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.

    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. These were the Geraldton National Football Association, which that year had five teams (but four prior to 1960), the four team Northampton-Upper Chapman Football Association 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that drew players from as far south as Perenjori but that league had no role to play in the GNFL and was ultimately superceded by the North Midlands Football League in 1963.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 join forces and enter the Geraldton competition 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 Northampton-Upper Chapman Football Association (NUCFA) and the Geraldton National Football Association (GNFA) ironed out the final terms for amalgamation. What we know as the GNFL was born that night.

    The NUC’s representatives were Trevor Pexton, Herbert Bridgeman, Doug Criddle and Owen Reynolds. The GNFA’s delegation was Phil Cooper, Jim Hunt, Norm Cobley and George Norton. The meeting was held at the Murchison Inn (now the Camel Bar).

    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, Towns and Irwin while a Northampton side was formed from Northampton Towns and Northampton Rovers with Chapman Valley beginning with a fusing of teams from Nabawa and Yuna.

    There were other notable moments of development during the gestation.  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 though it recent years 14 have been played.

   Venues were Northampton, Nabawa, Yuna, Dongara 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. It is unclear whether Walkaway was always a venue but it probably was as the new league used it for half of Irwin’s home games. Yuna was abandoned after 1962.

    Other meetings between the two leagues were held on March 16 and March 21 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 are said to have had a keen rivalry and their marriage, some say, was 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.

    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 wound up, made up for that. Mullewa were an immediate success, playing a Grand Final in their debut season and winning one in their fourth year. Their only regret was not joining the GNNFL earlier.

    It’s worth noting, that with the inclusion of the Saints, the competition in 1963 and 1964 featured eight teams. That was not to 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 was also destined to struggle and their 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.

    A population of 5000 by 2010 has been predicted for the Irwin Shire, which is one of the State’s most rapidly growing regions, 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 players from the GNNFL have done that with one of them, Murray Wrensted, winning the Sandover Medal in 1985. People followed their favourite WAFL side with a great passion. Today the WAFL, while not irrelevant, is treated as the second-tier competition it has evolved into with a primary aim of supplying players to 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 GNNFL’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 now for two or even three generations of the same family to have an involvement. The record is four held by Mullewa’s Comeagain family. Many families have also contributed three or even more sets of brothers or cousins at one time – indeed some names are automatically connected with certain clubs such as Teakle (Northampton), Clune (Towns), Keeffe (Mullewa) and Cooper (Brigades).

    The GNFL is a part of our community.  It still gets written about, talked about, and studied. It has been a reliable producer of quality footballers and each year’s new talent is measured against those of the past and yet to be found wanting.

                 EARLY   DAYS


THANKS to a journal kept by Patrick Hogan, we know that as far back as 1889, football teams were established at Greenough on the 'Front Flats'. His journal records that on August 1 that year, a Greenough team played Geraldton at the Flats.

    There was some controversy regarding how long a time-frame for the game had been agreed on and Hogan relates the Geraldton team was reluctant to take the field in the second half.

    But they finally trooped on and won by two goals and "a few behinds" to no goals and a few behinds. According to Hogan, "the umpire favoured Geraldton”.

    Several players are mentioned from this game such as Hurley, du Boulay, Carwardine ("famous for his agility"), Meadowcroft, Sampey and Meadey. Meadey came off second best in a contest with Meadowcroft and sustained two black eyes and a broken nose. A return match was planned for August 10 but only eight Greenough players turned up and the game was cancelled.

    Other football games were played around the district in those early days and we know that the Recreation Ground, set aside as a public reserve as early as 1864 - just 14 years after Geraldton was founded – hosted most of these matches.

    Games between properly constituted teams contesting a premiership can be traced back to 1904 following a meeting held at the Geraldton Hotel aimed at forming an association.

    Prior to that, there were two established clubs, Imperials and Ramblers. Imperials wore white jumpers with red vertical stripes while Ramblers sported yellow and black colours.

    They played at the Recreation Ground, then surrounded by a picket fence. Games could not start until sheep that grazed there were moved into a small enclosure at the southern end. A photo of the 1899 Imperials team includes a Jim Forrester, one of the region’s best players who often played in Perth and Tom Lavery, an Aboriginal, also noted for his skills.

    Four clubs were represented at that 1904 meeting - Imperials, Lumpers, Rovers and Railways. The first chairman was W Elsegood and the new body was called the Geraldton Football Association. It was decided that all games would start at 2.45pm with 15 minutes grace and no one could play unless “in football costume”.

    Two medals were donated for the new competition, one for the captain of the premiership team and the other for the league’s best player.

    The new league’s first representative match was played against Moonyoonooka in Moonyoonooka but exactly where is unrecorded. Moonyoonooka won 2.3 (15) to 0.2 (2). Geraldton won a return match, presumably at the Rec, 4.7 (31) to 2.4 (16).

    In the local competition, there were no finals and as Railways finished on top, they were inaugural premiers. Rovers however lodged a protest, on what grounds is unknown other than it concerned the last meeting between themselves and Railways. The protest was heard in Perth, by the WANFL, but as only a “vague reply” resulted, a decision was left to GFA delegates not connected with the two clubs. The vote was 3-2 in favour of Railways keeping the flag. Railways’ Ted Teakston won the first Best All-Round Player award.

    There were other competitions played at this time such as the Northern Districts Carnival that featured teams from Geraldton, Mullewa, Northampton-Upper Chapman and Wiluna - then in its heyday. In the final, Geraldton defeated NUC by a goal.

    There are also many teams that have come and gone over the years. Chapman Valley alone once had the numbers to fill four teams - Nanson, Nabawa, Naraling and East Chapman and football there in the early part of 20th century featured games between teams known as the Navvies and the Cockies.

    In fact, the Upper Chapman Football Association was founded in 1912 with Nanson, Nabawa and Naraling teams. Protheroe and Yetna played too when they had the numbers.

    The Northampton-Upper Chapman Football Association started after World War 2 with teams from Northampton and Yuna joining in.   

    And there was an an annual game against Carnarvon for the ‘Ashes’ - the burnt remains of a pair of shorts lost by Northampton’s Laurie Bridgeman during one of these games.