|Tuesday, 29 July 2008 19:55|
Greg Stocks talks to Bob Bignall
With the Olyroos bid for a gold medal in Sydney 2000 well underway we should spare a thought for our original Olyroo pioneers - the boys from the '56 Olympics. Forty two years ago a side composed of players from all states of Australia travelled to Melbourne to take part in what was then Australia's first real football test on the international stage. Australian soccer had come a long way in the post war years and 1956 was viewed as the year it would all hopefully come together.
The Olympic squad was initially selected from a series of matches between a preliminary Olympic squad and the various states. An initial squad under the captaincy of Bob Bignall travelled around Australia where they played the following games;
July 14 1956 - Australia 4 bt Western Australia 1 - Bayswater Oval, Perth
July 18 1956 - Australia 3 bt South Australia 2 - Norwood Oval, Adelaide
July 19 1956 - Australia 3 bt Victoria 0 - Melbourne Showgrounds
July 21 1956 - Australia 15 bt Tasmania 1 - South Hobart Ground
July 22 1956 - Australia 3 bt Victoria 0 - South Melbourne Cricket Ground
August 4 1956 - Australia 5 bt Queensland 2 - Heath Park, Brisbane
August 11 1956 - N.S.W. 4 bt Australia 3 - Sydney Sportsground
August 18 1956 - N.S.W. 3 bt Australia 1 - Sydney Sportsground
August 19 1956 - Australia 1 bt N.S.W. 0 - Crystal Palace Ground, Wallsend
From those games a squad of players under the captaincy of Bob Bignall was selected for the Olympic games. The squad consisted of:
Ron Lord (NSW), Bill Henderson (NSW), John Pettigrew (NSW), Bill Harburn (Vic), Edward Smith (Vic), Bob Wemyss (Vic), Al Warren (Qld), Cliff Sander (Qld), Col Purser (WA), George Arthur (Tas), Alex Rattray (Tas), Peter Stone (NSW), Bruce Morrow (NSW), Frank Loughran (Vic), Col Kitching (Qld), Alec Beattie (SA), Grahame McMillan (Qld), Jack Lennard (NSW), Brian Vogler (Qld).
Omitted from the original squad were Don Brown (NSW) and Spencer Kitching (Qld).
The captaincy for the inaugural 'Olyroos' was bestowed on South Coast veteran Bob Bignall who although well into 30's was playing the best football of his long and distinguished career.
Regarded by his peers as one of football's real gentlemen I had the pleasure of spending an evening at the home of Bob Bignall our first Olyroo captain. Now residing in Wollongong's southern suburbs I was entertained by Bob and his lovely wife Alice as they reminisced of his days in the green and gold and for his much loved Corrimal side. Bob played his entire career for the one club amassing over 424 first grade appearances in a first grade career that lasted twenty-four years. As a regular in the Australian and New South Wales teams his small stature was massed with lightning speed and a tenacious will to win.
On the soccer paddock he was one of a handful of top quality defenders playing regular football, but soccer was not the only sport Bob excelled at. For two years in the 1950's Bob turned out for the Corrimal Rugby League first grade side on Sundays when it didn't conflict with his soccer commitments. In summer it was tennis and cricket again at first grade level and when he retired he took up the noble art of training greyhounds. A number of city winners such as 'Ginger Ted' and ‘Julies Top' all came out of the kennel of Bob Bignall.
In 1956 it was no surprise to his fellow players that Bob was named our original 'Olyroo' captain by the Australian Soccer Association selectors. A pinnacle in his lengthy career,
I asked Bob how it came about.
BB : "I was always subdued when I was playing. The referee was always the boss and if anyone from my team sung out or was growling at the referee I would tell them to keep their trap shut. I was always a gentlemen and got thank-yous off the managers because they thought I was good at keeping the boys in line. I always thought if they were willing enough to pay my fare to play football I'd be good enough to be a gentleman. I think that’s the reason they picked me as skipper. I also had a lot of football experience behind me."
GS : What was the training of the side like?
GS : The team stayed with all the other athletes in the Olympic Village at Heidelberg. What was that experiance like?
The side went onto play a number of trial games against the other Olympic nations in October and November of 1956. These matches have been forgotten in Australia’s statistical records and although some were considered training games, large crowds often greeted the Australians as they were put through some solid match practice.
The games were:
U.S.S.R. 15 bt Australia 1 - Melbourne Showgrounds
Australia 1 bt Great Britain 3 - Campbell Reserve, Morelands
Australia 3 bt India 1 - Campbell Reserve, Morelands
Yugoslavia 5 bt Australia 1 - Melbourne Showground
Australia 3 drew Germany 3 - Village Green Heidelberg
Australia 7 bt H.M.S. Newcastle 1 - Campbell Reserve, Morelands
I asked Bob to chat about the Russia match and the large scoreline.
They wouldn't take any notice of me and we played Russia. In their team were nine fellas from the Spartaks club in Russia and they were really well organised.
When we arrived you couldn't get a spot anywhere near the pitch. They said there was about 15,300 there at the old Melbourne Showgrounds. There were literally thousands and that's when this new system of (positional) interchange football was first seen in Australia. Cliffy Sander and a few others were saying "What do we do Bob, what do we do? How do we play?" I said just play your position and don't worry if the man changes.
I took the left winger out over the sideline a few times ball and all. But I had to stop them. Three minutes after that the player would go to right half or centre and they'd change.
The next guy came and he was quick but after a few minutes he then went to left back and somebody else went to the wing.
Bill said "What have you fellas been doing?"
Ronny (Lord) said "Wait till you get out there and you'll see then." In the second half they scored some bloody beautiful goals and just about tore the net out. We had two teams bar one player and I was the sucker to play both halves. All the boys were battling and they put eight through Hendo. I said to Bill afterwards, "What do you think now?"
He said "We ought to put all 22 on and give us a chance (laughing)".
We got beat 15-1 and I said to the manager "You asked me and we should have never played that game."
GS : The Russians sounded like they were that class above the Australians.
Two or three days after that game we played Great Britain and with the boys getting fitter we beat them 3-1, which was good because it meant the team was getting organised and we were finding players with passes and running as a team.
They were an English amateur team. I thought to myself we could beat them and we did too. We were professionals to them and we beat them 3-1 with our boys easing off a bit in the second half.
I asked one of the English players what they did for work. He said he worked in a foundry. You wouldn't get a good footballer in England who worked in a foundry. If he was any good he'd be signed up with a professional club.
It was truly an amateur team. I asked whether all the fellas work over there. He said these fellas have only been picked out of social teams and we are all workers, some even work in the pits.
GS : Did you feel the Australian team was the best team we could have fielded at the time.
GS : Joe Marston wasn't considered because he had just returned from a playing stint with a professional club in England and was ineligible.
Following these warm-up games the side went on to the first round of matches.
November 27 1956 - Australia 2 bt Japan 0 at Olympic Park
December 1 1956 - India 4 bt Australia 2 at Olympic Park
Unfortunately, the team was eliminated in what was considered rather controversial circumstances.
I remember walking off at halftime very disgusted that they were leading 1-0 and I said to the linesman "what do you think of that, sir?". He said they should have been goals, two of them were good. I said "Why didn't you say something?", he said they were not allowed. The linesmen then used to run the whole line.
That's what beat Australia and if we'd won that game we would have been on the MCG playing in the semi-finals. We weren't because India beat us 4-2."
GS : It must have been terribly disappointing.
GS : But in the Olympic spirit you still competed and you did have all those happy memories, especially of the opening and closing ceremonies.
The Olympic ideal is about competing and doing your very best and for that we can never doubt our first Olyroo side. Now well and truly retired from things football, Bob has traded his football boots for golf clubs and still enjoys a twice weekly game of bowls.
His football interests have again been stirred through the promise shown by his grandson Luke who is currently on the books of Wollongong City in the youth league.
Bob, as inaugural Olympic captain, still keeps in touch with many of his squad including goalkeepers Bill Henderson and Ron Lord, and Socceroo legend Joe Marston and can often be seen cheering on his beloved Wolves in the stand at Brandon Park. So when we think of our Olyroos going for gold in 2000, just spare a thought for the sacrifices made by our first Olyroos, the team led so proudly by one of the South Coast's favourite sons - Bob Bignall.
Bob Bignall - A distinguished career
424 appearances in NSW soccer
Debuted in 1939 - final match for South Coast United in 1961
11 appearances for South in North v South representative games
26 appearances for New South Wales
20 appearances for Australia between 1947 and 1956 (10 as captain)