As a 17 year old Yarraville Iron Foundry apprentice in 1949, Alby Speed was ‘ready to go’ when two colleagues challenged him to come and watch a game of hockey in his local area. Alby not only went to watch, he played that day and was hooked ever more.
From that time forward the FHC’s history is synonymous with Alby’s contribution and the personal experiences he has shared with us all. His first coach was George Sigley, the Sigley’s being one of the families who were founding members of the club in 1934.
Little did Alby know that that day’s involvement was the beginning of a 75 year connection to his beloved Footscray Hockey Club. And with it, the following: 37 years on the FHC Board of Directors, Men’s Senior Coach for 13 years, two first XI premierships, Mens Club Champion twice and he was the mens section record games holder for nearly two decades finishing on 946 games. Alby was awarded Life Membership of FHC in 1962, and received Hockey Victoria’s Award of Merit in 1990. The Women’s Club Champion (first XI Best and Fairest perpetual award trophy) is named after Alby and more recently the F1 ground was also named in his honour.
Alby’s early days of hockey were spent on the grass fields along the banks of the Maribyrnong River (at the city end of Footscray Park) where the only shelter was a gum tree. The goals were stored at the local Pioneer Hotel and it was always a race between the youngsters, including Alby, to be the first to pull the goals out that were closest to the field.
When road widening took their first ground, Council moved the club to another section of Footscray Park, between the lily pond and the river. A shed was offered by Council to house the goal nets and equipment but the members had to dig out the embankment prior to the the sheds construction. Alby, along with a few others responded with picks, shovels and wheelbarrows for a ‘working bee’. Unfortunately the field was always subject to flooding, much to the disappointment of Alby and his team mates. A number of home matches were played at Yarraville Gardens also.
During this time it was decided to develop a ladies section. For a period of time there was a Footscray Ladies Hockey Club and Footscray Central Ladies Hockey Club. Footscray Central Ladies decided to amalgamate under the Footscray Hockey Club banner. Most of the ladies recruited at the time were from the Footscray High School which was situated between our present McIver Reserve Eastern ground and Wembley Avenue which is now housing. Alby’s name can be connected to many female recruits to the club at the time, including future Life Member Lyn McPhearson (now Muller). Social life was difficult back then with no club rooms, so it was pie nights, progressive dinners, car quiz trials to picnic spots, and of course the Presentation Dinner Dances (which juniors were invited to attend) at which Alby and Bobbie were almost always first up onto the dance floor.
An old scout injury hindered his playing for a short while and thus began Alby’s coaching career, taking on the U18 players who were a similar age to himself. Life Member Eric Thomas was coaching the under 16’s at this time. Alby’s training sessions included the gruelling contours of Footscray Park and for those who are not familiar with the territory, hills, stairs, inclines and declines a plenty. Even the juniors had to run the track and Alby had the Footscray crew in tip top shape through many a pre-season. Life member Ron Smalley was an assistant coach to Alby for several seasons.
Alby’s first year of coaching U18’s saw his team reach the grand final and despite being one short due to one player going to scout camp they managed to defeat Ivanhoe for the flag. The second year, although undefeated all season, Alby’s team were beaten by Scotch College in the grand final.
Inspired by Alby’s leadership and love for his sport, most of the U18 boys eventually graduated into Footscray’s senior ranks. Their coach was FHC Life Member ‘Buck’ Sigley. The team included Allan Herriot and Harry Browning who would become future Life Members, and Victorian and Australian player Ben Acton. In the 50’s a frequent onlooker from across the road was an eight year old John Traill, too young for under age in those days, but still playing with the club in Master’s hockey today.
When Henry Archibald (Buck) Sigley retired as Men’s Secretary in 1956, Alby took over the role for the next 5 years. He had already been a committee member since 1953. Bobbie, Alby’s wife, helped by publishing the club newsletter called “Onside”. Typed up on a waxed stencil, and run off with a lingering smell of turpentine. Next came the Fordigraph which was carbon typed as a negative and rolled out on a barrel roller converting it to a positive. Annual General Meetings were held in the Manchester Unity hall, Byron St. Footscray and Committee meetings in an upstairs room of Spencer’s timber yard, Barkly St, near the Royal Hotel. Later on club meetings were held at the Footscray Town Hall where future Life member Neil Coster remembers sitting on the floor as a young kid, while his mum who was junior director at the time, Alby and the board conducted club business.
Coming in to the mid to late 1950’s, Alby was playing in FHC’s first XI team along with many of the young boys he had coached and they won two ‘A Reserve’ grand finals (1955, 1958), both times winning a return to ‘A’ Grade. The FHC wins were celebrated at the Annual Presentation Dinner Dance at the Progress Hall, Barkly St, West Footscray, where the smiles never left the faces of Alby and his team mates.
One particular memory Alby held was of a new coach named John Cottier who came from Essendon, at the time Vicar at St Johns Anglican Church Paisley St Footscray. One Saturday he turned up in his 1930 tourer car, hung his long black vicar’s gown up in the gum tree, played a hockey match, ran to the tree, pulled the gown over his playing gear, boots and all, taking off to conduct a wedding service for an Essendon hockey mate.
1956 was the year of the Melbourne Olympic Games and Footscray, together with Essendon, were invited to participate in pre-Olympics practice matches against Great Britain and Afghanistan. FHC had practice matches with Essendon prior to this and unfortunately, due to a bad tackle by an Essendon player, Alby suffered a broken right thumb which reduced his pre-Olympic supporter role to that of a ball boy. When the day of the practice matches arrived, and Afghanistan didn’t, FHC were asked to play a match against the U.S.A. With 20 minutes to play, and with captain Ben Acton asking Alby if he could hold a stick, he didn’t hesitate. FHC went down 2-1 to their American guests. A visitor from Fiji who watched those games was one young Harry Swann. He later married Val and brought her to the club as well. Both went on to become Life Members. On the 6th July 1957, Alby the player achieved another significant milestone, scoring 6 goals in the A2’s 7-0 win over Kew, a club record held for decades.
In 1962, Alby was elected as club president after a one year stint as Vice President. With Life Member Barry Reeves as Vice President, the Board together with Council embarked on an upgrade to their playing grounds and facilities leading to the Club’s move to Johnson Reserve in West Footscray in 1965. The club shared the pavilion with Roberta Tennis Club, Footscray Marching Girls and Footscray Women’s Athletics Club. Club policy at the time was to appoint the Mayor of the City as the FHC Patron. Cr Alan Curtain as the club patron at the time was certainly of benefit to the move to Johnson Reserve. Alby was also awarded Life Membership in 1962, Bobbie not long after in 1965.
The natural turf fields there were excellent, but when the rain stopped council workers cutting the grass through the week, it had to be hand mowed on Saturday morning, and of course, the grounds marked with Limil. Alby was always first to the task. The Board secured two light poles which were sourced from the council work centre. This allowed extended training time into the evening.
FHC was the first hockey club to invite umpires and the opposition in to join the FHC team for refreshments after the match. Bobbie would wheel out the tea trolley and serve the tea and refreshments. Another first was to have girls playing in our underage boys teams because there was no underage girl’s competition then.
Alby became a key recruiter of new members during this time and the club was able to enter junior teams in younger age groups. Names such as Sheehan, Hopkins, Gale, Whinney, Zachariou, Henderson, McPhearson (now Muller) Jahnke and Johnstone are some that commenced at Johnson Reserve to go on and become Life Members. Longstanding club members such as Lloyd, Stephens, Shearer, Odzovski, D’Souza, Colasurdo, Virtuoso, McAlinden, Le and Skilton, to name a few, also commenced in Johnson Reserve times who are still involved today (apologies if we have missed anyone).
The social life was rejuvenated now having clubrooms. Card nights, Bingo nights, meal nights, themed evenings such as pancake nights and car rallies were all popular. All club meetings and AGMs could be held in the new clubrooms. Alby and other members took trips to the snow by all piling into a furniture van. They also attended local hockey carnivals. Life member Clyde Asher, who was the GK at the time, played in the Queen’s Birthday Carnival with Alby at Elsternwick Park using Readers Digest inside his shirt for chest pads.
During the 1970’s Alby played a leading role towards Footscray Hockey Club becoming incorporated. He was also awarded Men’s club champion in 1973 and 1974. In 1977 he added another first XI premiership to his name – 22 years after his first senior flag.
A $100,000 upgrade was carried out to Johnson Reserve pavilion during the early 1980’s, around the time Footscray celebrated its ‘Golden Jubilee’ 50th Anniversary. It was a forerunner of many facility development projects that the FHC Board would spearhead over coming decades. Alby’s presidency ceased in 1981, and he then took an active role in the Masters scene for the next 2 decades.
Of course, whilst Alby was racking up the weekend games numbers for Footscray, he was also playing in the mid-week Veterans (as it was called back then, Masters more recently) competition for Brunswick. Footscray did not have its own veteran’s teams at this stage.
Alby was selected in Victorian Masters teams starting in the O40’s age group in 1980 and 1981 and then continuously from 1983 until 1999 finishing up his Victorian playing career in the O60’s.
His only Australian Masters selection was in 1986 in the over 50’s division. Alby didn’t stop with the hanging up of his Victorian boots, he then launched into coaching the Victorian O65’s national sides in 2002, 2003 & 2004 and coached Australian 65’s in 2003 in Athens.
By the 1990’s FHC had outgrown Johnson Reserve, as hockey transitioned from grass to synthetic turf. The new synthetic turf grounds were brilliant to play on, and in 1994 the club moved to its first synthetic turf field at McIvor Reserve, Yarraville.
We shared a pavilion with the Yarraville Glory Soccer Club whi took the western side, FHC taking the eastern side.
By 2000, the Club had expanded moving the Soccer Club to its exisiting location. We built a second synthetic turf ground and claimed the whole pavilion area. Three life members (the Gale, Coster and Speed families) asisted the club by helping with a short term loan that the club had to raise because the Council was in debt, and the bank would not lend the club the money (council would not go guarantor). The club paid the loan back to these generous contributors. As had often been the case Life Member Brendan Sheehan has also secured Council and State Govournment funding for this project.
In 2002 Alby returned to the Board as the Grounds and Pavilion Director for the next 11 years. This was around the time the junior training area nicknamed ‘the cage’ was built.
There wasn’t a job too big or small for Alby to tackle. A storeroom, affectionately known as ‘Alby’s Room’ would house every tool, nail, screw and knick knack required to fix almost anything around the Club. There were regular maintenance and works gigs where Alby would be seen at the club on a Friday with various helpers.
Neil Coster and Lorraine Quinlan (who ran the canteen and cleaned FHC for a number of years) would also be there of a Friday. Life Member Graham Whinney would help Alby on a Friday also and various volunteers and helpers would stop by.
As Alby gracefully dropped down to playing levels like the Mens ‘Nth-West A grade’ team in latter years, again a number of junior players would be blooded to later go on to play in the Club’s first XI. Their recollections of Alby’s half time speeches and home-made lemon cordial were memorable. Alby finished his senior playing days on 946 games in the team nicknamed ‘Dad’s Army’.
From Left: Graham Whinney, Neil Coster, Alby Speed, Wayne Shearer, Lean Gale, Harry Swan and Mark Stephens
Alby and Bobbie were never far from a social function, in particular the annual Presentation Dinner. Alby and Bobbie frequented the Junior Presentation Functions and their key participation in much of the fun social nights added to the enjoyment of the evening. Alby was not afraid to say a few words on the microphone when given the opportunity. In 2009 the club held its 75th Anniversary where the largest congregation of past and present members for decades was held at the club.
Once Alby retired from playing, he and his wife Bobbie continued to attend every first XI Mens & Women’s game that health and commitments allowed. Their signature red, white and royal striped blanket could be identified in an instant hanging over the fence at ‘The Kennel’ and at hockey grounds across Melbourne. The two would cheer on the men and women in rain, hail or shine.
Alby would never be without a handshake, pat on the back or a chat to the players, members and friends (old and new). His navy and cherry red signature jumper and coat could be spotted in the sea if red, white and blue. The navy and cherry entered the club off field apparel in the 1990’s when suppliers at that time did not stock red, white and royal.
The promotion of both the Men’s and Women’s teams to State League 1 (now Premier League) in 2012 was a club highlight that Alby cherished. But topping that was the Board’s decision in 2014 to name the Club’s #1 (western – F1) pitch: Alby Speed Field. The elevation of Alby Speed to F1 field-name status that year celebrated a contribution of nearly 70 years (at that stage) to the Footscray Hockey Club. It wasn’t long after Alby moved a motion at the AGM to name the Club’s #2 (eastern – F2) pitch: Brendan Sheehan Field.
In September of 2019 Alby’s beloved Premier League Men’s & Women’s teams made it through to their respective grand finals, a first in FHC’s 85 year old history. They were the last two Premier League games Alby was to watch, with both teams finishing runners-up. However a great sense of pride and longstanding loyalty was again felt by the Speed family that day, and the whole Bulldog hockey community.
A key part of Alby’s legacy to us all is to remind us that hockey (and the Footscray Hockey Club) is far more than just a sport, it’s FAMILY. So we are grieving now as any family would, as a very big part of our family will no longer be with us. Words such as legend, stalwart, respected, true champion, gentleman, dedicated, great servant to the game, wonderful friend, the heart of the club, honour to have known, heart and soul of FHC, spiritual father of the club, terrific role model, magnificent ambassador, long legacy left for others and iconic pioneer are flowing in the tributes to Alby. They are a testament to the high esteem in which he is held in the hockey community. Rest in peace our beautiful friend, may you be gracing the hockey fields where ever you may be.
Prepared by Life Member Nicole Virtuoso, August 2020