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Vale Bill Stephen - Fitzroy Legend

24-Aug-2020

 

By David Leydon

 

It is appropriate to start this story by me saying that Bill Stephen is a legend of the Fitzroy Football Club.

When news broke on the morning of the 24th August of the passing of Bill Stephen, it opened a well of sadness across those connected to the Fitzroy Football Club as well as the wider football community.

Born on the 1st April 1928, Bill played his first football at the Thornbury CYMS Football Club.

As the Second World War ended and the football world was back in full swing, Bill was invited over to Fitzroy and played his first senior game in 1947 under 1944 Premiership coach, Fred Hughson.

Playing for Fitzroy was a great source of pride for Bill as he had been a lifelong Fitzroy supporter.

He quickly slotted into the back pocket and became the most reliable defender in the VFL.

Bill won the first of his Fitzroy Best and Fairest Awards in 1950 when he knocked off teammate Allan Ruthven for the Club's top award in the season that Ruthven won the Brownlow Medal. He won his second Best and Fairest in 1954.

In 1955, Bill took over as Captain/Coach of a Fitzroy team that had lost a few of its stars through retirement and was in the midst of a re-build. It was during this period that as coach, Bill gave a very young Kevin Murray his first chance at senior football.

Retiring in 1957, Bill had played a total of 162 games (these were the days of 18 rounds per season). He represented Victoria 14 times, was never reported, and amassed a total 59 Brownlow Medal votes which was no mean feat for a back pocket.

As a player, Bill played alongside some of the greatest names in Fitzroy Football Club history. Allan Ruthven, Kevin Murray, Norm Johnstone, George Coates, Alan Gale, Tony Ongarello, Jack Gervasoni, Owen Abrahams and Graham Campbell. Just to name a few.

The finest on field memory for Stephen, I'm sure, was the magnificent one-point semi final victory over Carlton in 1952.

He also finished his first stint as coach at the end of 1957, and handed over the reins to the great Len Smith who guided the team to the finals in 1958 and 1960. This would not be the only time in his coaching career that Stephen had laid the groundwork with a group of young, up and coming players that he handed on to the next coach to develop into a formidable team.

By 1965 the club was struggling both on field and off with poor results, so they again turned to the trusty Bill Stephen to coach the team. His second stint as coach ran from 1965 to 1970. The club continued to struggle through those years, finishing in the mid to lower half of the ladder every year, but were always competitive.

Again, it was a period of player development. Under the guidance and mentoring of Bill Stephen, players like Garry Lazarus and Norm Brown reached their full potential as stars of the club. John Murphy was given his first games by Bill and went on to win five Fitzroy Best and Fairest Awards.

Harvey Merrigan, Alex Ruscuklic, David Wall and Barry Padley all went on to much bigger things after starting under Bill Stephen. At the end of his second coaching tenure, he had again laid the groundwork for the next era of success.

After coaching stints at Essendon and North Melbourne, a third and final opportunity arose at Fitzroy when 1978 coach Graham Campbell unexpectedly returned to Western Australia for family reasons.

Bill again took the top job for the what was to become a glorious 1979 season.

Boasting a team full of talent such as Garry Wilson, Bernie Quinlan, Warwick Irwin, Bob Beecroft, Micky Conlan and the great Ron Alexander, Bill guided the club to the finals for the first time since 1960.

But it is impossible to gloss over 1979 without mentioning some of the feats of this side.

In round one of that season, Fitzroy played against Collingwood at their Victoria Park fortress. Bill had been waiting all of the off season for that game and had developed a plan to bring the Magpies down in front of their adoring home ground army.

Aggression was matched with aggression. Fast running handball, handball, handball, long kick, mark, goal was the game plan. At the end of the match the Roys had won by a staggering 80-points!

On July 28 of that season, Fitzroy played against Melbourne at Waverley. This became one of the most memorable games of the modern Fitzroy era. Bill Stephen urged the Roys to attack at all costs and by games end, the scoreboard read:

Fitzroy 36-22-238 to Melbourne 6-12-48.

This for many years stood as a VFL /AFL record score. The 190-point winning margin still stands as a record today and a strong testament to the coach.

Later that season, Fitzroy went on to win the elimination final against Essendon by a staggering 81-points. This was Bill Stephen’s finest coaching moment.

Unfortunately, things didn’t go as well in 1980 and Bill handed coaching responsibilities to an eager Robert Walls and the club went on to finals appearances in 1981, ’83, ’84 and ’86. Again Bill Stephen had laid the groundwork for the next period of success.

Bill was always lauded and loved by Fitzroy fans. He was given Life Membership of the club in 1956 and was named in the back pocket in Fitzroy’s Team of the Century in 2001. And of course, one of his greatest legacies is penning the immortal words of the great Fitzroy Football Club theme song.

When I heard the news on Monday morning of his passing, the first person I thought of calling was my mother. She was Bill’s biggest fan in the early 1950’s and even tells the story of going to his wedding.

As I was halfway through dialling her number, my phone rang. She had heard the news as well and was already calling me.

The first thing she said was the familiar words I had heard her say so many times before, “Billy was such a nice bloke. A real champion. He was never, ever beaten by an opponent”.

My Dad was in the background echoing those sentiments. To a whole generation of Fitzroy supporters like my parents from the late 1940s and ‘50s, Bill Stephen was an iconic figure.

To those Roys supporters who grew up with Bill as coach in the late 1960s and again in the late ‘70s, he was every bit the champion our parents told us about.

I remember speaking to him as a 9-year-old and telling him, “my mum said you were her favourite player”. He had a laugh and cheekily said, “that wasn’t me, I’m not really that old, that was my father”.

Bill made one of his final public appearances at the 2017 Fitzroy-Brisbane Lions Historical Society Annual Dinner. He spent ages talking with our family that night about the great old Fitzroy days.

That was what he did–with everyone. He always had time for all Fitzroy supporters young and old.

He loved the club, he loved the Fitzroy people and we ALL loved him.

To anyone and everyone who ever met Bill Stephen or admired him from afar, he was a gentleman, a Fitzroy champion and a legend and he will remain so forever.

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

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