Australian Football Celebrating the history of the great Australian game



Perth’s premiership record may not be outstanding but it nevertheless boasts a rich tradition, as befits a club bearing the name of the Western Australian state capital.[1]

Its greatest teams, those of the mid- to late-1960s and ‘70s, were on a par with anything the West has produced, while some of the finest exponents of the Australian code - men like Cable, Clarke, Shields, McIntosh, Brehaut, Henfry, Miller, Oliphant, Tucker, Harper, Orr, Wansbrough, Shepherd, Hoft, Zeuner, McKenzie, Moriarty, Bosustow and Wiley - have worn the famous black and red colours down the years.

Perth’s accession to senior ranks came midway through the 1899 season at the expense of Western Australian Football Association founder members Rovers. Two years earlier, the WAFA, following the lead of its South Australian counterpart, had announced the inception of district, or ‘electorate’ football, whereby players would be expected to play for the club in whose electoral district they resided. Initially, the system was optional, but the intention was that it should be fully phased in by 1899, meaning that Rovers, as the competition’s only non-district club, would be in a very precarious position indeed.

The club tried to struggle on, and managed to fulfil the first eight of its 1899 fixtures, but when it failed to show up at Fremantle Oval for a match against East Fremantle on 8th July it effectively announced its withdrawal from the competition. A few days later, the Association confirmed that Rovers had, as had been widely assumed, disbanded, and Perth, which was one of the leading junior clubs at the time, was invited to take Rovers’ place, with a large number of Rovers players immediately transferring to the newcomers.

a slow rise to power

Slowly but surely, Perth developed into a genuine force, with the 1904 season - when, for the first time, the destiny of the premiership would be determined on the basis of a post-season series of finals matches involving the top four clubs - seeing it concoct its first realistic challenge for the flag. Western Australian football itself was on something of a ‘high’ at this time, with the state team taking to the field for the first ever time in matches against Victoria in Melbourne (lost, but with credit), and South Australia in Adelaide (won). Somewhat surprisingly, given that it was enjoying such a fine season, Perth’s only representative on the tour was wingman Sam Jeffery.

As far as the WAFA competition was concerned there was scarcely anything to separate East Fremantle, Perth and North Fremantle, all of which won 11 of 15 minor round matches; West Perth (8-7) made up the four. In the semi finals, Perth disposed of West Perth, while Old Easts defeated North. The final was played at Fremantle Oval on a perfect day for football, with East Fremantle seeking its third consecutive flag, after which it would be granted permanent possession of the Farley Cup. Not that a win for Old Easts was regarded as inevitable, with one leading critic remarking “To venture a ‘tip’ on the probable outcome of the match is rather hazardous”[2] - caution that, until half time of the game at any rate, seemed eminently justified. Indeed, if anything, Perth enjoyed slightly the better of the early exchanges, but after the long break East Fremantle’s greater experience told to compelling effect, and the Red Legs finished a demoralising 58 points in arrears.

After six consecutive seasons of consistent improvement, Perth suffered a catastrophic decline in 1905 when it managed just two wins from 12 games for the year to finish above only newcomers Midland Junction, and Subiaco. The following season brought steady improvement, however, and when the Red Legs downed East Fremantle by 7 points in a tense, hard fought mid-season tussle at the supposedly impregnable fortress of Fremantle Oval, hopes were high that 1906 might be the club’s year. Once again, though, the side was unable to rise to the occasion in the finals, and ultimately finished fourth.

This was very definitely a Perth team on the rise, however, and 14 wins from 17 matches in 1907 represented the best return yet. Unlike in previous seasons, the Red Legs adopted a vigorously direct, long kicking style of play that was quite similar to that which had been used to such telling effect by Old Easts since the turn of the century. Equally importantly, the club was blessed with easily its most accomplished collection of players up to that point, including rover Billy Orr, ruckmen Eddie Thompson and Alex ‘Squeaker’ Clarke, capable utility Ron Southee, former Fitzroy and Essendon player Jack Leckie, who would later coach Western Australia to its famous success at the 1921 Perth carnival, as well as coaching four different WAFL clubs, including Perth, ex-Fitzroy and Essendon full forward Austin Gilligan, and future WANFL president, Alf Moffatt. Some clue as to the strength of the Perth’s 1907 combination is afforded by the ease with which reigning premiers Old Easts were demolished late in the season at the Perth Showgrounds. The Red Legs not only won, they kept East Fremantle, which was at full strength and could therefore have no excuses, goalless. Final scores were Perth 6.4 (40) to Old Easts 0.12 (12) - arguably the most humiliating defeat suffered by the easterners up to that point.

After finishing the home and away matches in impressive fashion with a 5 goal defeat of highly fancied fellow finalist West Perth, the Red Legs began to attract some serious backing for the flag, particularly given that East Fremantle had just ‘fallen in’ that same afternoon against a weak East Perth side. South Fremantle in a semi final provided little in the way of opposition, and a 34-point win, 8.11 (59) to 3.7 (25), booked a premiership deciding clash against the supposedly creaking giant, East Fremantle.

The final took place at the Perth Showgrounds in front of an estimated 10,000 spectators, and was fiercely contested all day. After several weeks of undistinguished form, Old Easts finally rediscovered their sparkle, while the Red Legs, too, played superbly. When the final bell sounded, the scoreboard showed East Fremantle as narrow, 5 point winners, 6.11 (47) to 6.6 (42) - but unprecedented drama was to follow. Seconds before the half time bell, Old East half forward Charlie Doig had marked within goal kicking range, and had duly converted. However, according to Perth officials, the bell had actually sounded while the ball was in transit towards Doig, meaning that a mark should not have been awarded, and no kick for goal allowed. Umpire Crapp disagreed, contending that the bell had sounded after Doig had marked, and the kick was therefore legal, as was the resultant goal. Normally, the umpire’s decision in such matters was final, but on this occasion the WAFA decided to convene an Appeals Board which, having heard the evidence from both sides, decided to award the match, and the 1907 premiership, to Perth. While it is completely impossible almost a century on to assess the rights and wrongs of this affair, it is worth noting that, at least according to some sources, Perth officials offered to replay the match, but their East Fremantle counterparts declined. Needless to say, the upshot of it all was the generation of considerable ill will between the two clubs concerned, although club officials doubtless did their best to present appropriately decorous public faces.

As chance would have it, Perth was drawn to face East Fremantle in the opening round of a 1908 season which saw the Western Australian Football Association alter its name to the Western Australian Football League (WAFL). The match was played at Fremantle Oval, with Ivo Crapp again in charge. It must have been very tempting indeed for players from both sides to use the occasion as a stage on which to afford physical expression to the ill feeling which doubtless still simmered. However, the game was actually a superb contest, played in fine spirit, won in the end by Old Easts, but with the Red Legs giving a more than creditable account of themselves, particularly in the first half. Another fine season followed, with Perth managing 13 wins from 17 minor round matches, before downing West Perth in a semi final.

The final, almost inevitably, pitted Perth against East Fremantle, but there was to be no controversy this time. After keeping their opponents scoreless during the opening term, the Red Legs managed just 5 behinds themselves for the remainder of the game, and lost with a meekness that was totally at odds with their form for most of the year, but might at least in part be explained by the absence from the side of three key players in the shape of Orr, Edwards and Thompson. These three had been Perth’s representatives in the Western Australian team that had contested the inaugural interstate championship series in Melbourne, but for reason which are unclear they had so far failed to return. The fact that the match was played at Fremantle Oval undoubtedly helped Old Easts, but could not in any way explain the extent of their superiority, which on balance of play over the course of the season had been minimal; if only Orr, Edwards and Thompson - who effectively comprised the Perth team’s ‘engine room’ - had been available, the margin would undoubtedly have been a good deal smaller.

Perth and East Fremantle continued their domination of the competition in 1909, a year which saw the league implement the challenge system of playing finals which had been used for several seasons in both South Australia and Victoria. After finishing first and second respectively on the ladder, Old Easts and Perth then beat East Perth and South Fremantle to set up their third successive meeting in the final. This time though East Fremantle, as minor premier, would have a second chance if it lost, and given that the match was scheduled for Perth’s home venue of the WACA ground there were many observers who regarded this as a distinct possibility.

Unlike a year earlier, Perth was at full strength, with rover Orr, ruckman Thompson and half back flanker Edwards all suitably ensconced in their usual positions. The last time the two teams had met, also at the WACA, the Red Legs had triumphed with some conviction, 6.4 (40) to 3.7 (25), so there was certainly good reason for optimism. However, playing with the aid of a strong breeze in the first term East Fremantle opened out what proved to be a match-winning 23 point break. Thereafter, although the Red Legs battled desperately, and played some good football, they were unable to mount a sustained challenge against the team which some astute judges have described as one of the finest in Western Australian football history.

So - three consecutive tilts at the flag, for one success, and the inception of what would become a recurring pattern in the history of the Perth Football Club: the emergence of a good team at precisely the same time as the emergence of a genuinely great opposition side. As Perth’s president at the time, Ross Hutchinson, later observed, albeit with perhaps a touch of hyperbole: “Year after year we’d meet East Fremantle in the final with a side we thought wouldn’t be beaten, but it was always the same story - our rucks were not quite good enough”.[3]

Perth missed the finals in 1910 and 1911, and in 1912, after the loss of several key players, including most notably Billy Orr to Subiaco, the side plummeted to its first wooden spoon in twelve years. Ironically, just as the Red Legs began to re-emerge from the doldrums and make a legitimate bid for premiership honours in 1913, it was Subiaco, the finest side in Western Australian football since the East Fremantle team of 1908-10, which stood in their way.

Among the 11 home and away wins in 1913 which clinched third spot on the ladder for Perth going into the finals was an unprecedented ‘clean sweep’ - three from three - against arch rivals East Fremantle. Among the reasons for the Red Legs’ re-emergence as a force was their potent attack, which was centered around the formidable talent of Alf Halliday, who was the WAFL’s leading goal kicker on three occasions.

One of the alleged deficiencies of the challenge system of playing finals was that the minor premier, with half an eye on the potential financial windfall which would accrue from playing an extra match in front of a big crowd, was often disinclined to take the preceding finals matches seriously. In the view of many observers, this explained why Perth was able to secure such an effortless 15 point win over minor premier Subiaco in the teams’ semi final meeting of 1913. According to a writer in ‘the Western Suburban News’, for example, the result was much less a matter of football ability than the whiff in the Maroons players’ nostrils of what he derisively termed ‘extra boodle’.[4]

In a classic case of role reversal, Perth mercilessly dumped previous nemesis East Fremantle out of the premiership race in the final to set up a re-match with the presumably rejuvenated Maroons.[5] If the semi final meeting between the two sides had been a tepid, sparkless affair, this encounter, played at the WACA ground in front of approximately 14,000 spectators, was everything a finals game should be: unremittingly vibrant, tough, tense and often spectacular. With the aid of a strong breeze, Subiaco opened brightly, and had a goal on the board within two minutes. Thereafter, it was a sustained case of ‘backs to the wall’ for Perth’s defence, which despite playing with trademark determination and commitment, was breeched three more times before the first change. A goal ‘against the head’ just before the bell, however, had lifted Red Legs spirits, and during the second term Perth utilised the breeze with even greater conviction and assurance than the Maroons had managed earlier, so that by half time the scoreboard showed Perth with a one-point advantage, 4.4 (28) to 4.3 (27). With the breeze again a telling factor in the third term, Subiaco recaptured the lead soon after the resumption, but stern defence from the Red Legs kept the margin at the final change down to just 12 points, 6.5 (41) to 4.5 (29).

Scenting victory, Perth opened the final quarter confidently, but with Subiaco stacking the backlines goals proved frustratingly unattainable. Indeed, neither team managed a goal in the last term, which ended with the Maroons still 12 points to the good, 6.7 (43) to 4.7 (31). For Subiaco, the 1913 season had yielded not only a second successive premiership, but also a new found respect for the Perth Football Club, while from the Red Legs’ perspective there must have been a combination of frustration over having come so close, mingled with pride at having improved so much over the dismal showing in 1912.

That improvement stalled somewhat in 1914, as Perth was eliminated from the flag race at the semi final stage by South Fremantle, but it resumed in earnest the following year as the club again came close to that elusive ‘Holy Grail’ of a premiership pennant. Just as in 1913, Perth’s chief rival was Subiaco, which again ended the home and away season as minor premier. Wins for Subi over South Fremantle, and Perth over East Perth, then set up a final at Perth Oval, in which the Red Legs won virtually everywhere except on the scoreboard. With barely a minute to go, they led even there, 2.7 (19) to the Maroons’ 2.3 (15), but Subiaco full forward Herbert Limb managed to snare a goal at the death to leave his team victors, and premiers, by two points.

decades in the doldrums

The demands of war were having an inevitable undermining effect on both the standard of football and the amount of public interest in it, but Perth managed to remain strong. In 1916-17-18 the side finished third, but when what might be termed ‘full scale’ competition resumed in 1919 the Red Legs found the going tough. Actually, with East Perth emerging as one of the most auspicious and proficient combinations ever seen in Australian football at this point, all other WAFL clubs, in varying measure, found the going tough. In Perth’s case, however, not only premierships, but even participation in the finals, was to prove elusive for a considerable time to come. The Red Legs’ only finals campaign of the 1920s came in 1920 but was over almost before it started, East Perth winning a semi final at Fremantle Oval by 4 points. According to Western Australian football historian Geoff Christian, Perth during the 1920s “were competitive but lacked the range of talent possessed by other clubs”.[6]

That there was talent at Perth is undeniable. In 1921, wingman Cyril Hoft lost the inaugural Sandover Medal to Subiaco’s Tom Outridge, who had actually begun his league career with Perth in 1915,[7] only on the casting vote of the league president; he was later awarded a Medal retrospectively. That same year, diminutive full forward Alan Evans topped the league’s goal kicking list with 64 majors. He would prove to be Perth’s leading goal kicker on six occasions during the 1920s. Other noteworthy players for the Red Legs during the 1920s included powerful key position defender Alan Shepherd, who finished in the top four places in the Sandover Medal three times, defender Albert Watts and forward Leo McComish, both regular interstate representatives, full forward Allan Johnston, half forward Alex Hewby, utility Eric Eriksson, talented centreman Henry ‘Harry’ Grigg.

Among the more prominent players to represent the club in the 1930s were dual club fairest and best recipient Doug Oliphant, Marcel ‘Nugget’ Hilsz, Paddy Fitzgerald, Harry Davey, Austin Robertson senior, Fred Puddy, and arguably the club’s greatest ever full forward, Bert Gook, who twice, in 1937 and 1939, ‘topped the ton’. In addition, post-war Sandover Medallists Merv McIntosh (1948-53-54) and George Bailey (1945) commenced their illustrious WAFL careers with Perth during the 1930s, while stars of the ‘20s, ‘Harry’ Grigg and Alan Shepherd, continued to serve the club with distinction until well into the ensuing decade.

Austin Robertson senior was a star footballer with South Melbourne who was enticed west in 1937 by West Perth supremo Alec Breckler, who was desperate to give his team the vital push it needed in order to make that year’s finals. The arrangement was that Robertson would play the last four home and away matches of the year with the Cardinals, plus the finals if they made them, in return for some substantial nest feathering. He would then be free to return home to Melbourne.

Unfortunately for West Perth, the plan broke down when Robertson dislocated his elbow in the penultimate match of the year against East Fremantle, a game which the Cardinals ultimately lost to wreck their hopes of making the finals. However, West Perth’s loss was to be the Perth Football Club’s gain, because while Robertson was recuperating in hospital after surgery to his elbow, he received a visit from Redlegs secretary Jack Sheedy, who made him, in Robertson’s own words, “an offer I was not going to be able to refuse”.[8] Perth wanted Robertson as its coach, and was prepared to pay handsomely to procure his services. Clearly, the Perth committee was far from complacent about its lack of success, and was prepared to take fairly drastic action to turn things around. Although Robertson would not be, on paper at any rate, a success, his appointment as Redlegs coach was arguably a seminal event in the emergence of what might be termed the ‘new Perth’, the club which would, in post-war years, gradually transform itself from perennial chopping block into the most professionally run and, for a short time at least, the most successful force in West Australian football.

Under Austin Robertson, Perth became more disciplined, fitter and better organised, all of which helped engender an excellent team spirit. Moreover, while on field improvement was not spectacular, it was nevertheless discernible: in 1938, the side won 9 out of 21 matches, 3 more than in 1937, to miss the four by just a game and a half. Robertson, who was playing in the unaccustomed position of full back, was producing some of the best football of his career, and was thoroughly enjoying his role as coach:

Perth had great team spirit, which made coaching them so much easier. There was a strong sense of mateship within the team and it was thoroughly exemplified in a game against Subiaco by Paddy Fitzgerald, who was playing alongside me in a back pocket. A big ruckman named Brian Smith flattened me and as I was gingerly picking myself up I heard a thud. Someone had flattened Smith, who looked at Fitzgerald as he got to his feet and said: “I never touched you”. Paddy pointed towards me and said just two words: “Him’s me”. He said it all. [9]

Imbued with this kind of attitude, not surprisingly the Redlegs continued to improve in 1939. With just one minor round match left to play they were perched just inside the four, ahead of fifth-placed South Fremantle on percentage. The last round of fixtures saw Perth drawn to play top placed East Fremantle, with South scheduled to meet West Perth, which had managed just one win for the season and was bottom of the list. Perth played superbly to overcome Old Easts with ease, 10.19 (79) to 4.9 (33), and the players left the field convinced they had made the finals, and confident of claiming the flag. However, the South Fremantle-West Perth game was still going on, and when the reason for this became clear it induced an overwhelming sinking sensation in the stomachs of everyone connected with the Redlegs. The South Freo-Cardinals clash, it transpired, had been of a sort to keep the goal umpires inordinately busy, with no fewer than 64 scoring shots recorded, and a commensurate need for plenty of time-on. Tragically, as far as Perth was concerned, the vast majority of the flag-waving had taken place at the southerners’ end of the ground, with West Perth capitulating by a massive margin of 87 points - just enough to enable South (114.05%) to displace the Redlegs (113.71%) from the four on percentage.

Recalling these events in later years, Austin Robertson remained rueful:

Claremont went on to win the 1939 premiership, but I still rate Perth of that year as a better team. We had many champions...... Doug Oliphant, ‘Snow’ Keightly, Alan Gregg, Alan Gregg, Harry Davey, ‘Nugget’ Hilsz, Fred Puddy and century goal kicker Bert Gook. Gee, it was a good side. After almost fifty years, the fact that we didn’t win that premiership still haunts me. And the fact that we didn’t even get a crack at it still maddens me.[10]

Although Perth wanted Robertson to continue as captain-coach in 1940, he received another ‘offer he could not refuse’ which involved returning to Melbourne and, without his inspired and inspirational guidance, the Redlegs slipped down the list to seventh place. Nevertheless, the seeds of professionalism - in a methodological rather than a pecuniary sense - had definitely been sown at Perth, and although their growth to fruition would be hampered by the war, grow to fruition they ultimately would. With normality restored after world war two, Western Australian football in general, and the Perth Football Club in particular - although by no means exclusively - were in for a boom time.

During the late 1940s and early 1950s the defection of talent from the WANFL to the VFL had not yet reached debilitating proportions. In point of fact, with football enjoying unprecedented popularity, among both spectators and participants,[11] the standard of the game in Western Australia arguably reached an all time high during the first four or five years after world war two. In 1947 and 1948, the state team won three successive matches against the might of the VFL, and was deprived of the championship title at the 1947 Hobart carnival only on percentage. The standard of club football reached a new pinnacle of excellence too, particularly in the case of the two Fremantle teams, plus Perth and West Perth. Between 1947 and 1955 these four sides dominated the WANFL competition, and demonstrated by regular victories over strong interstate opposition that they would not have been out of place in the VFL of the time.

The 1947 season witnessed the introduction by the league of a provident fund, whereby players received 15 shillings for every game played. This was still small beer compared to the VFL whose players received an average of £3 per match,[12] but it was nevertheless an important incremental step towards professionalism, and may well have been sufficient to cause some players to think twice about accepting superficially attractive offers from clubs in Melbourne, given that there were numerous factors other than money which also needed to be considered.

Redlegs among the 'big four' and the 'Henfry' era

Austin Robertson was back at Perth as coach in 1948, this time in a non-playing capacity, and under his guidance the Redlegs won their first ever minor premiership in 1949, as well as reaching that year’s grand final, only to lose to West Perth. With George Bailey at the helm they also reached the 1950 grand final in which they went down to South Fremantle by a single straight kick.

Ern Henfry had made his debut for Perth prior to the war, and in 1939, aged just seventeen, had represented Western Australia against the ‘Big V’. Two years later he won the Redlegs fairest and best award, and ran second in the Sandover to Subiaco’s Haydn Bunton. The war then intervened, and when it finished Henfry found himself transferred to Melbourne by his employer, whereupon he sought a clearance to Carlton, for whom he had played a couple of games in 1944 while on leave from the RAAF. Perth, not surprisingly, refused to clear him, and so he was forced to stand out of football for twelve months. However, he ensured that the time was not wasted by studying the tactics and strategies of opposing teams, impressing the Carlton hierarchy so much that when he re-commenced his VFL career with the Blues in 1947 he did so - to the utter astonishment of the Victorian football fraternity - as captain.

Henfry returned to Western Australia at the end of the 1952 season after 84 VFL games with Carlton, but Perth was quick to ensure that he was not lost to football by appointing him as the club’s senior coach for 1953. As a bonus, Henfry, although susceptible to niggling injuries, would also play for the team. With a number of critics expressing concern that, after several halcyon years, Western Australian football was beginning to stagnate somewhat,[13] Ern Henfry’s experience of Victorian football, coupled with his “shrewd football brain”,[14] potentially provided a much needed antidote. Regardless of how successful it was, Perth under Henfry could at least be expected to “knuckle down to training the way the Victorians do”[15]  and to adopt a more wholeheartedly team-orientated, dynamic and vigorous style of play, comparable to that habitually and universally perpetrated in the VFL:

From first to last bounce the game is non-stop. Instead of one or two men moving forward with the ball, complete lines swing into action. They run the risk of being caught out of position - but run it willingly because they are such complete masters of the art as to be seldom caught. If, for example, the Victorian centreman gets the ball from the centre bounce, more often than not a rover, one or both wingers and the key half forward will form a spearhead in front of him. Thus every man has protection and consequently his job is made easier.[16]

Perth under Henfry roared up the ladder in 1953, qualifying for the finals with ease in third place after winning 14 of its 21 fixtures. It was warmly favoured to win its first semi final clash with East Fremantle, which had managed just 9 wins for the year, and had only just scraped into the finals. However, in one of those inexplicable form reversals which help make football such a fascinating game, Old Easts romped home by more than 10 goals. It was a supremely disappointing end to a season that had started tragically for Perth when the club’s young centre half forward Doug Buckingham, “one of the most gifted players in the game”,[17] had died after an accident at work.

There was further disappointment in store for the Redlegs in 1954 when, after a somewhat stuttering home and away season, the side was comprehensively outplayed in the first semi final by eventual premier South Fremantle. Ern Henfry retired as a player after the 1954 season in order to concentrate on coaching, a move that was to reap immediate dividends. If you were to open up the average Perth supporter surgically you would almost certainly find the year ‘1955’ inscribed indelibly on the heart. In what was champion ruckman Merv McIntosh’s last league season, the Redlegs treated a record grand final crowd to one of the most stirring comebacks in football history when they defeated East Fremantle by two points after trailing 2.2 (14) to 8.5 (53) at half time.

The Redlegs remained a force in West Australian football for the remainder of Ern Henfry’s initial term as coach, contesting the finals every year between 1956 and 1959, but never managing to reach another grand final. The seven-year period between 1953 and 1959 - what might be termed ‘the Henfry Era’ - deserves to be accorded great significance in the history of the Perth Football Club, however, as it undeniably laid the foundations for what was to come.

And what was to come would be special. Very, very special.

frustration, followed by two boom phases

After watching their team flirt with success almost every season since the war, Perth supporters faced a frustrating time during the early 1960s. Unlike during the inter-war period, the problem was not so much that the team lacked depth, but rather that it was only infrequently able to exploit the rich array of talent it undoubtedly possessed. On its day, it was as good as any other side in the league, but when the mood took it it could be almost incomparably dire.

In late 1965 Perth appointed Malcolm Atwell, “a tough and uncompromising defender”[18] from East Perth, as its new senior coach, a decision that, initially at least, did not sit at all well with many of the club’s diehard supporters. Perhaps wisely, Atwell opted to maintain a very low profile in the run up to the start of the season, although he did publicly declare that Perth would be the fittest team in the competition, a pledge with which few observers would be able to find fault once the season commenced.

Another key development at Perth at this time was the election of motor vehicle magnate Cliff Houghton as president. Over the next four years Houghton’s vision and drive would admirably complement the inspirational on-field leadership style which came to be Mal Atwell’s trademark.

Although Atwell had never previously coached, the Perth committee clearly felt extremely confident that he was the right man for the job as they agreed to pay his former club a total of $3,500 over two years to secure his clearance. Such a sum, while not unprecedented, nevertheless represented a substantial outlay for a club like Perth. In hindsight, however, the transaction was tantamount to daylight robbery, as Atwell went on to become one of the most successful and influential coaches in football history.

The new coach’s impact was immediate. In the opening round of the 1966 season, Perth trounced South Fremantle by 143 points, and thereafter, although occasional matches were dropped, it proved itself by some measure the most consistent combination in the league. With 16 wins from 21 minor-round games Perth topped the ladder heading into what proved to be a highly memorable finals series in which attendance records were set at each of the four games. In the second semi final a crowd of 30,077 saw Perth narrowly overcome a stern challenge from Mal Atwell’s former team mates at East Perth, who were now being coached by Victorian champion Kevin Murray. The Demons won 13.21 (99) to 13.16 (94) and were no doubt totally unsurprised to find themselves lining up against the same opposition a fortnight later in the grand final.

With 46,763 spectators crammed into Subiaco Oval, Perth opened brilliantly after Atwell had won the toss and elected to kick with the aid of a stiff breeze. At quarter time, Perth led 6.7 (43) to 2.1 (13), with rover Barry Cable, who had booted three early goals, and wingman Peter Krepp especially prominent. During the second term, however, the Royals fought back fiercely, and at half time the game was all square, 8.10 (58) apiece. As Perth fans watched in horror, their team squandered opportunity after opportunity during the third term, and instead of building a match-winning lead they headed for the three quarter time huddle just 17 points to the good, after kicking 1.12 to 0.1 for the quarter. In the final term, however, Perth showed that it was a team of true premiership class, defending tenaciously and, when occasion allowed, pouring into attack in numbers to snatch vital scores. East Perth battled desperately, but to no avail, as Perth ran out winners by 16 points, 11.25 (91) to 10.15 (75). A lesser team would certainly have let its third quarter waywardness de-rail it, but Perth under Atwell was already on the verge of greatness. Six-goal Barry Cable won the Simpson Medal, while Pat Astone, Peter Krepp, Ray Lawrence, Graham Jenzen and Frank Pyke were among many other fine players for the victors.

The 1967 grand final again featured Perth and East Perth, with the Royals favoured by many pundits following their impressive 7 goal demolition of South Fremantle in the preliminary final. Atwell, though, pulled a master stroke; having missed the second semi final through suspension, he added a completely new permutation to the Perth grand final day mix by placing himself in the completely unaccustomed position of full forward, a move that totally threw the East Perth brains trust. In a fast, open game that was a total contrast to the dour, torrid second semi final encounter between the sides, both teams probably played close to their optimum standard, with first one, and then the other, holding sway. At the final change the Royals led by four points, but Perth had saved the best until last, and pulled away during the closing thirty minutes to win by three goals. Barry Cable was awarded his second successive grand final Simpson after a typically tireless display, but many observers felt that the game’s best player was actually Mal Atwell, whose 6 goal performance from full forward was arguably the major difference between the teams. Pat Astone, Pat Dalton, Gerry Iseger and Graham Ramshaw completed the best players list for Perth in most newspapers.

Perth reached a peak in 1968, topping the ladder with a 19-2 record, and providing the Sandover Medallist in the shape of Barry Cable (his second win). In the second semi final, West Perth was comfortably vanquished, and a fortnight later inevitable (or so it probably seemed) grand final opponent East Perth failed to provide the challenge of previous years, and Perth won convincingly, 16.14 (110) to 13.8 (86). Barry Cable won an unprecedented, and so far unequalled, third successive grand final Simpson Medal, while Dalton, Bennett, Astone, Rothnie and Millson were some of the other players to shine.

While Perth in 1969 and 1970 was probably good enough to win further premierships the side failed to do justice to itself in the finals. Atwell gave way as coach to Barry Cable in 1972, but after a promising debut season at the helm in which the team reached the preliminary final, the following year brought an embarrassing nosedive, and the closest flirtation with the wooden spoon since 1960. The only truly positive factor to emerge from the season was Cable’s own form, which was consistently superb, and which yielded a third Sandover.

Replacing Cable in the Demons hot-seat in 1974 was Ken Armstrong, a former champion centreman with the club (170 League games including the winning 1955 grand final) who had begun his coaching career with North Mount Barker and had latterly been coaching Perth’s reserves. Bringing to the role the same kind of discipline and thoroughness as predecessors Atwell and Henfry, Armstrong produced a near miracle in his first season by steering an ordinary side to within an ace of a remarkable premiership. As it was, East Fremantle, which boasted its strongest combination for a decade, was comfortably too good in the second semi final, winning 17.15 (117) to 13.15 (93), while a fortnight later in the ‘big one’ it was fitter after a week’s rest and won ‘pulling away’ in the last term after the Demons had led by two points at lemon time. The fact that Perth’s David Pretty tied for the Simpson Medal with East Fremantle’s Gary Gibillini would have afforded not the slightest consolation to Demons supporters.

Realising that the 1974 result had flattered to deceive, Armstrong set about rebuilding his team, eschewing the popular tendency of the time to cut corners by recruiting proven footballers from interstate, and concentrating instead on nurturing and developing local talent. In 1975, the Demons slipped to sixth, managing just 9 wins, a decline which, predictably, elicited calls from certain quarters for Armstrong’s head but, to their enormous credit, the Perth committee, presumably recognising the good sense which lay behind their coach’s policy, opted to give him more time.

As things transpired, Armstrong actually needed very little time. Despite the setback of a last round loss to East Perth which robbed the team of the double chance, the Demons put in three weeks of superlative finals football in 1976 to clinch arguably their most emphatic premiership so far. In the first semi final against West Perth, Perth overcame a slow start to win convincingly, 20.18 (138) to 13.4 (82). It was a similar story in the preliminary final as South Fremantle, the team which had displaced the Demons from second position on the ladder after the last round of fixtures, wilted in the face of the redoubtable pressure applied by the Perth players all over the ground. Perth won 20.19 (139) to 10.21 (81) to set up yet another grand final meeting with East Perth, and just as in the glorious ‘three-in-a-row’ era of the 1960s, it was the men in black and red who prevailed. Perth led at every change by 11, 20 and 15 points before coasting to a 23 point victory that, on balance of play, should really have been much heftier. Mal Day won the Simpson Medal for best on ground, while centreman Gary Gibellini, who had played against Perth in the 1974 grand final, centre half forward Wim Rosbender, centreman Geoff Watt, and rover Robert Wiley were among numerous others to feature prominently.

Fifteen wins from 21 qualifying round matches was sufficient to earn the Demons the minor premiership in 1977, and a 54 point second semi final crushing of Old Easts made them virtually unbackable flag favourites. The key to Perth’s dominance in the second semi final had been the performances of their rovers, Wiley and Mitsopoulos, together with the near impregnability of their backline, which constituted virtually a ‘team within a team’ where “the players know each other backwards, they have played together for years and their cooperation is second to none in the League”.[19]

It was more or less the same story in the grand final, which again pitted the Demons against Old Easts, except that on this occasion Perth’s superiority was, if anything, even more complete. After settling down marginally better in a torrid opening term, Perth went into the first change with a 13 point advantage. Thereafter, however, the game developed into a massacre of a sort seldom witnessed on the most important day on the football calendar as Perth added scores of 8.3, 7.3 and 7.3 over the course of the remaining three quarters to amass an all time WANFL grand final record tally of 26.13 (169). East Fremantle, with 14.12 (96), was 73 points adrift. The Demons had so many good players that to pick out just a few seems almost churlish, but most media reports listed on-baller Wayne Currie, ruckman Wim Rosbender (who won the Simpson Medal), half back flanker Ken Inman, centreman Geoff Watt, wingman Alan Johnson and centre half forward Stephen Hargrave. Perth’s forward pocket Murray Couper was the game’s top scorer with 6 goals to add to the 8 kicked in the second semi, when he had earned a surprise recall to the team. Ken Armstrong’s avowed policy of concentrating on local talent was amply vindicated in that full forward Doug Farrant, a Victorian who had played 70 VFL games with North Melbourne, was the only player in the victorious Perth twenty who hailed from outside the state of Western Australia.

For most of the 1978 season it seemed clear that Perth was still the competition benchmark, but on the one day that really mattered the team failed to do itself justice. After topping the ladder with a 15-6 record, the Demons cruised past East Perth by nearly five goals in the second semi final, but when the two teams met again on grand final day the Royals turned the tables. Salt was rubbed into the vanquished Demons’ wounds by virtue of the fact that two of the prime architects of East Perth’s win were former Perth champions. Barry Cable, who had returned from Victoria at the end of the previous season, had been appointed captain-coach of the Royals, while Ian Miller, who had also recently returned from a Victorian sojourn, turned in a superb performance for the victors in the grand final to claim the Simpson Medal.

a long time between drinks

Somewhat astonishingly, Perth’s time as a significant football power came to an abrupt end in 1979, in what proved to be coach Ken Armstrong’s final year at the club. The Demons won just 8 of their 21 qualifying fixtures, five wins adrift of fourth placed East Perth. Not even Cliff Houghton’s return for a second stint as club president could arrest a decline which, in a sense, might be said to have continued to this day. Certainly, in terms of legitimate assaults upon the premiership, Perth has more or less stalled in the water since 1978, mixing a surfeit of poor seasons with sporadic, but ultimately unsuccessful, finals appearances. The club remains ambitious though, as evidenced by a $150,000 sponsorship deal with EF Tel in 2004, and continues to be justifiably proud of its tradition and achievements. Moreover, it knows what it is to live through an extended period of failure only to resurface stronger, hungrier and more successful. The West Australian football landscape may have altered irreversibly, and Perth’s importance in the overall scheme of things may be perceived by some to have diminished, but without healthy, vibrant state league clubs the AFL’s ill-won empire would all too soon crumble like the proverbial house of cards. In a very real sense, clubs like Perth remain just as important to the game’s health and well-being as ever - which is to say, every bit as important as, if somewhat less conspicuous than, the likes of Collingwood, Carlton, Essendon and West Coast - and football supporters who eschew them are eschewing the very fabric and heritage of the sport they proclaim to love.


  1. Uniquely among those states with AFL representation, Western Australia does not have a competing club bearing the name of its state capital, although talk of West Coast usurping the Perth label continues to surface from time to time.
  2. Celebrating 100 Years of Tradition by Jack Lee, page 28. 
  3. Ibid, page 57. Perth and East Fremantle only actually met in three finals during this period, with the score 2-1 in the latter's favour. In 1913, when the sides again contested the final, Perth would even the ledger, only to lose the challenge final to Subiaco The comment about the rucks is perhaps unduly modest, as the Red Legs had arguably the best rover in the state (Billy Orr), and two of the most highly regarded ruckmen (Alec Clarke and Eddie Thompson) playing for them at the time. 
  4. Quoted in Diehards: 1896-1945 by Ken Spillman, page 65.
  5. Some confusion seems to surround the actual score of this match, with Lee, op cit., page 78 and the official WAFL website both giving it as 6.8 (44) to 2.6 (18), while according to The Footballers by Geoff Christian, page 21, it was 5.6 (36) to 2.6 (18).
  6. Christian, op cit., page 26.
  7. Outridge actually played 40 league games for Perth, without ever giving an indication that he would develop into the champion he subsequently became with the Maroons. 
  8. Ocker: the Fastest Man Alive by Austin Robertson, page 53. 
  9. Ibid., page 58.
  10. Ibid, page 58.
  11. WANFL aggregate attendances reached an all time high of 348,972 in 1946, increased again in 1947 to 399,322, and then soared to 439,200 the following year.
  12. Up Where Cazaly? by Leonie Sandercock and Ian Turner, page 144.
  13. See, for instance, S.J. Donovan's Article, WA Football Needs a Lift, in 'Sporting Life' April 1953, pages 28-29.
  14. Carlton: the 100 Greatest by Jim Main and Russell Holmesby, page 227.
  15. Donovan, op cit., page 29.
  16. Ibid, page 29. 
  17. Christian, op cit, page 29.
  18. Football Greats of Western Australia Volume One by Anthony James, page 6.
  19. 'WAFL Football Budget', 24/9/77, page 1.


John Devaney - Full Points Publications


* Behinds calculated from the 1965 season on.
+ Score at the end of extra time.