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INTRODUCTION

Athol Webb played in three VFL Grand Finals with Melbourne, at the height of the club’s Golden Era; and was a prominent and popular sporting figure of the 1950’s. It wasn’t just Athol’s break-neck speed and his ability to convert opportunities; but his willingness to sacrifice his own game, for the sake of the team, that made him such an important player with the Demons.

In Norm Smith’s blueprint for success, Athol was defined as ‘the decoy’ but there was a lot more to this intelligent footballer’s bag of tricks than just drawing defenders out of the contest. He was a ‘complete’ footballer and a humble personality who gave much to the game he loved.

A little known fact is that Athol had the rare distinction of representing three states in football. This is Athol’s story…


RINGAROOMA-TASMANIA

Ringarooma is a small town located in N-E Tasmania and is about 90 kilometres from Launceston. According to the 2006 census, approximately 250 residents live in the township. Ringarooma has a fascinating history; and its beginnings can be traced back to the 1880’s when that area of Tasmanian wilderness was opened up to farming by a gentleman named Christopher Krusha. Ringarooma was an originally known as Krusha Town. It is documented in the ‘Postal History of Tasmania’ website that the Ringarooma Post Office opened in 1874.

Ringarooma Map
Ringarooma Map


The Ringarooma State School was established in 1881 and was known as an Area School. In 1974 Ringarooma S.S. became a primary-only school and post-primary students travelled to Scottsdale for their secondary education.

Ringarooma Undated State Library Tasmania
Ringarooma Undated State Library Tasmania


Note: ‘Ringarooma’ is said to have been the name of a property Rheban (near Orford-Tasmania) and also a well-known cruiser ‘HMS Ringarooma’ which was built in 1889.

HMS Ringarooma SLV H91.325 1380
HMS Ringarooma SLV H91.325 1380


Football plays a vital role in the life of many Tasmanian rural communities and, from the earliest days of settlement, the people of Ringarooma embraced Australian rules with great enthusiasm.

Although there is evidence of football matches being played earlier, the following extract tends to suggest that the Ringarooma FC was first organized, on a formal basis with elected office bearers being installed, in March 1924.

“A public meeting was held at the Ringarooma Hotel on Monday night for the purpose of forming a football club. There was a large number present, Mr. Claude Armstrong being in the chair. It was unanimously resolved to form a club, 53 members at once joining, and paying their subscriptions. Mr R. Solomon was elected secretary, and Mr. Roy Diprose treasurer. The appointment of captain was held over till next meeting when details as to the season's operations will be finally dealt with….” ‘North-Eastern Advertiser’ March 28th 1924.



‘TAS’ & DORIS WEBB AND FAMILY


Athol Webb was born at his home in Ringarooma to *Hedley Thomas (aka Tas) and *Doris Webb in 1935. ‘Tas’ and Doris had five children: Eileen, Leonard, Gregory, Margaret and Athol and all were educated at the Ringarooma State School. ‘Tas’ was a ‘Jack-of-all-trades’ who could lend his hand to virtually any job around home, town and beyond.

Athol was a ‘child of the Great Depression’ and life was challenging for all families as steady employment was limited particularly in that region of Tasmania. However, Ringarooma was a safe and caring community for young children and, despite the austere times, there were many lighter moments, plenty of outdoor fun and local sporting teams.

The name ‘Webb’ occurs quite regularly in newspaper searches in the ‘Launceston Examiner,’ ‘North Eastern Advertiser’ and ‘Daily Telegraph’ (Launceston) on a range of community and sporting matters. For example...It was reported that in a North Eastern Union match between Pioneers and Ringarooma that B.Webb and T.Webb each kicked two goals; T.( probably Tas ) Webb was named among the best players which also included the name F. Krusha* ( see above).

Note: Both Tas and Doris lived the greater portion of their lives in the district and are both buried at the Ringarooma Cemetery.


ATHOL THE ATHLETE

Athol was gifted with the ability to run fast; and it was something that would make him ‘stand out from the crowd’ throughout his sporting life. Athol loved country life, open air and took to a wide range of sports with apparent ease.

He enjoyed football, tennis and athletics and his name appeared regularly as a winner in school athletics events. Athol was also a cricketer of some note and, in the 1954 season, he and his brother (Len) starred in the match against Derby in 1954. Athol hit a brilliant century in that innings…

“Athol Webb, of Ringarooma, scored the first century, in North Eastern Cricket during the opening match of the season against Derby at Derby on Sunday, contributing 126 to the team's total of 447 . Webb was caught by W. Jaffray to conclude his innings, which was the top score of the day. His brother, Len, scored 65 runs…” ‘North-Eastern Advertiser’ October 26th 1954.


RINGAROOMA FOOTBALL CLUB


Because of his father’s involvement, as a player, with Ringarooma, Athol started his football as a teenager at RFC and quickly gained a reputation as an accomplished footballer. His brother, Len, was a talented forward also with the Ringarooma FC; and some said that he had the ability to play VFL football but, as often happens, chances didn’t fall Len’s way.

It is told that, at sometime around 1950, Len kicked 18 goals at full forward in a match against Winnaleah.The full back that day for Winnaleah was Charlie Whitmore; and it is probably a day that Charlie would prefer to forget about.

In those days, Ringarooma was affiliated with the North-Eastern Football Association (later known as NEFU). Other teams in that local competition included Branxholm, Lilydale, Derby, Bridport, Winnaleah and Scottsdale. Ringarooma wore red and black guernseys similar to that of Essendon FC.


A SAD TALE OF COUNTRY FOOTBALL

Ringarooma FC was a most competitive and successful club and won pennants in 1955-68-69-75 -80-81-83-84-91 and 2008. However, the challenges of maintaining a small football club were /are onerous and, despite playing in the 2011 Grand Final, Ringarooma FC went into recess at the end of the 2012 season.

Ringarooma’s withdrawal from local football is a situation that is being mirrored around the nation. The rate of attrition of country football clubs is of mounting concern throughout Australian leagues. At this time, there are only five teams affiliated with the N-EFU:- Branxholm, Bridport, Scottsdale, East Coast Swans ( aka St Helens) and Winnaleah.

Ringarooma FC has produced its fair share of adept players and, although it believed that *Peter Marquis’ parents managed the Ringarooma Post Office at one time, Athol Webb is the only player to have graduated from Ringarooma FC to VFL- AFL football.

Note: Peter Marquis was the full back for Melbourne and played with Athol during the club’s Golden Era of the 1950’s.


A BRIGHT STAR ON THE HORIZON

Athol was an outstanding schoolboy footballer as evidenced by his selection to represent Tasmania, in the 1949 all-Australian Carnival in Adelaide.

While playing in the trials, Athol kicked four goals in an eye-catching performance for the NNE region against NNW. In the subsequent report, regarding the selection of the squad, Athol was singled out for his efforts at the York Park (Launceston) trials…

“Athol Webb (Ringarooma), with four goals to-day, finished with 13
goals for the series. He kicked five against Southern Districts and four against both South and North-West-West. He is one of the most promising young forwards seen in the North in years. It was his third attempt to gain inclusion in a State side. ‘Advocate (Burnie)’ 2nd July 1949.


News Adelaide 24 Aug 1949 P13 Australian Schoolboys Webb Tasmanian Captain
News Adelaide 24 Aug 1949 P13 Australian Schoolboys Webb Tasmanian Captain


Athol’s selection did not go unnoticed; and the people of Ringarooma were extremely proud of Athol’s selection for such a prestigious football carnival. The whole- hearted support of the local town is conveyed very simply but so clearly in the following press extract. It is an uplifting report and underlines how Australian rural communities ‘care and share’ to give youngsters a chance in life…

“ Presentations To Schoolboy Players… PRESENTATIONS were made at Ringarooma this week to three North-Eastern school boys who are to play with the Tasmanian carnival team in Adelaide. The presentations – Gladstone bags and new suits - were purchased from a fund totalling £160. The boys were Athol Webb and H. Viney, of Ringarooma, and David Barrett, of Branxholm…” ‘The Examiner’ August 5th 1949.


Although the Tasmanian boys tried valiantly, against the more accomplished State teams in that championship, the team failed to win a game. However, Athol was named the ‘Player of the Series’ and it is believed that he was awarded a medal in recognition of his endeavours against the best young footballers on the mainland. Talent scouts from all around Australia probably jotted down the name ‘Webb’ in their notebooks for future reference.


ATHOL STARS FOR SCOTTSDALE

After leaving school, Athol worked for some time at the Ringarooma General Store which was owned and managed by Laurie Haywood. It was about this time that Athol was cleared from Ringarooma FC to play with Scottsdale. Scottsdale (founded in 1889) was a successful club in that era and it is documented that between 1939 and 1950 Scottsdale FC won three premierships (1939-46 and 47).

Athol made an immediate impression with his pace and ball control and, with his name earmarked in earlier years by football officials, was under scrutiny as a teenager to be closely monitored and coaxed to higher levels of the game.

An article in the ‘Launceston Examiner’ by a scribe known as ‘Half Back’, described Athol as one of Tasmania’s brightest young football prospects and reported on Athol’s chance to train with Melbourne FC…

“SCOTTSDALE WINGER FOR MELBOURNE…SCOTTSDALE winger, Athol Webb has accepted an invitation from Melbourne Football Club to take part in pre-season practice matches on Easter Saturday and the following Saturday, April 11 .He will go to Melbourne on Good Friday, but plans to return to his home at Ringarooma on April 12."I have no intention of remaining in Melbourne this season, but I would like to say I have had a run on the famous MCG oval," he told me in Launceston on Saturday. Webb is one of the State's youngest and most promising wingers. – He is only 17, stands 5ft.101/2 and weighs 12st.He played his first full season with Scottsdale last year, but made his senior N.T.F.A. debut in 1951.”


Examiner Launceston 13 Aug 1952 P15 Athol Webb (left) Ken Milbourne (right)
Examiner Launceston 13 Aug 1952 P15 Athol Webb (left) Ken Milbourne (right)


Athol returned home to Tasmania and lived up to his early promise. It is known that Athol won Scottsdale’s Best & Fairest award in 1953 and, no doubt, VFL scouts were anxious to secure his signature and lure him to the mainland.

In August 1953, another newspaper story underscored the Athol’s immense potential and his selection, for the inter-league match at Devonport, at the age of eighteen, was a major news story in ‘The Mercury’…

“Athol Webb (Scottsdale) and John Stubley *(Cornwall) have been included in the 21 players from which the N.T.F.A. team, to play the North-Western Union at Devonport on Saturday, will be selected. Webb, eighteen -year old wingman, replaces City star forward, Geoff Long…” August 6th 1953.

Note: Cornwall FC became known as East Launceston FC


CLEARANCE WRANGLES AND FRUSTRATION


Melbourne FC officials finally Athol persuaded to leave the ‘Apple Isle’ and join the Demons at the start of the 1955 season. Athol’s decision to leave Tasmania sparked a bitter dispute between the officials of Melbourne and the TFL which hit the headlines…

“ The Tasmanian Football League yesterday refused clearances to Max Griffiths and Don Gale who wanted to play for South Melbourne and Athol Webb seeking a transfer to Melbourne….Webb was a member of last year’s Tasmanian team and, although his practice form in Melbourne has not been brilliant, his football future looked promising” ‘The Age’ March 30th 1955.


The matter of Athol’s clearance became a protracted affair and, according to ‘The Argus’ (7th April), the war of words spilled over into the public arena.

Such clearance wrangles were not uncommon in that era of football. Unfortunately, the young players were the ‘ham in the sandwich’ and, all too often, officials became blinded by self-interest(s) rather than the well-being of the young player.

Athol was ‘held out to dry’ for some time simply for the ‘crime’ of wanting to play football at the highest level in the nation.

Athol Webb (No.2) attempting to mark (left), With arm out (right) Mercury Hobart 15 Jun 1954 P12 NTFA TFL
Athol Webb (No.2) attempting to mark (left), With arm out (right) Mercury Hobart 15 Jun 1954 P12 NTFA TFL


Athol Webb receiving a massage - Examiner Launceston 5 Jul 1954 P18 Intrastate
Athol Webb receiving a massage - Examiner Launceston 5 Jul 1954 P18 Intrastate


Athol Webb (Far Left) Mercury Hobart 9 Jul 1954 P17 Leaving For Hobart
Athol Webb (Far Left) Mercury Hobart 9 Jul 1954 P17 Leaving For Hobart


Athol Webb marking - Mercury Hobart 12 Jul 1954 P19 Carnival V Amateurs
Athol Webb marking - Mercury Hobart 12 Jul 1954 P19 Carnival V Amateurs


Webb on haunches - Examiner Launceston13 Jul 1954 P16Athol Webb
Webb on haunches - Examiner Launceston13 Jul 1954 P16Athol Webb



THE VFL INTERVENES

The dispute worsened to such an extent that VFL Assistant Secretary, Eric McCutcheon (later Administrative Director), waded into the affair and, thankfully for young Athol, common sense prevailed and the ‘stand-off’ was resolved. Athol finally received a permit to play for Melbourne on June 27th 1955.

Often such ‘dog fights’ regarding permits and clearances, in that era of VFL football, created lasting bitterness between respective football clubs; Percy Taylor reported on the issue of Athol seeking a permit (from the TFL ) to play in Victoria…

“After five years Melbourne will gain a highly rated Tasmanian, Athol Webb, tomorrow, when he receives a V.F.L. permit. Webb, now 20, came as a full forward, but, as he is only 5ft.101/2 in., looks more like a wing half-forward, although he could play in the centre or on the wing. He was first approached in 1950, when he came from Tasmania as Melbourne's guest. He played in a practice game in 1953, and showed good form when opposed to Ken Melville. He was signed up, but stayed in Tasmania in 1953 and 1954 because he wanted to represent his State, which he did last year. His club, Scottsdale, cleared him in March with the understanding that he would return to that club if he wished to leave Melbourne. But the Tasmanian League has only now granted his permit.” ‘The Argus’ June 28th 1955.

However, the upheaval must have been an unsettling experience for young Athol; and such publicity would have proven a hindrance in his relocation to Melbourne and preparation to play VFL senior football.

Kevin Clark (left) and Athol Webb  (right) Argus 2 Mar 1955 P32
Kevin Clark (left) and Athol Webb (right) Argus 2 Mar 1955 P32


Clive Laidlaw (left), Athol Webb (centre), Noel Williamson (right) Argus 25 May 1955 P30 Demons On Toes
Clive Laidlaw (left), Athol Webb (centre), Noel Williamson (right) Argus 25 May 1955 P30 Demons On Toes



ATHOL MAKES HIS VFL DEBUT AT THE MCG

After a long and patient wait, Athol finally took his place in the Melbourne line-up against St Kilda in Round:12 in 1955 at the MCG. Norm Smith’s youth policy at that time was highlighted by the fact that the team, that day, had seven players under the age of 21 years. The average age of the team was 22 years and 267 days. (Athol was 19 years old on debut).

As can be gleaned from the names recorded in results below, Melbourne was a star- studded outfit with some of the greatest names in the club’s history playing in that game. Melbourne trounced St Kilda by 97 points and Athol did quite well in his debut match and kicked two goals.


Stuart Spencer - 1954 Coles Series
Stuart Spencer - 1954 Coles Series
Noel McMahen - 1954 Coles Series
Noel McMahen - 1954 Coles Series
Denis Cordner - 1954 Coles Series
Denis Cordner - 1954 Coles Series
Don Williams - 1955 Coles Series
Don Williams - 1955 Coles Series
John Beckwith - 1955 Coles Series
John Beckwith - 1955 Coles Series
Peter Marquis - 1955 Coles Series
Peter Marquis - 1955 Coles Series


The scores indicated that the MFC defenders were probably the ‘real’ stars of the game as the Saints were restricted to just three goals. The final scores were:

Melbourne: 17.16 (118) defeated St Kilda 3.3 (21)
Goals for Melbourne : Stuart Spencer 3 Tony Bull 2 Noel Clarke 2 Bob Johnson 2 Laurie Mithen 2 Ian Ridley 2 Athol Webb 2 Ron Barassi 1 and Noel McMahen 1.
Best for Melbourne: Johnson McLean and Spencer.

While the match review was centred upon St Kilda’s poor performance, Athol Webb received a modicum of praise for his strong showing in the forward line in the second half of the game…

“The Demons played impressively in the second half after a mediocre start after Athol Webb was moved to the spearhead.” ‘The Age’ July 11th 1955


In such a one-sided affair, a major talking point after the match was that another Tasmanian Noel Clarke (ex-North Launceston) took his place in the line-up when *Keith Carroll ( ex-Romsey), suffering from a suspected appendicitis, was forced to withdraw prior to the game.

Note: Keith was given the ‘all clear’ by doctors and was back on the training track training soon after the medical scare.


THE DECOY FORWARD

One of the tactics that Norm Smith employed in his ‘march to the top’ in that era was the use of a decoy full- forward. While the germ of the idea grew from the fertile mind of Norm Smith’s former coach and mentor ‘Checker Hughes’, some years earlier, Norm developed the ploy to perfection.

The role of a decoy is not complicated but can be lethal for opposing defenders if the forward structure is balanced and all forwards are well disciplined.

The aim of the decoy is to lead a defender away from the contest and create space around the goal square; and therefore increase the team’s chances scoring opportunities…

“Goals are hard to get when the forward line is congested, so I strove to keep the play open. We found that by playing a good team man who was prepared to sacrifice his own efforts for the good of the team, we could improvise at full forward rather than look to one man to kick goals.” Norm Smith 1969.



ATHOL WEBB- A GOOD MAN FOR THE JOB

‘Open space in the backline’ is the greatest fear of any defender in football and Norm Smith exploited such dread to devastating effect against opposition teams.

Norm had little hesitation in picking Athol Webb for the role of decoy because of Athol’s aerobic capacity and electrifying speed on a lead. Norm ordered the centre half forward (usually Clyde Laidlaw) to play ‘high’ (or close to the centre) while he stationed giant ruckman Bob Johnson (198cm) in or near the goal square. Norm also instructed Athol Webb to lead the opposing full back away from Bob and ‘out of the contest.’

The midfielders and on-ballers were well drilled to get the ball to Bob Johnson ‘long and fast’ and; with Bob’s massive frame and strong overhead marking, the Demons had devised an avenue to goal which was hard to counter. In that season alone (1955), Bob booted 27 goals from the forward pocket.


GREASED LIGHTNING

Athol’s ability to run hard, ‘turn on a sixpence’ and find space left defenders gasping for air, ragged and ‘fed-up’ at being taken ‘out of the play.’ However, opposing back men had no choice, but to follow, as to let Athol ‘off the leash’ created a dangerous loose man in the forward line.

Athol’s speed and agility meant that he could also often mop up any ‘crumbs’ from contests and convert if close to goal.

In modern football, to take oneself away from the contest is called ‘sacrificial running’ and Athol played the role to perfection. According to the available texts, the plan worked well (in most cases).

Athol was dubbed by one scribe as a ‘harrier’; and was also described by ‘Holmesby and Main’ as a ‘menacing’ footballer…

“…Whose speed and elusive style made him ( Athol) a constant menace to opposition sides. Small for a key position, he was used by Norm Smith as a decoy full forward with a taller man, usually Bob Johnson, providing the marking power in the forward pocket.” Page: 898.


ATHOL MAKES INROADS

Since the appointment of Norm Smith as coach, Melbourne had recruited intelligently and rebuilt its playing list rapidly; and, with a VFL pennant in sight, the young players were driven in manner rarely witnessed before in VFL Football.

Athol held his place in that powerful Melbourne team which was no mean feat. The Demons had an ‘embarrassment of riches’ on the training track; and the pressure on young players to perform well, under Norm Smith’s strict regime, was ‘character building.’

Athol played the next seven games and performed creditably. He kicked two bags of four goals (North Melbourne-Round: 15 and South Melbourne-Round: 18) to bring his tally to 14 goals which was a satisfying tally for any first year player.

Although Athol had shaped well in his first season and had gained valuable experience at VFL level, he received a set-back which he had not fully anticipated.


A HARD LANDING

Athol played in the Second Semi-Final against Collingwood and, although the Demons won by 11 points, in hard-hitting and slogging affair in the mud of the MCG, Norm Smith had a genuine concern regarding the forward structure of the team for the up-coming Grand Final.

With the premiership at stake, there was no room for sentiment and the Demon selectors ‘swung the axe’. Athol Webb was replaced at full forward in the Grand Final team by a more experienced and proven goal kicker Noel Clarke

“MELBOURNE and Collingwood last night each, made one change in their teams for the Grand Final tomorrow. Melbourne sprang the biggest surprise of the final series by bringing back Noel Clarke as full forward. They omitted speedster Athol Webb, who has filled the position in the last eight matches… Clarke, who has played only nine games for Melbourne this season, has not appeared in the last seven matches. In five years with the club he has kicked 153goals. This season he has scored 21-with a best tally for one game of seven.” The Argus September 16th 1955.


Despite missing seven games in the lead up to the Grand Final, Noel Clarke performed creditably, and kicked three of Melbourne’s eight goals and played a significant role in Melbourne winning its seventh VFL flag.

On his day, *Noel was a brilliant footballer and his recall should not have been an insult to young Athol; but being omitted, particularly from a Grand Final team, is always a ‘bitter pill’ to swallow.

The fact that Melbourne won the premiership was virtually lost in the storm of controversy that erupted following a sickening collision between Frank ‘Bluey’ Adams (Melbourne) and Collingwood’s champion wingman Des Healey in the dying minutes of the match.

Note: That game was to be Noel Clarke’s final VFL game and he returned home to play with North Hobart. Noel played 77 games for Melbourne and kicked 155 goals at an average of two goals per game. In 1958, Noel was appointed captain and coach of *New Norfolk FC and another link with Athol Webb would be forged (see below).

Athol Webb (Back row, 2nd from left) - Melbourne Premiers 1955 Argus Footy Story Magazine 1955 Private Collection Photographer Unknown
Athol Webb (Back row, 2nd from left) - Melbourne Premiers 1955 Argus Footy Story Magazine 1955 Private Collection Photographer Unknown



CONFIDENCE & CONSOLIDATION

In anyone’s terms, the turn-around in Athol’s football the following season was nothing short of ‘extraordinary’ but it seems to have been ignored, or overlooked, by many of football historians.

1956 was a memorable year for Athol because he ‘proved his worth’, consolidated his place in the team and became an integral part of the most potent forward line in the VFL competition. That season, Melbourne boasted a percentage of 146% at the end of the home and away series; and with 16 wins sat clearly on top of the ladder.

Self-confidence plays a large part in the performance of all footballers and in Athol’s case, his increasing ‘game time’ and acknowledgment of his value to the team, by his coach and team mates, took his football to a new level.

It had been a rapid rise; and in 1956 Athol played 20 games and, up until the commencement of the final series, had kicked 23 goals. Norm Smith must have been well-pleased with the manner in which Athol had his performed his role as decoy because Bob Johnson booted 43 goals that season.

Norm Smith (left) and Athol Webb (right) - Argus 15 Aug 1956 P20
Norm Smith (left) and Athol Webb (right) - Argus 15 Aug 1956 P20


Athol Webb (centre) stops to avoid Ken Hands (Carlton), fallen with ballArgus 23 Apr 1956 P5 Athol Webb And Ken Hands
Athol Webb (centre) stops to avoid Ken Hands (Carlton), fallen with ballArgus 23 Apr 1956 P5 Athol Webb And Ken Hands


Athol Webb (far right) - Argus 3 Sep 1956 P1 Now Cool Down
Athol Webb (far right) - Argus 3 Sep 1956 P1 Now Cool Down


Athol Webb (centre) falling over Ron Kingston (Collingwood) Argus 3 Sep 1956 P1 Sandral Webb Barassi
Athol Webb (centre) falling over Ron Kingston (Collingwood) Argus 3 Sep 1956 P1 Sandral Webb Barassi



ATHOL HAS AN ARGUMENT WITH A GOAL POST

According to ‘The Age’, Athol was severely injured when he smashed into a goal post at the Arden Street Oval in Round: 6 that season ….

“…Melbourne’s injured full forward, Athol Webb, is making sufficiently rapid improvement to justify the Demons confidently expecting him to play against Collingwood on Saturday. Webb’s injuries-consisting of a severely bruised chest and bruised shins- were received when he ran at top speed into a goal post at North Melbourne last Saturday. He has already mad marked improvement and is having regular treatment to hasten his recovery” ‘The Age’ May 22nd 1956.


VFL records indicate that Athol took his place in the Melbourne line-up against Collingwood the following week.


NORM SMITH SENDS ALF BROWN PACKING

In Ben Collins’ brilliant exposition of Norm Smith’s life entitled ‘The Red Fox’, it is stated that the senior sports reporter of ‘The Herald’ , Alf Brown, felt the wrath of Norm when he openly and regularly criticized Athol Webb’s role as the decoy at Melbourne…

“In 1956…Alf Brown wrote a headline saying something like. ‘This must be Webb’s last game.’ This kind of campaign went on for about six weeks…”


Alf Brown’s constant and cutting suggestions, regarding Athol’s worth in the Demons’ line-up, eventually caused Norm to take strong action…

“Norm said (to Athol): ‘Listen mate, when we want him to pick the side, we’ll make him a selector. Alf Brown was barred from the Melbourne rooms for 12 months after that.” ‘The Red Fox’ by Ben Collins Page: 332.


Time would prove Norm a far better judge, of Athol’s worth to the team, because Alf was forced to ‘eat humble pie’ when Athol bagged five goals in the Grand Final (see below) that season.

Note: Alf Brown’s son (Bruce) played six games with Melbourne in 1971 before crossing to Essendon.


A RAGS TO RICHES TALE

Melbourne defeated Collingwood in the Second Semi-Final and faced Collingwood in the ‘return bout’ two weeks later for the ‘Holy Grail’. The Grand Final was played in front of a colossal, record-breaking, crowd of 115,802.

For Athol Webb that match was a ‘fairy tale come true’. Remembering that he had been axed, by the DFC selectors, just one year earlier, Athol turned on magnificent display and kicked five goals in a match winning performance. He kicked a couple of important goals early in the game but it was his ‘triple treat’ in the last quarter that the Melbourne fans raved about that day …

“Johnson added another and then Webb, striking a purple patch scored his third, fourth and fifth in quick succession” ‘Courage Book of Finals’


The ‘forgotten man’ of 1955 had made a comeback of which Nellie Melba would be justly proud. Athol become an heroic figure, in the minds of Melbourne supporters that day, as the Demons powered to win the VFL premiership by more than 11 goals. The scores were:--

Melbourne 17.19 (121) defeated Collingwood 6.12 (48)
Goals for Melbourne: Webb 5 Spence 5 Johnson 3 Barassi 3 Ridley
Best for Melbourne: Spencer Barassi Adams Cordner Beckwith Melville Dixon Mithen Webb.

Athol Webb (Bottom row - 3rd from right) - 1956 Argus 'Fireside Footballers' Complete Melbourne Sheet
Athol Webb (Bottom row - 3rd from right) - 1956 Argus 'Fireside Footballers' Complete Melbourne Sheet



1957 ATHOL PLAYS IN ANOTHER PREMIERSHIP TEAM

There was a substantial shift in the balance of power in 1957 as a revitalized Hawthorn, under the astute leadership of Jack Hale, began its ascent in VFL football. In an unpredictable, tough and engrossing season of VFL football, the Demons made their way through to the finals and played Essendon in the Second Semi-Final.

Essendon shocked Melbourne, and the experts, that day and won by 16 points. The crestfallen Demons were on the back foot and the aftermath of such a loss tested Norm Smith’s coaching skills to the limit.

However, the Demons re-grouped; and with the forward line firing on ‘all cylinders’ in the Preliminary Final, Melbourne almost doubled Hawthorn’s score and won by 68 points. Athol Webb kicked four goals that day; while at the other end of the ground the Hawks tough forward, John Peck, also kicked four majors in a spirited display for the losing team.

Great hopes were held for Essendon in the Grand Final the following weekend. However, Melbourne’s non-compromising style of football, ruthless attack on the ball and an inspiring performance by Ron Barassi saw the Demons triumph by 61 points to win a hat-trick of flags.

For Athol Webb it was another season of great returns as he played well again in the finals series (7 goals) and won the club’s goal kicking with 56 goals. He also kicked a career best of 8 goals against *Geelong (see below).

Athol Webb kicking - Age 18 Jun 1957 P16 Athol Webb
Athol Webb kicking - Age 18 Jun 1957 P16 Athol Webb



1957- ATHOL WEBB REPRESENTS VICTORIA

Athol Webb travelled back to Tasmania, in July 1957, when he was selected to play for Victoria against Tasmania at the North Hobart Oval. 16,321 people attended the game that day and one of the most respected umpires of that era, Alan Nash, officiated.

John Kennedy Snr (Hawthorn) was the captain of the VFL and the line-up included such well-known personalities as: Alan Gale ( Fitzroy), Don Keyter (South Melbourne), Doug Beasy (Carlton), Thorold Merrett & Bill Twomey (Collingwood), Ron Branton (Richmond), John Brady (North Melbourne), Geoff Williams (Geelong), Phil O'Brien (Hawthorn), Greg Sewell (Essendon) and, the 1956 Brownlow Medal winner from Footscray, Peter Box.

Victoria (17.15. 117) defeated Tasmania (13.14.92) and Victoria’s main goal kickers that day were Doug Beasy (3), Ron Branton (3), Gerald Eastmure (2), Thorold Merrett (2) and Athol Webb also kicked two goals for the winners.

A ‘forgotten man’, of VFL, Harold Davies played in that game; Harold, who played 85 games for St , was said to have been one of the most prodigious kicks in league ranks. Few people will recall that Harold polled 14 votes to finish fifth in the Brownlow medal that year.

1957 also was Athol Webb’s best season for gaining Brownlow Medal votes as he recorded five votes. Brian Gleeson ( St Kilda)won the medal that season with 24 votes.

For the Webb family and the people of Ringarooma, it must have been an extremely proud moment in their lives when Athol ran out with the Victorian team at the North Hobart Oval that day; not only was he back on ‘home soil’ but he was the only Melbourne FC representative chosen to play in that match.

Bob B Johnson - 1957 Kornies Mascots - Source: Australian Rules Football Cards
Bob B Johnson - 1957 Kornies Mascots - Source: Australian Rules Football Cards
John Beckwith - 1957 Kornies Mascots - Source: Australian Rules Football Cards
John Beckwith - 1957 Kornies Mascots - Source: Australian Rules Football Cards
Ron Barassi Jnr - 1957 Kornies Mascots - Source: Australian Rules Football Cards
Ron Barassi Jnr - 1957 Kornies Mascots - Source: Australian Rules Football Cards



1957 ONE FOR THE RECORD BOOKS

Athol became an expert in his role as decoy and because of his blistering pace, turning speed and quick thinking he also had the ability to convert opportunities, often nothing more than half chances, into goals. During his career, Athol kicked 2 ‘bags’ of five goals, had four hauls of six and against Geelong in Round: 9 in 1957 he booted a career-best eight goals.

That game against the Cats was played at the MCG in front of a crowd of 48,000 and, on what could be defined as ‘his day out in VFL football’, Athol went on a spree and kicked 8 goals-2 behinds from 12 shots.

Melbourne dominated proceedings that day and defeated Geelong by 10 goals. The scores were:
Melbourne 23.16 (154) defeated Geelong 14.10 (94).
Goals for Melbourne : Webb 8 *Brenchley 5 Ridley 3 Barassi 2 Johnson 2 Dixon McLean *Tunbridge
Best for Melbourne: Brian Dixon, Ian McLean and Athol Webb

Note: Geoff Tunbridge, who had been recruited from Ballarat, had the rare distinction of playing VFL for ‘no match payments.’ As a ‘virtual amateur’ his only recompense was to claim a petrol allowance to travel to and from Ballarat each week. Geoff was a brilliant ‘will-o-the-wisp’ half forward flanker who played in three Melbourne premierships.

Most football fans believe that if *Peter Brenchley, who kicked five goals against Geelong that day, had played with another VFL club, he would have amassed a lot more than ‘his’ 29 senior VFL games. Peter was a most talented forward-utility who was a reserve in two Melbourne premiership teams.


1957 -A LITTLE FACT KNOWN ABOUT ATHOL WEBB

It’s no secret that Athol Webb won the club’s goal kicking award in 1957 but that fact is worthy of greater examination in evaluating his true value to the team.

In 1957, Athol kicked 56 goals while the other major goal scorers for MFC that season were:- Ian Ridley (33), Geoff Tunbridge (32), Ron Barassi ( 30),Bob Johnson ( 29) and Dick Fenton-smith (18). Although Footscray’s mercurial forward Jack Collins won the VFL award with 74 goals, it was the spread of goal kickers that made Melbourne such a potent combination.

An interesting aspect to Athol’s meritorious efforts in the forward line was…

“Athol Webb got fifty-six in 1957, which was the best return for any player during Smith’s sixteen-year reign.” ‘Time and Space’ by James Coventry.


Younger readers may be surprised to know that in all the years that Norm Smith coached the Demons not one Melbourne player ever headed the VFL goal-kicking list. Further, no leading club goal kicker at Melbourne FC ever kicked more than 21% of the team’s goals in any given season of Norm’s regime. Such an even spread of the work load ‘up forward’ is what all AFL coaches continually strive for in modern football.

Athol Webb - 1958 Atlantic Petrol
Athol Webb - 1958 Atlantic Petrol
Colin Wilson  - 1958 Atlantic Petrol
Colin Wilson - 1958 Atlantic Petrol
Bob Johnson - 1958 Atlantic Petrol
Bob Johnson - 1958 Atlantic Petrol
Don Williams - 1958 Atlantic Petrol
Don Williams - 1958 Atlantic Petrol
 Frank Adams - 1958 Atlantic Petrol
Frank Adams - 1958 Atlantic Petrol
Geoff Tunbridge - 1958 Atlantic Petrol
Geoff Tunbridge - 1958 Atlantic Petrol
Ian McLean - 1958 Atlantic Petrol
Ian McLean - 1958 Atlantic Petrol
Peter Marquis - 1958 Atlantic Petrol
Peter Marquis - 1958 Atlantic Petrol
Ron Barassi - 1958 Atlantic Petrol
Ron Barassi - 1958 Atlantic Petrol
Bob Skilton - 1958 Atlantic Petrol
Bob Skilton - 1958 Atlantic Petrol



1958 MIXED FEELINGS FOR ATHOL

As every Collingwood supporter knows, one of the greatest victories in the history of CFC was the premiership win over Melbourne in 1958. Melbourne had thrashed the Magpies in the Second Semi-Final and, to most observers, the premiership seemed to be forgone conclusion.

However, things didn’t go according to script for Melbourne in that match as Mother Nature played an unexpected role; and the heavens open up and the MCG became a quagmire. Consequently, it was a tough ‘no-holds-barred’ and physical game and Collingwood played with great tenacity to wrench the title away from the favourites and win by 10 points.

Thorold Merrett was brilliant for the Magpies; and Murray Weideman and Barry Harrison received praise, from Ron Barassi, for their ability to ‘stall the drive of Melbourne’s engine room’ that day …

”…. with Weideman and Harrison the main instigators –shrewdly began the ‘incidents’ but left the rattled demons to finish them. Melbourne’s champion team was thoroughly out-manoeuvred” Ron Barassi ‘The Life Behind the Legend’ published in 1995.


Athol Webb shared the goal-kicking trophy with Ron Barassi in 1958; each player finished the season with 44 goals. Laurie Mithen, one of the club’s best-ever midfielders, won the first of his two MFC Best and Fairest awards.

That season, Athol starred against Hawthorn (six goals) and bagged five against St Kilda (Round: 17); but it is fair to say that he struggled in the wet and heavy conditions in that Grand Final. It was hardly a day for speedsters and the mud would have been ‘hard going’ for a Massey Ferguson tractor.

There should be no excuses, only reasons, for defeat in sport. No doubt, Athol and his teammates would have been bitterly disappointed by being humbled by the Magpies and, in turn, missing a rare opportunity to re-write the annals of VFL history.

Athol Webb (2nd Front Row - far right) - 1957 MELBOURNE FOOTBALL CLUB
Athol Webb (2nd Front Row - far right) - 1957 MELBOURNE FOOTBALL CLUB



1959- ATHOL’S LAST VFL GAME

1959 was the last season that Athol played VFL football and it was disappointing ending to his fine career. As often happens in football, it is the culmination of events or setbacks (mainly injury or illness), that force footballers to consider premature retirement from the game.

It is known that Athol suffered injuries early in 1959, however he starred In the Round: 5 match against Carlton. In that outing at Princes Park, Athol kicked two goals and was named in the best players for Melbourne but his exceptional form was short-lived as several injuries kept him sidelined for most of the season…

“A faulty piece of linoleum at the Melbourne club dance last Saturday night has placed Athol Webb I on the injury list again. Webb tripped while he was dancing and sprained an ankle which caused him to miss selection last week. This is the second time he has injured his ankle…” ‘The Age’ June 19th 1959.


Unfortunately, Athol played only senior five games in 1959 and drifted from the ranks of senior VFL football after the Round: 12 game at the MCG. On that day, Melbourne 13.10. 88 defeated Richmond 7.9.51.

So, after 74 games and 146 goals, (i.e. an average of 1.97 goals per game), Athol retired from VFL football at the young age of 23. The matter of finding another footballer to fill the breach, following Athol’s departure, was resolved by the selection of Alan Rowarth ( ex-Birregurra in the Polwarth FL) as the decoy full-forward.

Note: In another connection with the Apple Isle, Athol’s jumper number: 15 was to be later ( 1963) worn by another Tasmanian recruit name Ray Groom ( ex-Cooee FC).


ATHOLS RETURNS TO TASMANIA

With the news of Athol stepping down from Melbourne, he was a ‘wanted man’ and eagerly sought by other football clubs across the nation.

Percy Beames (‘The Age’) reported that approaches for Athol’s services came from West Australia and Tasmania (e.g. Ulverstone FC). No doubt, numerous other clubs were keen to secure Athol’s signature; but in November 1959 it was reported that Athol was promised £1000 (pounds) to coach New Norfolk FC for a two -year tenure.

It was a lucrative offer and it was hardly surprising that Athol returned home to Tasmania.
As TFL records show, Athol also coached *East Launceston (formerly known as Cornwall FC) in 62-63.

Note: East Launceston FC was also known as the Demons and wore the colours red and blue.


1960- TRIUMPH AND FAME AT YORK PARK

A great deal could be penned about Athol’s time playing and coaching at New Norfolk and East Launceston; but the crowning glory of Athol’s career in Tasmanian football was when he played in the most celebrated win in the history of Tasmania football in 1960…

“Athol Webb had earlier played interstate football for Tasmania against the Australian Amateurs in 1954 and in the famous win against the VFL in 1960 as well as for the VFL against his home state in 1957.”


On that historic day (13th June 1960), Tasmania FL * Jack Metherell ( see below ) and skippered by Athol’s former team mate at Melbourne, Stuart Spencer, shocked the pundits by defeating a Victorian ‘B’ side in front of a capacity crowd of 15,000 ( gate receipts of £3,822 ) at York Park.

It was a ‘David and Goliath’ episode in Australian sporting history and a classic example of the underdog winning through against all odds.

Athol was named at full-forward that day and he played on Verdun Howell (another famous ‘Taswegian’ who had crossed to St Kilda).

Despite being without two of its stars (Darrel Baldock and Stan Morcom- ex-Richmond), the Tasmanians defied the full-blooded and desperate efforts of the Victorians to save the game (and their collective reputation) in the last quarter. It is known that Athol kicked a crucial goal at a tipping point of the game…

The game was high standard and presented one of the most thrilling finishes ever seen at York Park ‘The Age’ June 14th 1960.


Details of the match were:
Tasmania:4.5 (29)7.6 (48)10.8 (68)13.13 (91)
Victoria:1.6 (12)5.10 (40)8.11 (59)12.12 (84)


Goals for Tasmania: Moore 4 Withers 2 Webb Hawkesley Spencer Payne Smith.
Goals for Victoria: Weideman 2 Goggin 2 Fraser 2 Mitchell 2 Comben 2 Peck Johnson Oaten.
Best for Tasmania: S. Spencer D. Gale B. Loring R. Geard C. Moore, J. Fitzallen N. Conlan D. Lester G. Smith.
Best for Victoria: K. Fraser F. Johnson V. Howell H. Mitchell B. Comben R. Grimmond K. Jones P. Guinane.

That victory was the first-ever by Tasmania against a Victorian team. Stuart Spencer, who led the TFL with such distinction that day, became a revered figure in the Apple Isle.

Note: Jack Metherell, formerly of Subiaco Juniors, arrived at Geelong in 1933 and played 65 VFL games and kicked 221 goals. He later coached to North Hobart FC to six premierships.

“Metherell was a stickler for hard work and team discipline, attributes that his charges consistently exhibited to optimum effect on arguably the most auspicious afternoon in Tasmanian football history.” ‘AFL Tasmania Hall of Fame.’


It is not widely known that Jack Metherell’s brother (Len) played 110 games with Geelong and was selected for Victoria on two occasions.


A SERIOUS INJURY AT EAST LAUNCESTON

During Athol Webb’s time as a coach in Tasmania, he made the news for the ‘wrong reasons’ with East Launceston FC when injury struck again…

“…Athol…at East Launceston ( 1962-63),where he hit the headlines after sustaining a serious back injury during the 1963 season.” John Devaney.


Grave concerns were initially expressed about Athol’s playing future; but he recovered from the ordeal and went coaching in New South Wales in 1964.

As a final comment about Athol’s time in Tasmania during that period, Athol achieved considerable success in professional running. Anecdotal evidence suggests that, among his triumphs on the running track, he won the Launceston 1000 Gift in the mid-1960’s and, according to his sister ( Eileen), the prize that day for such a prestigious win was £62/10/- ( sixty pounds, ten shillings) which would equate to about $1600 in today’s currency.


ATHOL HEADS NORTH TO COACH IN SYDNEY

Athol headed North in 1964 when he was appointed to coach Western Suburbs in the NSW FL. Australian Rules was ‘struggling for oxygen’ in that period and Athol’s decision to play in the fledgling completion was hailed as giant leap forward for the game…

“Sydney- western suburbs has appointed Sydney’s first full-time Australia rules coach, He is a crack centre half-forward Athol, Webb a former Melbourne full forward and Tasmanian representative. Webb has hit the ‘big time’ in the Cinderella sport of Sydney’s football codes…Local rules officials rate Webb as one of the best interstate players to appear in Sydney ‘The Age’ April 3rd 1964.


One of the conditions of Athol’s lucrative offer was to conduct coaching seminars at schools and junior clubs throughout the Sydney. Athol was an early pioneer in marketing Australian Rules in NSW.

Athol and Barry Cheatley (ex-North Melbourne FC) deserve great credit for developing the code in such ‘hostile territory.’

The process of winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of Sydney siders about ‘aerial ping-pong’ ( as VFL football was often described by New South Welshmen ) was an enormous challenge and, as history shows, the game took several decades to become accepted by Sydney-siders.

In an article in July 1965, Greg Hobbs of ‘ The Age’, referred to Athol’s role in encouraging Sydney youngsters to play Australian rules and the inroads that were being made in establishing Australian rules in *Sydney.

Note: 1. The Sydney Swans played their first game at the SCG in 1982.

Note: 2. AFL history was made on Saturday 10th September 2016 when the Sydney Swans met the GWS Giants in the First Qualifying Final at the ANZ Stadium ( Sydney) in front of a crowd of 60,222 fans. Perhaps Barry Cheatley and Athol Webb could take a bow with the realization of their dreams.

Establishing football in NSW was an ‘article of faith’ that Australian Rules football could co-exist with other codes in Sydney; and after a shaky start the game, at this point of time (September 2016), has reached its zenith.


ATHOL WEBB PLAYS FOR N.S.W.

In July 1964, Athol was selected to skipper the combined Sydney-NSW team in an interstate match against Canberra and Athol played in the centre that day. The match was played at the famous Trumper Oval (named after the legendary Australian cricketer Victor Trumper) which is situated in the heart of the busy suburb of Paddington. To Athol Webb it must have seemed a long way from his beloved oval at Ringarooma.

It is also known, that Athol was the playing coach of The Rock-Yerong Creek in 1966-67-68 and, after stepping down as coach of the club, he played for a further seven years with the team.

The Rock-Yerong Creek - Road Map Of Victoria H.E.C. Robinson c1948 Source SLV
The Rock-Yerong Creek - Road Map Of Victoria H.E.C. Robinson c1948 Source SLV


Athol was about 40 years of age when he played his last game at The Rock-Yerong Creek FC; it had been a remarkable career in VFL and country football in three states of Australia.


2006-ATHOL IS INDUCTED INTO THE HALL OF FAME

In 2005, AFL Tasmania established a Hall of Football Fame, at York Park in Launceston, and Athol Webb was an inductee the following year. Among the long list of Tasmanian football stars, who comprise the Hall of Fame, are Athol’s former team mates at Melbourne:- Peter Marquis (2005), Stuart Spencer (2005), and ‘Tassie’ Bob Johnson* (2005), Noel Clarke (2006) and Graeme Wilkinson* (2007). Jack Metherell (mentioned above) was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005.

‘Tassie’ Johnson had only played 12 VFL games when Athol played his last senior game for Melbourne against Richmond in 1959. ‘Tassie’ went on to play 202 games, captain the club in 1969 and was a member in three MFC premiership teams. ‘Tassie’ also represented Victoria on 12 occasions. *Graeme Wilkinson played just one senior game for Melbourne (Round:5 1958-against Essendon) and on that day Athol booted four goals.

Ray Groom, who wore Athol’s number at MFC (see above), was an inductee in 2010.

Note: In 2008, Melbourne Football Club published a commemorative book to celebrate the 150th year of the club. The book was entitled ‘150 Heroes’ and detailed the exploits of 150 of the MFC greatest players; and Athol Webb was featured and, of course, many of his old team mates from the ‘Golden Era’ of MFC.


A FINAL WORD ABOUT ATHOL WEBB

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since Athol Webb left his home in Ringarooma and stepped onto the hallowed turf of the MCG in 1955. He now lives at The Rock, about 30 kms from Wagga Wagga in NSW. Athol has maintained an interest in football and keeps in regular touch with his former comrades at Melbourne FC.

Sadly his wife, Valerie, of 61 years recently passed and his daughter Jan died also some years ago. Athol has a son David (who also lives at The Rock) and two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. At the time of writing this story, Athol, had recently visited his family and friends in Ringarooma and although, not as well as he would wish, he is still spirited and energetic.

In closing this article, the following words, written by John Devaney, may remind readers of a footballer who could run ‘like the wind’, sacrificed his own gains for the interest of the team and followed his coach’s directions to the letter…

“Dynamic, elusive and skilful, Athol Webb was one of the finest crumbing forwards of the 1950s…” John Devaney- ‘Australian Football’ website.


Short and sweet and enough said!

Finally, the Webb family has given much to their community and each has a story to tell about how sport has impacted, in such a positive way, on their lives in rural Tasmania. Athol is part of local folklore; and the Webb clan has every reason to be proud of such a talented and modest sports star who has brought great honour to the town of Ringarooma.


THE END


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Sincere thanks to the following people for their kind assistance in writing this story for Boyles Football Photos…
  • Prue McCausland-Launceston Historical Society.
  • Cherie Steele-Ringarooma State School.
  • Eileen LeFerve-(Athol Webb’s sister) for her assistance with the early days of Athol’s life in Ringarooma.
  • David Ingram- AFL Tasmania Historian.
  • Col Hutchinson-AFL Statistics and History Consultant.
  • Andrew Tomes- Secretary Nomenclature Board of Tasmania.
  • Ester Gueronzi- Heritage Tasmania.
  • Rosebud Public Library.
  • Anthony Jessup-Scottsdale Public Library.
  • Catherine Pearce- Launceston Library.







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