close to meaningless. Under Todd:
“Swans ... developed an irresistible brand of non-stop running football based on the extreme versatility, flexibility and fitness of the players ... Any line of Swans players is interchangeable with another and it is a formula that other coaches are bound to follow.” (see footnote 14)
Within a matter of just two seasons after the 1984 flag win, however, memories of the premiership celebrations had dimmed considerably: in 1986 Swan Districts won a mere five games to end up with the wooden spoon. There was a temporary recovery in 1987 (fourth) but, after John Todd’s departure to coach the West Coast Eagles in 1988, there followed the ignominy of another wooden spoon.
From a Swan Districts point of view it was perhaps fortunate that Todd’s VFL adventure with the Eagles was, ultimately, an unhappy one. In 1990 he was back at Bassendean and keen to demonstrate that he could still hack it as a coach. As early as three games into the season, few doubts remained:
John Todd obviously has lost none of the coaching expertise with which he made his name. Apart from a disastrous (for him) stint with the West Coast Eagles, Todd has made his name in the WA league as an astute coach. After lean times in the wilderness, Todd has returned with a vengeance .... The Swans have won their first three games of the season and Todd who has been renowned for turning youngsters into star properties has done it again (see footnote 15)
Swan Districts went on to win all bar one of their first cycle of seven matches to head the ladder. Their form remained solid until mid season when they suffered successive losses to seventh placed West Perth and potential finals rivals South Fremantle, and although they recovered to defeat bottom placed Subiaco the following week a number of worrying signs were starting to develop. Even during the consistent winning spell with which they had opened the season the side had struggled to kick straight, and while this was all very well against weaker sides when the only difference it made was to Swans’ final margin of victory, in matches against the better teams, particularly during the finals, it could easily prove calamitous.
During the round 13 clash with East Perth which Swans dominated for the most part, but only managed to win by 11 points, Todd took drastic steps to address the problem:
"John Todd has an unusual communication method between himself and the players. Todd watched his side kick only seven points in the third quarter against East Perth ... and was not pleased. At the break he stormed onto the ground and pushed his players around. Now that’s communication. After the game he gave the players a forty minute tongue lashing in the rooms." (see footnote 16)
The success of Todd’s approach can be gauged by the result of the following week’s match: Swans defeated their main rivals for the minor premiership, Claremont, by three points in a thriller, booting an uncharacteristically accurate 12.6 to the Tigers’ 9.21.
The final four was now firmly established but question marks remained over who would attain the double chance. To Todd’s consternation, Swans then proceeded to do virtually everything possible to shoot themselves in the foot, losing four of their last seven matches to finish with 14 wins and 7 defeats for the year. As luck would have it though, Swans’ main rivals also hit the wall, and when the black and whites narrowly defeated Claremont in the final home and away fixture of the year this, coupled with South Fremantle‘s surprise loss to East Perth the same day, was enough to clinch a berth in the second semi final.
Swan Districts’ second semi final rivals were once again Claremont, but although Swans played well for long periods they could not quite repeat their success of a fortnight earlier. This meant that South Fremantle, which had won 2 of the 3 minor round clashes between the sides in 1990, now stood between Swan Districts and a first grand final appearance since 1984. Everyone therefore expected a tough game, but perhaps not the epic which transpired:
"Swan Districts moved into (the) grand final with a performance against South Fremantle that would have turned the face of magician Harry Houdini green with envy. All the important factors were against Swans .....but they pulled the right rabbit out of the hat and manufactured the great escape to record a 27 point success - 19.15 (129) to 15.12 (102). The Black and Whites were quoted at long odds to beat the Bulldogs and their price was extended when they were reduced to only 18 fit men at three quarter time with just two points in their favour. But Swans added an unexpected twist to the last chapter of the story. Acting captain Peter Hodyl, an aggressive and volatile player in finals, kicked two goals for the Swans in the opening five minutes of the last term to extend the Black and Whites’ lead. Team mate Greg Walker added another a minute later and suddenly Swans had booked an appearance with Claremont in next week’s grand final." (see footnote 17)
Swans were rank underdogs going into the encounter with the Tigers, but this was precisely how Todd liked it. Despite kicking into a three-goal breeze in the opening term, Swan Districts, thanks to the straight kicking which since round 14 had become their forte, changed ends only seven points in arrears.
A good second quarter kicking with the wind then saw the black and whites go into the long break with a solid 19-point advantage and when they comprehensively outplayed Claremont in the third term to add 5.2 to 1.1 the match was effectively over. Claremont had most of the play during the last half hour but Swans were merely going through the motions, and were never in any danger of being overhauled. Final scores were Swan Districts 16.7 (103) to Claremont 10.17 (77) - a victory for determination, vitality and, wonder of wonders, supreme accuracy in front of goal.
A respectable crowd of 26,541 saw Bill Walker’s son Greg put in a Simpson Medal winning performance with rover Phil Narkle, half forward flanker David Ogg, half back flanker Danny Penny, ruckman Ken Bell and wingman Geoff Passeri also doing well. With the exception of the seminal 1961 flag, it was probably Swans hardest won and therefore most richly rewarding premiership.
Sadly, however, it was also the club’s last, at least for the time being. Between 1991 and 1994, Swans contested every finals series but their best return was third in 1991. John Todd called it a day as league coach after the 1994 season and without his inspiration and guidance the side plummeted to last in 1995 with only 2 wins.
The remainder of the ‘90s and the opening years of the new decade were equally bleak as, until securing a promising third place in 2004 followed by fourth in 2005, the Swans consistently failed to secure a place in the major round. However, over the years just about the only constant feature of Western Australian football has been its unpredictability, and, given that, who dare suggest what the future might hold for the Western Australian Football League’s second youngest member?