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When Whitten wanted to join Richmond

Ted Whitten for Victoria holds the trophy in the rooms after the 1989 VFL State of Origin match between Victoria and South Australia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
Ted Whitten for Victoria holds the trophy in the rooms after the 1989 VFL State of Origin match between Victoria and South Australia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

There’s no disputing that the Richmond team, which broke a 24-year premiership drought in 1967, was a star-studded line-up . . .

The likes of Royce Hart, Francis Bourke, Kevin Bartlett, Dick Clay, Billy Barrot, Roger Dean and Barry Richardson, who played in that ’67 side, are some of the biggest names in Tigerland’s history.

All these years later, however, it’s fascinating to think that Tiger team could have been even further strengthened with the addition of a man rated by many as the greatest player in the game’s history – Edward James Whitten.

The inimitable ‘Mr Football’ had a big falling-out with his beloved Bulldogs at the end of the 1966 season, when he was replaced as their coach after 10 years in the role.

In the book “EJ”, Whitten reflected on being dumped as the Dogs’ coach and then being tempted by the Tigers’ offer to join them . . .

“The committee told me in October, 1966, that it wanted me to step down. I was unhappy about this, especially as I was told the club would be advertising the coaching position and that I could apply for the job. This would have been meaningless and I was heartbroken.

Footscray then told me that they wanted Charlie Sutton to return as coach. The committee felt that Sutton had been away from the club too long and if the took over, I would be able to concentrate on my playing role.

This might have been a very grand plan, but I felt the Bulldogs had taken me for granted, especially as I was told that I would be on the same playing wages as other team members. After all I had given Footscray!

I was upset and therefore was willing to listen to offers, and there were plenty. VFA and interstate clubs scrambled over themselves to talk to me, but I was not interested in playing at a lower level. I was 33 years of age, but I was far from washed up.

Four VFL clubs approached me, but the best and most interesting offer came from Richmond and I was genuinely interested when Tiger powerbroker Graeme Richmond outlined his plans for me at Tigerland.

I therefore went public on the Richmond offer and ‘The Sun’, in its November 18, 1966 edition, carried an article headlined:  “Whitten for Tigers? His Heart-break”.

The article read:

“TED WHITTEN, a Footscray player for 16 years, will play next season with Richmond – if he can get a clearance.

“If Footscray won’t clear me, I’ll retire from League football,” Whitten said last night.

“My life-long ambition was to start with the Bulldogs and finish with them. 

“But I can’t let this stand in my way any longer.

“It’s a heart-break, but I just can’t continue with the Footscray club.

“After what’s been going on, I’d say I’m not wanted at Footscray . . .

Whitten, 33, the Bulldogs’ captain and coach since 1957, has played 263 games with the club – nine short of a record.

In a shock move last month he was deposed as coach by Charlie Sutton – the man he replaced in 1957.

Whitten said he had received dozens of offers to play football in the country and interstate, but he wanted to stay in Melbourne.

He had also been contacted by VFA clubs, and four League clubs had made him offers.

“But I’ve decided I’d be better off in many ways with Richmond,” he said.

At the time, there was even speculation that Whitten could be offered the Richmond captaincy as an added incentive to lure him to Punt Road.

The Tigers’ captain of four years, Neville Crowe, had stepped down from the position at the end of the ’66 season so he could devote more time to business and family.

Whitten, who featured heavily in Richmond’s recruiting plans for 1967, was subsequently mentioned as a possible successor to Crowe . . . until Tiger secretary and powerbroker delivered this strong rebuttal in a ‘Sun’ newspaper article headlined: “TRUE TIGER NEXT CAPTAIN . . .”

“Whitten won’t get the job”

“Richmond’s captain next year will be a true Tiger – certainly not a Bulldog – according to club secretary Graeme Richmond.

Mr Richmond was denying rumors that former Footscray captain-coach Ted Whitten could be considered for the captaincy if he transferred to Richmond.

“Any conjecture on those lines is way off beam,” he said.  

“Neville Crowe’s successor as captain will be another Richmond man.

“The committee probably will appoint the captain on December 14.”

Five players were in the running – Roger Dean, Pat Guinane, Fred Swift, Alan “Bull” Richardson and Bill Barrot.

Swift was vice-captain this year until he was injured. Then Barrot took over.

“All these players have given long and loyal service and they all deserve to be considered,” Mr Richmond said.

“It is useless to even mention Whitten.

“For a start, we have not received an answer yet to our application to interview him.

“Although he has said he would like to go to Richmond if not required by Footscray he still has to get a clearance.”

Securing that transfer from the Dogs’ kennel into the Tigers’ den was never going to be anything but difficult, as respected football journalist Brian Hansen reported in this article of the day, headlined: “WHITTEN TO STAY WITH FOOTSCRAY”

No hope of a clearance

“Footscray are adopting a dog in the manger attitude with Ted Whitten. They are blocking his clearance to Richmond without yielding an inch to make him happy at Footscray.

He has been told he is just another player. They are not prepared to make him assistant coach or pay him extra money.

When they sacked him as coach after 267 games I believe they should have left the next move to Whitten.

He has been humiliated and is entitled to a clearance.

But he won’t get it. Footscray say that if he wants to go on playing VFL football he’ll have to swallow his pride and stay with the Bulldogs.

I tip that he will He is intensely loyal and is within a few games of breaking Arthur Olliver’s record. And Footscray will allow him no alternative.

Whitten has been outspoken about the Bulldogs and some officials say he will be suspended if he doesn’t clam up. Which means he wouldn’t even be allowed to play for Footscray.

Whitten won’t go to a bush club. He’s too big for country football and he’d be a marked man for any player wanting to make a name for himself.

Richmond in approaching Whitten are playing a long shot.

They know the odds are stacked heavily against a clearance. But they have to try. The Tigers are crying for just one class forward.

A player of Whitten’s ability would make them certainties for next year’s finals, and very strong contenders for the premiership.

Footscray have one honorable course. If they won’t appoint Whitten assistant coach they should give him an open clearance.”

The Bulldogs were adamant their favorite son would not be cleared and, eventually, the stand-off was resolved when Whitten’s good mate, Jack Collins, took over as the club’s president. Collins convinced EJ to stay and play under his old premiership coach Sutton.

Four decades on, however, it’s fascinating to contemplate what might have been had Whitten’s request for a clearance to Richmond been granted.

Given EJ played until 1970, it’s fair to assume that he would have been a key member of Richmond’s 1967 and 1969 premiership sides.

And, who knows, had the great man landed at Punt Road, perhaps the Tigers would even have made it a premiership hat-trick, by capturing the ’68 flag as well, instead of narrowly missing the finals that year . . .