Although consistently the best team in the WANFL across the 1960–71 home-and-away seasons, the East Perth Royals experienced massive stage fright when it came to the business end of the season, losing all seven grand finals they played in. This included five losses in six years to arch-rivals Perth (1966–68) and West Perth (1969, 1971), made worse by the Demons and Cardinals being coached by former Royals Mal Atwell and Graham “Polly” Farmer. However, captain-coach Mal Brown implemented a massive change in strategy in 1972, culminating in the Royals upsetting hot favourite Claremont to win their first premiership since 1959. Brown also had a brilliant season on the field and was runner-up to Perth’s Ian Miller in the Sandover Medal, while champion defender Ken McAullay won Simpson and Tassie medals at the Australian National Football Carnival in Perth and another Simpson in the Grand Final victory over the Tigers. The Heroes of ’72: Royals Reign Once Again describes East Perth’s emotional 1972 triumph, including the premiership players’ very own stories.
The Heroes of ’72: Royals Reign Once Again
Publication date: June 2022
Always the bridesmaid, never the bride
In the 12 years encompassing 1960 and 1971, East Perth had a formidable record, winning 168 (and drawing three) of 274 games – a win percentage of 61.31. This included the horrific 1964 season, when the Royals won just three of 21 games. The next-best-performed teams were Perth and West Perth, both who won 58.43% of their games. The Demons and Cardinals, and Swan Districts for that matter, each won three premierships in those dozen years, while Claremont, East Fremantle and South Fremantle chipped in with one flag apiece. Alas, East Perth played in seven grand finals – for seven losses – with the only other premiership “orphan” being Subiaco, coincidentally the team the Royals had defeated in 1959.
Fresh in the collective mind at Perth Oval was the seventh of those losses, the 1971 Grand Final against the arch-enemy West Perth, captain-coached by East Perth’s (and arguably the game’s) greatest-ever footballer, Graham “Polly” Farmer. Ross Elliott’s West Australian Football Register 1971, released on the eve of the Grand Final, wrote: “Standing above all else through most of the 1971 season was East Perth. They were the power in the land and only the 1971 Grand Final stands before them in their ambition to finally confirm their right to the throne.” Having beaten West Perth four times in as many starts, by 64, 98, 15 and then a gritty 10-point win in the second semi-final, the Royals were almost unbackable favourites in the season decider.
Indeed, the Cardinals were lucky to even be there, scraping home by three points against East Fremantle in the preliminary final. However, again it wasn’t to be, with West Perth comfortable 32-point winners. Bloomin’ Charlie Chandler – his famous South African Cape chestnut tree again failed to bloom! Making October 2, 1971, an even bleaker day for the Royal faithful was that the reserves and thirds also lost their grand finals (by 11 and 20 points to Perth and Swans, respectively). It was probably a good thing the fourths didn’t qualify.
In addition to 1969 and 1971, it’s sometimes forgotten that West Perth defeated East Perth in the 1960 Grand Final. However, that match is overshadowed by 1961 when the Royals lost the “unlosable game” – having dropped just two of 22 games beforehand – as Swan Districts won their first premiership (en route to a hat-trick). As with West Perth in 1971, East Perth had beaten Swans in all four lead-up encounters, including a 48-point thumping in the second semi-final. It was this defeat that inspired Paul Rigby’s “Laughing Cavalier” cartoon, immortalising long-standing East Perth president Fred Book’s great disappointment, in the Daily News.
That was the Royals’ sixth grand final in as many years under the coaching of the redoubtable Jack Sheedy, so it was inevitable the team would bottom out at some stage; literally in the case of 1964. But there was to be no extended period in the wilderness, and in Kevin Murray’s second year in charge (1966), the blue and blacks were again back in the premiership window.
To go into great detail about the five grand final losses in six years would defeat the celebratory nature of this book. Losing to Perth in three successive years (1966–68) and West Perth in 1969 and 1971 was heartbreaking, made worse by the fact East Perth “old boys” Mal Atwell (Demons) and Graham Farmer (Cardinals) were the opposing captain-coaches. And boyhood Royals fan Barry Cable won the Simpson Medal in each Perth triumph (thankfully, “Cabes” saw the light in 1978).
Like 1961, East Perth finished well clear on top in 1967, 1969 and 1971 (the second semi-final victory in 1971 was the club’s first since 1961), making the Royals’ failure to step up on the big day all the more perplexing. “Always the bridesmaid, never the bride” became part of the football vernacular when describing yet another East Perth grand final loss. In total, 70 different players appeared in at least one of the seven losing grand finals, with 49 playing in the five most recent (1966–69, 1971).
Having occurred in a new decade to the “six losses of the ’60s”, the 1971 defeat loss was particularly galling. In its match-eve preview, The Sports Review, a colourful weekly journal that ran from 1964 to 1977, spoke of a “cold war” between East Perth and West Perth. Of course, the two clubs had (and still do) long enjoyed a fierce rivalry, but the ignominy of the 1969 defeat, when triple premiership coach Jack Sheedy had returned for one year, had left the Royals desperate to make amends. According to Daily News football writer Rob Bennett, in the lead-up to the 1971 encounter, East Perth captain-coach Malcolm Brown had said in Churchillian fashion: “We’ll meet them in the streets, we’ll meet them in the fields, on an oval, or behind the grandstand.” Perhaps the Royals played the grand final in the streets or in the fields or behind the grandstand, because the Cardinals were rarely troubled on the oval.
In its 1971 summation of the eight WANFL teams, The Sports Review wrote: “After what happened this year, the Royals will need a complete overhaul of their team … Malcolm Brown will have to be prepared to make some drastic changes and to be a force, the club’s recruiting campaign will have to be well-applied. Their main requirements appear to be a top-class ruckman, a top-class rover and a half-forward specialist. There are many good junior players in the district, but they’ll have to be carefully selected and groomed.”
However, East Perth didn’t have a complete overhaul and cast aside loyal servants; nor did the club open its cheque book and recruit. The early-1970s was notable for there being few interclub moves. Indeed, no former East Perth players represented rival clubs at senior level in 1972, a far cry from what was to eventuate a decade later. Laurie McPherson, who crossed from Swan Districts midway through the 1971 season, was the only member of the 1972 premiership team who came from another WANFL club. The Royals developed a formidable ruck brigade, with Brown, Ron Alexander, Eddie Pitter, Brad Smith (returning from injury) and David Whittle rotating on the ball, while John Hayes and occasionally Phil Tierney did the ruck-roving; their much-maligned roving department struck gold late in the season, with Hans Verstegen in devastating late-season form and Rob Armanasco making a promising debut; and who will ever forget freakish half-forward-flanker Gary Bygraves booting three goals in two minutes against the breeze early in the third quarter of the Grand Final (has there ever been a more telling burst in a title decider, given the Royals won by only 15 points in a game that featured just 17 goals?). East Perth’s nine first-gamers – Armanasco, Geoff Gillies, Alex Hamilton, Colin Johnson, Bruce Mead, Phil Mincherton, Ken Smith, Peter Trott and Ron Watroba – were all either local juniors or country recruits. All bar Mead (who was 14 weeks shy of his 21st birthday on debut) were teenagers.
The notable losses included back-pocket Dobbie Graham (retired), ruckman Ian McCulloch (VFL club Fitzroy) and Ian Thomson (work commitments). Ken Deards provided an admirable replacement for Graham and John Daniel moved from full-back to centre-half-forward to fill Thomson’s footsteps, while the Royals’ great ruck depth has been discussed.
In its detailed preview of the 1972 Grand Final, the Daily News posed the question: “Will the East Perth grand final hoodoo be on again this year? It’s a topic East Perth supporters and others in the camp are trying not to think about. After losing last year’s grand final, one supporter commented: ‘I wonder who’ll beat us in next year’s grand final?’ East Perth followers can be excused if they believe that gremlins lurk at Subiaco Oval and emerge at grand final time to cast a spell over East Perth.”
The Royals’ approach to the match, and particularly that of Brown, who’d almost single-handedly helped spice up the season with his witty post-match comments, was far more understated in 1972. Rob Bennett said Brown “appears to have put away his book of quotations for this year’s grand final”. He believed that Brown was playing the underdog card and “has been working on a psychological build-up and seems determined not to jeopardise this with one of his usual quips. Brown is a thinker, and the past week and a half has been tuned to next Saturday afternoon. He knows what it’s like to lose a grand final – his problem is to try and work out how to win one, something that’s escaped coaches (Jack Sheedy, Kevin Murray, Derek Chadwick and Brown himself) at East Perth since 1959. One thing is certain; Brown is sure to rattle off a few more memorable sayings from his vast repertoire of quotes if East Perth win on Saturday.” The Daily News noted that “East Perth supporters are starting to believe that Saturday just has to be their turn,” with even Brown saying that “going by the law of averages, we’re due to crack a premiership.”
And so it came to pass that the drought was finally broken, as splendidly described by Matthew Glossop in The Royals 1906–76. “The cold wintry day had a magic rainbow for Royals supporters and the pot of gold awaited them at Subiaco Oval. (Gary) ‘Cowboy’ Bygraves, a player with an extraordinary goal sense, almost won the game for East Perth off his own boot. He snapped three fantastic goals against the wind, the goals being within minutes of one another, and this virtually sealed the fate of Claremont. Malcolm Brown and his crew had at last brought home the bacon, and the ‘Laughing Cavalier’ could laugh again. It had been a long wait between drinks, but the celebrations at Perth Oval more than adequately banished the cold memories of the past.” Football Close-Up 1973 was succinct in its appraisal. “It was a case of (being) the bride and no longer the bridesmaid for East Perth in 1972.”
When interviewed by Scott Nicholls in Football Close-Up 1973, Brown claimed the 1972 side was “not as brilliant as in past seasons but they were a tighter-knit combination”. It was the Royals’ team football that beat a team of stars (Claremont). Brown, who was runner-up for the Sandover Medal behind Perth’s Ian Miller, said: “I personally feel that ’72 was my best season and naturally I got greater satisfaction because of our premiership win.”
East Perth actually had a superior home-and-away record in each of the 1961, 1967, 1969 and 1971 seasons than they did in 1972. While the Royals enjoyed a rich vein of form between Rounds 9 and 15, beating all seven opponents by an average of 53 points, they were occasionally inconsistent and lost to each of the bottom four sides, as well as twice to the Tigers. However, it was ironic that the two sides they enjoyed a perfect record (3–0) against in 1972 were their nemeses of the previous six years, Perth and West Perth. They beat the Cardinals by wonderfully symmetric margins of 24, 72 and 48 points, (kicking 103, 105 and 104 points), while the three victories over the Demons were increasingly hard-fought (30, 14 and 7).
East Perth drew 211,232 people to its 21 qualifying-round games – 99,199 to 10 home games and 112,033 to 11 away games – an average crowd of 10,059 that we can only dream about in 2022. Three of the Royals’ five best home-and-away attendances came against Claremont (14,466, 14,739 and 15,576 in Rounds 2, 9 and 16). Adding the second semi-final (24,119) and Grand Final (46,055) crowds, 114,955 people watched the five Royals–Tigers meetings of 1972. Defying their modern-day reputation as low crowd pullers, Claremont had an average crowd of 10,004, with fellow finalists West Perth (9258) and Perth (8864) rounding out the “top four”.
In summary, the highlights of 1972 were:
- East Perth’s drought-breaking premiership, undoubtedly No.1;
- Mal Brown (captain), Garry Gillespie, John Hayes, Ken McAullay and Phil Tierney’s selection in the WA side for the Australian National Football Carnival in Perth.
- Brown and McAullay being selected in the All-Australian side, with Brown named captain, the first non-Victorian to do so;
- McAullay’s triple medal treat, winning the Tassie Medal for the best player at the interstate carnival and the Simpson Medal in both the WA–Victoria match and the WANFL Grand Final;
- A combative (literally!) display against Carlton in Adelaide’s Champions of Australia Series that featured the premier teams from South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and WA.
The downsides were Derek Chadwick being forced into retirement late in the season due to a severe kidney injury, denying him the chance of adding a richly deserved premiership to his CV. While his on-field feats didn’t reach the heights of Chadwick’s, goalkicking forward Grant Dorrington’s career ended prematurely due to concussion. And Archie Duda’s midseason knee injury, when he was still an outside chance of kicking a century of goals, cost him a grand final berth.
Of Brown achieving the ultimate success, former East Perth champion and later coach Mick Cronin wrote in The Sports Review: “No one ever doubted that East Perth would again be a force in the competition … but Brown’s biggest challenge was to overcome the final-round hoodoo. He had a decision to make. Was he to chase new players or persevere with the ones who, in some cases, had played in five of the six grand finals from 1966 to 1971 without success? … Part of Brown’s policy, and that of East Perth, has been to foster young players in their own district. This has been rewarding. John Burns is the only genuine import in the side at present.”