By Malcolm Ashwood
On 22 June at Norwood Oval, Wally Miller will be the guest of honour as the Norwood Football Club celebrates his AFL Life Membership. Wally Miller is a remarkable man and has had as much influence on the overall game of footy as any individual in the game’s history. It is a remarkable story.
Wally was born in 1936, the youngest son of Mavis and Ernest Miller and grew up in Stirling which was an isolated Adelaide Hills town in terms of public transport back then. He went to Crafers Primary (three-mile walk) then attended Goodwood Boys’ Tech until Year 11 and then a final secondary school year at Unley High with John Halbert one of his fellow classmates.
In World War II, Wally’s father, Ernest, served with the 2/43rd Infantry Battalion in the middle east campaign (Rats of Tobruk) and later in New Guinea where he was tragically killed in action a week before Wally’s seventh birthday.
Mavis, Wally’s mother, supported her family by working as a domestic cleaner, then at the telephone exchange at Stirling until that became automated and finally with John Martin’s in Rundle Street in the City. Wally and his older brother, Allan (who played two league games with Norwood in 1959) were legacy children and life was tough.
Wally was an accomplished sportsman growing up and while at Goody Tech made the 1951 State Under 15s team. Brian Sawley was a teammate in the National Carnival which was played in Melbourne. He made his senior footy debut for Stirling at the age of 15 and played in four premierships in four years.
He had a season with Teachers’ College in A2 Amateur League in 1956, before being posted to Allendale East Area School for his first teaching appointment. Wally played in West Gambier’s first ever flag in 1957 under the coaching of John Taylor, ex-West Adelaide and Glenelg champion, and defeated Penola before a crowd of about 5000 at Vansittart Park.
Wally had trialled with both South Adelaide and Sturt in earlier days, but the lack of transport made it too difficult to train regularly. He had given up on his ambition of playing league football and was content with playing in the strong Western Border League where he was an inter-league representative in matches at Bordertown and Naracoorte.
In late March 1958, he was contacted by Haydn Bunton Jr and invited to trial at the Parade if he planned to come to Adelaide for the Easter break. An unplanned league career was born with that unexpected phone call from Norwood’s young second-year coach.
After four trial games, Wally made his league debut against Port Adelaide, remarkably without training with the Legs. It was certainly a different era. Wally had grown up as a Port supporter captivated by Bob Quinn, a Magarey and Military Medallist. An incident involving Ron Kneebone’s sickening injury in that game meant any feelings for the Magpies evaporated forever.
Wally was transferred to Cambrai Area School in May 1958 and travelled 50 miles (including 20 miles of dirt) on a motorbike through Gorge Road to training and matches. He became sick and missed several games while hospitalised at Mt Pleasant with Double Quinsy (a complication of acute tonsillitis), not a surprise travelling through those conditions!
In 1958, Norwood lost the first semi to Port Adelaide. Back then the team relegated from the first semi continued playing in the Advertiser Cup in which Norwood defeated South Adelaide. Norwood then played against Geelong and was narrowly beaten. The Legs then played Footscray at the Parade in which Wally stood Ted Whitten in the centre. Norwood lost the game and got straight onto a bus to begin their end of season trip to Tasmania, firstly to Melbourne then by boat to Launceston and finally by bus to Hobart with no sleep since leaving the Norwood Oval.
In 1959, Allan Killigrew was appointed Coach of Norwood. An even more significant event occurred in December that year with Wally and Athalie getting married. Athalie was a fantastic supporter of Wally during their journey.
By then, Wally was based in Kapunda and at last, he was driving on bitumen roads in their FJ Holden to training and matches, but still 50 miles from the Norwood Oval.
In 1960, Norwood played North Adelaide three times with all three games being decided by under a goal. Sadly, this included the Legs being on the wrong end of the ledger in the Grand Final by five points. It was Wally’s greatest regret.
In 1961, Wally was transferred to the Education Department’s Phys Ed branch teaching swimming in summer and general physical education. Norwood played North Adelaide at Prospect on August 5th and Wally was injured in a marking contest with Don Lindner (Wally wishes to emphasise it was a footy accident and maintained a friendship with Don who he knew from Teachers’ College days). Wally was knocked unconscious but came to and played the remainder of the game.
On Sunday night, Wally suffered back pain, and, on Monday, he drove to Norwood to see club doctor Jim Mill to get some pain relief. On Tuesday, Wally was in severe pain and a local Doctor advised him to have a bath, but he lost the use of both legs in the process and was taken to hospital.
Following an emergency laminectomy operation at the RAH no obvious cause of his paraplegia was discovered. Eventually, after numerous tests, a poliovirus was in the spinal fluid. This may have caused the paralysis, but the specialist spinal injuries unit doctors are now convinced that the initial trauma associated with the on-field injury had damaged the spinal cord in some way to cause incomplete paraplegia at T7 level (didn’t have the MRI scans available nowadays). Wally was never to walk again.
Wally spent nine months in hospital during which time the Legs lost the Grand Final to West Adelaide in what is referred to as the “Turkish Bath Grand Final” (the temperature reaching 35 degrees during the match). Some dejected teammates turned up at the Northfield Hospital after the game and smuggled in some long necks which resulted in some very interesting results in Wally’s fluid balance charts the next day.
In February 1962, Wally moved to a newly established spinal injuries rehabilitation unit at Morris Hospital at Northfield. Understandably (putting it mildly), he struggled mentally with a big breakthrough being wheelchair sports, particularly basketball. Wally, with his leadership skills, became captain-organiser and competed in national championships in Brisbane, Sydney and Perth. The games were vital in helping to overcome the isolation, socialising and self-esteem.
He was superannuated from the Education Department on the grounds of invalidity and received a meagre pension bearing in mind Wally had been teaching for only six years. The Wally Miller Benefit Fund was established by Norwood with collections organised at suburban grounds and other fundraising events occurred.
Wally was also a talented cricketer growing up, having played with Adelaide schoolboys’ teams, a state turf team and for the Angaston Cricket Club. A benefit game was arranged between the Norwood Football Club and the “All-Stars” with Garry Sobers the star attraction. Trevor Grantham from Port Augusta didn’t help the day by bowling Sobers for not many. Trevor dined out on the story for years (wouldn’t we all have!).
Bert Baulderstone, famous Norwood administrator, Jim Galpin, Bob Slade and many volunteers then built a home adapted for wheelchair access at Windsor Gardens. It was a case of the sporting community pulling together for Wally.
Wally was then employed by the correspondence school based in Pennington Terrace behind Adelaide Oval which was part of the Outback School of the Air. He also worked on radio station 5DN doing the around the ground summaries and on Saturday morning had a 20-minute footy segment on Channel 10 Breakfast TV. Getting into the grounds and broadcasting points with callipers and crutches presented plenty of challenges.
Wally then had a decision to make to continue with stable employment in a depressing environment with the Education Department or take the risk of being employed by a footy club (not known for their stability) and be more mentally stimulated. Thank goodness Wally chose the Norwood Football Club!
Wally was promotions officer at the club in ‘68 and ‘69 and then from 1970-1992 was Secretary/Football Director and later CEO. Wally’s influence on footy overall is remarkable, writing a book on the art of kicking and introducing modified rules with Keith Martin and Robin Phillips. Bob Kite was also a major influence in furthering this concept in the field and was responsible for writing the first modified rules manually.
Wally makes the point that without Robert Oatey’s support this revolutionary change to junior football would not have happened, you can well imagine the opposition and thoughts implementing modified rules back then. It has proven to be an overwhelming success. In addition to Martin, Phillips and Kite, other people who were just so important in modified rules beginnings and operation in the Norwood zone were Doug Olds and the General Manager of the SANFL, Don Roach, who was also a visionary and saw its benefits Australia-wide. Of course, modified rules was the forerunner to Auskick today.
Norwood was also hugely influential in coaches’ and trainers’ courses coming into vogue. Wally was an innovator with ideas gained from his own experiences. It is impossible to estimate how much positive influence Wally has had on Australian Rules Football.
From 1970 onwards, Wally was responsible for anything and everything at the Parade. He played a major role in the operation of Carmel Court, the Legs’ boarding house for country recruits. The NFC was very much a visionary club and ahead of the rest of Australia in so many ways. Country zoning coming into play spelt the end of Carmel Court.
Legs supporters, we cannot underestimate John Wynne in his importance at Carmel Court. 28 was in so many ways the fabric which kept Carmel Court together. Neil Button, Neil Craig, Greg Turbill, Jim Thiel, Glen Rosser, Ian Stasinowsky, and Mike Poulter are just some of the names who boarded at Carmel Court. And, of course, Phil Carman with Annie Carman responsible for the everyday running of Carmel Court.
Wally was involved with President Rex Wilson in enticing Bob Hammond to the Parade.
In 1975, Norwood defeated Glenelg by 12 pts to win its first flag in 25 years. It is Wally’s favourite footy memory. In a lot of ways, the raw emotion and unbridled joy watching supporters after the game and back at the club just meant so much.
Winning the Ardath Cup night series was also great in 1977. Wally makes the point that those extra games in those seasons, in particular ‘76 and ’77, had a detrimental effect on trying to win the SANFL flag regarding the injuries which occurred. In particular, the knee injury suffered by the late hugely respected Jim Thiel against the ACT. Jim was arguably the best centre half forward going around in the SANFL competition at the time.
In 1978, winning the flag in our centenary year was massive – beating the seemingly invincible Sturt side, with Norwood also winning the war through the courts to recruit Brian Adamson from West Perth. Norwood won the restraint of trade fight regarding Adamson and then, of course, Adamson kicked five goals in the Legs bolting in the Grand Final by a point.
A poignant moment which showed the respect both gentlemen had for each other, was John Wynne’s embrace of Wally when 28 left the ground proceeding down to the change rooms.
The year 1979 is a regret regarding mistakes made on and off the ground. Wally claims that the best player list he had at Norwood was in 1979 and should have been a very successful year.
1980 coincided with the controversial arrival of Neil Balme as Coach. Balmey quickly won over the Norwood faithful and very nearly pinched a flag against the star-studded Port Adelaide side. In 1982 this came to fruition as Norwood were clearly the best side in the competition.
Wally is full of praise for Neil in describing the Balme era as his happiest time in footy. Neil adds that Wally has been a huge influence on his life – as good a person as he has met in the game.
The exhilaration of the 84 “history makers” flag, being the first club to win a premiership after finishing fifth at the end of the minor round. And, yes, the frustration of not winning another premiership or two in this era. Wally continued to work full time through to the end of 1992, had ‘93 off but was still involved back in 1994 and 1995 and at the end of ‘96.
In late 1996, Wally was approached by Norwood asking him to nominate for the Adelaide Football Club board. Norwood felt Wally’s footy acumen and nous was desperately needed by the Crows. Wally initially rejected the overtures of the NFC Committee in this regard as he felt that the Crows were on the wrong track and that he would have very little influence in trying to change their culture.
He eventually relented and the most enjoyable role Wally had at the Crows was on their match committee between 1999 and 2002.
After finishing up, Wally has been a sounding board and mentor for just so many people involved in the footy industry and this will continue.
Wally wishes to acknowledge the late Howard “Chops” Mutton who was a brilliant mentor in cricket, football and life.
In the development and implementation of coaches and trainers’ courses, Don Roach was vital as was Darryl Hicks when at the Australian National Football Council as Promotion and Development Officer. Brian McCarthy and doctors Brian Sando, Adrian Porter and physiotherapist Max Pfitzner were also pivotal.
Norwood was involved in meetings and was aggressive about the possibility of joining the VFL way back in ‘81. Proposals were presented to the VFL, but there was never a hint of acceptance.
Norwood was represented by Wally and Bob Farnham on three SANFL Expanded VFL sub-committees. The first chaired by John Swain in 1981, the second in the mid- ‘80s chaired by Bob Lee and finally in the late ‘80s a committee chaired by Max Basheer.
The SANFL preference was always for a composite side and in the end, the NFC board supported the composite format and would not lower their integrity by going behind the SANFL’s back as Port Adelaide did.
Wally has also been through the tragedy of losing their daughter, Sally, to breast cancer in 2000. Sally was well known to the legs faithful being a member, organiser and choreographer of the Redlegs’ dancing group.
Athalie is also no longer with us. Wally has two sons: Tony living in Germany with wife Annett and three children; and John who is a big help to his father, but Wally admits the loneliness of living on his gets to him at times.
Overall, Wally’s influence on footy is extraordinary and words just don’t do enough justice. He is the doyen of footy administrators and respected by everyone within footy. THANK YOU, WALLY!
I sent out emails to some past players and officials regarding Wally’s influence. Not surprisingly, I received a huge response. These just show the love and respect in which Wally is held.
Ross Dillon (114 games NFC)
Without a doubt, Wally is the most significant and influential person over the last 60 years at the Norwood Football Club. I believe he was appointed initially to NFC Administration positions by another individual of major influence in our Club’s history in Bert Baulderstone.
Wally’s major loves in his life have been his beautiful wife Athalie, his family and the Norwood Football Club. Certainly, all of us at Norwood love Wally – he is our Champion. There is material for a book with all our stories each worth a chapter.
I have always admired Wally for his many wonderful qualities with courage way up at the top. Wally is a major life influence on all of us.
He never requires recognition, but it is wonderful that he was recognised by the AFL. I look forward to celebrating this honour with all his mates… and I may even be prepared to shout his very good friend 28 a soft drink… if he buys me a shirt.
James Fantasia (14 games NFC, CEO 2017-present)
Wally Miller is well regarded and recognised as one of the most astute administrators the game has ever produced. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had Wally as my first mentor in the field of football administration.
My introduction to Wally the administrator came when as a young footballer transitioning from underage football to senior football, Wally would invite you to his office to sign a playing contract at 5.20pm knowing you needed to be in the change rooms ready to go for training by 5.30pm. Never leaving a lot of time to negotiate any possibility of a better deal.
Working with Wally was the perfect way to cut your teeth as an aspiring football administrator. Despite Wally’s challenges surrounding his mobility, he had a knack for knowing what was going on in every part of the club. He would challenge the oval manager about a hole in the back fence that was being used by non-paying customers. He inspired a generation of young footballers with the introduction of modified rules and helped groom the NFC to become a powerhouse in the ‘80s after a long spell without success.
Most importantly Wally had a reverence that was revered by players and administrators from all walks of life, he is a wonderful example of giving of one’s self to a higher cause, a cause that brings incredible joy to people and has done this as a leader of men.
David Armour (69 games NFC)
In a final against Glenelg in 1980 I was reported for striking “Snout” McFarlane. I was as guilty as sin. Wally represented me and after my exhaustive defence which was going nowhere, Wally stepped in. With his little familiar cough and measured response, he claimed that I gave Snout a teacher’s cuff for pushing me after the ball had gone out of play. I got off with a reprimand.
Having been involved with Geelong and East Perth before my time at Norwood it became evident Wally Miller was the best, smartest, most personable and nicest person and football administrator I ever knew. Love you, Wally.
Michael Coligan (83 games NFC, Inaugural Chairman NFC History Group)
In 1971, I accompanied Wally down to the South East in his specially modified VW to look at some potential recruits and train one night with North Gambier at Vansittart Park. The conversation during the trip was always about football and Norwood’s aspiration, even back then, was to place the club in a strong position to enter the premier football league in the land, the VFL. He is a visionary, a great administrator and has given extraordinary service to football in South Australia.
The establishment of the Norwood History Committee in 2009 reconnected me back with the club and Wally Miller, and throughout the past ten years, he has been a great mentor, confidant and wealth of knowledge of all things Norwood. I had the honour early last year to visit Wally in Hampstead Centre and inform him of his induction, as one of five Norwood men into our Hall of Fame as an inaugural club ‘Legend’. A great man, and trust that we can get many past players to the oval on Friday and Saturday, 21 and 22 June when he will be presented with AFL life membership.
Neville Roberts (95 games NFC, Captain 1985-1986, Coach 2000-2001)
Norwood recruited me in 1982 and unknown to most I was also talking to Port. I decided to come to Norwood and when it came to discussing money, I had been warned Wally was a hard negotiator, so I decided to blindside him. So, when he opened the contract discussions, I said up front:
“Wally, I know you will be very fair, so please pay me what you think I’m worth”
Worked a treat… paid me like a first-year recruit!!
John Clarke (58 games NFC)
I was evacuated from Darwin cyclone Tracy to Adelaide in early 1975 – homeless and no employment. I was recruited to Port Adelaide that year through Russell Ebert and Bruce Light playing for Darwin Buffaloes before Cyclone Tracy.
I tried several times to contact Russell Ebert through Port Adelaide manager (late Bob McLean) and was unsuccessful. Michael Poulter asked Wally Miller for me to train with NFC. Wally Miller offered me free accommodation at Carmel Court and a job with Metro Meats under the late Malcolm Smith, till I got on my feet.
Port Adelaide months later contacted me and asked me to join Russell at Port. I discussed with Wally Port’s offer and my football future in Adelaide. Wally gave me full support to join Port Adelaide with no reservations and expectations from the NFC.
I decided to stay with Norwood because of Wally’s full support and respect as a refugee from Darwin’s Cyclone Tracy. Best wishes always Wally.
David Payne (194 games NFC)
I remember walking into his office at contract time with great expectations, having thought the prior year’s effort was reasonable, and the possibility of an increase maybe on the cards. Wally knew exactly what you were worth and that’s what you got. Fantastic man, wise and always straight to the point, no beating around the bush with him. I admire him and respect everything he has done for the NFC.
SANFL responsibilities included:
Listing the above just gives insight into everything Wally has done and achieved for the Norwood Football Club and the game overall. Just take a minute to ponder. Wally Miller is the doyen of administrators and is a LEGEND thank you!