Young men stripping for a game of football have always enjoyed a special relationship with the men in white overalls who ply the liniment, relax the tight muscles and nerves, strap the ankles, hand out the chewy and whisper words of encouragement in the sheds. A niche trainers fill in footy clubs is a fatherly role and often also one of mateship to players. But, players beware, “keep your hands out of the kit”!
At the breaks they appear with towels slung over their shoulders ready to wipe away the perspiration. Carrying refreshing water and more liniment, the trainers quietly circle the players. While the coach provides the tactical talk, plus the fire and brimstone, the trainers gently rub, revive and reassure.
Trainers are usually the older stalwarts of the club, often past players themselves. They volunteer their time, energy and know-how to the clubs they love and in turn are customarily revered by the players.
In this two-part article we reminisce about a select handful of trainers from clubs across NSW, including both city and country leagues. Contributors include former players and clubmen, all of whom hold cherished memories of the men in white overalls. Their recollections reveal a kit bag full of endearing characteristics shared by our footy club faithfulls: the love of a joke; fierce loyalty; a protective nature; pride in their work; and their enjoyment of the company of footy players often at least half their age.
Part I focuses on three Sydney trainers – Tom Kenny, together with his fellow trainer ‘Sparky’ Spangler, and Garry ‘Nipper’ Zealand. We venture to the Riverina in Part II where we find Neville ‘Nifty’ Taber, Max Webb and Percy Ferguson at work.
Tom Kenny was one of the finest trainers in the history of Australian Football in Sydney. He began his training career in the mid 1960s for the University of NSW (‘Wales’) team. He’d met legendary ‘Wales’ coach Les (‘Dodger’) Radford
when both worked at the university and a firm friendship was formed. ‘Dodger’ invited Tommy to help with the training of the ‘Wales’ and thus his feted career was set in motion.
Tom accepted the challenge with relish and spent many happy years with the ‘Wales’, becoming one of its great pillars during the club’s most successful era. His professionalism and easy going nature made him a hugely popular figure with the players, some of whom hadn’t had access to that level of training professionalism beforehand. Tommy would visit the surgery in the UNSW Department of Physiology and Pharmacology when he had the opportunity to replenish his kit. And typical of trainers, he was fiercely protective of the kit.
Onlookers marveled at the perfectly still head as he ran on to the ground to support a player. On one occasion, in his early days as a trainer, Tom raced out to a player who had dislocated his finger in a marking contest, grabbed the adjoining finger, gave it a fierce tug, then charged off leaving the player in agony holding two dislocated fingers. As his knowledge and skills improved, Tom was asked to help out at the East Sydney club, cementing the bond between the two clubs, which eventually led to their amalgamation.