History of the West Football Club

Wests Football Club began as Melanka Football Club in 1970, which was incidentally the first year that the “Space Base” became operational. The idea for this came from Tom Flood, who was the manager of Melanka Hostel and Todd House, which consisted of ten slightly modified World War 11 army barracks on the corners of Stott Terrace and Todd Street. These were then the main places of accommodation for single Government workers, teachers and many other single young people in Alice Springs. (Most social activity,drinking and dancing occurred at the three hotels in Alice Springs, namely the Stuart Arms, Hotel Alice Springs and the Riverside).

Tom became the first president and by sheer chance Dick Kimber became the first captain-coach of Melanka. He remembers with regard the fifty-two players used in the A Grade (there was no B Grade and no Juniors), including Paul “Fizzer” Fitzsimons, the only other original player in town. Fourteen year-old Kevin Clarke was the first of many Aboriginal-European descent players for the club, and Mignon Williams was the main supporter of a great many in that first year who still lives here. And well-known civil engineer and pilot “Jimmy-the-Stirrer” Thomas, Tony Bohning and Warlpiri elder Harry Nelson Jagamara are three other early Melanka players who also still live in the Centre.

Even though the leading goal kicker only managed five goals for the year, and the team was flogged by all other sides throughout the season, there were celebrations when centre half-back Ian Fisher won the town’s Best and Fairest player award. Darryl Klingbiel, a ruckman who would have made Bruce Willis in the “Die Hard” films look like a sook, was the first Flood Medal winner. And someone worked out that, had we forfeited every game, we would have had a better percentage!

Other sports played at the time soon became incorporated under the Melanka banner, and included tennis, netball and table tennis. However there were also many other young people who stayed at Melanka who played for the earlier-existing town clubs in Aussie Rules, rugby, baseball and softball, motor-bike sports and so-on.

The second year saw the celebration of the centenary of the European discovery of Alice Springs and the establishment of the Telegraph station. Ian Primrose was coach and Ian Fisher was captain. Melanka had its first ever victory, over Pioneers, with Geoff “Gravel” Havelberg in his first game totally dominating out of the centre, Ian impassable at centre half-back, Dick managing 10 goals, and every other player winning his position. Ian Fisher replaced Ian Primrose as coach but unfortunately “Gravel” was injured shortly afterwards, so that was the only game we won. (It was also the only game that Pioneers lost). At a time when the Flood Medal was awarded to players only, who were not only great club-men but also fearlessly dominated their position, Ian Fisher deservedly won the second medal and totally impassable Peter Dewhurst, the strongest marking, longest kicking fullback of the era, the third.

One of the aspects of difficulty for Melanka and Wests was then, and remains now, the ever-changing nature of the playing group, with probably one third of all players in any one year leaving town. This is a result of the short-term nature of many young players’ work, together with many others travelling interstate to attend universities or for other work potential. However, with its base at the Gillen Club it has increasingly become known as a good family club, and has always had a responsible attitude about junior players. This has resulted in much-appreciated sponsors backing Westies in its inaugural year and ever since.

In 1972, the year that television came to the Alice, Tony McElligott was, as it transpired, to be the last coach of Melanka, and in 1973 became the first of the new name, Wests. It was Tony who got the B grade team going, by which time Tom Flood had been named the club’s first Harrison Trophy winner, and despite his short time as enthusiastic foundation President was honoured by being made the first Life Member, but had retired to the greater Melbourne area.

The name-change to Wests was driven by the longer-term Wests Rugby Club (formed in 1963), the availability of land on the west side of town, and the desire to appeal to a wider range of young people. It was also decided that we should follow Federal’s example and establish a club (originally known as Wests Sporting Club but now the Gillen Club). The constitution and funds remained intact, and numbers of games played for Melanka contributed to a players’ total games played, but the money that had been going to the three pubs now substantially became diverted for the affiliated clubs’ benefit.

The name-change was accompanied by a jumper change from broad green, white and black vertical stripes to the red-and-black colours of today, but in an older style. Danny Holden had become President, with his family long-term supporters, and his paint shed on Undoolya Road became a favourite gathering place until the new club was built. And so it was that Wests Rugby, Football, Cricket, Netball and Basketball clubs all developed as foundation Wests clubs.

The only former players still in town associated with Wests Aussie Rules team from that first game as Wests are believed to be Neil Gurney and Dick Kimber, with Chris “Bootlace” Baguley and Les Smith also early players. Neil has not stopped running training every day since, played in all of the early premierships, is the only player known to have played in Australia to have played a game shortly after running a marathon, is the club’s record holder for the number of A Grade games played (about 200), and together with his B Grade games is known to have played well over 300 senior games. (George Sabadin of Rovers, Lance White senior of Pioneers and Joey Hayes of Souths are the only other players known to have managed over 300 senior games). Neil is also a Flood Medal winner, Life Member of the Wests club, and a Life Member of the A.F.L. Central Australia League.

Dick played his last A Grade game aged 34, a few years later was made the first player/ committee-man/team runner Life Member. Although his senior football career had commenced in 1958, at the time of his honour Dick had, as a consequence of injury, only played 50 + games for Wests, but was to continue in the B grade over the decades to play about 150 games. Like Neil he is also a Life Member of the AFL Central Australian League and a Flood Medal winner. Although he has also played in every Masters Game of football until he was 73, he played his last B Grade game for Wests aged 66, and recalls one young Federal’s player commenting with a grin to a mate, “I didn’t know we were going to play against Father Christmas today.”

The first player to become a life-member for having played 100 A grade games was John Dermody, shortly afterwards followed by Neil. This was at a time when the number of games played in a year was so low, and turn-over of players in the team was so great, that it was almost inconceivable that anyone would ever play 100 games. John had also been a good committee-man and club-man too, but when it became easier, as a consequence of extended seasons and finals’ appearances, to play 100 A grade games, the rules for life-membership were changed. In addition to playing 100 games, commitment to the club in various ways became necessary.

To return to the progress of the football club as a competitive team, we struggled but commenced being truly competitive under hard, super-fit playing coach George Cooke. George, who had played for Torrens in the SANFL, was someone you would have wanted on your side when the whips were cracking or the bullets flying, dominated out of the centre in every game and also managed several goals in most games. Sil Piro was of a similar kind, and also a very fit, highly skilled captain in the early years.

As has earlier been indicated, the present site of the Gillen Club became Wests in the mid- 1970’s. In 1978, with Rod Rose as President, the committee decided that, to be truly successful, a top playing coach, who could attract other good players, was required. As this was going to need considerable money, Rod commenced a very successful bingo night at Wests club, with all players rostered to assist. “Bustling” Bill Bennett, a member of Carlton’s victorious 1970 grand final, then a champion for South Adelaide and a Darwin player, was duly appointed. He is remembered most for his ferocious training for fitness, and his demand for skills. All people associated with Wests at that time recall such as his first night’s training ending with 10 laps of the oval, and then later training nights requiring 5 repeats of runs up and down Tank Hill; the training camp out at Glen Helen when players had to carry sizeable rocks above their heads for 2km; another run from the Westies Club to Heavitree Gap, followed by sprints in the sand, a run up the Todd to Anzac Hill, 3 runs up and down the hill, and a long run through the railway yards back to the Nadich home; and as a final illustration at the start of the 1980 season, a series of exercises at Westies oval followed by a run out through Heavitree Gap, along the dump road, then up the hill to the towers. After a recovery of about 5 minutes, the exercises commenced again, we had to run down the hill and then, at Heavitree Gap, commenced sprinting to the front of the line of players, back to the Westies oval.

Wests burst out of the blocks that year, and with Bill rucking non- stop, and no one taking a backward step, won their first game against a shell-shocked Federals by 13 goals, their first-ever game after 8 seasons against a very good Rovers team, and all games until the grand final. Players like Leo “Choco” Nadich and Rob Floreani flourished; Adam and Giana Nadich (Choco’s parents) became life-long Wests supporters; and Adam’s brother-in-law Enzo Floreani went on to coach Wests B grade to their first-ever premiership. Unfortunately two key players were reported in the preliminary A grade final so that Rovers, under astute coach Phil O’Brien, a former Hawthorn player, were successful in a very close grand final. It was a big disappointment, but the next year Bill took Wests to their first ever A Grade Premiership over Pioneers. This was an absolute thriller of a game, with both sides no more than a goal or two in front at any stage, John Green (a decathlete and former S.A. F.L. player) at centre half-forward best-on-ground, and Robbie Goodwin (a former South Adelaide player) dominating his wing. With about one minute to go, Robbie kicked to Bill, who marked on the siren then kicked truly for the victory. The celebrations continued until Tuesday night of the next week!

In 1980 Rod Skuse, a former Woodville player with his brother-in-law, the incomparable Malcolm Blight, became coach after Bill’s early training run and then his departure from the Alice. Realising that Bill had got the players to a peak of physical fitness, Rod lightened the training, yet with a group of absolute goers, dominated the competition. (Half the team had played S.A.F.L., W.A.F.LL. or V.F.L., and were tough, experienced and skillful). Knowing that the only way that Wests could be defeated in the grand final was if they got distracted by Pioneer’s rough, tough play Rod told everyone to focus on the game while he did any “evening up” that was needed. At the first boundary throw-in, Peter Wooles was back- handed and concussed, but returned and, despite copping a sly elbow to the jaw, starred. Rod’s tactic came into play and worked well (and with no send-off rule allowed Rod to keep playing). Late in the game, when a big blue erupted, all Wests players joined in and won the fights too. They thus comfortably won the grand final, having gone through the season undefeated.

Although there have been absolute champions in all clubs, Dick considers this to have been the best team ever to have played in the Centre’s history. It was full of champions like Steve Frigo, arguably the toughest player ever in ruck; Trevor Skuse (Rod’s brother), a wild man at half-forward; “Swanny” Clarke, the best half-back flanker ever in the Centre who, along with “Squizzy” Taylor (who put a straight-jacket on everyone he ever played upon), absolutely thrashed their opponents; John Dermody who was never once beaten on his wing in a decade; the ever reliable Neil Gurney in the back pocket; highly skilled Patrick Perkins (who had his forehead split open but courageously played on after being bandaged up); and Stuie Williamson, the only player in the Centre’s history to win the Mail Medal, Minahan Medal and the goal kicking in a season.

Three more successful years followed, with Athol Mitchell as extremely fit playing coach, the Delsar brothers dominating, and two more premierships. Thereafter, although the club had many fine players and loyal supporters, we had 20 lean years. Among the champion players of the era Phil “The Flying Piglet” Muldoon represented Alice Springs in more town sides than almost any other player. Leo Nadich was one of many great club players who received Life Membership and his mother, Giana, who never missed a game as Westies time-keeper for 20 years, was also awarded what many consider the most well-deserved Life Membership of all. They are the only mother-and-son life members in Wests’ history.

When Noel Teasdale became coach, the club boomed with customers and the players responded to his positive attitude. Noel had won a Brownlow Medal, and is both a Legend of North Melbourne, and a formally acclaimed A.F.L. Legend. He was also appointed the first ever playing coach of Woodville when that club was in the S.A.F.L., and saw the immense potential of Malcolm Blight, who went on to become another Legend of football in Victoria. Noel’s training demanded much sprint running for fitness, and total discipline for the good of the team. He resurrected Wests and, again another thriller (with “Spud” Giles the secret weapon) resulted in a grand final victory over Pioneers. The next decade, with Rob Wenske as President and his wife Sue as secretary and treasurer, was Wests most successful era. Not only were there four A Grade premierships, but the B Grade, with former hard man A grade player David “Mongo” Llewelyn as coach, won the B Grade, and the Juniors - with Ian Hodge as coach and Kevin Bruce as a champion centre half-forward - won 5 premierships.

There were many top players in the decade of Wests dominance, like “Hotdog”, the fittest player ever at Wests (and together with Pioneers’ 1970 Mail Medal winner Steve Satour and Wests champion athlete Michael Green, arguably in the Centre’s history) who won two club best-and-fairests, and Robin Kidney, a truly brilliant former two-time Glenelg and SAFL premiership rover. And of the many great club players, Lachy Boales efforts at full-forward are deserving of mention, as are Adam Taylor’s. Adam (“Squizzy’s” son), who commenced his fearless and dominant A grade playing when only 14, was dominant throughout his career. He particularly frustrated the Pioneers’ players and supporters by his non-stop running, toughness (in one game he played on after having his jaw broken), ability to give as good as he got verbally, and his skills. In this decade, too, Rob and Sure Wenske won the Flood Medal for over-all service to Wests (Rob won it twice), and also were made Life members; both of these sets of husband-and-wife awards are unique.

In the last 2 A Grade premierships Mark Bramley was the best centre half-back that the Centre has ever seen and, as a senior Pioneers member said this year, “he used to kill us!”

By this time the old Wests Sporting Club was on its knees as a battered building. Fortunately club legend Grant Reuther knew that Craig and Viv Oldfied, two locals who had made good by hard work and astute determining of the odds in several business ventures, were interested in the possibility of investment in a club. As a consequence of their generosity, investment and attraction of both excellent staff and an able board of management, Wests instantly became the Gillen Club, and is the best and most successful family club in town.

The last of the A grade premierships, under coach Ian Hodges, was again over Pioneers in 2007, and was won largely through the discipline, toughness and skills of Wests. Illustrating the longer term problems that Wests has had over the decades is that only Michael Gurney, Steve Kimber and Jared “Chungy” Arnold remain as players from those successful junior years.

The last premiership success of Wests was with Steve Kimber as the B Grade playing coach, emphasizing the need for discipline. With Ian McAdam patrolling the back line, Nathan McGregor the dominant forward, Dominic MacDonald playing his heart out, Tony kicking the goal of the game (or century!) and every other player lifting, Wests won in a tight game over the favored Santa Teresa team. Michael Gurney, who had been overseas for 3 months prior to the final but had maintained his training, was easily best on ground, and deservedly won the medal for his tireless play. Michael, who is the son of Neil and Barbara, is by far Wests most successful player. He has captained the club, played in all junior premierships, all A Grade premierships since 1990, the B Grade premiership, won a Minahan Medal, won 3 Wests Best - and - Fairest awards (the most by any player), played over 200 A Grade games, and in 2013 was awarded Life Membership. Neil and Michael are thus far the only father and son to have been honored with Life Membership of Wests.

Steve Kimber, who had already worked tirelessly as Vice President and in several other positions, became President upon Rob Wenske’s retirement 4 years ago. The club had lost many of its best players of the previous decade, as well as most supporters for a variety of reasons, so that Wests has survived, rather than thrived, in the last few years. Steve Rosier kept the club going by coaching for 2 years, and now with Steve Kimber again President, Mark Bramley as coach, and an able committee (including “Piggy” Muldoon and Mike Smith as senior figures).

At the end of 2014 there was a changing of the guard somewhat with the return of former premiership player and reserves coach Mat Creeper. Mat had spent the past eight seasons in Townsville with the Hermit Park Tigers where he was a premiership player, vice president, senior assistant and head coach. Mat has taken on the role of president, a role that he has met head on identifying the need for the club again to become a force along with implementing the changes required for the club to be successful. With a wealth of knowledge having been involved with the game for many years the club is sure to benefit from his experience.