Jim Main's greatest 100: Gary Dempsey
Late in 1976 Footscray Football Club president Mr Dick Collinson was furious with press reports that North Melbourne were trying to sign star Bulldog ruckman Gary Dempsey. Reports had said that North were in Fiji trying to sign Dempsey, there on holidays. The reports, apparently, were unfounded and Footscray were relieved when Dempsey announced that he would be playing with Footscray in 1977, and indeed, for some time to come.
Dempsey virtually was Footscray. The Bulldogs had many great players, finishing in the finals in 1976, but Dempsey was their king-pin and had been for some years. Footscray recruited Dempsey from Footscray Technical School Old Boys, and he immediately came under notice in his debut year of 1967. He was still only 18 years of age, but already stood 6' 6". And although no muscle-man, he was no skinny beanpole.
Dempsey showed great initial promise by winning ruck duals against greats like Polly Farmer and John Nicholls. But more than anything Footscray were impressed by his willingness to learn. By the end of the 1969 season he was regarded as Footscray’s big ruck hope for years to come. However, his great football career almost ended so tragically soon after it started.
In late 1969 bushfires ripped through scrub between Werribee and Geelong. Dempsey, who lived in the area, was caught in the thick of the inferno. To save himself he dived to the ground while the flames roared over him He was badly burnt and expert medical reports said he would never play football again. But of course, he did. He still has the burn scars on his body and arms, but the story of Dempsey’s return to top grade football is one of the most remarkable stories of courage in the history of football.
During the 1970 season the great Ted Whitten decided to retire as a player. His place as captain of the Footscray Side was taken by Stewie Magee, who had crossed to the Bulldogs from South Melbourne. However, Magee lasted only half a season as captain. Dempsey was appointed captain in 1971, with Whitten as his coach.
Dempsey held the job until 1972 but was sacked in favor of David Thorpe for the 1973 Season. Footscray argued that Dempsey was not mature enough as a player for the captaincy. He was still only 24 and it was obvious that sooner or later he would get his chance to captain the Bulldogs again. He swallowed his pride and remained loyal to the club, even when overlooked again when Laurie Sandilands was appointed captain in 1974.
In 1975 Dempsey played his heart out. His ruck work was magnificent, his marking around the ground almost unbeatable and he was busy firing the ball to smaller players. At last, Dempsey was the complete team man. His reward that year was a Brownlow Medal. He had been runner-up once, and this win more than made up for his past disappointments. He also had a great season in 1976, but the big award went to another ruckman in Essendon’s Graham Moss.
Dempsey, with his long arms, is an enormously difficult ruckman to counter. He knows how to use his body and is extremely difficult to combat in marking duels. He usually rests in a back pocket, taking many fine saving marks for the Bulldogs. He is sometimes called on to play on the forward line when the Bulldogs need a boost, but there, he is under constant presure from defenders because of his great marking ability. Opposition players pounce on him because they know that once he gets his hands on the ball it’s a clean, one-grab mark.
Laurie Sandilands led Footscray to the finals in 1976, only to see the Bulldogs go down in the Elimination Final to Geelong. Sandilands, one of the most dedicated Footscray skippers in the club’s history, decided to stand down as captain for the 1977 season. He had decided that his play would be more effective if he did not have the added. responsibility of captaining the slde. The Bulldogs immediately turned to Dempsey. He was again club captain, after virtually three years of penance.
This is an excerpt from Australian Rules 100 Greatest Players, by Jim Main. Published by the K.G. Murray Publishing Company in 1977. Click here to read Jim Main's 2013 article, in which he revisited and revised his 100 greatest players.
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