ORIGINS OF THE GNFL
THE moment of conception for the Great Northern Football League (GNFL) or to be precise, the Great Northern National Football League (GNNFL) as it was originally known, cannot be exactly determined.
But the Great Northern’s birth is easily pinpointed – it was Wednesday, March 29, 1961. The venue was the Meeting Room of the Murchison Inn (now known as the Camel Bar).
There had been talk of a Geraldton-based competition for many years prior to 1961 and, truth be told, the steady population decline in the Geraldton hinterland which began in the late ‘50s and has never reversed, made it inevitable.
The first known suggestion of a Geraldton-based league incorporating Chapman Valley and Northampton was made around 1911 and there were, it is thought, some steps taken towards this end. But that was 50 years ahead of its time.
In 1960, the year before amalgamation, there were several leagues in the Mid West or Victoria District as this region was then known.
These were the Geraldton National Football Association (GNFA), which that year had five teams (but four prior to 1960), the four-team Northampton-Upper Chapman Football Association (NUCFA) and the three-team Mullewa Football Association (with another one or two sides previously).
There was also regular contact with a Morawa-based competition that drew players from as far south as Perenjori but that league had no role to play in the GNFL and was ultimately superseded by the North Midlands Football League in 1963.
An Irwin Football League existed in the ‘50s with four teams but died when the two Mingenew teams joined another league leaving Dongara and Walkaway with no choice but to unite and enter the GNFA as Irwin in 1960.
By 1961, the time was right to embrace the future and on that evening of March 29 1961, representatives from the GNFA and the NUCFA ironed out final terms for amalgamation. What we know as the GNFL was born that night.
NUC’s representatives were Trevor Pexton, Herbert Bridgeman, Doug Criddle and Owen (Tip) Reynolds. The GNFA’s delegation was Phil Cooper, Jim Hunt, Norm Cobley and George Norton.
The first season of the new GNNFL featured seven teams, which as it turns out has generally been the case. From Geraldton there were Railways, Rovers, Brigades and Towns plus Irwin while a Northampton side was formed from Northampton Towns and Northampton Rovers with Chapman Valley beginning with a fusing of Nabawa and Yuna.
There were other notable moments of development. On March 1 1961, NUC officials met one last time to discuss the amalgamation and decided to retain a separate identity for a two-year trial period. It was also agreed that 30 percent of profits from finals matches would be placed in NUC coffers.
Jerry Clune, president of the Geraldton association, was elected president of the new league. Popular and respected, Clune ensured the new competition made a sound start and that its first years were the foundation of many more.
He remains one of the GNFL’s greatest leaders and the league’s highest individual honour, the JJ Clune Medal, carries his name.
On March 6, concrete plans for the proposed new league were discussed in detail with the opening round set down for May 7. It was decided the first season would consist of two home and away rounds meaning 12 matches followed by the usual finals system with the Grand Final on September 10. All finals would be held at the Recreation Ground.
This system was also used in 1962 but a still record 19 qualifying matches were played in 1963 when Mullewa came in. The usual number is 16-18 qualifiers with as few as 14.
Venues were Northampton, Nabawa, Yuna, Dongara, Walkaway and the Rec. St Patricks College nominated two teams in the Seconds and matches in that grade were also staged at St Pats and Maitland Park.
Other meetings between the two leagues were held on March 16 and March 21 1961 and the background of these meetings is interesting. In one, Clune and senior vice-president Harry Walster met with Nabawa and Yuna officials while junior vice-president John Rock, later to serve as GNNFL president for 12 years, and Jim Hunt attended a meeting with the two Northampton teams.
The meeting at Northampton may well have required some of Rock’s negotiating skills as the two teams had a keen rivalry and their marriage, some say, was of the shotgun kind and not totally enthusiastic.
The opening round of the inaugural competition was eventually moved forward to April 30 with a 3pm start for league games except where there were two games scheduled for the Rec in which case the first game was to start at 1pm.
There were two general byes programmed with the first on June 4 for the Annual Geraldton Football Carnival and the other on July 27 for the Northampton Football Carnival, later referred to as the Great Northern Football Carnival. Walster released the official draw on April 5.
Another important date is October 26 1961 when a Special Meeting of Club Delegates was convened to prepare a Constitution. On March 7 1962, 16 Club Delegates met and the new Constitution was formally adopted. It was also decided to abandon the proposed two year trial as the 1961 had been such a roaring success and both the GNFA and NUCFA were officially wound up and member clubs paid a divident from left over funds.
So this meeting was effectively the first for the new league and JJ Clune was again named President with Neville Calder and Stewart Cream and Senior and Junior Vice-President respectively.
Much has changed since 1961. Irwin was unable to continue after the 1964 season but Mullewa’s admission in 1963, after the Mullewa Football Association was dissolved, made up for that. Mullewa was an immediate success playing a Grand Final in their debut season and winning one in their fourth year. Their only regret was not joining earlier.
It’s worth noting, that with the inclusion of the Saints, the competition in 1963 and 1964 featured eight teams. That did not happen again until 1995 when Dongara entered after a good run in the North Midlands Football League. Though unconnected with the Irwin team of the ‘60s by anything more than geography, Dongara’s five years in the GNFL were generally unsuccessful.
Unlike Irwin, the club did not fold but rather returned to the North Midlands where they again bumped along. Dongara may have survived had they entered a few years earlier when they had better playing numbers and depth. The Irwin Shire’s population is growing at a good rate and perhaps they will have another tilt in the future.
The other teams have remained constant fixtures though there have been moments of concern. Mullewa nominated for the North Midlands Football League in 1972 but were rejected because of distance.
The Saints had not won a game that season and only two games in both 1969 and 1970. But they endured, as did other clubs such as Chapman Valley and Brigades when they were battling.
It’s hard to make comparisons between now and then. In the 1960s, there was no television and for that matter no AFL, and local football drew excellent crowds. There were basically two sports, cricket in summer and football in winter.
Back then, the WAFL was the big competition. Sure, if you were good enough you might play in Melbourne in the VFL but getting into the VFL wasn’t easy because of certain restrictions plus there wasn’t huge money around those days, and even the very best players were relatively poorly paid.
Therefore, making the grade with a WAFL club was regarded as a great achievement and many from the GNNFL have done so with one of them, Murray Wrensted, winning the Sandover Medal in 1985.
People followed their favourite WAFL side with great passion. But today the WAFL is a second-tier competition with nowhere near the same profile it once had. Its primary aim now is to prepare and supply home grown players and those from each club's zones for the AFL.
The WAFL has had to adjust over the years and so has the GNFL. But the GNFL retains a special place in the Mid West. Today, two radio shows are dedicated to it and there is coverage in both the Geraldton Guardian and Midwest Times.
Many people have made the GNFL a success. Some are named in this book. One who springs to mind is Eric Giles, who managed the GNFL’s representative sides for over 10 years and prior to 1961, managed GNFA teams for over 10 years. All without payment.
Then there are administrators at club or league level which is often an unforgiving task yet some who served for year after year like Clem Penniment who led Rovers through good times and bad for over 30 seasons.
Another is Tommy Smith who ran water for Railways for years. It’s a fact that Tommy wasn’t capable of doing much more as he got older but the players loved him and in the end made him a Life Member.
There are the umpires, what a history they have of their own, the trainers, the coaches, the runners, the Ladies’ Committees, the players who do more than just play, the sponsors and of course the supporters, the real supporters who follow their side win or lose, first or last.
The GNFL has been around long enough for two or even three generations of the same family to play. The record is four held by Mullewa’s Comeagain family.
Many families have contributed three or even more sets of brothers or cousins at one time – indeed some are automatically connected with certain clubs such as Cripps (Northampton), Clune (Towns), Keeffe (Mullewa) and Cooper (Brigades).
The GNFL is a part of our community. It still gets written about, talked about, studied and most importantly, loved.
It has been a reliable producer of a surprising number of quality footballers and each year’s new talent is measured against those of the past and is yet to be found wanting.