South Warrnambool, breeding ground of champions

South Warrnambool could lay claim to being one of the most successful country football clubs in the land, having produced top-line players consistently for almost a century. This weekend it will honour its 29 VFL/AFL graduates, from one gamers to premiership stars.JUSTINE McCULLAGH-BEASYspoke to some of the Roosters' biggest achievers ahead of the celebration.  


South Warrnambool exports (from left) Bob Nisbet (Hawthorn), Darren Bolden (Fitzroy), Kevin ‘Cowboy’ Neale (St Kilda), Jonathan Brown (Brisbane) and Alan Thompson (Fitzroy) are all expected to attend this weekend’s reunion.   150505AS23 Picture: AARON SAWALL

South Warrnambool exports (from left) Bob Nisbet (Hawthorn), Darren Bolden (Fitzroy), Kevin ‘Cowboy’ Neale (St Kilda), Jonathan Brown (Brisbane) and Alan Thompson (Fitzroy) are all expected to attend this weekend’s reunion. 150505AS23 Picture: AARON SAWALL

DARREN Bolden packed his bags, moved to Melbourne and walked into the Fitzroy change rooms to meet his new teammates, VFL heavyweights Paul Roos, Gary Pert and Bernie Quinlan among them.

The year was 1986 and Bolden, a wide-eyed 23-year-old, was invited to play for the Lions after a stunning Hampden interleague performance at Reid Oval.

“I got the best player and in them days the Fitzroy scouts were there, which I didn’t know, and they asked me if I would be interested in going and having a run,” the four-time South Warrnambool premiership player reflected.

“That’s how it used to happen in them days, no draft system or this or that. These days it’s a lot harder.”

Bolden’s VFL career was brief, but memorable. He arrived at Fitzroy mid-season and left at the end of the ’86 campaign with two senior games to his name.

He was asked to stay, to extend his career in maroon, blue and gold, but he was Warrnambool born and bred and missed the south-west.

“It is a little bit different for a country bloke, as you can imagine,” Bolden said.

“You are living in the city and training every day of the week. We only trained two days a week here.

“They asked me to come back but I was offered to be assistant coach at South.

“I was more happy as a country boy.”

Bolden went on to win four Hampden league premierships from nine attempts with South Warrnambool and captained the Roosters.

The defender-cum-forward retired after the 1996 grand final, opting to go out “on a high note”.

Bolden’s son Jeremy is now forging his own career at Friendly Societies’ Park as an emerging ruckman — a teenager just as comfortable on the football field as he is on the basketball court playing Big V for Warrnambool Seahawks.

Current GWS coach Leon Cameron played 256 games between the Western Bulldogs and Richmond. Picture: FAIRFAX.

Current GWS coach Leon Cameron played 256 games between the Western Bulldogs and Richmond. Picture: FAIRFAX.

One of Bolden’s former South Warrnambool teammates, Stephen ‘Shorty’ Anderson, made a cameo in the VFL too, notching four games for Collingwood in the 1990s. Anderson’s son Paddy is now a best 21 regular at the Roosters, a player with a striking resemblance to his father.

Bolden and Anderson are still heavily entrenched in South Warrnambool.

They form part of a special club — a club within a club, so to speak.

Twenty-nine players who started their careers at the Roosters have gone on to play VFL/AFL football — a testament to the club’s ability, across all eras, to develop and nurture talent.

South Warrnambool will honour those players this weekend, with up to 20 expected to return for its match against Koroit.

“You don’t realise until someone tells you,” Bolden said of the club’s rich history.

“You always tend to follow in recent years the likes of Brent Moloney and ‘Browny’ (Jonathan Brown) and Leon Cameron and them sort of blokes.

“Even before my time there was a lot of players like Kevin ‘Cowboy’ Neale and Ricky Barham. 

Wingman Ricky Barham played 151 games for Collingwood, including five grand final appearances. Picture: FAIRFAX

Wingman Ricky Barham played 151 games for Collingwood, including five grand final appearances. Picture: FAIRFAX

“When you look back on it, South have got a very good record numbers-wise.”

Players will wear a special commemorative guernsey bearing the names of the club’s esteemed alumni, from those whose time at the elite level was fleeting, like three-time Maskell Cup winner Ron Hoy, who played one game for Hawthorn, and Fitzroy’s Dennis Hughson, who recorded one kick for one goal in his sole appearance, to Brownlow medallist Colin Watson. 

Bolden and Anderson, like Hoy and Hughson, had short careers at the top. Other former Roosters are etched in football folklore (think Kevin ‘Cowboy’ Neale) and then there are current-day household names, like Brisbane Lions triple premiership forward Jonathan Brown and Greater Western Sydney coach Leon Cameron, who guided his fledgling club to an upset win over reigning premier Hawthorn on Saturday. 

Neale is still talked about some 49 years after kicking five goals in the Saints’ only premiership to date, its 1966 one-point thriller against Collingwood.

He is one of four South Warrnambool exports to grace the dais on VFL/AFL grand final day.

John Burns played in North Melbourne’s first flag in 1975 and Wayne Schwass, the Rooster to play the most games at the top level with 282 appearances for North Melbourne and Sydney, was part of the Kangaroos’ 1996 premiership side.

Then there is Brown. 

The Lion King arrived at Brisbane as it was entering its glory days and went on to play in its premiership three-peat in 2001, ’02 and ’03. 

South Warrnambool can lay claim to having a hand in developing a Brownlow medallist and nine VFL-AFL best and fairests, too.

Watson won the second Brownlow ever awarded in 1925 after a standout season for St Kilda. Only one vote per game was given in that era and Watson collected nine best on ground honours from 15 matches.

The Encyclopaedia of League Footballers described Watson, who had three stints at the Saints for 93 games, as “a quick thinker and hard worker on the field” and “a compact footballer with loads of dash and the ability to kick long”. 

“Watson was a strong-willed individual, and he stunned St Kilda when he accepted a job as coach of Stawell for 1926 when he was at the peak of his football life,” it reads.

“St Kilda refused to clear him and Watson stood out of the game for a year.”

Watson spent seven seasons out of the VFL environment but returned to St Kilda in 1933 for three more years.

Neale played under 19s at South Warrnambool in 1963. He was elevated to the seniors the following season and played in a flag.

He arrived at St Kilda in 1965. A year later he had a VFL premiership medallion around his neck.

“The coach at South Warrnambool, Brian McCarthy, he was an ex-St Kilda player and zoning wasn’t in then,” Neale said of his 1965 call up.

“He kept in their ear and pestered them until they came down and signed me up.”

Neale went on to play 256 games for the Saints — coincidentally the same number of VFL matches Cameron and Brown finished on — before retiring in 1977.

“I have been married 47 or 48 years now and we’ve had 22 moves, six of them interstate,” he said. 

“I have been all over the place coaching. I had 11 years at St Kilda working at the club and we’ve been back here (in Warrnambool) three years.”

Neale has fond memories of his time at the Saints.

He has his premiership guernsey at home — he wants to get it professionally framed — after his opponent, Collingwood defender Peter Boyne, sent it back to him years later.

The pair swapped jumpers after the match as was custom in those days. Neale wore Boyne’s black-and-white striped woollen jumper to training until it was beyond repair.

Neale slotted five goals in the grand final on Boyne but carved a distinguished career, which included a club best and fairest, on versatility. 

“I went down as a back pocket-ruckman in ’65 and then I played four years at full-forward and then I went out and played five years at full-back,” he said.

He’s still a passionate St Kilda man and is an unashamed fan of second-year coach Alan Richardson, whom he’s known for some 25 years.

Bob Nisbet, like Neale, spent decades away from the south-west after his VFL career ended before moving back to Warrnambool three years ago. 

James Rahilly clocked up 90 games for the Cats after debuting in 1998. Picture: FAIRFAX

James Rahilly clocked up 90 games for the Cats after debuting in 1998. Picture: FAIRFAX

Nisbet, now 79, spent three seasons at Hawthorn in the 1950s, playing his 16 senior games in his final year, 1959.

“I played centre half-forward. I was six inches taller in those days — as you get older, you shrink,” he joked.

The self-deprecating Nisbet, whose career started at West End (now Allansford) before he switched to South Warrnambool, is proud of his achievements, of his ability to work hard and wear the brown-and-gold jumper alongside club greats Graham Arthur and John Peck.

Nisbet settled in Melbourne after he left the Hawks. “Hawthorn looked after me pretty well and I had a good job so I didn’t want to move away from the city,” he said.

“About six of us went down to Mordialloc which was a fairly strong team in the (VFA) in those days.

“I finished up winning a best and fairest there and was vice-captain.

“I spent three years there and then I coached Mount Waverley in the South East suburban league and we won a premiership and finished in the four a couple of times.

“Rather than go to the country, that’s what I did.”

Brown, one of the AFL’s most recognisable faces and voices, will join Bolden, Neale, Nisbet and others to celebrate South Warrnambool’s VFL/AFL imprint this weekend.

The former Lions skipper remains passionate about his junior club and is eager to have more involvement now his playing days are over.

Brown commended the Roosters for compiling the list, for ensuring players of eras past are remembered, not only for what they achieved at the highest level, but for what they’ve contributed to their home club.

“I think history is an important part about it and I think it’s just good for all the supporters and probably for all the current-day players to see all the players who have gone on to play at the top level of footy and show that South Warrnambool is a good breeding ground for juniors to be successful,” Brown said.

“Hopefully young fellas can follow in the footsteps of a few of us and, if not, at least grow and develop into being good Hampden league players for South Warrnambool and get them back up to the top of the ladder.”

Brown is looking forward to sitting on the outer, cheering on the Roosters’ next generation on Saturday.

He knows toppling reigning premier Koroit will be no easy feat for the winless Roosters, but is backing the red and white to cause an upset.

“Hopefully the sense of occasion will get the lads up and get them all motivated,” he said.

“I am sure us boys will be roaring from the top of the hill, having a couple of beers and catching up with everyone.”

Roosters to go on and play VFL/AFL football

Colin Watson, St Kilda: years: 1920, 1922-25, 1933-35; games: 93; honours: Brownlow Medallist 1925; St Kilda captain-coach 1934; eight-time state representative; Australian Football Hall of Fame; St Kilda Hall of Fame; Jack O'Rourke, Richmond: years 1949-53, games, 44. Clinton Wines, Carlton: years: 1945-46; games: 39; Frank Primmer, South Melbourne: years: 1955-57; games: 25; Ron Hoy, Hawthorn: year: 1955; games: 1; Bob Nisbet, Hawthorn: years: 1958-59; games: 16; Brian McMahon, St Kilda: years: 1962-63; games: 10; Dennis Hughson, Fitzroy: year: 1965; games: 1; Kevin 'Cowboy' Neale, St Kilda: years: 1965-77; games: 256; goals: 303; honours: St Kilda premiership 1966; St Kilda best and fairest 1973; four-time St Kilda leading goal kicker; Terry Board, Carlton: years: 1965-68; games: 41; Phil Stevens, Geelong, St Kilda: years: 1968-79; games: 16; honours: Victorian representative. Alan Thompson, Fiztroy: years: 1970-79; games: 138; John Burns, North Melbourne, Geelong: years: 1973-76, '78, 1979-80; games: 111; honours: North Melbourne premiership 1975. Jim Board, Collingwood: year: 1976; games: 7; Wayne Duke, Fitzroy, years: 1977-79; games: 9; Ricky Barham, Collingwood: years: 1977-86; games: 151; Terry Domburg, Collingwood: years: 1980, 1982; games: 14; David Crutchfield, Fitzroy: years: 1985; games: 4; Darren Bolden, Fitzroy: years: 1986; games: 2;  Wayne Schwass,  North Melbourne, Sydney: years: 1988-2002; games: 282; honours: North Melbourne premiership 1996; North Melbourne best and fairest 1994-95; Sydney best and fairest 1999; All-Australian 1999; Leon Cameron, player, Western Bulldogs, Richmond; years: 1990-2003; games: 256; honours: Western Bulldogs best and fairest 1993; coach,Greater Western Sydney, years: 2014-, games: 27*; Richard Umbers, Brisbane: years: 1990; games: 4; Steven 'Shorty' Anderson, Collingwood: years: 1990-91; games: 4; James Rahilly, Geelong: years: 1998-2005, games: 90; honours: rising star nomination 1999; Geelong best clubman 2003; Jonathan Brown, Brisbane: years: 2000-14; games: 256; honours: Brisbane premiership 2001, '02, '03; Coleman Medal 2007; All-Australian 2007, '09; Brisbane best and fairest 2007, '08, '09; Brisbane 2007-13; Brisbane leading goal kicker 2007-10, 2012-13; AFL most courageous player 2007-0, '11; Matt Maguire, St Kilda, Brisbane: years: 2002-; games: 170*; Brent Moloney, Geelong, Melbourne, Brisbane: years: 2003-2014; games: 166; honours: rising star nominee 2004; Melbourne best and fairest 2011; Sam Dwyer, Collingwood: years: 2013-; games: 38*; Louis Herbert, Gold Coast: years: 2014-; games: 3*,

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