By Sam Watson
IN MAY 1959, the South Gippsland under 15s schoolboys football team won the Victorian Country Championship.
And when the Sentinel-Times recently ran a photo of that team asking locals if they knew any players in it, a few people contacted the paper with a couple of names.
But one Wonthaggi local Noel ‘Butch’ West, who was a member of the team, could name every single player.
And he had no trouble remembering plenty of other details about their remarkable week in Melbourne.
The schoolboys’ journey to the country championship started with three to four practice matches and training sessions at Leongatha and Welshpool.
At first there was a multitude of kids hoping to make the team, but Butch said the travel quickly sorted a lot of them out.
“Back in those days, our family never had a motor car, and it was the same with a lot of others,” Butch said.
“To get to the games was a fair effort.”
Paddy Milner often provided transport to Butch and his good mate Peter ‘Dicky’ Williams.
“He was like a father to us, always driving us around,” Butch said.
Eventually Butch, Dicky and their prospective teammates were picked in the final squad.
The squad featured kids from all over the region including Yarram, Mirboo North, Thorpdale, Leongatha, Korumburra, Poowong, Loch, and Wonthaggi.
Just by the pure height of the team, Butch knew they were going to be pretty handy.
“We had at least six kids over six foot, that’s pretty big for an under 15s side,” Butch said.
Bill Berry (CHB), Bill Fary (CHF), Jim Forsyth (Ruck), Ken Nicholas (Ruck) Robbie McDonald (FF) and Robert Peters (FB) were all six feet or taller.
On Sunday, May 17, 1959, Butch and Dicky got a lift to the Loch train station with fellow Wonthaggi local Bill Berry and his father Cam.
Berry was one of the side’s better players at centre half back, and the three Wonthaggi youngsters met the rest of the side on the train and headed to Melbourne along the South Gippsland line.
Butch even remembers getting special concession rail tickets through the education department.
The Collingwood Football Club sponsored the South Gippsland schoolboys for the week, and with that sponsorship came the billeting arrangements.
Butch and his teammates were placed with Collingwood supporting families who had kids at a similar age to the schoolboys.
Butch stayed with the Brown family in Regent, and it was the kid’s responsibility to get their guests to and from the ground.
“We didn’t know where all the grounds were, we were only dumb kids from the bush,” Butch said.
In their time at Collingwood, Butch distinctly remembers seeing Magpie legend Ray Gabelich “show-off ” to the youngsters by doing countless push-ups.
“He was bigger than Texas,” Butch said.
When Monday came, it was time to play, and the boys headed to Victoria Park to take on North Central Victoria.
Before the game, the South Gippsland coach, Grahame Fithall told his side they desperately needed to beat North Central as that’s who South Gippsland beat the year before to claim the country championship.
Fithall, who was a primary school teacher at Woodleigh, had also coached the championship winning side in 1958, which featured local legends like Robbie Allan and Peter Dobbie.
Butch recalls the council putting on a party for the 1958 side to congratulate them on the country championship.
But he also recalls the lack of recognition the 1959 side got when they returned home.
Alongside Fithall in 1959 was Wonthaggi identity Geoff Brook, who was an assistant/ trainer, and the team manager was Fish Creek legend Jack Charlton.
Charlton was a much-loved figure in South Gippsland sport, especially for the dedication he showed to up-and-coming players.
Butch said he played a big role in the success of the schoolboy’s side back in 1958 and 1959, as he did for many young teams in his long involvement in local junior sport.
Much to the delight of Fithall, his out of character rev-up speech worked and South Gippsland handled North Central comfortably.
After winning the next game against Bendigo at Arden Street on the Tuesday, they found themselves at South Melbourne taking on Ballarat on the Wednesday.
It was a hard-fought battle with Ballarat, but South Gippsland were able to kick six goals to get over the line.
Butch recollected the game distinctly because it was Korumburra’s Doug Trewin, who kicked all six.
After beating Ballarat, South Gippsland booked their spot in the country grand final scheduled to be played on the Thursday at Princes Park.
What the South Gippslanders didn’t know is that they wouldn’t be playing inside Princes Park, they’d be out on one of the small ovals outside the ground.
But that didn’t bother them, and they knocked off Geelong to claim back-to-back country championships.
In 1958, there was no game after the country championships, they won the country title and went home.
But in 1959, the event organisers decided to host a country champion vs metro champion match on the Friday.
Once again, the kids from the bush found their way to Punt Road Oval where they would face Melbourne North.
A bit of rainfall meant the overall championship match was a scrappy one, with neither side able to get a comfortable lead.
Despite the best effort from the South Gippsland side, they couldn’t quite overcome their fifth straight opponent and went down by four points.
The four-point defeat is a clear memory in Butch’s mind, but there’s one small detail that escapes him.
“One thing I can’t remember is how we got home, but that’s happened to me a few times over my life.”
Although they didn’t win the overall championship, multiple players in the South Gippsland side would go on to have other success in the football world.
Poowong ruckman Ken Nicholas found his way onto Collingwood’s list as did Mirboo North ruckman Bill Fary.
Later in the year Nicholas and Fary, with Thorpdale’s Jim Forsyth and Yarram’s Robbie McDonald would represent Victoria in the under 15s national carnival played in Tasmania.
Forsyth finished with 29 games for Essendon and went on to play 58 games for West- Torrens in the SANFL.
And his son, Tim, would go on to win bronze in the high jump at the 1992 Olympic Games.
Peter Dell from Thorpdale was picked up by Footscray and Dicky Williams managed seven games for Fitzroy from 1965-1966.
But the highest achiever of them all was Don Davenport.
The rover from Loch went on to play 56 games for Richmond, where he kicked 38 goals.
And it wasn’t just the footballers who went on to do big things.
Scot Palmer, who Butch remembers writing a daily review of all the games at the carnival for The Sun, would go on to a become a legendary Melbourne sports editor and reporter.
As for Butch, well he would go on to win three local premierships, two with the Wonthaggi Blues and one with Kilcunda Bass.
And in 1965 he won the league best and fairest while playing for the Blues in the South Gippsland Football League.
Although that week will never be forgotten, there are many from that team who haven’t seen one another since.
And those that are lucky enough to catch up with each other, still reminisce about it to this day.