After joining the West Australian Football League in 1906, East Perth experienced regular success, winning 14 premierships up to and including 1978. Unfortunately, things went a little pear-shaped in the ’80s and ’90s, with the Royals generally closer to the bottom than the top. There was the odd good season, including 1996 which was only ruined by an agonising two-point loss to Claremont in the Grand Final. Alas, the blue-and-blacks fell away again and in 1999 finished eighth of nine teams. The prospects of sustained success were bleak unless massive strategic changes were made.
Kicking off with the 2000 season, East Perth entered a partial alignment with the West Coast Eagles. Coinciding with the alignment was the appointment of the much-revered Tony Micale as the Royals’ senior coach, and it was he more than any other factor who turned around the club’s fortunes, transforming a group of talented but undisciplined individuals into a professional and driven team.
East Perth defeated 1998 premier East Fremantle in the 2000 Grand Final and thrashed 1997 champion South Fremantle in the 2001 title decider. The critics said the Royals’ success was only due to the Eagles alignment that ended after the 2001 season, ignoring the “local boys” who’d been there for years before. To prove the doubters wrong, the Royals proceeded to crush West Perth, the 1999 winner, in stunning fashion in the 2002 Grand Final.
A Right Royal Hat-Trick looks at East Perth’s triple premiership treat in depth. The book includes detailed descriptions of each grand final, the key Royal statistics of seasons 2000, 2001 and 2002, and coach Micale’s appraisal of the 38 men who played in one or more of the premierships. The next book in the series, to be released in 2022, will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Royals’ 1972 premiership.
The long wait after 1978
Publication year: 2021
When the siren finally sounded at Subiaco Oval, moments after Brad Smith’s famous diving mark in choking mud and cascading rain staved off another Perth attack, Barry Cable’s men had produced arguably the greatest Grand Final victory in local league history. Not necessarily in terms of the game as a standalone contest, though the 1978 title decider is up there with the best of them. But more because it was the culmination of a remarkable 2½ months for the East Perth Football Club. With two-thirds of the qualifying season gone, the Royals were in sixth place – three games and almost 6% out of the top four. You could’ve written your own ticket about their premiership odds.
However, “Cabes’ Champs” proceeded to win their last seven home-and-away matches – including victories by seven, five, two and nine points – to finish in second place. Who among the crowd of 24,567 at Leederville Oval will ever forget the Royals beating the old enemy West Perth to jump from fifth to second and earn the double chance? Ironically, East Perth was helped that day by the Demons kicking two late goals at Lathlain Park to defeat Claremont by 11 points, resulting in the Tigers – who were provisionally in second place – missing the finals by 0.06%.
Defeat at the hands of Perth in the second semi-final was perhaps the loss the Royals had to have, given they had the luxury of the double chance. With Paul Arnold booting nine goals, East Perth regrouped to annihilate the Mal Brown-coached South Fremantle by 112 points in the preliminary final. Victory set up a rematch with the Demons, the pair’s fifth meeting in the space of five months. History shows the Royals won another thriller – 11.15 (81) to 12.7 (79) – in the game that mattered most. The blue-and-black’s 14th premiership was an achievement that defied the odds. An added bonus was Grant Dorrington’s reserves taking home the chocolates, rewarding those unlucky players who missed out on league selection. But nobody in their right mind would’ve dreamed that it would be 22 long years (8022 days, to be precise) before East Perth again saluted at senior level.
It would be unfair to say the Royals suffered a premiership hangover in 1979. They again won 13 qualifying games, but a narrow loss to the Bulldogs in Round 20 cost them a second semi-final berth. Two weeks before that loss, East Perth had produced a devastating performance reminiscent of the 1978 prelim, destroying East Fremantle – then coached by Brad Smith, of all people – by 103 points at Old Easts’ home ground. The Royals’ 31.10 (196) remains the club’s equal fifth-highest score, so there was considerable optimism when the two sides met in the first semi-final four weeks later. Alas, the blue-and-whites prevailed by just two points. Adding insult to injury, former Royal Ian Thomson – whom Smith recruited from the Sunday League – booted seven goals. Sadly, club legend Mick Cronin passed away suddenly overnight.
A month after East Fremantle won a premiership that East Perth would surely have given a shake had it reached the Grand Final, captain-coach Cable was involved in a near-fatal accident on his Orange Grove property. The inspirational rover’s right leg was crushed under a spinning tractor, stripping one side of his leg to the bone and resulting in a four-month hospital stay as his life hung in the balance. Thankfully, Cabes drew upon his immense reserves of courage while the medicos were in “premiership form”, but the brilliant rover’s playing days were clearly over.
The Royals were steady rather than spectacular in the next five years, winning 56 of 110 games, though they missed the finals only once, in 1983. The one “highlight” was the club’s bold bid in October 1980 to join the Victorian Football League, motivated by the player exodus east that had reduced the West Australian Football League to “second-class citizen” status.
East Perth lost a dozen players to interstate clubs in the 1980s, with Michael Christian, Alex Ischenko, Craig Starcevich, Brett Stephens and Dean Turner all playing 100-plus VFL/AFL games. However, what hurt the Royals most were the player departures – some of whom were sold, while others left of their own volition – that boosted rival teams when the club fell on hard times early in the decade. East Perth’s loss was seven other clubs’ gains, with 32 senior players moving sideways in the 1980s, many playing superb football at their new homes. One only has to mention Paul Arnold, Craig Edwards, John Hayes and Willie Roe (South Fremantle), Greg Carpenter, Shane Cocker, Kevan Sparks and Peter Spencer (Subiaco), Larry Kickett, John Scott and Peter Thorne (Claremont), Chris Allen (Swan Districts), George Michalczyk (West Perth), John McGuire and Tony Papotto (Perth), and John Nolan and Rob Solin (East Fremantle), to realise the depth of talent that departed Perth Oval. Though most left in the early 1980s, the resultant flow-on effect saw the Royals win just 24 of 105 games from 1985-89, by some distance the worst half-decade on-field in the club’s illustrious 116-year history.
Understandably, few East Perth people were sorry to see the end of the decade. The first half of the 1990s showed promising signs. Indeed, an agonising four-point preliminary final loss to East Fremantle denied the Stan Magro-coached Royals a shot at a premiership in 1992. After a poor 1994, when East Perth avoided the wooden spoon by 0.76%, the Royals won five of their last seven games (the two losses were by six and two points) in 1995 to have fans wishing the season would last another month.
New coach Kevin Worthington continued Rob Solin’s good work, as the Royals took all before them including racking up 10 victories in succession, their longest winning run since 12 in 1961. Alas, the heartbreak of 1996’s two-point Grand Final loss – unequivocally the most devastating defeat in East Perth history – has been well documented. The WAFL script had been crying out for a Royals flag, but the “curse of the close ones” inflicted on the club since beating Perth in the 1978 thriller continued.
And then came a loss even more devastating – the tragic passing of defender Jeremy Silcock in Bali during the players’ end-of-season trip. Despite being a finalist in both 1997 and 1998, it was unsurprising that East Perth failed to reach the lofty heights of 1996. The talent was still there but the Royals fell away badly in 1999, finishing eighth of nine teams in Worthington’s fourth and final year in charge. The coach had taken the group as far as he could, there was player disharmony, and the Silcock tragedy still lingered, while the presence of WA’s National Soccer League representative Perth Glory at Perth Oval adversely affected the Royals’ preseason preparation.
Something had to give and the first instalment of the alignment – for better or for worse – arrived. It was a “watered-down” version of the 1999 host club arrangement that saw all of the Fremantle Dockers players allocated to South Fremantle and their West Coast Eagle counterparts to Claremont. The Bulldogs took all before them in 1999 before stumbling to West Perth in the Grand Final. However, the Tigers saw the arrangement as a millstone and not a milestone because they failed to make the finals, with their hopes ended, ironically, by the Royals in their last game of 1999. And, so it was that East Perth became home to the interstate Eagles, with other West Coast players – almost 80% of the playing list – reverting to their original WAFL clubs. Many argue that Alignment Mark I compensated for the decline of East Perth’s recruiting zone.
And the new coach? West Coast premiership captain John Worsfold was the Royals’ initial target but withdrew from the race when he was appointed an assistant coach at Carlton under David Parkin. Outgoing Eagles coach Mick Malthouse then snared Dean Laidley and Michael Broadbridge as assistants at Collingwood after first one then the other had agreed to join the Royals. All seemed doom and gloom with three well-credentialled football people turning their backs on the Royals.
Fourth cab off the rank – and surprisingly so far back in the queue given he’d guided East Fremantle (1997 and 1998) and South Fremantle (1999) to the past three Westar Rules grand finals – was Tony Micale. Micale’s appointment tied in with his duties as an assistant to new Eagles coach Ken Judge, whom he’d previously worked with at the Sharks. In The Royals: 100 Years of Football Tradition, Micale said: “East Perth were left in limbo a little as coaching options were fast diminishing. I detected a bit of resentment early on, as I was virtually foisted onto the club. They were a bit sceptical. I was from East Fremantle and people saw it as a move to feather my own nest but, like everything I tackle, I gave it a 100% shot.” The December 1999 issue of The Royals, which included the annual report and balance sheet, said although he was Fremantle born and bred, Micale will bring a big slice of “good old East Perth tradition”. Reflecting on Micale’s success, former East Perth general manager Alex “Marbles” Wilson attributed Malthouse as “unwittingly doing us a big favour in the end”.
Marbles’ comment was a classic understatement. This is the story of a marvellous era for the East Perth Football Club, with the Royals winning their first hat-trick of premierships since 1919-21, a period of dominance that extended to five flags in a row and seven in nine years under WA’s first supercoach, Phil Matson. Thirty-eight players played in at least one winning grand final in 2000, 2001 and 2002, with nine of the group appearing in all three.
Of course, every premiership team has its hard-luck stories – and there were several given that 62 men pulled on the boots in the 60 games played. As underrated ruckman Tim Lyster told The West Australian’s Russell Reid after winning his first premiership medal in 2002, having just missed out a year earlier: “It takes more than 22 players to win a premiership, but unfortunately there are only 22 grand final medals and it’s my turn to win one.” The three grand final victories and much, much more are relived in depth in the following pages.
A Right Royal Hat Trick costs $20 and can be obtained from the East Perth Football Club online shop.