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 Bignell travelled around Australia where they played the following games;
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
Omitted from the original squad were Don Brown (NSW) and Spencer Kitching (Qld).
Regarded by his peers as one of football's real gentlemen I had the pleasure of spending an evening at the home of Bob Bignell 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 Bignell.
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
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
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:
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
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.
December 1 1956 - India 4 bt Australia 2 at Olympic Park
GS : It must have been terribly
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 Bignell.