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Football Flashback: Malcom Atwell Opens Up

Thursday, March 2, 2017 - 11:34 AM
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The Western Australian football world was shocked when Perth appointed rugged East Perth defender Malcom Atwell as captain-coach for the 1966 season. It was a giant gamble by Perth, which had generally preferred "insiders" as league coach. But the move paid handsome dividends.

ATWELL had played in two East Perth premiership teams, captained the Royals in 1964, and been one of the first to be picked for State games. He was full-back in WA's winning side at the Australian National Football Council's 1961 Brisbane Carnival.

It's now history that ATWELL led Perth to three successive premierships, 1966-67-68. He remains the club's most successful coach.

On the eve of his 80th birthday on March 5, and the start of the 2017 season, ATWELL spoke frankly about his years at Perth with Peter Kennedy. This is an edited account of that interview.


Q. Mal, after 162 games there at East Perth and with considerable success, you applied to be captain-coach of Perth. Where did that idea come from?

A. It came from a chat with John O'Connell in Cliff Houghton's show room (Lynas Motors) in Hay Street Perth behind the Melbourne Hotel. John and I were talking about football - he'd been to Melbourne and played with Geelong. We talked about Allen Aylett and we talked about Bob Skilton - won something like four Brownlows -  a state game I played on those two players, they were the bloody rovers and I was playing on these two guys and I think we won that game ... and Skilton I played on.....  never be as good as them as long as I played. They were good footballers. Mightn't get the hard ball (like I did) but they were good players with lots of ability and skill. 

I saw that the Perth Football Club couldn't come to any satisfactory conclusion with them (as the new coach) so I said to Johnny O'Connell: 'John, maybe I should have a go at coaching' and he said 'yea, maybe you should'. So that's where I got to know Cliff Houghton no, Jack McNamara, because at that stage Cliff was down the track a bit. But McNamara was a friend of Jack Sheedy's and often drank at the Carlton and I used to go there quite often and have a chat with Jack in 1965, because he'd been replaced at East Perth Football Club by Kevin Murray, who's another great player and good guy. And he was another reason - if Kevin Murray can coach surely I can too. Us back men have to have something going for us!

As a result of that I went to see Jack McNamara one day at the Carlton Hotel and I said 'I'm interested in coaching at Perth' and told him what my story was and he was keen and listened to me and went away and came back in a very short space of time and said 'well you've got the job, when can you start?'

And I'll never forget the first day walking into the Perth Football Club in 1965 - about October it was -  I walked into the room and I was about the tallest player in the room. I thought 'Geez, where are we going to get a ruckman from'? There was Tommy Davis who wasn't sure whether he was going to play or not, what a wonderful guy he is,  and there was Paddy Astone who was only six foot tall - I didn't think he could jump but didn't realise how good he was, he was a super star - and I turned around and looked at the door and two blokes walked through the door and their names were Barry Chittleborough and Graeme  White. 

And Barry Chittleborough played in every successful team. Whitey was probably unlucky that he would have got more work but Barry sort of hogged the limelight.

Q.  But you did set a condition on taking the coaching job?

A.  Yea I did. I was pretty adamant with Mac. At that time Barry Cable was talking about going to Melbourne , to Carlton I think it was. I said if I come to Lathlain as a playing coach or coach, Barry Cable has to stay. I never changed that view.  And he did stay and it's to Barry's credit - Barry's a great West Australian. He went to Melbourne and took them on and beat 'em But he's always come back with Western Australia number one in his heart. He's always been a West Aussie boy.

Q. Did you feel you had something to prove, taking it on?

A. I just thought it was the next step. It was a stepping stone in my career as a footballer, or football coach. I was captain of East Perth in 1964, '65 I was vice-captain. Coached the team when Kevin couldn't go to Melbourne, Sydney it was, but I just thought it was the next thing to do. I'd got to a stage where I was 28, I needed a new incentive.

Q. What did you aim to instil in the players as captain-coach?

A. I had a definite philosophy. I didn't take 'no' for an answer very often .... I was very determined that we were going to put a set of rules in place that everybody would adhere to. I was a disciplinarian myself. Sheedy was strong on us. I think it brushed off on me what Jack taught me.

Q. So he was an influence on you, Jack?

A. Big influence. Jack's always been a big influence on all his players.

Q. Commitment? Fitness? How would you describe it?

A. I think it was all round with Jack. .....  There weren't many players who could outrun me in football - if there were any - over 130 yards. I won the Whyalla Gift that year , 1964 or '65, and beat the Australian sprint champion in that, Ken Irvine (the rugby player), and I went to Perth convinced I was not going to be influenced by every day involvement in the structure of the club. I was going to be my own person and I thought that was the only way - by standing back.

I was lucky that I was able to secure Jack Ensor (as assistant coach) because he had retired then. I don't know if Jack had put in for the job but Jack's a fine man and unfortunately he has left us but at that time I went out to Maddington and saw him and his wife Eleanor. I went there and spoke with Jack and he was bowing out of his involvement with the club. He wanted a bit of a break. I was talking to him quietly and it took a bit of convincing to get him to come.

I offered him the assistant coach's job. 'You're not coming to be the Seconds coach, you're coming to be my right hand. I'll need a right hand, because I'm going to play'. I had the fella who'd inherited all the great years of Ernie Henfry, to be my right hand.

Ernie was a good bloke, a wonderful man. He'd done a great job, been a great footballer and the club had chosen a new direction but there was Jack Ensor who was really influenced by Henfry  for all those years, and all to my advantage. So I got a Cable, I got a Jack Ensor, and I got all the knowledge of Henfry at the same time.

Q. And Jack had guided a lot of those young players?

A. Jack had guided all those young players. All of those fellas. They were his mates. They really were, and he was very close to them. If we had a problem with them Jack would sort it out. If I sorted it out they usually got a kick in the bum. And there was nobody after me so that was it.

Cliff said 'you run that and I'll run the bloody club'.  Cliff Houghton came along after I got there and at the next AGM Cliff was the president. And that was one of the great relationships I had in my life.

Cliff was a man of great character. He stood very tall in my mind and I used to meet him every Monday morning after a game and I'd walk up the stairs to his daughter's desk and she'd say 'sit down for a moment Mal and I'll get Dad'.  And I'd have a chat with Cliff and not many knew about it - every Monday morning Cliff and I would meet .

Q. What did you talk about?

A. The game. The club. Football. It was all football and a bit of business because I was an assessor ..... . They all became my supporters down there and the second premiership we won there was (a banner) 'All The Way With Malcolm A', down at the RAC. It was quite a big banner out the front. 

Cliff Houghton and I became very close friends and had the utmost respect for one another. He'd say on Monday to me: 'Mal, I think this was wrong or that was right or we should do this or we should do that'. But he'd never do that in the rooms.

Q. Leading by example as captain coach. Was that uppermost in your mind?

A. That's what it's all about, isn't it! You can be there when he has to be. My view was that we had some champion players in Cabes, Pagey, Paddy Dalton, Greg Brehaut, Ray Mills, Bobby Shields, Paddy Astone, Graham Ramshaw ...  they were all highly talented players. Who else was there? Graham Jenzen, Maxie Jancey, and the list goes on. I'd come together with all this talent and was able to get them all on the right track . So the rules and regulations and discipline I put in place and the leadership I showed them was able to get it out of them . My involvement on the ground was as a 'general' but at the same time being able to contribute when I needed to.

Q. In 1966, the season is under way, when did you start thinking that a premiership was a real possibility?

A. I thought that right from the start, otherwise I wouldn't have been there. I didn't go there to run second, mate, I went there to win.  I never ran second anywhere. I was very lucky. You see when I joined East Perth they had Polly (Farmer). And we won in '58. They won in '56, lost '57, I won '58 and '59. Sixty one we got beat by Swans. I played in five grand finals - actually seven grand finals and won five - three at Perth. How lucky was I? Not many players have had that luck. Good judgment!

Q. I always thought it was time and place Mal.

A. That's what I told Colin. 

Q. Sixty six, premiership?

A. Outstanding it was. We stood on top of a bloody caravan at Lathlain Park with Cliff Houghton. It was the most exciting time of my life. 

Q. Why was that?

A. We'd won the premiership.

Q. You'd nearly kicked yourselves out of the game didn't you?

A. One goal 12 or something (third quarter). They weren't going to get beat that day mate! They were just there to win. I came to win. they learned to win. If I'd made a difference I'd taught them how to win. 

Q. Barry kicked 6 goals?

A. Barry could kick 10 if he'd wanted to. He's a great player. Great bloke. Good boy he is.

Q. Sixty six - you say that was the most exciting?

A. Well, when you get back to Lathlain Park and the oval's covered with Demons and people everywhere - there were thousands there. and you'd wondered what you'd done. How did you do this?  I thought 'we've won the premiership, how did we do that? Because everybody wanted to win. They were tired of getting beat.

Q. Then followed '67 and '68. Which was the hardest premiership?

A. They're all hard. Every one of them. Not over till the last kick. I think the best side might have been '68 perhaps. Sixty seven? I kicked six goals one - that must have been the best game. When I kicked six goals - I'd been suspended, remember, at Fremantle. I got three bloody weeks but it turned into six because it came into the final round and we were on top of the ladder.

So I had six weeks out and was going to play and I couldn't work out where I was going to play. There was never any doubt in my mind that I was going to play. Where I was going to play? And the night I told the players - unbelievable it was. They all looked at me as if I was mad. I said 'I'm going to play full forward'. I told then why I was playing full forward. They didn't argue with that. They all thought I was mad - 'he can't be going down there'.

Q. No one would believe you would they?

A. Nobody would. I said to the boys: 'This is not to go out of the room'. It's the best kept secret in football. The day I ran on to the ground and ran down to the other end of the ground, nobody knew, nobody.

Q. But you'd been seen practising kicking for goal!

A. The night before we left the oval I had a few kicks - a few drop punts in the dark. There were a few lights on but it was quite dark. That was a good year. They were drop punts - I didn't have to kick too far.

 I used to kick a few droppies when I was full back - in '61 I kicked droppies - the state side, we won the carnival that year with Sheed.

I've had a lot of luck when you think about it. East Perth, went to Brisbane for the Carnival, went to Perth - coached them - It's all about timing isn't it! Just luck - how things happen.

Q. Are you lucky or do you make your own luck?

A. If I hadn't gone to East Perth at that time - I'd had good players in the South Suburban where I was playing, I thought they were better than I was. Barry Rayment was one.

Now if he had gone to East Perth he would have played probably in three premierships. He didn't play in any. And look at this guy who's just come out of the Dockers -  captain, Matthew Pavlich - he never played in a premiership team. It's the greatest success you can have in life - football life. To be part of a team. Because what happens, all of those players ....... they become your brothers for life. They really do.

Q. How important were Jack Ensor and Barry Cable in that success? 

A. On the ground there was nobody more important (than Barry) was there! And off the ground there was nobody more important than Jack. And I was in between them. How lucky was I to have great fellas who I could relate to who worked with me, and I could be quite dogmatic at times if I wanted my own way and one of the conditions I had when I came to Perth was that I'd be sole selector. It was one of my conditions because, like I said earlier, I didn't want any outside influences making the old judgments. I wanted to have a new judgment about  everybody and, at the end of it, I would have to make the decision.

And as it turned out I turned all those guys into equal to me. I didn't stand over them but by gaining their confidence we all worked together and we got our successful teams and we sorted out our list. The players that had to go. There were mates who'd been kept there for a long while and great Perth men. But not good enough. So we had to move 'em. Didn't fit in to where we were going.

Q. You retired as a player after the '69 season but you've since expressed regret that you didn't play on another year.

A. I made a mistake that year. 1970 (grand final) - had two reserves, Bryan Cousins and Richard Peel. In the last quarter I had to replace one of our players and I put Peel on, I should have put Cousins on. I didn't put Cousins on because I was concerned - he was only 17 and thought he might get injured. It was a heavy day and he was a bloody good player and I didn't want to see him injured at all.

The reason I gave up as playing coach was that I could see there wasn't a great deal of time left for me to do that and I had to adjust to just being a coach, and it was a good opportunity to do it while we were on top. And it gave me a chance to put Chubby (Stiles) in. And Chubby became a back pocket player.

He could have played anywhere Chubby, he was a good player. But he was just unlucky - as a rover we had Jenno (Jenzen) and Cable and Bennett - we had players coming out of our ears, juniors in those days who could all rove. And that made it difficult for Allan to get in but when he got in he made that his place and stayed there.

Q. Looking back, what was your most satisfying moment at Perth?

A. (pause) Premiership in 1966. We sat on top of the caravan with Cliff and spoke to the members and told them we'd won the grand final. If they didn't already know! I couldn't work out how we'd got there (laughs). You think about it - a hard year's football, it goes so quickly, and all of a sudden you've won the premiership. You think 'how'd we do that?'

Q. But you'd already played in two at East Perth?

A. Oh yea, that was my strength probably. See, I knew what was needed to win a grand final. I knew the attitude that had to be there and the commitment that had to be there. And what the results were going to be there if you won it. I do remember thinking that night on the top of the caravan 'oh how the devil did we do that?'

We did it because we had fellas like Tom Davis - he came back. The Tom Davis story you know. He approached me. Was he going to play? He said Ernie hadn't included him in the last game for '65. There was nothing detrimental about it ..  about Ern. Ern hadn't given him that game. And there might have been someone else who didn't give it to him for all I know. And I never got involved in 'what happened yesterday'. I'm more interested in today and tomorrow. And I've always been like that.

I played in seven grand finals and won five. Not many have done that.

Q. A couple of quick questions. Toughest opponent?

A. Dinny Barron (Subiaco). One of the strongest men you could ever come across. Went to Brisbane in '61. He didn't get in the team (v Victoria). I played full back that year and we won the Carnival. He came home - he used to have fits. Barron - he hit me on the ground at Subi Oval and it took me an hour to get up. Tough man. He's the toughest man I've ever played against.

The other bloke was the bloke who played for West Perth. (Ray) Gabelich then went back to Collingwood. And he came at me at Perth Oval one day and I disappeared. Phew ...  he went passed me (laughs). I'd never take him on.

Q. He couldn't get up much speed could he?

A. He got up plenty of speed that day when he was looking at me. I can still see him in front of the grandstand running at me (laughs).  But he was my teammate in Brisbane and he helped us up there (Carnival). He sorted a few out there. Sure did.

Q. Best opponent? 

A: Several of them were very good. Perth had one by the name of Bob Coleman. I was very disappointed when he went to the country and wanted to be a policeman. He had a great future with the club because I knew he was an exceptionally good player. Unused talent. Even to this day I think he must regret that he didn't go on with it, because he would have kicked 150 goals. I played on him and found him very difficult.

Opponents that I played on ...... Ron Evans played at West Perth, he was a good player. One who was physical was from Claremont, Allan Mycock. He could play football. He was a good player. He wasn't a 'Claremont player', he was an 'East Perth player' playing for Claremont! He was a 'toughie'.

The other player that East Perth had was (Keith) Doncon. He was a good player and a great opponent. At East Fremantle there were fellows like Con Regan, he was a great competitor. He was shorter than I was but he could play anywhere - full back, centre half back, centre half forward, full forward. I said to him one day when we were playing on East Fremantle Oval and I got the first two or three kicks. I said 'Con, you're not getting much today' and I never saw the ball again. I learned to shut my trap that day.

Q: Best player of your era?

A: That's a hard one. What are you trying to do? Cable and Farmer. Obvious, isn't it? Two of the best players that you'd ever come across. In my case I was fortunate enough to have coached them and played with them. Coached them both.

I coached Polly in '69 in the Carnival team. I made him a reserve and Marlene (Polly's wife) never spoke to me for three years. I said to Pol, 'Pol, you're in the squad, you're at the end of your career, and you've been injured quite a bit up to getting in the side. I want to win the Carnival, I'm not here to lose it, I'm going to run Roberts on Saturday in the first game ....  and I want you to be a reserve. And I'll run you first up against the Vics in the following game so you'll be ready to go against them'.

'Mal, if that's what you think', these were his words,  'that's OK'. So he sat on the bench. We didn't win the carnival, we only won one game - we beat Tasmania - but we played South Australia, we should have beaten them but this bloke Blew, the bloody umpire, he gave us a rough deal and there was one critical stage we would have beaten South Australia. They are hard to beat at home.

And Cabes? I've been able to play with and coach - It's been an honour and privilege to have coached him. I'm so proud of him. And both of them - proud of both those boys. I was lucky. A very humble man and footballer to be able to play with and coach two of the best footballers of all time.

Q: And overall Mal, footy's changed - it's a different game for better or worse. How do you think you would have adapted to footy today?

A: I think I'd be the richest man in Perth. Full backs are pretty hard to get -  haven't seen anyone who could run as fast as me or hit as hard as I could.

Q: But you can't 'hit' these days?

A: You only have to hit once. They're not there next time. You don't have to do it every week. Physical football is still there. It's very tough, still bloody tough today, don't worry about that. There are some pretty hard hits out there and they cop it.

Q: Did players sometimes get away with 'having a bad day'?

A: One day someone said to me that Cabes didn't kick any goals. His name was Matt Brophy, on the committee at that time. Vice president. I said 'Matt, well we won the game, and really I'm happy to win the games'. And he said 'well no, it's Cable. he doesn't kick goals - he does a lot of other things'. So I said: 'Cabes, there's a fella round here who told me you can't kick goals'.  He kicked six that day, might have been nine. Never stopped kicking them.

Q: Now Mal, is there anything I've left out?

A: I don't know mate. Footballs been very good. Whether it be the Eagles, my involvement there was good. I've been lucky...... 

One of the best year's at Lathlain was when I was non playing coach - 1970 - and I got to know the members more. It was a great feeling for me. Getting to know Laurie Basire and Kay Basire - loved her. Lovely people. There were the Fogartys who used to meet every week 'up top' after the game and I got to the stage where I used to go and enjoy their company.  

It was that era, the old era, the Ernie Henfry era, you could say I suppose. And I got to know them and I really enjoyed their company. I became part of the club more then.

Q: Mal, one other thing. You always wore number four at East Perth but with the Demons you were number one. How did that come about?

A: It was Cliff Houghton's idea. He just said to me before the 1966 season: 'You've got guernsey number one', simple as that. Bill Leuzzi, who captained the club in 1965, wore number four, and he kept it. Cabes of course was number two.