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On this Day: The passing of a great

April 13, 2018 2:00 PM

Bob Skilton (L) & Fred Goldsmith (R) reminisce during a Sydney Swans Hall of Fame event.

Bob Skilton (L) & Fred Goldsmith (R) reminisce during a Sydney Swans Hall of Fame event.

Twelve months ago today, on 13 April 2017, the Swans family lost a dear friend when Brownlow Medallist Fred Goldsmith passed away aged 84.

Goldsmith played 119 games for South Melbourne from 1951-59, won the Brownlow in 1955, and was chosen on the interchange bench in the Swans Team of the Century in 2003.

Renowned for his spectacular high-marking and a prodigious drop kick, he was one of the great football characters of his era, as was demonstrated in two television interviews recorded in his later years.

In 2010, Goldsmith was a guest of the Marngrook Footy Show, and in 2015 he was interviewed by Bob Davis and Kevin Bartlett on ‘Grumpy Old Men’.

In both he told some fabulous stories that are typical of the era in which he played, and entirely incongruous with the modern football world the former fireman left behind.

Born and raised in Spotswood in suburban Melbourne, Goldsmith told how former Carlton Team of the Century player and AFL Hall of Famer Harry ‘Soapy’ Vallance ‘gifted’ him his first football when he was just eight.

Vallance has playing at Williamstown, after his 204-game career at Carlton, and met the local youngster at training. Often, Goldsmith would wait for Vallance and former Collingwood great Ron Todd at Williamstown train station and walk with them to the ground.

Said Goldsmith of a night he remembered so well: “He (Vallance) asked ‘do you have a football young fella?’. ‘No Sir’, I replied. Nobody had a football in those days. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’ve got to do some goal-kicking practice so go down there behind the fence.’

“He’d take shots from 40m and kick it 60m. I’d be waiting on my bike and off I’d go. He asked me later ‘did you get that footy Snowy?’ and I replied, ‘yes Mr Vallance’. Then he said, ‘sing out when you need another one’.”

Goldsmith also recounted a story about his long-time good friend Bill Gunn, who was later to captain South Melbourne in the year in which Goldsmith won the Brownlow, and how it cost the club a pair of socks and a jersey to get both players to the club.

“The secretary of South Melbourne knocked on the door one Sunday morning asking if knew where Billy Gunn was. He lived just around the corner … we’d been to a dance the night before.

“The secretary said ‘we want him to come and play with us so jump in the car .. we’re going to see him’. When we got there, I told Billy the South Melbourne secretary was there to see him and he said ‘rubbish!’.

“The secretary told Billy they wanted him to sign a Form Four, and that they’d send a car around on the following Tuesday night to take him to training. Just sign here, he said.

“Billy told him that if his mate signs he’d sign. I was at the boot of the car talking to the driver when the secretary came up and said there was a pair of South Melbourne socks in it for me if I got Billy to sign. There was a jumper for Billy, and that was how they got us both.”

Goldsmith told how he had grown up in Thompson Street, Spotswood, across the road from the police station in which the old TV favourite Blue Heelers was filmed. Living next door to him was Charlie Sutton, who went on to be Footscray’s first premiership captain-coach in 1954.

With a broad grin, Goldsmith told how Sutton’s father had moved the family to Altona shortly before Sutton was to decide on his football career. Williamstown was South Melbourne recruiting territory, but Altona was a new suburb that had not been allocated to a club zone.

The pair remained good friends, although Goldsmith recounted a story in which Sutton, eight years his senior, had taught him a valuable football lesson.

It was in Goldsmith’s fifth game when he played against Sutton for the first time at Lake Oval in 1952.

“I was 11 stone playing full forward and Charlie was playing in the back pocket. He came up to me and said ‘good on your Fred – good to see you’ve made it. How are your Mum and Dad, and your sisters?’

“As he walked away he said, ‘I’ll see you after the game – have a good day,’ and I thought to myself ‘I’m pretty sweet with this bloke’.

“At the first bounce the ball came my way and I led out at it. I didn’t look up and then crash … next thing I know I wake up with the head trainer putting smelling salts under my nose.

“I asked him (the head trainer) what happened, and he said, ‘didn’t you see Charlie coming?’ One minute he was asking about Mum and Dad, and next minute he’s run straight through me.

“After that Charlie always used to say how he’d taught me a valuable lesson that day … to always look up. And I did.”

Goldsmith, who famously booted a drop kick 241 feet (or 73.46m) in an official long kick competition in 1958, had played three senior games as an 18-year-old in 1951 and eight the following year. He’d played 11 games for three goals.

Halfway through the 1953 season, when things weren’t going too well, he admitted he had put in for a clearance to Yarraville before coach Herbie Matthews, the 1940 Brownlow Medallist and five-time Swans best and fairest winner, decided to try him at fullback in the Reserves.

He did well and played there for the rest of that season – and the next two.

In 1955, much to his enormous surprise, Goldsmith became the first fullback to win the Brownlow. He polled 21 votes to win by one from Essendon’s 1953 winner Bill Hutchison, with St Kilda’s Neil Roberts third on 16 votes. Swans teammate Eddie Lane was among three players fourth on 15.

In a front-page story published in the old Argus newspaper in which Goldsmith was described as ‘football’s forgotten made’, he told how he had never given himself a chance, and thought Hutchinson was a ‘certain winner’.

Hutchison said of Goldsmith: “Fred is a fine chap and he thoroughly deserves the honour of winning. It’s about time a fullback won the Brownlow Medal.”

It was a big night for the then 23-year-old, who became South Melbourne’s third winner of the game’s highest individual honour behind Matthews (1940) and Ron Clegg (1949).

He had been at work at Melbourne’s Eastern Hill Fire Station, playing snooker, while the vote count was conducted at Harrison House, official headquarters of the then VFL in Spring Street.

“About 8.30pm a message was broadcast over the P.A. which said, ‘Fireman Goldsmith, there’s an exchange call for you in the watch house’.

“Back then everyone was a practical joker, and when I answered the phone the bloke said it was Norman Banks – I thought it was a joke and hung up.”

It was, in fact, the Norman Banks, a pioneering radio broadcaster who was the unofficial voice of the game for 50 years from the 1930s.

“Two minutes later the same fella rang back and this time I recognised his voice. He asked me if I would allow him to be the first person to interview me if I won the Brownlow Medal.”

Goldsmith, believing he had played better in 1954 than ’55, hadn’t even been listening to the vote count and had no idea he was in contention. Together with the other firemen on duty he quickly went to the mess room to hear the finish.

“Next thing I knew about 20 journalists arrived at the station and took over the place. It was crazy. All I wanted to do was get home to see my family.”

Goldsmith, though, was rostered on until 11pm, so, he rang the fire brigade chief and was given permission to finish early.

“Eventually I got in a car and headed down Dynan Road to Willy (Williamstown), and when I pulled up outside the family home there were family and friends celebrating everywhere. My Mum was running down the street in her nightie.”

As football folklore says, Goldsmith later headed to Lake Oval and celebrated long into the night with teammates over two barrels of beer that were donated by the club.

“It changed my life … all of a sudden I got recognised. And it meant that each year I was a guest of the League at the Brownlow Medal dinner. It’s a dinner suit job, of course, so you feel pretty important,” Goldsmith said of his medal win.

Continuing to work in the fire service, Goldsmith also told how he had been called to a huge fire at the old Festival Hall in 1955.

The famous building was burnt to the ground and was replaced the following year for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, hosting the boxing, basketball and gymnastics.

“The call came through about 5pm but by the time we got there it was long gone. It had been burning about an hour before we even got the call,” he said with a knowing grin.

This was Goldsmith. Always smiling, ever cheeky. And after three years playing in defence he took his engaging personality to the other end of the ground in 1956 and became an important player for South Melbourne in his former role at full forward.

He was third in the 1956 South goal-kicking behind Gunn and a young Bob Skilton, and in ’57 he booted 43 goals to top the South list and rank fifth in the League.

He kicked 33 goals in 1957 to rank second on the club goal-kicking list, one behind Max Oaten, and 13th in the League.

Among his tally that year was a career-best nine goals against Richmond at Lake Oval but after the 1959 season he left the club at 27 to accept a position as captain-coach of Albury in the Ovens and Murray League.

He led the Albury Tigers, the oldest club in the Ovens and Murray League, from 1960-65, and in 1966 played nine games at Port Melbourne in the VFA before retiring.