It’s funny how things turn out. Earlier this year I discovered the scoreboard at Nukarni which is, as you know, between Nungarin and Merredin in the Eastern Wheatbelt. A little research led me to John Crook, Nukarni’s finest player, who a had brief but triumphant impact on footy in the city. Crook played 42 games in two seasons with South Fremantle, was a premiership player in 1950 and represented WA five times. Then he went back to the farm.
In 1950 a delegation from the South Fremantle Football Club including star players Don Wares and Len Crabbe came to Nukarni for a presentation to Crook, who had been selected in the WA team for the national carnival to be played in Brisbane. Among other things Crook was presented with a travel rug by Mr AJ Hart on behalf of the Nukarni Football Club and he also pocketed the JB Miller Medal as the best and fairest* player in the Merredin Football League for the 1949 season.
And so to the launch of Yesterday’s Heroes: Fremantle’s Footballers and Wharfies of the Golden Years by Chris Carmody at South Fremantle Football Club in March. As I waited in line for my book to be signed a I stole a quick glance at the foreword by former Fremantle Dockers president Rick Hart, who went to school in Merredin with the author. Hart explained a deep footy connection between the area where they grew up and South Fremantle: “…not the least of whom was our local hero John Crook, who slotted so seamlessly into the strong South Fremantle and is mentioned often in this book.” Not only is Crook mentioned often but there’s also a rare action photograph of him in Yesterday’s Heroes.
Later I asked Hart, who launched the book, about his connection to AJ Hart – it turns out he was Alf Hart, Rick’s grandfather. Rick Hart played for Nukarni – height has always been one of the famous retailer’s advantages so I’d guess he played in the ruck.
Yesterday’s Heroes is an epic work. Carmody began interviewing East and South Fremantle footballers, Fremantle waterside union officials and other Freo identities in 2002 and finished in 2017. The book is presented as oral history – in the words of an incredible cavalcade of footy greats and others with insight into a time when the wharf dominated Fremantle and surrounding areas.
Through the interviews we get a feel for footy, family life, working life and we get an insight into how Fremantle managed to support so many pubs – most now grand buildings used for other purposes.
It’s Australian Rules football that’s at the heart of this book and I found it addictive. As with all conversations about footy there’s a fair bit of bullshit, exaggeration and repetition but the truth comes through. The repetition is actually useful as subjects attempt, for example, to explain what it was that made Steve Marsh or Bernie Naylor or Jack Sheedy or Jack Clarke or John Gerovich or John Todd or Ray Sorrell so good. Percy Johnson is one of the best observers of footballers I’ve come across and his chapter is invaluable, I also found Harry Regan’s recollections instructive while Gerovich’s story is something else altogether. But really there’s plenty to be gained from everyone including laugh-out-loud moments and times when a tear might come to the eye.
The book launch was a wonderful grassroots footy event with greats from the past all over the place. Wilson Onions got out of his hospital bed and was wheeled into the event, his presence symbolic of his time with East Fremantle where he was a premiership player in 1957 but played almost as many reserves games as league. “I was obsessed with doing my utmost to make sure East Fremantle won every game I played in. Other thought processes were secondary. So if I had white line fever, as far as I’m concerned it would be another way of saying Wilson Onions tried his heart out for his club.” Wilson Onions also did his utmost to get to the book launch.
Yesterday’s Heroes: Fremantle’s Footballers and Wharfies of the Golden Years by Chris Carmody is published by Round House Press. It’s essential reading for lovers of the Australian game and for all who want to know what makes Fremantle tick.
*Yes, The West Australian newspaper did use the term “best and fairest”.
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