Australian Football Celebrating the history of the great Australian game


West Coast

Although Victoria is undoubtedly the main well-spring of Australian football talent, on a per capita basis its supremacy is by no means unquestionable. Western Australia, with only about a quarter of the population of Victoria, has arguably produced proportionately more champion players and teams than any other state or territory (1). Even if this contention is rejected, there can be no doubt whatsoever that the sport of Australian football has been substantially enriched by the contribution from west of the Nullarbor.

West Coast's admission to the Victorian Football League in 1987 coincided with, indeed in a sense heralded, that competition's evolution from a suburban to a national concern. Prior to 1987, the VFL - allowing for the artificial anomaly that was (and to a certain extent remains) the Sydney Swans - was simply a larger scale variant on the standard state league mould; once the Eagles and Bears arrived, however, it became the Australian Football League in all but name.[2] Accordingly, premierships and honours conferred on teams and individuals prior to 1987 need to be accorded an altogether different level of importance to those awarded since - or, to put it another way, Australian football did not have an official annual champion club until the VFL became a de facto national competition.[3]

This point of view, it must be said, was not one which the people responsible for the formation of the West Coast Eagles were all that keen to uphold. Indeed, one of the things which stuck in the craw as far as many Western Australian football supporters were concerned, and which made the Eagles, at least initially, less than a universal ‘flavour of the month’, was the impression - carefully cultivated at the behest of the VFL perhaps? - given by those at the helm of the fledgling club that they were somehow, single-handedly, and for the first time, bringing ‘big time’ football to the west. This was perceived by many as either insulting or ingenuous (or both); in any event, it was so untrue as to not even warrant argument. Nevertheless, the likes of Tom Outridge, ‘Digger’ and ‘Billy’ Thomas, Sammy Clarke, George Doig, and ‘Bonny’ Campbell - to name just half a dozen, more or less at random - must have been turning over in their graves.

the origins of football in the West

Organised football in the Perth/Fremantle region of Western Australia dates back at least as far as 1881. In those days, however, it was rugby, and not ‘Victorian Rules’, which held sway, with only one of the five senior clubs then in existence - Unions - flying the flag for the ‘true faith’.

Two years later, a second Victorian Rules club, Swans, emerged, but rugby remained significantly more popular than football. However, things were soon to change. In those days a significant number of the young men belonging to Perth’s wealthier families were educated in Adelaide, a city second only to Melbourne in its devotion to the beautiful game. Upon returning home to Perth it was only natural that these young men should want to continue playing the sport which they had grown up with, and being of the monied classes they inevitably exerted a certain influence on their less affluent peers. Coincidentally, there was at this time an increasing dissatisfaction - repeatedly alluded to in the local press - with the standard of rugby as a spectacle. It was described as "one continuous round of scrimmages, which are neither edifying to spectators nor exciting".[4]

In 1885 one of the leading rugby clubs, Fremantle, ‘voted with its feet’ by defecting to 'Victorian Rules'. It was quickly joined by three other clubs: Rovers, Victorians, and a team of schoolboys from Perth High. The schoolboy team lasted just two matches, but the three other sides went on to contest what in retrospect (though almost certainly not at the time) was viewed as the first ever official Western Australian Football Association premiership, won by Rovers. Perhaps even more significantly, between them the three clubs precipitated what was virtually an overnight switch in the allegiance of the majority of the sports watching public of Perth and Fremantle, from rugby to football.

This is not to suggest that things proceeded swimmingly at first. True, Fremantle Unions entered the competition in 1886, bringing the number of clubs in the competition to four, but the following year saw the demise of the single main driving force behind the switch of codes, as Fremantle disbanded. The standard of football being played was low, and while rugby had clearly been displaced as the colony’s favoured code, by no stretch of the imagination could Perth and Fremantle be classified as ‘football cities’ after the fashion of Melbourne, Geelong or Adelaide.

the Gold Rush ... the influx from the east

Ironically, it took an economic depression finally and irrevocably to etch the game of Victorian Rules into the collective Western Australian consciousness. During the mid 1890s Australian underwent its most severe period of economic privation ever. In desperation, many people headed west, hoping to benefit from the gold boom which was occurring near Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie. Among these throngs were large numbers of footballers, some of the highest calibre. Probably the most prominent among them was former Essendon champion Albert Thurgood, the ‘prince among goalsneaks’, who topped the WAFA goalkicking list three times with Fremantle[5] between 1895-97.

With the inevitable increase in standard which these easterners brought came a concomitant increase in the appeal of the game. In a sense, football took hold of the minds and hearts of the Western Australian public in the 1890s and has barely relaxed its grip since.

It was not just the Perth-Fremantle axis which benefited either. Many footballers headed straight for the actual goldfields areas themselves, elevating the standard of football being played there also. Indeed, for a time there was little if any difference between the levels of football being played on the goldfields and on the coast. This is not merely a subjective, retrospective assessment either, it was one which contemporary observers shared. In 1907, when the Australian National Football Council was inaugurated, both the WAFA and the goldfields leagues were individually represented. The following year, Western Australia’s first ever carnival team, which finished runners up to the mighty Victorians, included twelve representatives from the WAFA and the same number from the goldfields.

As far as goldfields representation on the sport’s national body went, this was maintained until 1919, and might indeed have carried on for much longer had not the goldfields ANFC delegate, Tom Brett, been prevented by transportation problems from getting to a Council meeting in Melbourne on time. In his absence, the other delegates declared his seat vacant, and for reasons which are unclear goldfields representation was never reinstated.

On the field of play, the prowess of goldfields footballers continued unabated for some time. When world war two brought inevitable disruption to organized sport, followers of football in and around Kalgoorlie were able to look back with pride on victories by combined goldfields teams over the likes of a WAFA side, South Australia, the VFA, Port Adelaide, South Fremantle, West Torrens and Swan Districts. While such achievements petered out on the resumption of football after the war, the contribution made by footballers from the goldfields region remains disproportionately high. Perhaps the most famous footballer to emerge from the goldfields region relatively recently was former West Coast champion Dean Kemp, winner of the 1994 Norm Smith Medal for best afield in the AFL grand final defeat of Geelong.

the spirit of the Sandgropers

Before the arrival on the scene of the West Coast Eagles Western Australia’s triumphs at national level had been restricted to the interstate sphere, but such triumphs were intermittent at best. Indeed, of the nineteen interstate carnivals contested prior to the introduction of state of origin football in 1977, Victoria (or, more accurately, the VFL) was successful sixteen times. Western Australia, however, was the next best state with two wins, first at the Perth carnival of 1921, and later at the Brisbane carnival exactly forty years later. On both occasions the sandgropers downed the ‘Big V’, as indeed they did in 1947 at Hobart when finishing second; the VFL’s only other defeat in 68 pre-state of origin carnival games came in 1911 against South Australia in Adelaide. Western Australia’s overall record during the same period was 39 wins from 67 starts (or 58.2%), marginally superior to South Australia’s 37 wins from 68 (54.4%).

Western Australia and the VFL had met on four previous occasions for a quartet of wins to the Vics when the sides met at Subiaco in the second match of the 1921 carnival. The Victorians had already comfortably accounted for South Australia by 35 points in the opening game of the championships and were warmly favoured. However, the Sandgropers, inspired by the peerless ruck duo of Ion and Outridge, fought tenaciously from start to finish, never allowing their opponents leeway to settle. As the game entered its dying moments, Western Australia led 6.16 (52) to 6.11 (47) but Victoria was on the attack. When Collingwood spearhead Dick Lee marked within relatively easy goal kicking range things looked all up for the home side. Lee, a renowned place kicker, carefully planted the ball on the ground and stepped back to take his kick, only to see the ball dislodged by a sudden gust of wind. Picking the ball up, Lee attempted to dodge around the Western Australian player on the mark, William ‘Nipper’ Truscott, but Truscott not only caught him, he managed to deprive Lee of the ball and make an effective clearance. The Victorians’ final chance had gone, and Western Australia managed to hold on to secure a memorable win.

Three years later in the first ever Hobart carnival, the VFL and Western Australia staged another epic duel, but this time it was the Vics who were able to hang on to record a dramatic 8 point victory. The match was watched by a crowd of 15,687, which at the time was a record for a sporting contest in Tasmania.

Western Australian full forward, 'Bonny' Campbell, was the player of the championships, not only booting 7 majors against the Vics, but also contributing 23 goals to Western Australia’s Australian record tally of 43.19 (277) against Queensland.[6]

triumph of the West

Western Australian football was particularly strong during the years immediately following world war two.[7] The state side enjoyed unparalleled success, downing Victoria in each of the first three post-war meetings as well as enjoying the better of their encounters with South Australia. On the club front, as described in detail in the entry for that club, South Fremantle were without dispute one of the strongest teams in Australia during much of the period 1947 to 1954, as victories over the likes of Collingwood (both home and away), Footscray, Carlton and a South Australian state 'B' team attest. After the Carlton game, Blues coach Perc Bentley remarked:

"Carlton cannot teach South Fremantle anything. In fact, we have come over to learn something."[8]

It was a sentiment which several future Blues coaches would find themselves sharing.

As mentioned earlier, Western Australia was successful in defeating Victoria at the 1947 Hobart carnival, but a heavy loss to South Australia scuppered hopes of a second championship win. This had to wait until 1961 in Brisbane when the Big V succumbed to possibly the finest ruck partnership ever to emerge from the west in the shape of Jack Clarke, ‘Polly’ Farmer and Ray Gabelich. A narrow loss to South Australia was not enough to prevent the Sandgropers claiming the title.

Western Australia’s 1961 carnival triumph was, if anything, even more meritorious than the 1921 win as not only was it achieved on ‘foreign soil’ it also came at a time when the VFL was beginning to leave the other state competitions behind in terms of wealth, professionalism, depth of talent, and overall quality. The Western Australian team arrived back in Perth to a hero’s reception. By contrast, reference to the win in the Melbourne press was conspicuous by its absence; as far as most Victorians were concerned, it simply did not matter.

In the years following the Brisbane carnival of 1961, Victoria’s football superiority gradually increased. On the interstate front, losses to Western Australia and South Australia in 1965 were the first choice VFL team’s last under pre-state of origin conditions, but the irony of it was that many of the most auspicious wearers of the Big V jumper during this era - names like Jesaulenko, Baldock, Hart, Stewart, Marshall, Farmer and Howell - hailed from outside the state of Victoria.

... redressing the imbalance ... State of Origin

During the 1960s and ‘70s, an ever-increasing number of such individuals came from west of the Nullarbor, and while no one could blame them for seeking fame and fortune in the toughest league of all, the big losers were the Western Australian football watching public. Deprived for years of seeing the likes of Farmer, Marshall, Cable, Jackson and co. at their peak, the arrival in 1977 of the state-of-origin concept of representative football was arguably the first stage in the war to recapture football for the people who were its true life blood, the supporters.

Much of the credit for getting the state-of-origin concept off the ground has to go to then Subiaco Football Club marketing manager Leon Larkin, who undertook two years of intensive negotiation with the powers-that-were at the VFL in order to obtain agreement for the inaugural match, which took place at Subiaco Oval, between Western Australia and Victoria, on 8th October 1977.

Significantly, a Western Australian team comprised entirely of home-based players had, on 25th June in the same year, taken on a VFL team containing many of the same players who would return to Perth three and a half months later for the state of origin clash. The respective scores of the two matches offered a persuasive argument, if such were needed, of the extent to which the VFL had denuded the WAFL of its elite talent:

On 25th June 1977, VFL 23.16 (154) defeated Western Australia 13.13 (91) - a margin of 63 points.

On 8th October 1977, Western Australia 23.13 (151) defeated Victoria 8.9 (57) - a margin of 94 points, representing an overall turn around of 157 points.

Western Australia’s previous biggest winning margin against a Victorian state team had been a mere 38 points in 1948. Almost overnight, an inferiority complex was dismantled: Victoria, it seemed, was not intrinsically superior, only wealthier.

Such wealth still constituted a significant weapon, however. As the 1980s dawned, it was virtually taken for granted that any Western Australian footballer worth his salt would, having served an all too brief apprenticeship in the WAFL, head east to the VFL. The standard of football being served up by the eight WAFL clubs inevitably declined. East Perth Football Club, conscious both of this and the likely long term effects on the health of the game if the continued player drain went unchecked, in 1980 made a unilateral bid to enter a team in the VFL from the following season. Club President Jim Leahy succinctly and somewhat wryly observed:

"Our prognosis for Western Australian football is that it is destined for second class status because of the continual loss of quality players to Victoria."[9]

It should not be assumed that such a view was universally held, however. Despite the player drain, football in Western Australia was superficially healthy. Crowds were buoyant, and the introduction of state-of-origin football gave supporters an annual opportunity to witness the sport being displayed by some of its most proficient practitioners. All too quickly, however, the crowds began to diminish. By 1983 the management of the WAFL itself acknowledged that economic crisis loomed. They approached the state government for financial aid, and were rewarded with a grant of $1.9 million. However, inevitably there were strings. The government wanted a full scale investigation into the likely future financial demands of football, and they set up an investigative committee to report on this.

... 'fraternisation with the enemy'

The investigative committee consisted of local businessmen Bill Mitchell (chairman), Peter Collins and John Horgan, and the main recommendation in its report, which was published in January 1984, was that Western Australian football should be controlled by an independent board, rather than by the traditional WAFL management committee.

Within a month this recommendation had been implemented and a new, streamlined seven-man administration was in place. The government indicated its satisfaction by taking up the payments still owing on the $4 million two-tier grandstand at Subiaco Oval which had been completed three years earlier. Western Australian football was now free to embark on a future in which the whole landscape of the game would be transformed by what, to earlier generations, might well have been viewed as 'fraternisation with the enemy'.

By 1986, thinking in Perth and Melbourne as to the best future direction for football had reached a point of convergence, at least tacitly.

With many VFL clubs in dire financial straits an expanded competition was looking increasingly desirable, if only from a purely financial perspective. In Western Australia, too, the major constraints were economic, but there was also concern that the traditional controlling authority for football in the state, the WAFL, might be undermined by a VFL incursion.

In July 1986, the WAFL board published a 64 page report outlining its preferred future path for football in the state. The report conceded that an expanded VFL competition was inevitable, and suggested that the WAFL needed to be proactive in ensuring that Western Australia's involvement in such a competition was conducted, as far as possible, under its own auspices. Already there had been rumblings from at least three WAFL member clubs to the effect of wanting to 'go it alone' in terms of applying to enter teams in the VFL, while the prospect of another Sydney Swans type scenario with one of the weaker Melbourne-based clubs re-locating to Perth was as real as it was distasteful, insulting and alarming.

It is against this background that the apparently undignified haste of the West Coast Eagles' formation needs to be viewed. Ostensibly, the WAFL board bent over backwards to conform to every whim of its VFL counterparts over the admission, in 1987, of a Perth-based club. Such subjugation even included the payment, in full (rather than by instalments over ten years, as originally mooted), of a $4 million 'license fee', without which it is doubtful that the inward-looking and arrogantly parochial VFL clubs would even have given the fledgling Eagles the time of day.

the birth of the Eagles

As far as the 'game' of football itself was concerned the newly formed club had just six months to assemble a squad of players capable of holding its own in the VFL. East Fremantle's Ron Alexander had been appointed as the new club's coach even before its admission had been ratified by the VFL and, on 1st October, simultaneously with the VFL endorsement, came an announcement that former East Perth star Ross Glendinning, who had won the 1982 Brownlow Medal while with North Melbourne, would be returning home as inaugural captain of the newcomers.

On 30th October 1986, the club's name and colours together with the identities of the 32 players on the initial training list were unveiled at a glitzy ceremony at the Merlin Hotel in Perth. The name 'West Coast' was chosen to signify representation of the whole of Western Australia, not just Perth; the wedge-tailed eagle is the state's largest bird of prey, hence the 'eagle' emblem; and blue and gold were allegedly registered with the VFL as the new club's official colours just a matter of hours before West Coast's fellow debutants Brisbane endeavoured to do the same. (The VFL's preferred option for a club from South Australia had not eventuated, for reasons discussed in the entry on Adelaide.)

Playing a similar style of football to Western Australia's highly successful state-of-origin sides of the early 1980s - fast, open and attacking, with the emphasis on skill - West Coast enjoyed a creditable debut season, winning half of its games, and only narrowly failing to qualify for the finals.

Making their debuts with the Eagles were several players who would go on to become household names including Chris Mainwaring, David Hart, Michael Brennan, Chris Lewis, Dwayne Lamb and eventual dual premiership captain (and, later, coach) John Worsfold.

John Todd replaced Alexander as coach in 1988 and instilled a greater desperation in the players who responded by finishing the home-and-away rounds in fourth place with a 13-9 record, ahead of fifth-placed Melbourne on percentage.

In 1988, anyone suggesting the idea of a non-Victorian club hosting a final would have been accused of sacrilege, in Melbourne at any rate, so the Eagles had to travel to VFL Park for their elimination final meeting with the fourth-placed Demons. In a tense, hard fought match the Eagles were arguably marginally the better side, but they lost anyway by 2 points. Nevertheless, it had been a creditable display, capping off a highly promising season.

What then went wrong in 1989? With the same coach, and largely the same playing personnel (although there were numerous injuries) West Coast won just 7 games (out of 22) and finished eleventh (out of fourteen). Midway through the season, amidst cries that the Eagles be scrapped, and an old style WAFL competition be restored, the side managed just 1.12 (18) in a game at Windy Hill against Essendon. The fact that it was the wettest Melbourne winter for years did not help matters; neither did the fact that four of the Eagles' losses were by margins of less than 10 points. However, overall it was clear that something serious was wrong, and that drastic counter measures were required if the club was not only to get back on track, but actually to survive.

the AFL's first major dynasty

Enter Michael Malthouse. A graduate of the Richmond school of hard knocks, where he had earned a reputation as a redoubtable and canny defender, Malthouse had gone on to serve an impressive coaching apprenticeship at Footscray, transforming perennial competition makeweights into bona fide premiership challengers.

At West Coast he would have considerably more resources at his disposal, resources which he would ultimately use to construct arguably Australian football's - as distinct from Victorian football's, or Western Australian football's - first major dynasty. During his ten seasons at the helm, the Eagles would never fail to contest finals and would enjoy an overall success rate of 64.4%. In his first season in charge they finished third, drawing a final with eventual premier Collingwood in the process, while in 1991 they were, for much of the season, clearly the best side in the competition.

Finals football represents another level, however, and in both the qualifying final at Subiaco and the grand final at Waverley, West Coast had to accept that they were second best to perennial front runners, Hawthorn. As far as Malthouse was concerned, however, and painful as losing a grand final always is, it was all part of the learning experience.

For most of the 1992 season, West Coast appeared to have slipped a notch or two on its 1991 standards. At the end of the home and away series it lay fourth with a 15-6-1 record, compared to its 19-3 record in '91; its percentage was also significantly inferior. This time around, however, Malthouse had timed his team's assault on the flag to perfection, although having said that, there was no scope for error, as fourth place on the ladder meant that every final would probably be sudden death, starting with an elimination final re-match at Subiaco with 1991 nemesis Hawthorn.

Just as in 1991, it was a tough, slogging, tortuous afternoon of football, with no quarter asked or given. The Hawks threw everything they had at the Eagles, leading at every change by 21, 3 and 3 points, only for the home side to find that elusive extra gear during the closing ten minutes and edge away to a 14.16 (100) to 12.15 (87) triumph. In retrospect, many said that it was here, rather than at the MCG three weeks later, that the 1992 AFL premiership was won.

Because of the vagaries of the finals system in force at the time, West Coast's victory meant that it qualified for a second semi final meeting with minor premiers Geelong, while Hawthorn was eliminated.

The Eagles withstood some shaky moments against the Cats, particularly during the second term when they fell 16 points behind having just lost in-form forward Karl Langdon with a knee injury but, after half time, there was only one team in it, West Coast eventually winning by 38 points, 20.13 (133) to 14.11 (95).

Given that West Coast's opponents in the grand final a fortnight later would again be Geelong the importance of the win from a psychological standpoint was considerable.

Prior to the 1992 AFL grand final, West Coast was widely favoured.[10]  However, this favouritism was in the context of a great deal of mindlessly paranoid parochialism on the part of many Victorians, most of whom, wholly illogically, would probably have liked to regard themselves as 'football fans'. Yet the fact that this was not essentially an interstate battle was all too easy to prove, with the Perth-based West Coast, coached by a Victorian, facing up to a Victorian-based Geelong side with a South Australian coach (Malcolm Blight) and a Western Australian captain (Mark Bairstow).

The match itself was initially absorbing, if ultimately anti-climactic. Geelong competed well in the first half, leading by 17 points at quarter time, and two straight goals at the main break. Early in the third term, Gary Ablett goaled to extend the Cats' lead to 17 points but then came the West Coast surge.

With 'gut runners'[11] like Peter Matera (eventual Norm Smith Medallist), Dean Kemp and Tony Evans already prominent, Malthouse moved the previously ineffectual half forward Brett Heady into the centre in a bid to stymie the effectiveness of Paul Couch, who up to this point had had four times as many possessions as his opponent Craig Turley.

Suddenly, perhaps almost accidentally, the final piece of the jigsaw was in place. West Coast rattled on 5 unanswered goals over the remainder of the quarter to go into the final change 17 points to the good.

Geelong tried hard in the last term, but with the Eagles backline, expertly coordinated by Ashley McIntosh (who thrashed Cats dangerman Bill Brownless) and Glen Jakovich, looking increasingly impregnable, it was never going to be enough to make up the leeway. In the end, in fact, West Coast edged still further in front, finally winning with deceptive comfort by 28 points, 16.17 (113) to 12.13 (85).

An exultant Chris Mainwaring opined:

"I've always wanted to be a part of history. Now I am. No one can take that away now."[12]

Peter Wilson meanwhile issued what was tantamount to a warning to the other 14 clubs in the competition when he observed:

"There are so many good young players here. It augurs well for the future."[13]

From the opposition camp came a comment directed perhaps at the moronic Melbourne minority:

"We're finally in an AFL competition now," remarked Malcolm Blight. "Great, isn't it?"

West Coast struggled somewhat in 1993 in the wake of a perhaps inevitable premiership hangover. Finally scraping into the finals on percentage in sixth spot, hopes were raised after a commanding 17.18 (120) to 11.3 (69) elimination final defeat of the fancied Kangaroos, but Essendon at the MCG in the first semi-final proved too formidable a hurdle, and so it was back to the proverbial drawing board.

... "we have created a monster"

The 1994 home and away season proved to be one of the most even in history, but West Coast, with a 16-6 record, ultimately topped the ladder going into a final series which, for the first ever time, would feature eight clubs. A hard fought two-point qualifying final win over eighth-placed Collingwood at Subiaco suggested that the even nature of the home and away series would carry forward to the finals, but a fortnight later in the preliminary final, again at Subiaco, the Eagles overcame Melbourne with a ruthless efficiency that was quite awesome. Their 16.21 (117) to 8.4 (52) victory set up a grand final re-match with 1992 victims, Geelong, which had suddenly found form after a mixed season.

In some respects - most notably, of course, in the result - the 1994 premiership decider was similar to that of two years earlier. Just as in 1994, the Cats gave as good as they got early on, only trailing by a point at the first change; on this occasion, however, the Eagles gained a stranglehold on affairs about a quarter and a half earlier. By half time the margin was 23 points in West Coast's favour; by 'lemon time', with the difference standing at 36 points in the Eagles' favour, the game was as good as over. Once again, the West Coast on-ballers such as Don Pyke (26 possessions), Norm Smith Medallist Dean Kemp (23 possessions), and Chris Mainwaring (18 possessions) simply overran the Cats, while defenders like Glen Jakovich, Michael Brennan (who comprehensively silenced Ablett) and Guy McKenna were virtually impassable, whilst also providing purposeful and incisive rebound.

There was a tiresome if predictable reaction in some Victorian quarters - Ted Whitten calling the Eagles "robotic", for example, and Kevin Sheedy laughably claiming "we have created a monster" - but a more realistic assessment would be that the Eagles, with their somewhat dour Victorian coach, merely represented a logical culmination in the trend towards more robust, efficient, disciplined, utilitarian football, a trend which had its origins in the latter-day VFL's fixation with "pressure, pressure, pressure" as the epitome of footballing excellence.

West Coast's final tally of 20.23 (143) represented its highest score of a 1994 season which had seen the duration of quarters in AFL games reduced from twenty-five to twenty minutes, albeit with 'long' time-on.[14]  Geelong's score of 8.15 (63), paradoxically, was its lowest for the year.

re-emerging as a force

The status of the West Coast Eagles Football Club as one of Australia's elite sporting organisations was now unquestionable. Over the next five seasons, although there were no further premierships, this status was, if anything, enhanced. In the period 1995 to 1999 the Eagles participated in every AFL finals series and although the early years of the new decade proved less successful there seemed no reason to suspect that this was anything other than a temporary aberration.

The first signs that the Eagles might be on the verge of re-emerging as a force came in 2003, particularly during the first two thirds of the season. Sadly, the latter stages of the season saw the wheels come off to some extent, but this is the sort of failing typical of young, emerging sides, which time and experience could all too easily address and rectify.

In 2004, the Eagles overcame a lack-lustre first half of the season to finish the home and away rounds playing as well as almost any team in the competition. Unfortunately, however, they did not take their good form into the finals, and a disappointing 41-point loss in the Harbour City against the Swans consigned them to eighth position on the ladder for the third season in a row.

Winning premierships from the bottom half of the 'eight', while not necessarily impossible, is much more difficult under the current finals formula than it was when the Crows won a flag from fifth in 1998,[15] despite losing their first final against Melbourne. One felt constrained to conjecture that, in order to pose a legitimate premiership threat, the Eagles would need to display sufficient consistency to qualify for one of the top two ladder positions heading into the finals. The combination of the double chance 'safety net' with the prospect of playing finals matches in front of their own adoring fans would, almost certainly, make them an extremely formidable September proposition.

premierships do not simply happen

And so it proved. In 2005 the Eagles were in pole position for most of the home-and-away series, only to miss out on the minor premiership on percentage thanks to a last round loss at home to Adelaide. Nevertheless, second position with a 17-5 record was still good enough to secure the automatic benefit of two successive home finals, an advantage on which the side duly capitalised with hard fought wins over Sydney in a qualifying final and the Crows in a preliminary final.

These successes earned a first grand final appearance since 1994, with the opposition provided by a tenacious and evenly balanced Sydney side. The qualifying final, in which the Eagles had emerged victorious by just 4 points, had proved that there was very little to chose between the two teams, and the grand final proved to be the closest fought and most absorbing for almost three decades. In the end, however - and tragically for West Coast - it was the Swans who had the good fortune to have their noses in front at the final siren, winning by just 4 points, 8.10 (58) to 7.12 (54). For the Eagles, the enforced omission of leading goal kicker Phil Matera owing to a groin injury was arguably decisive, but coach John Worsfold refused to make excuses, conceding that his players had received a painful lesson:

"They learned how tough it is. You can play well all year and not win a premiership ... (nevertheless) we only fell four points short today and we finished ahead of fourteen other sides."

Even when all the cards are dealt favourably, as in 2005, premierships do not simply happen (just ask Essendon or Port Adelaide), but those in control of the West Coast Eagles' destiny had already demonstrated on two previous occasions that they know what is needed to secure the ultimate in footballing achievement, and in 2006 it was obvious from the start that the players were, to a man, infused with a steely determination to do so again.

the great rivalry continues

Apart from a handful of comparatively minor wobbles, such as the last-round capitulation to Fremantle, the Eagles proved themselves to be the competition's pace setter, and ultimately procured pole position going into the finals with a record of 17 wins from 22 matches. A 1 point home loss to Sydney in a qualifying final was disappointing, but all it really demonstrated was that there was very little between the two sides in terms of overall ability - a fact that would be emphasised even more tellingly on grand final day.

In order to qualify for the 2006 grand final, the Eagles had to overcome one of the toughest hurdles in AFL football in the shape of a premiership hungry Adelaide side in front of their own obsessively fanatical supporters at AAMI Stadium. The fact that the Eagles ultimately managed to do this with such indefatigable assurance and indeed panache underlined in no uncertain terms the fact that the 2006 premiership race was far from over.

Almost inevitably, or so it seems in hindsight, West Coast's opponents in the 2006 grand final were Sydney. Watched by a crowd of 97,431, the biggest grand final attendance since 1997, the Eagles raced out of the blocks to lead by 16 points at the first change, a margin they had extended to 25 points by half time. The side's redoubtable midfield unit, comprising the likes of Andrew Embley (who ultimately won the Norm Smith Medal), Chris Judd, Michael Braun and Daniel Chick, was doing everything that could be asked of it, and even the supposed achilles heel of its forward line was performing well above expectation. As for the defence, players like Darren Glass, Adam Hunter and Brett Jones were acknowledged as being among the best in their positions in the AFL, a rating that their performances in this grand final only served to emphasise.

During the long break many spectators might have been forgiven for anticipating yet another grand final blow-out, but what they actually got was the complete reverse, courtesy of a defiantly relentless Sydney Swans charge that ultimately only just fell short. Fall short it did, however, and credit for that has to go to a West Coast team that oozed resilience, fortitude, and consummate professionalism.

To talk of a side 'deserving' a premiership on the basis of a 1 point win is churlish, but overall, on the basis of a near exemplary whole season's work, there can be no doubt whatsoever that the 2006 AFL premiership cup found its rightful home.

Final scores in the grand final were West Coast 12.13 (85) defeated Sydney 12.12 (84), giving the Eagles their third flag in the twentieth year of their existence.

Given that they were only initially admitted to the then VFL in order to alleviate the financial woes of a number of Melbourne-based clubs, and were neither expected nor desired to be successful, this has to be regarded as an extraordinarily praiseworthy achievement.

Indeed, it would be hard to deny the contention that, since the suburban VFL began its gradual metamorphosis into a quasi-national competition in 1987, only Hawthorn have outperformed the Eagles.

In 2007 West Coast bowed out of premiership contention after narrow straight sets finals losses to Port Adelaide and Collingwood, and this was followed by a frankly dismal 2008 campaign which produced just 4 wins and avoidance of the wooden spoon by the merest whisker.

A year later there was marginal improvement, but an 8-14 record and eleventh place on the ladder still fell a long way short of the level Eagles fans had grown accustomed to. Still worse was to follow as in 2010 the Eagles managed just 4 wins for the year to slump to last place, an ignominious fall from grace considering they had, just four seasons earlier, claimed football's ultimate prize.

The sharp decline in the Eagles' fortunes emphasised that maintaining success in the modern game is more difficult than ever, with many factors outside a club's immediate control having significant effects on its playing strength, which makes the club's re-emergence as a powerhouse in 2011 all the more remarkable. Coming from 'nowhere' at the start of season West Coast went all the way to the preliminary final, losing to eventual premiers, Geelong. Continuing that strong form into 2012, when they again qualified for the finals and ultimately finished fifth, the Eagles appeared once again to have regained their 'natural' place at the forefront of the national competition.

The 2013 season proved disappointing as the Eagles managed just 9 wins to plummet down the list to thirteenth. This was followed by a slightly better 2014 campaign which yielded 11 wins and saw the side only narrowly fail to qualify for the finals. In 2015 West Coast were well and truly back as a force but the climax of the season could scarcely have been more perturbing. Second after the minor round the Eagles faced Hawthorn at Subiaco in a qualifying final and produced a performance of such authority and conviction that many felt the flag was as good as theirs. A 10.20 (80) to 7.13 (55) preliminary final defeat of North Melbourne only served to reinforce the Eagles’ premiership favouritism.

A lot can change in football in three weeks. Standing in West Coast’s way in the 2015 grand final were a Hawthorn side that had played itself back into form with wins over Adelaide in a semi final and, more tellingly, minor premiers Fremantle at Subiaco in a preliminary final. The Hawks were aiming for a third straight flag and after the Eagles had registered the opening goal of the match it was Hawthorn who seized control. Playing tough, purposeful, authoritative football they led at every change by 19, 31 and 50 points before easing to victory by a 46 point margin, 16.11 (107) to 8.13 (61). Those with long memories harked back to 1991 when Hawthorn had achieved a similar triumph at West Coast’s expense.

The 2016 season saw the Eagles again qualify for the finals only to suffer a shock elimination final defeat at home to an emotion-charged Western Bulldogs team who would continue to defy the odds all the way through to a grand final defeat of Sydney. A year later the Eagles were once more involved in the September fray, but after procuring a stirring win over Port Adelaide in an elimination final they found Greater Western Sydney too hot to handle in the following week's semi final, and fell short by 67 points.

a premiership for the ages

In 2018 West Australian football embarked on a new era with the opening of Perth Stadium, a new 60,000 capacity stadium which, among other uses, would become the home venue of both the Eagles and the Dockers. To the Eagles went the honour of inaugurating the stadium and their round one clash with Sydney attracted a crowd of 53,553, which was a new record crowd for an AFL match in Perth. Unfortunately, however, the Swans spoilt the party, winning a high standard game by 29 points. Paradoxically, however, it was the Eagles who emerged from this clash hungrier and more determined, and they would not again taste defeat until their next encounter with Sydney in round thirteen. Over ensuing weeks injuries to key players seemed to impact negatively on the Eagles' performances but it would be going too far to suggest, as some did, that their premiership ambitions had been derailed. Far from it, in fact, as the side went on to qualify for the finals in second place before showing great resourcefulness and determination in overcoming an in form Collingwood team by 16 points at Perth Stadium in the qualifying final. The win booked West Coast a place in a home preliminary final, which turned out to be against Melbourne, a team which had downed the Eagles in impressive fashion in Perth in the penultimate home and away round. However, in front of a new West Australian record crowd of 59,608 it became clear early on that this was going to be a vastly different affair. Indeed, were it not for some wayward kicking for goal West Coast could have been as good as home and hosed by the first interval. As it was, they not only continued their dominance in the second term, they capitalised on it by kicking straight, so that at the main break the score was 10.9 to 0.6, with the Demons the first V/AFL team since Richmond in 1927 to fail to register a single goal in the first half of a finals match. They finally brought up the two flags early in the third quarter but the damage had been done. Despite visibly easing off late on the Eagles still won by 11 goals to progress to their first grand final since their thrashing at the hands of Hawthorn three years earlier.

West Coast's grand final opponents were a Collingwood side which had suggested at times during the teams' qualifying final meeting that they were capable of causing all kinds of problems to the Eagles. Moreover, the match would be played at the MCG, Collingwood's home ground, not in Perth. Victorian teams playing grand finals at home simply didn't lower their colours against teams from other states, did they? The first twenty minutes of the 2018 grand final only seemed to endorse this view as the Magpies booted 5 unanswered goals with apparent ease and no small amount of panache. The only question as time on approached was how much Collingwood's eventual margin of victory would be. Then, as quarter time loomed, the first chinks in the Magpies' armour appeared, and the Eagles nabbed a couple of goals to serve notice that they had no intention of rolling over, an impression reaffirmed during a riveting arm wrestle of a second term that only produced 3 goals, 2 of them to West Coast.

With a mere 2 goals now separating the teams there was no more conjecture as to the likely scope of a Collingwood victory, and indeed for the remainder of the match it was the Eagles who would be in the ascendant. Late in the third quarter they actually hit the front before Collingwood fought back to level the scores at the last change. A couple of goals to the Magpies early in the final term might have been expected to swing the momentum back in their direction, but instead it was the Eagles who lifted, although not to the extent of recapturing a scoreboard advantage. 

The Magpies hung onto their lead, just two points, with just three minutes to go. It was theirs to lose and they did – a late goal by the Eagles sealed a classic victory by five points. The game was short on long kicks, a bit surprising from two teams that have built their reputations for such a thing. The Eagles led easily on disposals and kicks, plus inside 50s. But Collingwood did well on handballs and contested possessions.[16]

It had been one of the all time great grand finals, and a famous and deserved triumph for the West Coast Eagles, although one feels forced to wonder whether, giving that the AFL seems intent on radically changing the nature of the game, we shall ever see its like again. Best players for the Eagles included Norm Smith Medallist Luke Shuey (34 disposals), key forward Josh Kennedy (18 disposals, 11 marks, 3 goals), midfielder Dom Sheed (32 disposals plus the winning goal), and defenders Shannon Hurn, Tom Barrass and Jeremy McGovern. For a dozen members of the victorious side the thrill of the achievement was augmented by an enormous sense of relief; these twelve players had all taken part in the 2015 grand final loss to Hawthorn, when the team had, to put it mildly, failed to do itself justice. Three years on and the Eagles were already audaciously talking in terms of going "back to back" in 2019. Given the nature of this success, not to mention the fact that they will be strengthened next year by the return to the team of former All Australian ruckman Nic Naitanui and gun midfielder Andrew Gaff, one ventures the opinion that it would be foolish to bet against them.


Note: This article was written by John Devaney and subsequently updated with additional material from writers.

  1. Tasmania and, more recently, the Northern Territory might well, with apparent justification, argue this claim, but as with all such subjective assertions, proof is notoriously difficult to come by - or, at any rate, to agree on.
  2. The Victorian Football League officially changed its name to the Australian Football League in 1990, but that this was an artificial watershed is difficult to refute.
  3. The tacit assumption held by many football supporters that each season's VFL premier was also by definition the best team in Australia is surprisingly easy to challenge. See, for example, the entries on Adelaide, North Adelaide, Norwood, South Fremantle, Sturt and West Adelaide.
  4. Quoted in The Footballers by Geoff Christian, page 5. Ironically, this description should seem familiar to modern day followers of the Australian game.
  5. This was not the same Fremantle club which had pioneered the switch from rugby to Victorian Rules a decade earlier. It was actually Fremantle Unions, which had dropped the ‘Unions’ part of its name in 1890.
  6. The Queenslanders were perhaps fortunate to avoid an even bigger embarrassment at the hands of South Australia, the Croweaters proving inordinately haphazard in front of goal in amassing a total of 37.46 (268).
  7. Everything is relative, however, and it is only fair to mention an alternative to this point of view, which is that football in general was at something of a low ebb - on the playing front at any rate - in the years immediately following the second world war, and that therefore Western Australia’s achievements have to be viewed in the context of a significantly weaker overall field.
  8. Quoted in The South Fremantle Story, volume 2 by Jack Lee, page 71.
  9. Quoted in Soaring: the Official History of the West Coast Eagles Football Club’s First 10 Years by Geoff Christian, page 10. In the eyes of most Victorians, Western Australian football had never enjoyed better than second class status.
  10. In 'Inside Football', for example, the columnists went 8-3 West Coast, while the 'Inside Football' computer, demonstrating uncanny perspicacity, tipped West Coast by a 28 points margin, with the Norm Smith Medal going to Peter Matera.
  11. An expression coined by Kevin Sheedy to describe those players who run hard under pressure and still manage to get the ball and use it effectively.
  12. Quoted in 'Inside Football', volume 22, number 33, 30/9/92, page 2. Given Mainwaring's tragically premature death in 2007 at the age of just 41, these words take on enhanced poignancy.
  13. Ibid, page 2.
  14. 'Long' time-on basically meant that, every time the ball went dead - for example after going out of bounds for a boundary throw-in - the clock stopped.
  15. Although the introduction of a week's rest for all finalists has arguably had the effect of making the task of teams 5-8 somewhat less onerous.
  16., accessed 15/10/18.


John Devaney - Full Points Publications


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