AFL

Charlie Sutton, a Bulldog through and through

Charlie Sutton was built like a stump no tractor had ever managed to knock over.

One of the stories he told was about the day he shirtfronted a Collingwood player in front of the Ryder Stand at Victoria Park. We are talking about the 1950s when footy was seriously tribal, where home grounds were foreign countries and no country was more foreign, or hostile, than Collingwood.  Not a man given to exaggeration, Charlie said: "I thought the whole stand was coming across the fence at me".

Charlie Sutton and Ted Whitten in 1954
Charlie Sutton and Ted Whitten in 1954 

Charlie was a working class leader,  a man who showed the way on the field but was egalitarian in his manner off it. Footscray was a working class club when he led it to its first and only premiership in 1954. Not long before, you didn't get a game with the Dogs if you weren’t in a trade union. Players rode to training on bicycles. The Dogs had some fine players – Peter Box, Wally Donald, John Kerr, Jack Collins – but they also had the prototype of the game's present-day superstars in Ted Whitten.

Whitten would prove the master of every position he played. Then only 21, he had started at centre-half forward but a series of concussions caused his mother to talk about him retiring. Part of the legend of the '54 team is that Charlie went and saw Whitten's mother and promised her that her son would henceforth play centre-half back where he could run straight with the ball and not have to take it and turn into the play. No one spoke of Whitten, or Mr Football as he became known, with greater pride than Charlie. To Charlie, Whitten was the greatest.

The line in the club theme song about "Bulldogs through and through" could have been written for Charlie Sutton. When the Dogs were lurching into trouble as a club in the late 1970s, he took over as president. For years, he could be seen standing on the sidelines at training. In 1993, when I spent a year with the Dogs, I took the opportunity to stand beside Charlie and talk to him. What I remember about him is his football wisdom.

That year, the Dogs were struggling. Some of their older players were in decline. "They say you lose a yard," said Charlie one night. He held up a chunky thumb and forefinger a couple of inches apart. "You only have to lose this much". Once, after a game in which the Dogs had played gallantly but lost, I saw him hurry to the race to meet the players as they came in. "There's plenty who want to know them after a win," he said. "Not too many want to speak to them when they lose".

Charlie Sutton in 2010.
Charlie Sutton in 2010. Photo: Wayne Hawkins

Charlie's speeches might not have constituted great oratory if recorded in print, but Charlie got the players and the players got Charlie. He had a fierce intensity which sparked through the air and pale blue eyes which, from an opponent's viewpoint, must have signalled a singular lack of fear. Another of the stories of the 1954 grand final is that before the game Charlie told his players to play the ball. He would look after "the rest".

There was something about Charlie Sutton that summed up the best of the old Australian working class culture, its egalitarian nature, its active disregard of posture and pretension. If he had a motto it was one of his sayings: "Humility in victory, courage in defeat".

Charlie Sutton is survived by wife Eileen and children Pamela, Charles, Charlene, Gary and Dorothy.

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