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Bob Bignall Print E-mail
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.

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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?
BB : "We had an English guy who was trainer and he was very fit. He used to put us through a terrible lot of work, two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon and really solid. He had us sprinting forwards and backwards and ball work with really heavy balls. One day he said to me lets do a 100 yard sprint and we lined up and (we ran and) I killed the team and him. He ran second and I said to him geez your getting slow.
He said ‘Where did you learn to sprint like that?’ He didn't know I was a school sprint champion (laughing).

GS : The team stayed with all the other athletes in the Olympic Village at Heidelberg. What was that experiance like?
BB : "We were opposite the Japanese team and we used to watch them train. Every morning we were weighed before our training and it would be written in a book. I was always around the 11 stone 6 pounds mark and this happened daily in the eight weeks before the first game. I got to my playing weight, which was 12 stone 6 pounds, early and so they took me off the hard training a bit. The trainers were good. though. We'd get given our meals but we'd all wash our own clothes. We had good fun. One night some Americans were doing some rock n'roll dancing and we were fascinated as we'd never ever seen it before."

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.
BB : "Talking about the Russians, their two managers and coach all came down, as the Russians were staying just around from where we used to eat and they said they wanted to play the Australian team. We had just arrived down there and had been idle as a team for six weeks. The (coaching staff) said to me what do you think Bob. I said I don't know. They said don't you want to play them. I said these fellas (the Australians) had been on the grog nearly every week and we've had limited training. We've had one day and you want to play the Russians on a Friday night.

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 was just like them, picking the game up as we played. I was playing right fullback then.

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.
We let in seven goals in the first half and when we walked into the sheds at half-time I looked at Billy Henderson, who was sitting on the tables.

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.
BB : "I think it was only the condition of our footballers because we weren't all fit. Apart from being beaten by the Russians 15-1 it wasn't a thumping because the boys had been off football for two months before we kicked a ball. You can't run racehorses against donkeys.

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.
BB : "I think so. There were a few others who may have gone from New South Wales."

GS : Joe Marston wasn't considered because he had just returned from a playing stint with a professional club in England and was ineligible.
BB : "I never heard anything about that. If Joe had been there I would have been very pleased, though he probably would have been skipper. A fella with his ability at stopper would have been a bonus."

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.
BB : "It was India and we must have played them about three times. We beat them three times running and the day we played them (in the actual Olympic round match) we scored three goals in the first half and they were all disallowed. It was an Indonesian referee and I went up and asked him why he was penalising the forwards and I literally couldn't understand him. It was a shame because I didn't have a clue what was going on, he couldn't communicate it.

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.
BB : "Very. We should have been on the Melbourne Cricket Ground in front of 115,000 people."

GS : But in the Olympic spirit you still competed and you did have all those happy memories, especially of the opening and closing ceremonies.
BB : "It was the best thrill I have had in my soccer career marching with those boys.
We were last, being the host nation, and the biggest team. I went around for the closing ceremony and we marched with the swimmers and athletes. I've even got photos of Johnny Debert and Dawn Fraser in the march."

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)