The Make-Up of the NSW’s Greatest Team Ever

When Jack Fleming made his debut for South Melbourne in the newly-formed VFL in 1897 he became the first player from NSW to play at what was to become, the highest-level. Fleming was born in Inverell in northern NSW but went to South Melbourne from the South Broken Hill club.

Nick Blakey

Nick Blakey aged 18 and fresh out of Waverly College in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, became the 453rd player from NSW to play VFL/AFL football when he debuted for the Sydney Swans against the Western Bulldogs in round one of the 2019 season. He continued the rich tradition of players from NSW playing at the highest level that had begun with Jack Fleming 122 years ago.

The list of NSW’s Greatest Players provided the basis for the selection of the NSW Greatest Team Ever at the Carbine Club’s function in May this year.  You can view the entire list here, however to facilitate the list in its entirety, it has been reduced in size.  (You can enlarge the document for easier viewing by holding down your CONTROL button and press the + button at the same time.  To reverse this, hold down the CONTROL button and press the minus [ – ] button.)

Initially, a list of 423 players was provided by the AFL. Former Sydney Swans and inaugural NSW/ACT AFL Commission chairman Richard Colless, the convener of the selection panel for the NSW Greatest Team, was convinced that there were more players than this and asked the NSW Football History Society representatives on the panel, Ian Granland and Rod Gillett, to investigate.

Between them they boosted the number on the list to 453.

Using his geographical and football knowledge of southern NSW particularly along the border region, Gillett was able to add a substantial number to the list that had been overlooked by the AFL’s historians.

This included the likes of former Carlton and Richmond ruckman David Honybun from Coleambly who was recruited by the Blues from Scotch College, ex-St Kilda defender Jon Lilley (Hay) who went to Xavier College, dual Richmond premiership rover Bill Brown also from Hay who went to work for the State Savings Bank in Melbourne;  he also plaPaul Kelly, Bill Mohr, yed for the bank team in the amateurs.  then there was Damian Sexton (St Kilda) from Finley who was recruited from Ovens and Murray league club, Yarrawonga.

A gem of a find was the late Sir Doug Nichols, who grew up and played football at the Cummeragunja aboriginal mission on the NSW side of the Murray River opposite Barmah, near Echuca. Sir Doug played for the mission in the district competition before making his mark with Fitzroy in the VFL. Ironically, he played for Victoria against NSW in the 1933 ANFC Carnival in Sydney.

They also came up with the names of some outstanding SANFL players that had originally been recruited from Broken Hill. Two of these players, West Adelaide’s Bruce McGregor and Neil Davies from Glenelg, were subsequently selected in the Greatest Team. Both captained South Australia in interstate matches and were selected in ANFC All-Australian teams.

Broken Hill has been a rich source of players for both the VFL and the SANFL competitions. Forty-eight players on the list came from Broken Hill’s four clubs: Norths (13), Centrals (9), Souths (11), and Wests (15).

The Albury Football Club provided the most number of players on the list with 49 including five from the Strang family starting with Bill Strang (South Melbourne) in 1904, his three sons Doug (Richmond), Gordon (Richmond) and Alan (South Melbourne) and Doug’s son Geoff, who played in Richmond’s 1967 and 1969 premiership sides.

Rival Ovens & Murray League club Corowa, that merged with Rutherglen for the 1979 season, provided twenty players including current Sydney Swans coach John Longmire (North Melbourne), 1975 North Melbourne premiership star Peter Chisnall and Swans 2005 premiership player Ben Matthews.

The Sydney clubs have supplied 106 players on the list with Eastern Suburbs providing the highest number with twenty-four, the most notable being Carlton champion Mark “Sellers” McClure; Newtown with eleven including Footscray’s 1954 premiership player Roger Duffy, ten from North Shore, nine from Pennant Hills which included the former St Kilda champion Lenny Hayes.

The Riverina was also a fertile area for the list. The highest number of players came from the Wagga Tigers which provided 20 players including 1995 Brownlow medalist Paul Kelly (Swans), the sublimely skilled John Pitura (South Melbourne/Richmond), and the NSW Greatest Team full forward, Bill Mohr (St Kilda) who topped the VFL goal-kicking in 1936 with 101 goals.

Leeton (12), Ganmain (10) and Narranderra (9) also supplied high numbers of players for the list.

South Melbourne/Sydney Swans have been the main beneficiary of players from NSW. One hundred and seventeen players have turned out for the Swans since 1897.

Under zoning by the VFL of Victorian Country/Southern NSW from 1967-1986 the Riverina was allocated to South Melbourne. In this period Rick Quade (Ariah Park-Mirrool), Doug Priest (Holbrook), Ross Elwin (Leeton), Colin Hounsell (Collingullie), Brett Scott (The Rock-Yerong Creek), Paul Hawke (Wagga Tigers), Dennis Carroll (Lockhart) and Jim Prentice (Ariah Park-Mirrool) were recruited from the Swans’ zone.

When the club moved to Sydney in 1982, the number of players from the local competition increased. This included Terry Thripp (Pennant Hills), Lewis Roberts-Thomson (North Shore), Nick Davis (St George), Kieran Jack (Pennant Hills), Arthur Chilcott (Western Suburbs), and Neil Brunton (Holroyd-Parramatta) and many more.

The Greater Western Sydney Giants have also recruited players from NSW since their entry into the AFL in 2012. Their number of players from NSW currently stands at eighteen following the debut of Penrith local and national decathlon champion, Jake Stein in round 12 against North Melbourne.

Stein became the 454th player to play in the VFL/AFL. The list was boosted to over 500 highly skilled players to recognise those from the city and the bush that didn’t go to the big leagues and the players from Broken Hill that represented the SANFL.

SYDNEY’S RICH AUSTRALIAN FOOTBALL HISTORY

This article is written by Miles Wilks, former member of the Society’s management committee and author of a very detailed and well researched book, Australian Football Clubs in NSW.  To read more about his book and how to get copy click here.

Miles is passionate about this subject and welcomes any comments that can be directed here.
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It is a commonly held belief that Sydneysiders have had an almost non-existent role in the game at the top level, yet the fact is that as many as 80 players have been recruited from Sydney to the VFL/AFL.  Amongst the players recruited from Sydney is a player who kicked the winning goal in a VFL grand final, a Norm Smith medallist, eleven premiership players and a couple of record-holding goal kickers. It is a record of achievement that deserves more kudos.

In comparison, although one must preface this by stating I don’t have an intimate knowledge of rugby league recruiting, this figure of 80 players from Sydney to the VFL/AFL would presumably be larger than the combined number of rugby league players recruited from Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Hobart and Darwin rugby league clubs to the NRL.

Decade by decade- number of players recruited from Sydney clubs to the VFL/AFL

1897-1909 –  4 players

1910s – 6 players

1920s – 12 players

1930s – 10 players

1940s –  2 players

1950s –  7 players

1960s – 1 player

1970s – 5 players

1980s – 11 players

1990s – 9 players

2000s – 11 players

2010-11 – 2 players

In 2012, there are 20 players who have been recruited from Sydney who are on AFL lists. Eight of these twenty have debuted in league football.

1897-1910
Sydney’s first playe
r: Bob Kenny
Bob Kenny was the first player recruited from a Sydney club to play in the VFL. He debuted in 1899 and played just two games for St Kilda. He was followed soon after by John Stephenson, who was recruited from the Balmain football club and played 10 games for Essendon in 1907. Marshall Herbert, a recruit from Redfern, was the most successful of these early Sydney recruits, as he played 51 games with the Pies from 1908 to 1910. At this stage it should be noted that the only major football code that competed with Australian football in Sydney for players was rugby union, as rugby league was not played in Sydney until 1908.

1910s
The 1910s was a decade that resulted in the recruitment of two Sydneysiders who had a significant impact in the VFL.

STAR PLAYERS: Bob Merrick and Chris Laird.  Recruited from East Sydney, Merrick established a goal-kicking record for his adopted Victorian team of Fitzroy in 1919 when he kicked a total of 12 goals in a match. This feat of 12 goals in a match was never bettered by any other Fitzroy player in the history of that club. Bob headed Fitzroy’s goalkicking list each year between 1919-22.

The other Sydneysider to have an impact in the big league during this decade was Chris Laird. He was recruited from the eastern suburbs club of Paddington and is one of the few players in the history of the game to live the dream of kicking a clutch goal in a grand final with just vital seconds remaining in the match. Laird changed the fortune of the 1918 VFL grand final when he kicked the winning goal for South Melbourne with less than a minute remaining in the match.

1920s
The 1920s saw a twofold increase over the previous decade in the number of players from Sydney making the transition to the best Australian football competition in the land. Six Sydneysiders played in the VFL in the 1910s and as many as twelve Sydneysiders were recruited in the 1920s.

Fred Davies, who was another recruit from Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, was the pick of the
Sydney recruits in this decade. His most notable achievement was being named as the captain of Fitzroy in 1934. Nevertheless, few of the other Sydney players had a large impact during this decade.

1930s
Ten players from Sydney made the transition to the VFL in the 1930s. The pick of the players was Newtown’s Reg Garvin.

STAR PLAYER: Reg Garvin
Before he played football for the Sydney club of Newtown,
Reg Garvin had played soccer and rugby. Garvin was recruited from Sydney by St Kilda and he was a star player for that club, as he won the Saint’s best and fairest award in
1941 & 1944 and also captain-coached the club.

1940s
The 1940s was a decade in which there was a noticeable drop-off in the numbers of high quality players making their way from Sydney clubs to the VFL, obviously due to WWII. Ron Hall, from St George, was one of only two players recruited from Sydney to the VFL in the 1940s. The other player was Arthur Richardson, who played just five games for the Swans.

1950s
The 1950s was another decade in which only a small number of Sydney players were recruited to the top league.  One of the recruits, however, had a large impact in the VFL.

STAR PLAYER: Roger Duffy –
Another Newtown player.   Duffy played his junior football for the South Sydney Australian football club and then for the nearby rivals Newtown.
He was an exceptional player in the Sydney league, and was a Newtown premiership player as well as the leading goal kicking for the Sydney football league in 1950 and 1951.
Duffy achieved the premiership and goal-kicking double by being a premiership player and a goal-kicking leader in two states.
His premiership wins were with Newtown (NSW)and Footscray (Vic) and he was the leading goal kicker with Newtown (1950-51) and with Footscray (1952).

 1960s
The 1960s was Sydney footballs lowest point in terms of the number of players recruited from Sydney clubs to the VFL.  Barry Fitzgerald was the only player recruited directly from a Sydney club to the VFL during this decade.  And he played just 35 games for Fitzroy.

1970s
The 1970s can be viewed as a decade of revival for football recruiting from Sydney. Whilst the 1960s was a low point in terms of player recruitment, the 1970s saw the recruitment of two stars of the game – Mark Marclure and Michael Byrne.

STAR PLAYER:Mark Maclure
Maclure played junior football for East Sydney and also won the Sanders Medal as the best player in Sydney’s reserve grade competition as a 17 year old. From there he tried out with Carlton’s under 19s team and was eventually lured to Carlton by their master recruiter Bert Deacon.
Of all the players to have been recruited from Sydney, Mark Maclure is the player who can boast as having the greatest CV. On top of his list of achievements is being a member of three premiership teams (1979, 1981 and 1982). Maclure is the only player recruited from a Sydney football club to have played in as many as three VFL/AFL premiership teams. On top of this, he was the captain of his AFL club (in 1986), won his club’s goal kicking award (1979 and 1985) and played over 200 games for his beloved Blues.
STAR PLAYER: Michael Byrne
Michael Byrne is Sydney born and raised, having come through the ranks of local Sydney football on the northern beaches and then playing for the Sydney club of North Shore.
Byrne’s induction into football was a tough one, as he played in the ruck for North Shore in the bloodbath Sydney grand final of 1976 at Trumper Park. This match was infamous in Sydney football for being punctuated by rolling brawls involving almost every player on the ground. After he left Sydney, Byrne became a premiership player with Hawthorn in 1983 and he produced on the big day, as he was the 2nd highest goal kicker for Hawthorn in the grand final after the legendary Leigh Matthews. Playing during Hawthorn’s greatest era.  Byrne also had the honour of being runner up for the club’s best and fairest in 1984.

1980s
The 1980s saw the introduction of the Sydney Swans into the VFL competition and it was a decade in which there was a large upswing in the numbers of players recruited from Sydney.

Only one player (1960s) and five players (1970s) made the transition to the top league in the two previous decades, but 11 players made the transition in the 1980s. Amongst these players was St George’s Mark Roberts, who was a premiership player with North Melbourne in 1996.

1990s
The 1990s was a remarkable decade in terms of the contribution of Sydney footballers to the AFL. It was the starting point for the careers of three Sydneysiders who played over 200 games of AFL football. The three players from Sydney who pulled on the guernsey in over 200 games of AFL football were Mark McVeigh [pictured left] (Essendon), Lenny Hayes (St Kilda) and Greg Stafford (Sydney and Richmond). McVeigh and Hayes were recruited from the Pennant Hills football club and Greg Stafford was recruited from Western Suburbs.

 

STAR PLAYER: Lenny Hayes
Hayes became the first player from Sydney to win the Norm Smith medal. His last quarter performance in the 2010 grand final for the Saints was one for the record books, as he willed his team back into the contest by obtaining 11 possessions as well as kicking an inspiring goal from 50 metres out.

STAR PLAYER:  Nick Davis
Nick Davis, recruited from Ramsgate juniors, didn’t have the longevity of career that Hayes, McVeigh or Stafford had, but he produced one of the defining moments in finals history and arguably the Swan’s greatest moment outside the 2005 grand final when he kicked four goals in the last quarter of the 2005 semi-final against Geelong. That blitz of goal turned the match around and secured the Swans a vital 3-point victory and the passage to a grand final victory.

2000s
Two exceptional footballers were recruited from the Pennant Hills football club in the 1990s (Lenny Hayes and Mark McVeigh), and the feat was replicated in the noughties, as two further Pennant Hills juniors of exceptional talent, Jarrad McVeigh and Kieran Jack, made their transition to the AFL.

STAR PLAYER: Jarrad McVeigh
McVeigh won the Sydney Swan’s best and fairest award in 2008. This was a noticeable feat as McVeigh became the first player to be recruited from a local Sydney football club to win the award. It took 26 years after the club started in Sydney for a Sydney local to win the award, yet it only took a further two years for the next Sydney local to win the award when Kieran Jack was deemed Sydney’s best and fairest player in 2010.

STAR PLAYER:  Kieran Jack
Jack started his career for the Swans as a dogged tagger in 2007, yet it was only three years later that he won the club best and fairest award. Displaying unbridled determination,

Kieran Jack won the award in 2010 largely because he had become a vital attacking option for the Swans. In his best and fairest year of 2010, Jack kicked 21 goals whilst still largely working in the midfield. In 2012, he is in contention for All-Australian selection as he continues to combine attacking flair with an ability to win the contested ball.

Many may question if the introduction of the Swans has been a success, yet from a recruiting viewpoint for Sydneysiders it has been. Only one player from Sydney in the 80 years prior to the Swans introduction into the Sydney sporting landscape played over 200 games of top grade football. Since the Swans moved to Sydney there have been three 200 game players from Sydney .

The players recruited from Sydney clubs in the years ahead will be following in the footsteps of exceptional footballers such as Roger Duffy, Michael Byrne, Lenny Hayes and the McVeigh brothers amongst others. Over the journey, the record of Sydneysiders at the top level is far better than what many would presume is the case“ there have been premiership players, club captains, club coaches, and best and fairest winners. Sydneysiders have achieved at the highest level of the Australian game, but just not with all the fanfare of players from other cities.