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Remembering 'Bill Pa'

Luke McManus  February 28, 2017 10:08 AM

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A photo of William 'Bill' Dolphin, on an early-day footy card, owned by his grandson Jim Woodlock.

I honestly don’t remember him talking about those grand finals much, if at all. He was obviously very proud of his achievements but I can’t help but think there’d be some disappointment.

There was a day in the 1960s when poor old ‘Bill’ Dolphin went wandering.

Dimentia had set in by then and Bill gravitated to where he, for a brief but significant period of his life, gave his heart and soul.

It was a fair walk from his home in Fitzroy St, St Kilda, for a man of his age – about 1.8 miles in the old scale – that’s to say Bill went the shorter way, through the parklands hugging the lake in the middle.

It wasn't a suprise as he’d always been fit.

Sending the family in a panic, “Bill Pa” was eventually found safe and well by his grandson Jim Woodlock.

How did he know where his beloved grandfather was?

Jim had a hunch.

Bill (William) played with South Melbourne for seven years, from 1905 to 1911, captaining the side for two (1907-08).

He was a "hard-at-it" full-back, according to Jim, but a good sport who always respected the opposition.

He was also one of the longest kicks in the game and, he'd always say, held the unofficial record after sending a place kick from the Princes Park goal-square to the centre of the ground.

The kick wasn't measured until the following afternoon, when the stands were empty, hence why there's no mention of it in the history books.

South, boasting the likes of now Hall of Fame members Charlie Ricketts and Vic Belcher, reached the 1907 Grand Final under Dolphin's leadership but was narrowly defeated by minor premier Carlton.

The skipper, forever resolute, was quoted by the Argus after the match:

“At the end of the game they were five points ahead of us, but still think ours is the better team,” he said.

“What Carlton man did we most fear? Well, I'm not sure that we 'feared' any of them, but I can promise you there were three or four of them reserved for special care and attention.

“Better luck next time. The only trouble is that we will have to wait a year for that next time.”

Well, close. It was another two years before South earned another opportunity to re-write its brief history.

Fortunately, the red and white reversed its fortunes to win its first ever VFL premiership. Sadly, Bill didn’t play.

Prior to 1930, the VFL’s finals format had what was called ‘challenge games’ where the minor premier could ask for a rematch if their first crack at the premiership failed.

South, finishing on top of the ladder that season, lost to the Blues in the preliminary final only to change tact and return blows the following week.

Bill injured himself the previous week and was forced to watch from the MCG stands with the other 37,758 footy goers, happy but empty.

“I honestly don’t remember him talking about those grand finals much, if at all,” Jim said.

“He was always very proud of his achievements but I can’t help but think there’d be some disappointment.”

Jim remembers Bill as a straight-down-the-line but affable man, enough to enjoy the odd joke or two with his grandchildren.

He had a few of them, Jim being the oldest and one of two (alongside his brother) who shared his pa’s passion for footy.

Jim never got to see his grandfather play.

“I remember going back Bill and May’s (Jim's grandmother) place after having a kick of the footy in the park, usually on a Sunday. We’d sit around the radio and listening to Blue Hills,” Jim recalled, enlightening my millennial ears of the popular serial.

“He also loved to sing. He was a member of a local choir group and even sang in the opening ceremony of the 1956 Olympics as well as around the house. He had such a delicate voice.

“He always used to have a glass of sherry, no matter what, every night. He said it was his secret to his longevity. He swore by it.

“He was 87 when he passed away.”

Bill Dolphin’s spirit lives on in a few treasures left over from his playing days, well-kept by Jim in a mixture of zip-lock bags and bubble wrap usually tucked away in his top drawer.

For any South Melbourne tragic these items are top drawer indeed.

Jim Woodlock, at the Sydney Swans' final training session in Coffs Harbour, with his grandfather's 1909 Premiership cap.
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From a larger zip-lock came a 1909 premiership cap, awarded to Bill despite his absence. He still played 14 games that season and was vice-captain. He’d go on to play 84 more games over his seven-year career.

Slices of the cap’s royal blue fabric fell away as Jim hesitantly but gracefully cradled the cap in his hands.

It was completely flattened, its straw lining protruding from rips, the premiership embroidery still readable but faded enough to remind you of its age. A lavish VFL crest dominates the front while a subtle S.M.F.C, woven proudly in red thread, decorates the peak.

“He’d bring it out from time to time,” Jim recalled.

“He passed it down to my mum and then she passed it on to me before she died.

"This is the first time it has left the house in years."

Along with this magnificent piece of South Melbourne’s history came two badges, awarded to members of the 1907 and 1909 grand finals sides. They were delicate little charms once, undoubtedly, worn with the utmost pride.

There were also a several portraits of different sizes and condition, some of Bill in his South Melbourne stripes and many of the same man dressed in a handsome turn-of-the-century suit.

Jim thinks it’s the same kind of attire Bill would have worn at his day job as a cheque sorter at the now dissolved Bank of Australasia in Melbourne. The building on Collins Street still stands.

Post-football, Bill and May moved around the Victorian countryside, on the Victorian/NSW border, about 270km northeast of Melbourne. They lived a happy and quiet life before relocating back to Melbourne, back to Fitzroy St, where the pair lived out the rest of their days.

Bill passed away in 1969.

Jim, a Coffs Harbour local nowadays and a local football legend, can recall a few more of Bill’s episodes like the one in the opening lines of this story but can't put his finger on where or when they were.

The one in this yarn had always stuck.

So, where did Jim find old Bill that day?

In Albert Park, on Aughtie Drive, wandering around Lake Oval.