Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Obituary: Remembering Charlie Sutton

Image: Wikimedia commons
Charlie Sutton, the only man to coach the Western Bulldogs – née Footscray – to an AFL Premiership, has died at the age of 88. A man whose life exemplified pride in club and origin, he was born during the last of Footscray's successful VFA years before entering the VFL. Recruited to the Dogs from Spotswood Citizens, he embodied local and club spirit for seven decades, captaining, coaching and leading the boardroom as the club struggled first to emerge, and then to survive.

He earned renown as an uncompromising, iron-fisted back pocket. In an era where almost everyone ran in straight lines, regardless of human obstacle, Sutton's compact stature and ruthless attitude made him feared. He was the epitome of the back-pocket plumber, with no airs, graces or teeth.

Concentrating solely on his powerlifter physique and inexorable approach is to see only half the player. While his attitude and size defined his playing style, it didn't dictate his skill, which was formidable; when representing Victorian, he formed with Bernie Smith perhaps the greatest back-pocket duo the game has seen.

It was when he took over as coach that Footscray's story changed. His leadership and a bright bunch of recruits – Jack Collins, Brownlow medallist Peter Box and, crucially, Ted Whitten – brought the Dogs their sole Grand Final win of 1954. He taught toughness, responsibility and vim – traits with which the fans could identify. In winning the flag, the Dogs defeated powerhouses Geelong and the formidable Norm Smith-coached Melbourne, who were to win of 5 of the next 6 Premierships.

In a familiar story, it's probable that Sutton was replaced as coach for financial reasons. One of two transcendent stars in an amateur league, Whitten would be offered more financial and career opportunities outside Melbourne than the Bulldogs could provide for him as just a player. Serving as captain-coach doubled a player's match payment; the appeal to Whitten would have been obvious. No matter: Charlie would later serve as club President, omnipresent and omniscient to all matters Footscray.

Sutton coached the Dogs for three years after the flag to be succeeded by his protégé, the player he thought the best ever. Whitten is popularly considered the prototypical Bulldog, a boy who grew up in the shadows of the Western Oval and joined, then led, the only club he ever could. In doing so, he created a lineage that begat champions Doug Hawkins, Rohan Smith and Brad Johnson. While it's most public face, Whitten wasn't the progenitor of this dynasty, but Sutton.

Had it not been for Charlie Sutton, Whitten may have retired at age 21; if not for Charlie Sutton, EJ almost certainly wouldn't have grown into the man – the icon – he became. Charlie was tough, but honest and caring. E.J. Whitten was just a bigger, more athletic – and perhaps more eloquent – version.

Sutton was amongst the first inductees to the AFL Hall of Fame; and when in 2010 the Bulldogs created their own Asgaard, the first two honoured were Whitten and Sutton, inseparable again. No consideration was given to any others, nor should there have been. Their ground is named after one, while their best player each year receives a medal named for the other.

Charlie and Ted, forever Footscray Bulldogs 1 and 1A.

Perhaps Charlie Sutton is best defined by that 1954 Premiership cup. In 2008, the Bulldogs finished third on the back of great seasons from Adam Cooney and Johnson. Before the finals began coach Rodney Eade called a late-night team meeting in the depths of the MCG. When the meeting concluded, the players were led onto the surface to see a gnomelike figure in the centre, illuminated by the lights. It was Sutton, holding the 1954 cup. At age 84, he inspired half a group of cynical footballers to tears.

Charlie Sutton began the legacy of Bulldog champions who were men of the people. Players, and characters, to whom sons of the West could relate. No-one had a bad word to say about Sutton; the same applies to Whitten, Dempsey, Grant, Hawkins and Johnson. That in itself is a remarkable achievement. He will be remembered; he will be missed.

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